At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in late January 2020, Australia faced the shock of an existential threat.
A national cabinet was formed so that the nine governments in our federation could pull together in the face of this health and economic crisis.
Initially, this worked very well. There was even optimistic talk at the start, of the new cabinet becoming a permanent feature of our federation, as all of our governing bodies did their bit to keep us safe within their areas of control.
The federal government had responsibility for economic support, external borders, quarantine and vaccine supply agreements.
The states and territories managed hospitals, policing and their borders.
How these governments managed their response as COVID rolled through the community was critical.
During COVID, often, the most important decisions were in the hands of the states. Premiers who had played second fiddle in the federation for 120 years were suddenly centre stage.
Every morning on TV, we saw the Dan and Gladys show, with an update of COVID: new infections, deaths, and the latest state-imposed restrictions.
This rediscovered state power was on display during the meetings of the new national cabinet, with the state governments often calling the shots. There were nine political leaders at the table, often with different ideas on the way forward during a rapidly evolving COVID crisis.
Occasionally decisions went pear-shaped, and the blame game began:
- State borders should have been closed/left open,
- The lockdown was too soon/too late,
- GPs should drive the vaccine role out/create mass vaccination centres,
- Place infectious people in hotel quarantine/purpose-built facilities,
- Bring stranded Aussies home now/they will have to wait.
Plenty to bicker about, with either the federal or state governments having the final say in their areas of constitutional responsibility.
Unfortunately, over time, self-interest rather than cooperation has become the norm between our federation leaders.
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This fracture of the Australian federation over the past 18 months is regrettable. Professor of politics at UWA Peter van Onselen believes: "The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our national compact".
People seem to be forgetting how much Australia has to be proud of in its response to the pandemic. We have led the world in suppressing COVID infections and death rates.
With the rapid introduction of Job Keeper and business support measures, Australia's handling of the economic dislocation has been world-class. As a result, the economy has snapped back quickly to pre-COVID levels in economic activity and employment.
However, Australia's successes on both the health and economic front have led us into a trap that will be hard to escape. We have suppressed this virus much more effectively than any other country.
But, unfortunately, this has created community complacency that has kept vaccination rates relatively low.
This is slowly changing with the Delta strain, which is creating COVID outbreaks that are harder to suppress. In the future, a rapid spread of the Delta variant is possible.
The only path to safety and normality is via a fully vaccinated population. This requires having enough vaccine supply and demand from a population willing to have the jabs.
There is enough locally produced Astra Zeneca (AZ) to do the job. However, its uptake is slow because of the irrational fear of this vaccine in the community.
With a one in a million chance of death because of a blood clot from AZ, you have more chance of being killed by lightning. The individual danger is minuscule.
Unfortunately, confusing and changing health advice, and an inadequate government marketing campaign, has made the situation worse.
The only quick way out of this malaise is through an effective public advertising campaign.
This is the UK's Oxford University vaccine, developed by some of the most talented scientists in the world. It was approved by Australia's medicines watchdog, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and it was declared safe for everyone over 18 last year. This advice has not changed.
This is the vaccine mainly used in Britain, and now 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated with two doses. The UK economy is reopening and restrictions on personal activity have been removed. We are a long way from this happening in Australia.
Australia could still face a COVID disaster if it doesn't get vaccination rates up quickly to at least 80 per cent.
I would urge everyone eligible to get the jab ASAP. My wife and I receive our second dose of AZ on Saturday.
Have you had your jab?
If not, then listen to Scott Cam from The Block: "Come on Australia, let's get the job done".
Newcastle East's Dr John Tierney AM is a former Hunter-based federal senator
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