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Now is not the time for parochial interstate rivalries

The skirmish between states such as Queensland and Western Australia over the location of this year’s AFL grand final has been unseemly and unbecoming. True, it might need to be played somewhere other than in Victoria, but other states feasting on our current misfortunes is churlish. And it is a disservice to what ought to be a national effort sensitive to communities in deep anguish over the depredations, economic, social and psychological, of this wretched virus.

Some of the curated media grabs from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and other interstate leaders along with clickbait front pages at our expense make light of the most serious of predicaments.

A similar tussle has broken out over this year’s Melbourne Cup in circumstances that smack of the same opportunism at our expense. What’s worse, Victoria’s current outbreak is being treated by other states and territories as an opportunity to appropriate Victoria’s major events mantle, unmatched around the country. All while we are in lockdown.

Watching other states attempt this is like being consigned to a sickbed while people roam through your house wanting to snatch a choice selection of your best furniture that they can slot in the back of their car.

That’s why last week’s intervention by four former Victorian premiers was a powerful statement. And while the interventions were not intended to confer on the Victorian government immunity from due criticisms, the bipartisan complexion of the collective intervention was a valuable reminder that maintaining a level of positivity, anchored in reality, is important to our health and economic well-being.

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The Victorian economy, certainly before COVID-19, was worth well over $400 billion annually. It contributes a little over 25 per cent of the country’s output. If the worst predictions about the impacts of COVID-19 on the Victorian economy are realised, it will reverberate nationally.

Even the Victorian government’s own analysis factors in an unemployment rate as high as 11 per cent, bearing in mind that, at the moment, JobKeeper participation is suppressing the unemployment numbers. That is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that we need to acknowledge that the longer lockdowns persist, the harder it will be for businesses on life support to retain staff. That’s why an extension of the JobKeeper program, either in its current form or in some amended form, will be important even though it won’t be able to save every business otherwise flatlining.

Leaders inspiring hope during this crisis and projecting the outlook we need is not tantamount to an immunity from proper scrutiny and accountability. It’s clear that certainly in Victoria, at least, the Coate inquiry into hotel quarantine, among other possible investigations, will need to identify failures and shortcomings so that errors can be corrected and avoided in the future while ensuring that those who should take responsibility for failures do so.

That optimism we need would do us a disservice only were we shielded from the truth and those with important responsibilities were able to avoid due accountability. Criticisms, whether in relation to hotel quarantine in Victoria or, say, the Ruby Princess in NSW, need to be aired and any lessons being shared.

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Over recent months, we have lauded the promise of the national cabinet that appears to have functioned, for the most part, well during this crisis. The members of that national cabinet should summon the very best qualities to avoid the pettiness we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. We know that circumstances can change dramatically over a short period of time, meaning that no one can afford to take their eyes off the national effort as our highest priority. The temptation to practise the parochialism of interstate politics at this time needs to be met with the forbearance we all need governments to demonstrate.

The laws of realpolitik are stubborn but not immutable. Leaders, and in particular state leaders, are just going to have to rise above it all.

So, perhaps we can do without comments like, “Why would anyone want to go to South Australia?”.

The potential lethality of COVID-19 and its devastating material impacts are serious enough. But we should remember some of its deepest impacts are not visible and, to the extent that they may be, perhaps not as well known. The maturity that the current crisis demands is, if nothing else, a mark of respect and sensitivity to the tribulations so many are facing.

John Pesutto is a senior fellow at the School of Government at the University of Melbourne and a panellist on ABC Melbourne’s The Party Line and was Victorian opposition legal affairs spokesman from 2014 to 2018.

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