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We deserve better than this fight between governments

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It’s true that New South Wales’ system hasn’t been tested like Victoria’s. It might be true that it would similarly fail to contact-trace 700 cases a day. The point is that it never got to 700 cases in the first place because its superior tracing swung immediately into action. So far, at least.

This is the past the Victorian government refuses to face. As Premier Daniel Andrews unveiled his state’s latest improvements to its contract tracing – which we’re told now put it on par with New South Wales and Queensland – he was bombarded with all the obvious questions: why wasn’t this done as soon as the first wave came under control?

Doesn’t this merely prove Victoria’s contact tracing was inadequate in the first place? He simply avoided those questions, saying something about always looking to improve. That’s a problem for a government asking its citizens for a high level of trust in a very difficult time.

But while the federal government’s argument is correct, it’s not terribly relevant, except as an exercise in historical blame. It has little to tell us about what to do now. The federal government is trying to refashion this history into the basis of its criticism of the Andrews government’s “road map” out of lockdown.

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It argues that a damagingly slow and cautious road map could be avoided if Victoria got its act together and traced like the champions in New South Wales.

But this is what Victoria’s Chief Health Officer called a “convenient misinterpretation” because whatever Victoria’s failures coming into the second wave, it’s very likely a much better tracing operation now.

If the federal government wants to detail what it would do to improve Victoria’s contact tracing that the Victorians aren’t already doing, it’s welcome to do so. But that sort of contribution is scant.

The real debate here is over what degree of caution is appropriate as you come out of a wave. Andrews chose an austere level of caution, probably calculating he’d rather be slammed for conservatism than negligence. And to be sure, there’s a serious argument from serious experts to be had on that; strong grounds for asserting that the various triggers for loosening restrictions might be unachievable, or that the modelling on which the government is relying is deficient.

The federal government argued that case in a way. But its determination to keep drawing comparisons with New South Wales dragged us into overtly politicised territory. The Prime Minister’s quip this week that under Victoria’s plan New South Wales would be under curfew stood out because it invited such an obvious retort: that the two states are in completely different situations with completely different levels of community transmission.

Now it was Andrews’ turn to be correct. Morrison’s attempt to celebrate a Coalition state government while lambasting a Labor one by drawing false comparisons was just too conspicuous. It means no serious public discussion could take place.

This virus is asking us heavy questions about what level of risk we’re prepared to accept to open up our economy. Clearly the federal government’s appetite for risk is higher than Victoria’s, and probably the states’ generally.

But if we had a more principled conversation about that – rather than periodic skirmishes over state borders and the speed of exiting lockdown – the federal government might have to announce some road maps of its own.

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Take the example of our international border. Its closure does enormous economic damage, not just to tourism and higher education, but to industries like hospitality and construction who rely on demand from tourists and migrants. Under what conditions exactly will the federal government open it? What level of community transmission from other countries will it accept?

Put another way, how much risk is it prepared to take when it has to bear the burden of the result? Imagine if we debated that by saying something like “under Australia’s restrictions, every border in Europe would be shut” and failing to acknowledge the very real differences between the two situations.

It’s a non-issue for now because there’s no higher authority pressuring the federal government the way the federal government pressures the states. But the pandemic eventually asks us every kind of question. The moment when the federal government’s appetite for risk is up for debate will surely come. And when it does, it would be nice if we had done some serious deliberation from first principles as a country first, rather than trying to find our responses through crude partisan attack lines.

Waleed Aly is a regular columnist.

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