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The new parochialism stifling Australia

This is an extraordinary reward for leaders in a country that usually treats its politicians with scepticism, if not outright disdain.

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State rivalry is a potent part of the glue that now bonds voters to their premier or chief minister. A little drop of schadenfreude turns the glue into Tarzan’s Grip. Victorians were told over and again last year that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had set the “gold standard” in defeating COVID-19 without lockdowns. Every time he made this claim, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to brand Andrews a failure but compounded the impression that he favoured one state over another.

Is it any wonder the people of Melbourne see some karma in the shock to Sydneysiders this month?

“It will do Sydney some good to be knocked off their high perch,” wrote columnist Jon Faine in The Age two weeks ago, in a column that contrasted kind and unkind thoughts about the NSW experience. That line could be written in Melbourne on any subject, on any day. It could be about a barista competition, a football game or literary award. It is more cutting, though, when the pandemic supercharges state rivalries.

Politicians know how to play on the populist sentiment to dodge accountability and shift attention to someone else. They have all been at it, to differing degrees, even if this is hard to admit for people whose loyalties run along state or party lines.

The tactics work even if the victory is cheap. Anyone can play: they only have to pick up the crayons, follow the numbers and colour in the spaces. For proof, think of the way Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles took a video of himself ripping up a bill from NSW about sharing the costs of hotel quarantine.

The federation was weak before the pandemic. The duplication between Canberra and the states had grown like weeds to the point where Morrison and his ministers wanted to finance changing rooms at sports grounds and car parks at suburban railway stations.

The last attempt to fix the federation was when Kevin Rudd talked about a “seamless national economy” and tried to harmonise rules and regulations, but even this turned out to be too hard. Tony Abbott scrapped the reform effort when the Coalition took office in 2013.

“The reform agenda had great potential to get unity in diversity,” says Geoff Gallop, the West Australian premier at the time. “Once that was gone, it was very, very hard to get it back.”

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The new parochialism could make that ideal even harder to recover. What cannot be known is whether the power of the premiers wanes if and when the pandemic passes.

The lessons from Brexit are about crowds and power. Brian Hughes, a professor of psychology at the National University of Ireland and the author of The Psychology of Brexit, says the experience was shaped by tribal division.

“All societies can descend into tribalism and social acrimony, no matter how sophisticated they consider themselves to be,” he told the British Psychological Society. “In fact, psychologically speaking, we are all susceptible to them.”

In other words, the blame game taps into deep rivalries. Politicians love them. But that does not mean everyone else has to join in.

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