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After early success, has bickering got in the way of national cabinet?

It was David Koch, breakfast TV’s longtime barometer of middle Australia, who last week articulated best the frustrations of so many about the fractured federation and seemingly dysfunctional national cabinet.

Sparring with Scott Morrison from his prime ministerial courtyard while Australians devoured their Weeties, the Sunrise host asked if the PM was feeling like a “lame duck”.

“You really can’t get Queensland and WA to toe the line?” Kochie said. “You can say, ‘stick to the plan’, but if they say ‘no, we don’t want to’ there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Should you have imposed a health emergency so … we have consistent rules for everyone right across the country?”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison doesn’t have the power to implement consistent rules across the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison doesn’t have the power to implement consistent rules across the country.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Morrison’s response hinted at an underlying exasperation.

“There is not that power in Australia … It just doesn’t exist. So, I can’t sort of play fantasy government,” he said.

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“I think these powers of the states were not as well known at previous times because we didn’t have pandemics running like we do now.”

While political brawling between premiers and prime ministers is nothing new, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced a new generation of Australians to the complexities and oddities of the federation. Daily press conferences have elevated state and territory leaders to day-time TV celebrities, each becoming pantomime characters in the weekly build-up to national cabinet meetings.

Formed in the whirlwind of mid-March 2020, as death tolls mounted in Europe and global financial markets were sent into freefall, the national cabinet – comprising all state and territory leaders – was assembled to co-ordinate a consistent national response.

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Its early success – a reflection of the national unity at the time – has made it a permanent, but to many problematic, part of the political landscape.

As the pandemic progressed the patience and general politeness of those early days have dissipated as leaders publicly, and privately, traded barbs. Morrison took on Victoria’s Daniel Andrews over contact tracing and Defence troops. Andrews upset South Australia’s Steven Marshall by suggesting no one wanted to visit his state anyway when it closed its borders. For months, NSW’s Gladys Berejiklian and Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk were engaged in a bitter and personal brawl over border closures.

Berejiklian’s perceived schadenfreude towards Victoria’s second wave ensured Andrews returned the same favour when it was NSW’s time to lockdown. West Australia’s Mark McGowan, who all but wiped out his opponents at home with a landslide election win last year, picked a fight with almost all of the east coast over his hardline border stance.

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ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has taken swipes at Andrews for locking out Canberrans and lashed out at Berejiklian in the past month for leaving the nation’s capital “horribly exposed” to the Delta outbreak.

Five leaders, most notably McGowan and Palaszczuk, have been re-elected during the pandemic and point to their increased majorities as justification of their stances.

“There is a hollow acknowledgement that things should not be leaked but there is also an understanding that every state has to serve their political purposes,” one source close to the inner workings says. “Every jurisdiction will ultimately do what serves their political purposes first, without exception.”

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While Morrison has dismissed many of these grievances as nothing more than performative premiers playing to their own voters, whatever faint illusion of camaraderie was left has been shattered by damaging and highly personal leaks out of the Prime Minister’s own state in recent weeks.

First came the anecdote that a cranky Morrison had let fly at the NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet during a private meeting, swearing at displeasure over negotiations to upgrade COVID-19 financial support. Then, at the weekend, claims Berejiklian had called Morrison a “bully” and “evil”.

The NSW Premier told reporters to “not believe what you read”.

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“A number of times I’ve read things during the course of this pandemic that hasn’t been based on fact,” she said.

But the damage was done. NSW Liberals put the animosity down to a number of factors, many of which are mired in the factional dysfunction of the party in Morrison’s home state.

Some believe senior figures wish to destabilise Berejiklian from within, others say they are settling old scores. Some put it down to the fact the pair have never been overly close and aren’t fans of each other’s leadership style.

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There is little doubt Berejiklian did not appreciate the suggestion being planted in the media that she only went harder in her lockdown strategy at Morrison’s urging. While Morrison, weeks earlier, was left blindsided by her fierce criticisms of the vaccine rollout and demands other states send doses her way.

The relationships between Morrison and the leaders of the two biggest states – and to a greater extent their teams of loyal advisers – has been rocky since the bushfires in late 2019. Both sides “briefed” differing accounts to journalists about the other’s claimed incompetencies while trying to keep their bosses’ fingers away from it.

While personal animosities have dominated politics since Cassius and Brutus turned on Caesar, those who sit in the national cabinet each week insist the process is working.

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“You know what happens every week before national cabinet, every week the stories appear, ‘oh they’re disagreeing, nothing’s happening’ etcetera, etcetera,” Morrison told Koch.

“Everybody lays in. Then we get together in the room on the Friday and we sort it out.”

In the room

Those who sit in the room stress the public dynamic is rarely the way things play out when the secure video links fire up behind closed doors.

Although, several leaders say privately that meetings have become more “sombre”, “tense” or even “a little emotional” in recent times amid fierce debate about vaccinating children and a plan based on the Doherty Institute modelling to ease restrictions when vaccination rates 70 to 80 per cent.

The forum, several leaders say, operates at its best when the differences between states and territories are acknowledged. Neither is there always an alliance between Labor and Liberal leaders.

One leader says: “I think if aliens came down and watched the debate, they wouldn’t be able to tell who is in a red shirt [Labor] or a blue shirt [Liberal]. Morrison knows which leaders he can corral on certain issues and he starts from there to win support.”

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It is in this situation where Morrison has been aided by the return of Andrews, the most senior Labor figure, from his lengthy stint on the sidelines earlier this year.

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While the optics may have changed, the dynamic between the pair remains the same. They are both prepared to be pragmatic for the greater good.

“Their personal politics are different, but they know they need to work together,” another source with intimate knowledge of the inner workings says.

“Daniel knows that having a direct line to the Prime Minister is important and Morrison knows it’s important to have a Labor premier he can work with.

“[Morrison] is a smart political operator and he’s picked the guy [Andrews] that can move the dial in terms of the other Labor states.”

A constant running joke of the meetings has become that Morrison frequently forgets a jurisdiction when inviting leaders to make a contribution. Usually it’s the Northern Territory or Tasmania but, occasionally, it’s the ACT.

Despite initially showing some outward hesitancy towards easing restrictions when vaccination rates hit 70 to 80 per cent, Andrews has been one of the strongest proponents of the plan and tried to convince his comrades, Palaszczuk and McGowan, to stick with it when they waver.

Credit:Illustration: Matt Golding

While Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia are in different positions to the bigger states where the virus is spreading, there remains an incentive both politically and from a health perspective to go hard on restrictions and launch political attacks on other jurisdictions.

“[Palaszczuk and McGowan] are very outspoken on this but [Tasmanian Premier Peter] Gutwein and Marshall are in the same position and remain quiet,” a regular attendee said.

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Palaszczuk’s decision to differentiate herself on the vaccine advice, particularly with AstraZeneca, has left many fellow leaders exasperated. They have accused her of fuelling hesitancy and “scaremongering” about the danger to children from rising coronavirus cases.

In June she raised a number of questions in the meeting about whether the AstraZeneca eligibility line should be drawn at 60 years of age rather than 50, and later publicly questioned Morrison’s announcement to allow young Australians access to the vaccine.

“There has been a lot of frustration expressed towards Annastacia from every state,” one fellow Labor leader said.

Another said: “Put bluntly, at times she’s really given people the shits.”

Is it working?

While federal Labor has attacked Morrison for his attempts to make the inner workings of national cabinet a secret, it is the conservative side of politics whose criticism of the process has grown louder of late.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, who once advocated in favour of the Commonwealth seizing powers from the states, said he believed the federal-state relationship was a “dog’s breakfast”.

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Abbott says there’s no clear definition of responsibilities — “who is in charge” and “who is to blame” — as premiers ­duelled over border closures and blamed Morrison for quarantine and vaccine rollout failures during the coronavirus outbreak.

He told a recent Menzies Research Centre podcast the national cabinet had made the federation “worse not better”.

“At the very least, we should stop calling this a national cabinet. Because frankly, a cabinet makes decisions that bind all its members. And the national cabinet is not a cabinet in that sense,” he said.

“That’s a marketing ploy, calling it a cabinet. The national cabinet is a coordinating committee at best. So let’s call it that”.

But federal West Australian MP Ben Morton, who has become known as Morrison’s problem solver, remains a staunch believer the national cabinet has worked, despite the petty rivalries and parochialism.

The Assistant Minister to the PM says the system treats premiers and chief ministers as willing partners with the federal government – which was the antithesis to its predecessor COAG, where progress was based on the agreement of all states to the lowest common denominator.

”Instead, with national cabinet, reluctant states can’t water down agreements. Rather, they can sit some issues out, while those states who embrace reform demonstrate the case for others to follow,” Morton argues, adding it had turbo-charged “competitive federalism”, where state premiers remained accountable to their citizens.

That is the view from the biggest states, Victoria and NSW who believe it remains fit for purpose – despite any personal differences – and while premiers express frustration outside the cabinet room, it works.

The Northern Territory pioneered the successful protection of Indigenous communities and shared its efforts with other states, while South Australia is sharing data on its home quarantine pilot program. Victoria was able to help NSW with its experience handling the virus in multicultural communities.

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Berejiklian says the national cabinet has been “definitely worth having” and as a nation, leaders “have got to make it work”.

As the deteriorating situation in Victoria has slowly shifted the debate away from eradicating the virus, all agree vaccinating the nation remains the priority.

“That’s what the job is and we’ll keep getting it done,” Morrison says.

But don’t expect the bickering to subside any time soon.

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