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Pandemic reinforces primary role of state government


The actions of state governments in tackling the spread of coronavirus within their borders have reset the state-federal balance for the national good. How they chart a path out of the crisis is the next challenge, writes Noah Shultz-Byard.

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Before COVID-19 hit, too few South Australians knew what was happening behind the marble and granite walls of Parliament House on North Terrace – and even fewer cared.

Now, news of the day-to-day decisions being taken by Steven Marshall and his Cabinet, along with Premiers and Chief Ministers from across the country, is being hungrily consumed by a public craving information in times of uncertainty.

This has led to a new appreciation of the important role of State Governments within our Federation.

Take border closures as an example. Recently, as the number of COVID-19 cases in Melbourne continued to go up, so too did the interstate borders across the country. This pandemic has made it very clear that the states are the primary decision makers on the crucial issue of border controls, and so they should be.

One size does not fit all in a pandemic and the delicate reopening of our society needs to be tailored to each state’s specific circumstances. In South Australia, the Marshall Government should be commended for the deft and watchful way in which they have navigated the crisis to now.

So too should the Labor Opposition and crossbench MPs in the Parliament be praised for playing a constructive and positive role during the pandemic. The establishment of a COVID-19 Response Committee in the State Parliament has allowed for the democratic scrutiny of decisions being taken by people with extraordinary levels of power and responsibility over recent months.

Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that new Australia Institute research has shown that South Australians are very aware of the crucial role that the State Government has been playing in the response to this pandemic.

Our state-wide polling has revealed that four in 10 South Australians believe that, between the State and Federal Governments, the State Government has made the greatest positive contribution in the right against the virus.

A further third of respondents say the State and Federal Governments have made an equal contribution, while just 1 in 8 think the Federal Government has made a greater positive contribution than the State Government.

Of course, these two levels of government are not in conflict on the issue of containing COVID-19 and both have played a significant role in doing so. It is interesting, however, to note that South Australians are more than three times as likely to credit the State Government ahead of their federal counterparts for the strong pandemic outcomes here in SA.

While many South Australian voters do seem happy with the current handling of the crisis, we are certainly not out of the figurative woods yet, as Victoria has shown. Major decisions still need to be made in the coming months and years, as many billions of dollars will be spent to help rebuild our economy. How governments at all levels, and of all political persuasions, choose to spend that money will affect the lives of millions of Australians in a very material way.

Previous Australia Institute research has shown that two out of three Australians want government, not big business, to lead our nation’s economic recovery from COVID-19. The public’s acceptance of the fact that governments must roll out significant spending now, to ward off the worst impacts of the looming COVID recession, means the stage is set for a potentially transformational level of public investment in our state.

It is not yet clear whether that opportunity will be seized or squandered in South Australia, but one thing we know for sure is that many things will change in the wake of this pandemic.

Some of those changes will be short-lived while others will be everlasting, but I expect the increased understanding of the important role of our State Government will remain with us for some time.

Noah Schultz-Byard is the SA director at independent think tank The Australia Institute.

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