Antipodean Covid Craziness

Peter Smith26 Sep, 2020 6 Min Read
Once a penal colony, always a penal colony?

I have heard and read suggestions that having sex with someone outside of one’s own household would be safer if both parties refrained from kissing or, to take it a step further, even wore masks throughout the encounter. I suppose it could be made to work. I simply don’t want to speculate on bizarre sexual practices. Instead I will stick to the more mundane matter of federalism in the age of Covid-19, with reference to the Australian experience. That’s bizarre enough for anyone.

All governments in Australia, the federal government and state and territory governments have responded to the pandemic in exactly the same way as have most governments around the world. Though I’d say, together with New Zealand, Australian governments take the cake for overreaction. I say that because the Covid death rate in Australia (and New Zealand’s is much lower still) is a figure to die for, so to speak, if you are European or North American.

When I last looked (19 September) the death rate in Australia was 33 per million population. Compare that with the UK’s 614, the USA’s 615, Sweden’s 580 and, even, Canada’s 244. Incidentally, this relatively benign outcome is due to geography and fortuitous circumstances; dumb luck not brilliant management.

Nonetheless, it was commonplace some months ago to be presented with a comparison of Australia’s death rate with that of Sweden, with an accompanying admonishment that there but for lockdowns goes Australia. That canard no longer plays, as Sweden’s daily death rate has since plummeted. But for a time, the Swedish model, once so admired by the Left back in the day, was held up in the Australian media as a blight on mankind.

In fact, as we now know, or should know, this virus runs a course of causing a significant number of deaths among the aged and sick before running out of steam as it comes up against those who are less susceptible. That pattern is evident across all northern hemisphere countries – even the United States once you adjust for a later ramping-up phase in some states. The degree and extent of lockdowns would not confound the null hypothesis that they make no difference.

I know, the null hypothesis way of approaching science is yet another example of white privilege having its a wicked way. But there it is. I probable suffer from unconscious bias in favouring the scientific method and, perforce, can’t do much about it because, well, its unconscious.

South Dakota is my favourite point of comparison. No lockdown. Death rate 226 per million. New York, locked down, death rate 1680 per million. Of course, these kinds of state-by-state comparisons, which take no account of circumstances, don’t mean much. And yet, on their face, they provide no comfort at all to those who favour the absurd strategy of locking-up healthy people, destroying their businesses and livelihoods, in a largely forlorn attempt (witness aged-care deaths) to prevent ailing people getting sicker. And, to boot, they provide a segue into the benefits and costs of federalism.

The benefits of federalism are that political decisions are more attuned to the needs of those they affect and, potentially, that competition between states to retain and attract businesses and workers tends to keep them honest. Covid has made one particularly large cost evident: state sovereignty can make it impossible to pursue a consistent national strategy to deal with pandemics.

Unlike America’s, Australia’s federalism doesn’t have the advantage of being competitive. In fact, it is anti-competitive. States ceded the power to levy income taxes many decades ago. Their general income comes largely via the federal government through GST collections. But these are distributed not on the basis of where they are collected but in accordance with the relative economic performances of the respective states. The more poorly a state performs, the more GST revenue it receives. Work that one out. California could only dream about it, I suppose.

Unfortunately, while there are no competitive benefits of federalism in Australia, the costs of handling the pandemic have been huge. Early in the piece, prime minister Scott Morrison set up a so-called ‘national cabinet’ of himself, the six state premiers and two territory leaders, with the laudable objective of coordinating national strategy. What a complete and utter fiasco it has been.

Basically, they have been able to agree that things should open up when it is “safe” to do so. Beyond that it is every man and woman for themselves. The federal government pays all the bills, or most of them, while being effectively powerless. To wit, it can't let people into the country if the states won't have them. Therefore, we have a North Korean policy of restricting citizens from leaving the country, because, usually, they will want to come back. It can't get cafes open and kids back to school if the states don't agree. It can't get state borders opened despite the Constitution guaranteeing (ostensibly?) free interstate movement. In all of this, there is a standout recalcitrant state.

Dan Andrews, the Covid King of Oceania.

The Labor premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has conducted himself and his state in exactly the way you would expect of a hard-left despot. Incompetence on the one hand; authoritarianism on the other. And, to emphasise, the Prime Minister can do nothing about it.

In Victoria, everyone is locked inside their homes for most of the day with a curfew from 8 p.m., now graciously moved to 9 p.m. as daylight saving time approaches Down Under. A curfew! Meanwhile, the federal government feeds money to the unemployed. As the world has seen, pregnant women and grannies are handcuffed and marched off for daring to breach any of the myriad confining rules. One heavily pregnant lady was harangued by two policemen and an accompanying soldier (who had the good grace to look shamefaced) for daring to rest on a park bench while engaging in ‘allowable’ exercise. Evidently some cops are getting in touch with their inner Stasi -- inevitable, when socialists are loosed from constitutional constraints. Hmm, didn’t I mention, c.10,000 BLM feeble-minded stooges went unpunished when ‘protesting’ back in June, while cops knelt.

Victorians attempting to escape Melbourne to regional areas within Victoria are fined $4,957. Why not $5,000? Well, I suppose they've picked up pricing tips from used-car salesmen. Police operate around-the-clock checkpoints (Checkpoint Charlie springs to mind). If mum and dad are in the car, each will be fined; apparently kids and dogs will get off scot-free. Did this new offence of daring to drive beyond 5 kilometers from home go through the Victorian parliament? Of course not. It is all done by diktat under an emergency powers law.

"Dear Leader" Dan, let me aptly call him, has recently succeeded in having these emergency powers extended by six months. And who gave him the casting vote in the upper state house? Samantha Ratnam, of the Greens Party, hurried back from maternity leave. Whenever villainy is afoot, spot complicit Greens.

And don’t think enough is enough. Legislation has been introduced that will, if passed, create thought crime. Under this legislation officers will be appointed (no qualifications required) to assess whether those ordered to isolate will really do so. If an authorised officer “reasonably believes that a person is likely to refuse or fail to comply with a direction made the by the Chief Health Officer,” then the culprits will be locked up tout de suite for what they intend to do. Shades of Minority Report in Dan’s socialist state of Victoria.

You should note that the onerous lockdown in Victoria follows an outbreak of cases in June stemming almost wholly from one hotel quarantine misadventure. Poorly controlled, the infection spread inside and outside the hotel. Among other failings, apparently some security guards, appointed for their claimed indigenous identity rather than their expertise, fraternised a little too intimately with hotel guests. It was not reported whether they wore masks. But I assume not.

The upshot has meant that deaths in Victoria (80 percent inside aged-care homes. What’s new?) have dwarfed those in other states. Nevertheless, the death toll per million in Victoria, at 113, is half the rate in South Dakota. The different approach to tackling the pandemic isn’t to do with the virulence or otherwise of the virus. It is to do with politics.

Speak to conservatives and almost to a man and woman they believe that the reaction to Covid-19 has been grossly overblown; that the costs of lockdowns have not nearly been properly taken into account. Yet almost all governments have overreacted. By implication, this sadly shows how little conservatism now influences public policy. And why should it. The latest Newspoll (16-19 September) shows 62 per cent of Victorians supporting their Dear Leader.

When I look across the Australian political landscape, I see governments whether of the left or ostensible centre-right buying into the global warming agenda. And differing only in their degree of panic in responding to Covid. Federalism makes it worse by allowing the nation state as a whole to be hijacked by its least enlightened constituent parts.

After a career in economics, banking and payment-systems management, Peter Smith now blogs on the topics of the day. He writes for Quadrant, Australia’s leading conservative online site and magazine. He has written Bad Economics, of which, he notes, there is much.

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