Several premiers presently find themselves at war with the federal government. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, by contrast, suddenly found herself locked in battle with her deputy premier, John Barilaro, and his bolshie band of Nationals.
The junior partner in the NSW coalition chose this week to pull on a stoush over a new regime the state government launched months ago to protect koalas, which have been devastated and displaced by fires and drought.
That a row over koalas could shake the Berejiklian government to its core during a pandemic is startling, at the least. The Nationals justify this by saying they’d long been told their concerns would be considered, and they hadn’t been.
They insist they’re not anti-koala — they’d like to see the population doubled, they say — but claim the new regime is too burdensome, including by extending the definition of core koala habitat and increasing the number of koala tree species.
The Nationals are under pressure from farmers and, at a political level, from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, which is always nipping at their heels.
Within the Nationals, pressure built with first one, then two, and several more MPs in revolt — and quickly the whole party. Efforts to get a special meeting to deal with the koala issue were unsuccessful – the premier had other things on her plate.
By Thursday, the Nationals had resolved that until the koala row was addressed they’d no longer attend joint party room or parliamentary leadership meetings and would abstain from voting on government bills. (They reserved the right to support bills and motions important to regional areas.)
“This effectively puts the entire party on the crossbench,” the party said in a statement.
Barilaro insisted the Nationals could take this stand while their ministers remained in cabinet.
This would have made them sort of “virtual” crossbenchers – a very strange notion indeed under the Westminster system.
A frustrated Berejiklian issued an ultimatum. “It is not possible to be the deputy premier or a minister of the Crown and sit on the crossbench,” she said in a statement.
She said she’d told Barilaro that he and his Nationals cabinet colleagues had until 9am Friday “to indicate to me whether they wish to remain in my Cabinet or else sit on the crossbench”.
By Friday morning, Barilaro had stepped his party back from the brink. After a meeting with Berejiklian, the two leaders said in the briefest of statements the coalition remained “in place”, as did “cabinet conventions and processes”.
Meanwhile, koalas were to be dealt with at a coming cabinet meeting. The extraordinary upheaval may be over for now, but it leaves scars, questions, uncertainty and tension.
Most obviously, the substantive issue is still unresolved. If the Nationals don’t get their way on changes to the koala regime, there could easily be another explosion. If they do, many Liberals will be angry.
The Nationals’ constituency will be behind the party’s stand. But for numerous Liberal supporters, compromise on as emotive an issue as koalas will be an electoral no-no.
This week’s events have again brought into question Barilaro’s judgement.
He was caught between the strong feelings within his party and the need to maintain the coalition. He laid himself open to criticism of firstly overreaching and then failing to carry through his threat.
This is against the background of his behaviour before the Eden-Monaro byelection, when he as good as said he would run for the seat and then said he wouldn’t.
Even some Nationals shake their heads, while the Liberals resent what Berejiklian has to put up with.
At one stage on Thursday, Barilaro asked his parliamentary party if they thought someone else would be better to lead them. The idea was dismissed. Nevertheless, the past few days have fanned doubts about his style of leadership.
Most serious in the immediate term, the trust between Berejiklian and Barilaro has been further eroded, after taking a knock from his conduct over Eden-Monaro. The NSW coalition remains intact, but no one can miss the crack that has been repaired by superglue. It is not as robust as it once was.
And Berejiklian has less patience with her volatile partner than she used to have.
This morning, NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro capitulated on a threat to tear apart the state government over new koala protections. For now, the government remains intact. However the Nats’ campaign to loosen environmental protections that affect farmers will continue to destabilise the Coalition in the longer term.
The dramatic events of the past 24 hours have cast doubt on whether such a blustering, short-sighted political party has what it takes to lead rural Australia. The NSW Nationals have been entrusted with seven ministerial portfolios – from agriculture to trade and early childhood. But they were willing to throw it away over the fine print of a single planning policy.
There’s no doubt many people in the bush, including farmers, are doing it tough. And many farmers feel environmental protections are hurting their livelihood.
But it’s in everyone’s interests – including farmers’ – to ensure our environment stays healthy. And the extreme summer bushfires shone new light on how close we are to losing vulnerable species such as koalas. It’s hard to understand what the National Party thought it had to gain from this damaging display of brinkmanship.
A long history of tension
Nationals MPs had been demanding the government change a state environmental planning policy that aims to make it easier to identify and protect koala habitat. The policy changed the way koala habitat is identified by increasing the number of protected tree species from ten to 65.
Barilaro branded the change a “land lockup policy”. He described the number of protected tree species as “excessive” and said farmers would be forced to conduct time-consuming and expensive surveys before any new development or farming on their land.
NSW Liberal Planning Minister Rob Stokes rejected Barilaro’s claims that farmers can’t build a feed shed or a driveway without a koala study, and that noxious weeds are listed as core koala habitat.
Development pressures on the NSW north coast have likely fuelled this latest stoush. There, a move to different, more lucrative crops such as blueberries and the demand by “sea-changers” for residential real estate is prompting agricultural land to be sub-divided and sold. The new koala rules might slow this down.
Land clearing policy has always been a flashpoint for conflict in regional and rural NSW. Tensions tragically came to a head in 2014 when environment compliance officer Glen Turner was murdered by a disgruntled landholder found guilty of breaking native vegetation laws. In the days afterwards, rural politicians said Turner’s death was “brought about by bad legislation” on land clearing.
Since then the NSW government has relaxed native vegetation laws. As a result, land clearing in the state has risen almost 60%, according to government data.
And in August last year the government announced it would no longer investigate or prosecute those who cleared land illegally under the old laws.
The city-bush divide
The issue of environmental protection plays into a historical city-country divide that has long been an easy wedge for rural politicians.
This tension came to the fore over the koalas issue. Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis said this week:
I was elected to Parliament to represent my community and I get really annoyed when city-centric people preach to us, especially when people in Sydney have done nothing for their koalas.
But it’s worth remembering northwest NSW has some of the highest land clearing rates in the world. It has been identified as a deforestation hotspot, on par with Brazil and the palm oil plantations of Indonesia.
And environmental degradation is not just a concern for city people. Biodiversity underpins our agricultural systems; insects, birds and soil microbes all contribute to food security and regional prosperity.
Separately and just as importantly, in all this talk of what regional communities want, the National Party is virtually silent on the views of Indigenous Australians.
Farmers have bigger problems than koalas
Barilaro and his MPs suggested the amendment was the final “nail in the coffin” of rural and regional Australia. But the fact is, the rapidly dwindling NSW koala population already has one foot in the grave.
A recent NSW inquiry predicted the extinction of the species by 2050 unless protections and rehabilitation efforts were radically ramped up. And a World Wildlife Fund report this week found a 71% decline in koala numbers across bushfire-affected areas of northern NSW.
Koala protections are far from being the biggest threats to rural prosperity. Escalating tensions with China have led to recent bans on barley and beef. The rural community has been hit hard by the extreme drought, and there is growing discontent with the mismanagement of water in the Murray Darling Basin.
What’s more, recent expansion of gas exploration and development in the state’s northwest has left locals worried about water contamination and over-extraction.
There is no doubt life in regional and rural Australia is different to the life lived in the city. In some areas there are poor internet connections, worse roads and great distances to travel for basic health services.
But these problems, like land clearing, are complex. And it seems the NSW Nationals are ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. This week’s display suggests the party only deals in wedge politics and blunt solutions – and with that approach, we all stand to lose.
The COVID-19 roadmap for Victoria announced by Premier Daniel Andrews sets the state on the right path. Something like it should be emulated by New South Wales, which has not yet achieved zero new cases.
For metropolitan Melbourne there are five steps; regional Victoria has four. For each step, the roadmap outlines which restrictions will be lifted on our road towards the cherished status of COVID-normal – or zero active cases of COVID-19. The roadmap also provisionally outlines when restrictions will be lifted, although this depends on case numbers.
For metropolitan Melbourne, the curfew will be eased from next week to start at 9pm instead of 8pm. It will remain in place until new cases average fewer than five per day over the course of a fortnight – the criterion to move to the third step of the roadmap.
The first two steps will still entail significant restrictions on public gatherings and visitors, plus the creation of a “single social bubble” allowance, under which people living alone can designate a person who can visit their home. Staged school returns will begin once there are fewer than 50 cases a day on a fortnightly average.
Step three sees the partial resumption of Melbourne’s café culture, as well as hairdressing.
The Victorian roadmap keeps appropriate restrictions until zero active cases – the Grattan criterion for defining zero – before the final step on the roadmap, COVID-normal.
Grattan’s second criterion – clear and explicit staging of the easing of restrictions – is also met in the Victorian roadmap, but in a confusing way. The thresholds adopted in the Victorian plan are a mishmash of epidemiological criteria, case numbers and dates.
It is entirely appropriate that the roadmap’s dates are purely provisional, and subject to epidemiological criteria such as average case numbers. But this raises the question of why the roadmap has dates at all.
Victorians may read the epidemiological criteria as reasons to bring forward the provisional dates for easing restrictions, when in reality they are more likely to put the provisional dates back. The public might end up frustrated if the promised date passes with no reward for good behaviour.
The epidemiological criteria are expressed in an extremely complex way: a 14-day threshold average, plus further criteria based on the source of infection. Until now, the public’s attention has been focused simply on the number of new cases each day.
Introducing this more complex measure is a step backward. Expressing the criterion as an average also runs the risk of the threshold being met but the final few days of the 14-day averaging period revealing an upward trend. A simple and clear criterion, based on number of new cases, would have been better.
Step one will occur on September 13, regardless of the number of new cases detected between now and then. The new case threshold for step two is expressed as an average of 30-50 cases a day over the previous 14 days. It is unclear why there is a lower bound; why not just say “fewer than 50 cases”? If it is designed to give political flexibility, it defeats the purpose of clear criteria.
Knowledge of the coronavirus and how it works – both in terms of clinical treatment and public health science – is advancing rapidly. We now know more about which restrictions work best than we did when Melbourne first entered its Stage 4 lockdown.
Some restrictions included in the roadmap – such as night curfews – now have a weak evidence base. The evidence is also stronger now in allowing primary schools to return before secondary schools, but the roadmap takes no account of this distinction. It is a pity the roadmap doesn’t align more closely with the latest science.
Lockdowns are necessary, but they have big downsides which need to be weighed against the undoubted benefits. One main downside is that they hit the most disadvantaged people hardest. The cost of social isolation has been somewhat ameliorated in the roadmap, with its provision for “social bubbles”, but this could perhaps have been more generous.
Overall, Victoria’s roadmap is good. It identifies the right goal (zero active cases), it provides explicit criteria for when restrictions might be lifted (but unfortunately not as clear and simple as they could be), and each of the steps involves mostly appropriate restrictions.
Victorians have every reason to share in Andrews’ hopefulness for a COVID-normal Christmas to cap off a very difficult year.
This week, we heard how conditions at a Sydney quarantine hotel were so bad almost 400 returned travellers had to be moved to another one.
Before that, we heard from Victoria’s inquiry into hotel quarantine. We learned the bulk of cases during the state’s second wave could be tracked down to a family of four returned travellers staying at a single quarantine hotel.
But Australia isn’t the only country to have quarantine issues. Some countries don’t use hotel quarantine at all. And others have turned to technology to keep track of returned travellers.
So what can we learn from other countries’ successes and failures?
A short trip around the world
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus also uses hotel quarantine for international arrivals. But rather than “hotel quarantine hell”, hotels in Cyprus are said to have a “holiday vibe”, despite not being able to leave your room.
Travellers praised Cyprus for its luxury and positive hotel quarantine experience. Some have even said they would return for a (real) holiday.
Cyprus recorded a peak in daily cases of only 58, in early April, and now has an average of new cases a day in the teens.
Hong Kong and South Korea have also introduced wristbands to track people’s movements upon arrival and to check people comply with quarantine regulations.
Travellers arriving in Poland have to install a home quarantine phone app developed by the Polish government.
For 14 days, the app uses facial recognition and geolocation algorithms to monitor people. It also prompts people to take selfies at random times during the day.
Individuals have 20 minutes to respond to these prompts, otherwise they risk police knocking on their door.
A major “quarantine failure” was the UK’s experience at the start of the pandemic, when 10,000 travellers spread the virus across the country.
Members of parliament accused the responsible ministers of making errors, such as having no border checks, no specific quarantine arrangements, and lifting self-isolation regulations.
This eventually led to the UK dealing with a total of 328,846 cases and 41,465 COVID-19-related deaths.
The UK has since tightened its quarantine arrangements.
These ideas are worth adopting in Australia…
More than 70,000 returned travellers have been quarantined in Australian hotels since it became mandatory in late March. We don’t know exactly how many of these people have gone on to test positive. But about one in five of Australia’s cases were acquired overseas.
As the headlines show, we can clearly do better in how we manage our quarantine system.
Adopting a “Cyprus-style” model of luxury hotel quarantine is simply beyond reach in Australia given the sheer number of people requiring quarantine facilities. However, improving the quality of facilities, ensuring a safe environment, and supervising staff is vital. This includes training both staff and travellers on infection control measures.
People in quarantine also need access to health care as well as to financial, social and psychosocial support, to ensure their safety and mental health.
…but we need to be careful about electronic tags
We would be particularly concerned about the human rights implications of returned travellers having to wear electronic monitoring devices.
Although we might be familiar with electronic monitoring devices in the criminal justice system, when used in the context of infection they could stigmatise people for simply being at higher risk of disease.
They go against the presumption that all persons will be law-abiding and perform their civic duty, with no evidence to the contrary.
There are also potential privacy concerns. There is no guarantee data collected through electronic monitoring — especially when using smartphone apps — will not be used for purposes other than monitoring pandemics.
Yesterday, the New South Wales government accepted all 76 recommendations from an independent inquiry into last summer’s devastating bushfire season. Several recommendations called for increased hazard reduction, such as through controlled burning and land clearing.
But clearing and burning vegetation will hurt our native flora and fauna, which is still recovering from the fires. Rather than clearing land to reduce the bushfire risk, we must accept we live on a fire-prone continent and improve our urban planning.
Importantly, with fires set to become more frequent and severe under climate change, we must stop choosing to live in bushland and other high-risk areas.
The bushfire inquiry was conducted over six months, with former Deputy Commissioner of NSW Police Dave Owens and former NSW Chief Scientist and engineering professor Mary O’Kane at the helm.
It found changes are needed to improve the preparedness and resilience of local commmunities, as well as fire-fighting techniques, such as use and availability of equipment. And it noted prescribed burning should target areas such as ridge tops and windy slopes. These are areas that drive fires towards towns.
improving mapping of buildings at risk of bushfire
ensuring personal protective equipment for land owners and fire fighters
improving assistance for vulnerable people.
But a key finding was that there’s still a lot to learn, particularly about bushfire suppression methods. As a result, future property losses are “inevitable”, given settlement patterns and “legacy development issues”.
What risk are we prepared to accept?
If we as a community accept that property loss will occur, we should choose the level of risk we’re prepared to take on and how that will affect our environment.
Building homes in high bushfire risk areas requires a combination of land clearing to reduce flammable material such as dry vegetation, and ensuring your home has a fire-resilient design.
But after the unprecedented megafires of last summer, it’s clear living in these areas still exposes residents and firefighters to high risk while trying to protect buildings and the community.
Bushfire prone areas are often on the periphery of cities and towns, such as Sutherland in the south of Sydney, coastal areas such as the South Coast and Central Coast, or remote communities including Wytaliba in northern NSW. These areas contain a mix of medium to low density housing, and are typically close to heavy vegetation, often combined with steep slopes.
But we should not continue to develop into these high risk areas, as the associated land clearing is too significant to our ecosystems and may still result in houses being lost.
Protecting our wildlife
It’s estimated more than 800 million animals were killed in the NSW bushfires, and more than one billion killed nationally.
The clearing of native vegetation is recognised as a major threat to biological diversity: it destroys habitats, can lead to local wildlife populations becoming fragmented, and increases the exposure to feral predators such as cats and foxes.
In 2018 around 60,800 hectares of woody vegetation was cleared in NSW for agriculture, infrastructure and forestry. This is an increase of 2,800 hectares from the year before.
If we continue to build in high risk areas and clear trees to create asset protection zones, we will add to the ongoing pressure on wildlife.
Where should we build?
Rather than trying to modify the environment by clearing trees, we must plan better to avoid high risk bushfire areas. This was reinforced in the inquiry report, which called for a more strategic approach to where we locate new developments.
To further separate our homes from risk, we should also consider instead putting non-residential land — such as for industrial factories and manufacturing plants — closest to vegetation.
Rural houses should be built in more urban settings near existing towns away from dense vegetation, rather than scattered buildings. In larger towns and cities we could focus on brownfield development with little ecological value. “Brownfield” refers to sites that have previously had development on them.
And community buildings such as hospitals, education and emergency services, should be placed in low-risk areas to facilitate response during and after a bushfire event.
While each community should decide how it develops, land rezoning and planning rules should not allow continued expansion into high bushfire risk areas.
This is one of our occasional Essays on Health, this time from an Australian visiting fellow in Washington, DC. Adam Elshaug, professor of health policy, asks how one of the world’s most inequitable health-care systems has coped with COVID-19. The short answer, he says, is that it provides a wake-up call for us all. It’s a long read.
I write this from my temporary base in Washington, DC.
I have experienced first hand, and since the outset of the pandemic, how deficiencies in the organisation of the US social, political and health-care systems have become more vivid and their consequences intensified.
Entire books will be written on this woeful epoch in US history. But I want to focus on some key observations of the country’s failed COVID-19 response, and the lessons.
Transitioning to failure
It would be unfair to blame President Donald Trump and his administration for the systemic failures in the US social and health-care systems. Those have been decades in the making.
But his pre-COVID-19 dismantling of the pandemic preparedness system, disregard for scientists, and hyper-partisanship have clearly worsened the US response.
I agree with the political commentator David Frum, who wrote:
That the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault.
President Barack Obama left the Trump administration with pandemic-ready infrastructure. This was motivated by outbreaks of Ebola and previous novel coronaviruses (responsible for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, and SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome), and an appreciation of their ever-present threat.
Then, Trump took critical steps before COVID-19 that weakened its preparedness to the point of catastrophe. Here are just a few.
The Trump administration dismantled the (Obama-instituted) White House team in charge of pandemic response, dismissing its leadership and staff in early 2018.
This team had also laid out a detailed dossier for a pandemic response plan. Trump ignored it.
Since coming to office, the Trump administration has also cut funding to key agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These cuts directly impacted domestic projects and international collaborations (including with China) on pandemic preparedness.
Too little, too late
Even into February as the severity of the pandemic was realised worldwide, Trump was downplaying the threat, openly stating it was like the common flu.
He called growing concerns about COVID-19 a “hoax” and had a “hunch” expert assessments of the potential toll were wrong.
As cases and deaths, particularly in New York began to rise steeply, the real evidence of unpreparedness became apparent.
Critically, at no point through the pandemic has the US had in place a sincere strategy of public health 101: test, trace, isolate.
Trump has repeatedly claimed anyone who wants a test can get a test, but this has been a farce. Shortages of testing supplies and poor coordination have hamstrung containment strategies.
Even though testing has increased, it has not kept up with demand. The time to receive results as of July ranged from 1 to 14 days, averaging 7 days.
This is inadequate to manage spread via active but undiagnosed cases. That is just the beginning of the current troubles.
The Disunited States of America
The limited availability of masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators revealed significant cracks in US preparedness. It also put on full display the caustic political divisions that are a modern feature of US politics and society.
Despite the first cases being recorded in Washington state, its deadly potential was initially felt most in the Democratic state of New York. Trump used this to avenge old scores and fuel competition between red (Republican) versus blue (Democratic) states.
When the New York health-care system buckled as a result of its fragmented structure (another failing) and enormous caseload, the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, called for urgent assistance, such as supplies from the national stockpile.
Trump tweeted Governor Cuomo “should spend more time ‘doing’ and less time ‘complaining’.”
The fierce competition between states for limited mask and PPE supplies led to suppliers price-gouging.
Despite Trump threatening his absolute authority over the states, much responsibility rests with state governors (equivalent to Australian premiers). And yet counties (equivalent to local councils) have enacted policies independent of, and often contradicting, state policies.
This could be sensible in reflecting local conditions as the rolling wave moves on. However, it has confused any singular messaging and exemplified the red/blue political divide.
The southern (primarily red) states that were late to institute control measures and early to re-open are now the epicentre of this rolling wave.
Among OECD countries, the level of structural inequality in the US is extreme. The collision of three problems — uncontrolled pandemic, recession, uninsured people — is disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable.
Pre-pandemic, about 32 million Americans (around 10% of population) lacked health insurance. A further 150 million (around 50% of the population) held employer-sponsored health insurance.
There is a political rallying cry in the US that the country represents a shining light on the hill, a “beacon of hope” for the world.
We must admit the US population size and current political climate make its pandemic response more complex than countries like Australia’s. But that doesn’t mean we can be apathetic.
The US, through COVID-19, offers the starkest of warnings. Underlying gross structural inequality, under-investment and unpreparedness in public health, and socio-political tensions have met in a dizzying, tragic outcome for the richest country in the world.
All Americans have suffered but their most vulnerable have, and will continue to, suffer disproportionately.
It is a shining light for what we must avoid, what we must stand up for and protect against.
The inquiry commissioned by the Berejiklian government into the Ruby Princess COVID-19 disaster has laid blame on NSW health officials, who made “inexcusable” and “inexplicable” mistakes. It also exonerated the Australian Border Force.
In the report, the federal government was sharply criticised for refusing to allow an official to appear before the inquiry, with commissioner Bret Walker SC saying this belied Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s promise of full cooperation.
Some 2,700 passengers from the Carnival Australia cruise ship were allowed to disembark on March 19 before the test results for COVID-19 had come back. The passengers, some of whom had displayed respiratory symptoms, scattered widely, spreading the virus. This led to hundreds of cases, with some 28 deaths linked to the cluster.
Walker found serious mistakes and misjudgements on the part of health officials. He said that in light of all the information the NSW health expert panel had, “the decision to assess the risk of the Ruby Princess as ‘low risk’ – meaning, in effect, ‘do nothing’ – is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable. It was a serious mistake”.
It should have been assumed there were possible infected passengers “who could transmit the virus and perhaps spark an outbreak of infection, if no steps were taken to prevent or limit that outcome”.
Passengers should not have been allowed to spread through the community until test results were known.
“The delay in obtaining test results for the swabs taken from the Ruby Princess on the morning of 19 March is inexcusable. Those swabs should have been tested immediately,” Walker said.
“The failure to await test results on 19 March is a large factor in this commission’s findings as to the mistakes and misjudgements that caused the scattering of infected passengers.”
Walker criticised the cruise line for not having enough swabs aboard but said, given this, there should have been dockside swabbing.
There has been speculation about whether the Australian Border Force had any responsibility for the disaster, but Walker stressed “neither the ABF nor any ABF officers played any part in the mishap”.
“The relevant legislative provisions make it crystal clear that the Australian Border Force (ABF), despite its portentous title, has no relevant responsibility for the processes by which, by reference to health risks to the Australian community, passengers were permitted to disembark,” he said.
But Walker was blunt about the federal government’s attitude to the inquiry. “The one fly in the ointment so far as assistance to this commission goes, is the stance of the Commonwealth.
“A summons to a Commonwealth officer to attend and give evidence about the grant of pratique for the Ruby Princess was met with steps towards proceedings in the High Court of Australia.
“Quite how this met the prime minister’s early assurance of full cooperation with the commission escapes me.
“This waste of time and resources, when time, in particular, was always pressing, was most regrettable.”
Walker said it seemed a “practical approach was swamped by a determination never to concede, apparently on constitutional grounds, the power of a state parliament to compel evidence to be provided to a state executive inquiry (such as a royal commission or a special commission of inquiry) by the Commonwealth or any of its officers, agencies or authorities.”
Labor’s shadow minister for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, said that on March 15, Morrison had said he was putting in place “bespoke arrangements” for arriving cruise ships.
“He promised cruise ships would be ‘directly under the command of the Australian Border Force’.
“What ‘bespoke arrangements’ did Scott Morrison put in place for arriving cruise ships? This report shows there were none,” Keneally said.