The wild west channels those old secessionist dreams by refusing to get on Scott Morrison’s COVID bus


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The national cabinet, created to impose maximum unity on Australia’s response to COVID, has formally fractured. It hasn’t broken altogether, but the rubber band holding it together has been stretched too far and has now dramatically slackened.

Scott Morrison, who created the body to maximise his authority in a situation where the federal government did not have constitutional power, finally came up against the limits of his construct.

Morrison announced after Friday’s meeting that from now on, national cabinet will no longer operate on a consensus model; it will acknowledge differences rather than striving for unanimity.

Of course, previously there wasn’t unanimity on some critical issues – schools, borders. They were pushed off and states simply went their own ways.

On Friday, seven of the eight states and territories agreed to aim to open things up by Christmas, using some “hotspot” approach as a basis.

Western Australia was the one jurisdiction that opted out. With an election next year and sky-high popularity based on the success of a hard border, WA premier Mark McGowan was never going to limit his options.

The other major rebel, Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk, has signed up to the December aim, but she has left herself the wriggle room she needs.

She hasn’t agreed to a particular definition of a hot spot. The Queensland election will be over by the end of October, and you can be confident she’ll run her own race until then.

Morrison likened the situation to getting people onto a bus. “Not everyone has to get on the bus for the bus to leave the station”, he said. “But it is important the bus leaves the station, and we all agree on that. […] Even when, on occasions, some might not want to get on, they know we need to keep moving forward.”

Morrison originally had hoped to have the health advisers settle on a hotspot definition, on the basis of which he could pressure states to bring down borders.

But it became clear that hope would fall at two hurdles. The federal and state health officials, who come together in the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, did not all embrace a definition. And the outlier states would not cede their autonomy.

Like the national cabinet, the illusion of unity in the AHPPC – which operated on a “consensus” basis – has ended. The federal government has produced its own definition, but what will be more generally accepted as defining a hotspot remains a work-in-progress.

The federal government has been for weeks trying to arm-twist Queensland in particular. But the power over borders resides with the states, and they will use it when it’s in their interests to do so.

McGowan was blunt. At a news conference after the meeting, he described WA as an “island within an island” (shades of that old WA secessionist feeling), and boasted how well it was doing economically.

“We’re very, very proud West Australians but we’re also loyal Australians. States rights mean that premiers and state governments can do what they have to, in my view, to protect our citizens and protect our jobs. But we’re still part of the commonwealth, we’re still part of the nation. We still serve in the defence forces. We’re still Anzacs.”

He hoped the east of Australia would come to an “even greater appreciation” of what WA did for the country. “We carry the nation’s economy.”

McGowan spoke positively about Morrison; earlier Morrison had stressed special circumstances applied to WA. Their mutual public amiability reflected there had been a test of strength, and McGowan had won. It wasn’t for the first time. Some weeks ago, the federal government pulled out of Clive Palmer’s case against WA, under the weight of WA public opinion.

It’s part of Morrison’s pragmatic style to pivot when he is rebuffed. He seeks another route to his objective. An assertive stance is replaced by a conciliatory one. When you don’t have the power to coerce, you have to cajole.

Morrison wants to encourage Victoria to ease its restrictions as fast as the health imperatives allow; he wants Queensland welcoming tourists. But Dan Andrews’ Sunday roadmap will be cautious. As for Queensland, Morrison will have to wait until after the state election, when Palaszczuk might be more amenable – she did get on the Friday “bus” – or will have been replaced by a compliant new government.

On Thursday, Morrison told parliament the leaders should aim to make Australia “whole” again by Christmas. That deadline is looking very arbitrary.

“Wholeness” will eventually come, but certain conditions will have to be met. The Victorian outbreak must be conquered. The situation in NSW must be further stabilised.

Morrison talks of twin health and economic crises, but the polls suggest the health issue has the dominant grip on the public psyche. Until community transmission is stopped or minimal in Victoria and NSW the public mindset will impede the economic recovery.

Above all, that recovery requires public confidence – and that in turn needs the removal, or near removal, of fear of infection. Even where that fear may be excessive, it has become a roadblock to a return to normality.

What does the recalibration of the national cabinet’s dynamic mean for that institution, much praised when it started?

In the context of the pandemic national cabinet remains useful, despite having taken a bruising this week. It is a clearing house for information; it forces leaders to communicate regularly; it encourages them to seek constructive solutions (even though we have seen that has its limits); it helps cut through bureaucracy.

For the longer term, this week’s experience indicates the national cabinet does not promise a new nirvana of co-operative federalism. But that was always hype.

When a constitution divides power between a central government and state governments, there will inevitably be a mix of conflict and co-operation. What has stood out in the border wars is just how “federalist” the Australian federation can on occasion become.

The definition of “COVID-19 hotspot” as provided by Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly can be found hereThe Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

WA border challenge: why states, not courts, need to make the hard calls during health emergencies



Richard Wainwright/AAP

Lorraine Finlay, Murdoch University

In recent days, both sides involved in Clive Palmer’s legal challenge against the Western Australia border closure have sought to highlight the importance of what is at stake.

WA Premier Mark McGowan has warned if the challenge is successful and the border re-opens “then potentially people will die”. Meanwhile, Palmer has emphasised that immediately re-opening the border

is crucial for the survival of the domestic economy and for the whole of Australia.

With Queensland announcing another border closure to Sydney residents today, the WA case could be pivotal.

It will set an important precedent and ultimately determine whether, and to what extent, state governments can close their borders to protect their residents against future outbreaks.

The legal challenge in WA

The WA government closed its border to everybody other than “exempt travellers” from April 5 to limit the spread of COVID-19. Palmer was refused an exemption to enter WA in May and responded by filing a constitutional challenge to the laws authorising the border closure.

The challenge focuses primarily on section 92 of the Constitution, which provides that

trade, commerce and intercourse among the states … shall be absolutely free.

The High Court has previously suggested this allows for restrictions on movement and travel that are reasonably necessary for legitimate state purposes.

The key constitutional question here is whether the current restrictions are proportionate and appropriately tailored to address the identified risk to public health.




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View from The Hill: Morrison government accepts Victorian closure but won’t budge on High Court border challenges


In particular, the Federal Court is being asked this week to identify precisely what risks the COVID-19 pandemic poses to public health in Australia, and the extent to which border closures might mitigate these risks.

The Federal Court will not make a final decision about the constitutional validity of the border closures. Instead, it will determine the relevant facts in the case based on evidence presented by public health experts.

These facts will be critical to deciding the ultimate constitutional question.

What happens next?

The Federal Court hearing is only step one. Once these factual questions have been decided, the case returns to the High Court, which will determine the constitutional questions.

While the parties and courts have all acknowledged the importance of expediting this matter, the earliest this case could be heard by the High Court would be September. This means a final decision on whether the border closures are valid could still be weeks away.

Another important practical consideration is how the WA government may react if it loses the constitutional challenge. McGowan has already said

if the High Court rules that the borders have to come down that is the law of the land.

But any High Court decision will be based on the reasonableness of the current restrictions, and the court tends to limit its decisions to the particular facts before it. The judges are unlikely to speculate about whether alternative border closure restrictions may be constitutionally valid.

As such, one option for WA if it loses may be to remove the existing restrictions, but immediately replace them with amended restrictions that are adapted to the court’s ruling.

A win for Palmer in the High Court may not therefore necessarily result in the WA borders immediately re-opening.

McGowan has defended WA’s ‘very straightforward system’ of border closures, even as neighbouring states have seen virus cases decline.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

What will the High Court decide?

It is never possible to definitively predict the outcome of a High Court case. This is particularly true in the present case, given the specific constitutional issue at hand has not previously been directly considered by the court.

However, in cases involving questions of reasonableness and the balancing of public policy objectives, courts tend to err on the side of allowing governments a significant degree of discretion.




Read more:
States are shutting their borders to stop coronavirus. Is that actually allowed?


For this reason, the WA government has a strong constitutional case, provided the Federal Court finds the expert evidence supports border closures being justified from a public health perspective.

This highlights the significance of the current Federal Court hearing. It would be extremely controversial for the High Court to invalidate border closures imposed by a state government if the expert evidence established a public health justification for the measures.

Why governments need discretion in cases like this

Indeed, this highlights a more fundamental question about who is best placed to make these types of decisions in a democratic society.

There is no objectively right or wrong answer to the question of whether state borders should be shut in these circumstances, or for how long. It is instead a judgement call that has to be made on the best information available at the time, and that requires the decision maker to balance a range of different public policy factors.

An elected government is best placed to make judgement calls of this nature. It can adapt its response as circumstances change and take into account community sentiment (which is important to ensure compliance).

A government will also be subject to a range of different accountability measures, including, ultimately, judgement by the people at an election.




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Border closures, identity and political tensions: how Australia’s past pandemics shape our COVID-19 response


Judicial decision-making is very different. It is necessarily based on the particular facts of a single case before the courts and is not adaptive to circumstances. The courts also do not need to consider the practical challenges of implementing a specific policy or regulation, and are not subject to direct democratic accountability.

These can be virtues when the courts are engaged in legal decision-making. They also demonstrate why the courts should not be involved in making decisions of a more political nature.

While there is a legitimate role for judicial scrutiny, the judgement calls required in a public health emergency are more appropriately left to the executive and parliamentary branches of government.

This democratic mandate granted to elected officials should be respected by the courts when considering the current challenge to the WA border closures, particularly given the importance of what is at stake.The Conversation

Lorraine Finlay, Lecturer in Law, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria is undeniably in a second wave of COVID-19. It’s time to plan for another statewide lockdown


Adrian Esterman, University of South Australia

Victoria recorded its largest daily increase of 127 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, 16 more than the previous peak of 111 cases on March 28.

As I recently wrote, there’s no formal definition of what constitutes a second wave, but a reasonable one might be the return of an outbreak where the numbers of new daily cases reach a peak as high or higher than the original one.

By that definition, a second wave has arrived in Victoria. So why isn’t the state back in lockdown?

What can be done to bring the outbreak under control?

The current strategy of mass testing and information campaigns in hotspot areas, and quarantining whole tower blocks, may not be working. Regardless, cases are now appearing outside the hotspot areas, among people who were most likely infected before the latest measures were put in place.

The Victorian government must now seriously consider going back into statewide Stage 3 lockdown restrictions. Under these rules, there are only four reasons to leave your home: shopping for food and supplies, care and caregiving, exercise, and study and work if it can’t be done from home. And exemptions to quarantine rules should not be granted.

Testing should no longer be a choice. People in 14-day quarantine should be tested on day 11, and if they refuse, made to go into another 14 days of quarantine. Breaking quarantine should be a serious offence.

Far better communication is needed to explain why these measures are essential, and health authorities should ensure their messaging also reaches those who do not speak English as a first language.




Read more:
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People should be encouraged to wear face masks whenever outside. There is increasing evidence they are effective in areas of high transmission.

Much more must be done to educate the public about panic buying. If necessary, Australian Defence Force personnel could be used to deliver food and essential supplies to those at high risk, and assist with logistics.

The newly announced closure of the New South Wales and Victoria border is welcome, and probably overdue. It comes after a returned traveller who quarantined in Melbourne tested positive to the virus after working at a Woolworths in Sydney.

Some people living in border communities will be granted an exemption from this closure, including those whose nearest health provider or place of work is just across the border. Hopefully they will be closely monitored and regularly tested.

Finally, all other states and territories should rally to assist Victoria. It is in everyone’s interest to defeat this outbreak.

Where to from here?

At this stage, the situation is unclear. Daily cases could still rapidly increase, or we could have reached the peak and we might start seeing cases subside. However, the number of new cases each day isn’t necessarily the critical factor. More important is the daily number of new community-acquired infections. Because we have no idea where these people got infected, it makes controlling the situation very difficult.

Other cases are not a major threat as it’s possible to contain them with quarantine and contact tracing. If necessary, additional staff experienced at contact tracing can easily be brought in from other states.

The first epidemic wave was controlled by imposing severe restrictions. Unfortunately, history might have to repeat itself.


This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.The Conversation

Adrian Esterman, Professor of Biostatistics, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is America a ‘failing state’? How a superpower has been brought to the brink



AAP/EPA/Albert Halim

George Rennie, University of Melbourne

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a sense history had ended, and that the United States represented a supreme endpoint.

Today, the US is not dominant, it is in crisis: convulsed by riots and protest, riven by a virus that has galloped away from those charged with overseeing it, and heading into a presidential election led by a man that has possibly divided the nation like no other before him.

Using the most common metrics available to political scientists, there are signs the United States is failing.

Until very recently, this idea was extraordinary, unthinkable to all but the most radical critics. But, the US is increasingly performing poorly on key predictors of state failure: ethnic and class conflict, democratic and institutional backsliding, and other socioeconomic indicators including healthcare and inequality.




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Ethnic and class conflict

Comparative politics pays great attention to the role of ethnic conflict as a predictor of state failure. Those who study African countries, where most of the flare-ups are currently taking place, often observe that ethnic conflicts are closely correlated with battles to secure key resources, such as water and arable land. This closely relates the study of so-called “grievance studies”, which typically regards deep-seated inequalities as causing resource conflicts.

Black Lives Matters protesters in Washington D.C.
AAP/Sipa USA/CNP

However, it would be a mistake to think this is because of different ethnic groups per se. It is more to do with how inequality and poverty exacerbate perceived racial and cultural fissures. The US reflects this problem, where the experience of many black Americans is telling: they feel “criminalised at birth”, and when this perception reaches a critical mass among a large enough population, states fail.




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The global conflict zones that political scientists largely focus on are where groups are fighting for basic resources. These include water, mineral, and other basic economic rights.

So, areas that are deeply impoverished, such as Flint, Michigan, or almost any other recent area of profound socio-economic distress, are highly analogous to failed countries. They have also been some of the biggest challenges to the “united” part of the United States.

Signs of increased economic inequality

Yet, the economic indicators are not only dire for minority groups. America’s economy has grown at a good clip for decades, but the wealth has been taken up almost entirely by the wealthiest. For example, CEOs’ pay went from 20 times the average workers’ salary in 1965 to 278 times their salary in 2018.

In real terms, only college graduates have seen their pay increase as a group since 1979, and this occurs while 21% of American children live in poverty. Moreover, health outcomes for Americans are very poor compared to other OECD countries, despite having the highest per capita healthcare costs in the world.

Disproportionately, this is a problem affecting black Americans. This might go some way to explaining recent riots, but is far from a complete picture. All poor Americans are getting relatively poorer, which may also explain why poor white Americans seem increasingly likely to fight against the perceived injustices of other ethnic groups. They do this by pitting themselves against similarly politically and economically disenfranchised groups, rather than the power system that keeps them dispossessed.

Two children paint a mural at Black Lives Plaza, Washington D.C.
AAP/EPA/Michael Reynolds

Adding to this, a major historical study by Thomas Piketty showed the disconnect between the poorest and wealthiest Americans is getting exponentially worse, the middle class is shrinking, and the wealth of the top 1% is taking up an increasing share of the pie.

Is there a democratic deficit?

This wealth disconnect is increasingly represented as a deficit in democracy. As one study showed, America’s democracy is being seriously undermined.

In fact, “undermined” is putting it mildly: after a rigorous analysis of voting from 1982 to 2002, Gilens and Page showed the preferences of the top 10% routinely trumped those of average voters.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of these findings. As analyses of the 2016 general election showed, the US states that flipped from Democrat to Republican (supposedly part of Hillary Clinton’s “firewall”) were almost exclusively part of the so called “rust belt”. Once part of America’s all-powerful manufacturing base, they are now people who feel forgotten, and increasingly angry.

The black and white, racial narrative of America’s woes misses an important, but even more consequential point: while there is no doubt black Americans are disproportionately suffering, an increasing majority is losing out, regardless of race.

American hope

The American revolution centred on the very sensible idea there should be no taxation without representation. Yet, there is now significant evidence that a majority of citizens are not being represented.

The US has one advantage: for all of its flaws, it remains an at least semi-functional democracy. This may well mean blame for state failure can exist with individuals or parties, rather than the entire system.

However, the democratic institutions of the United States continue to break down, and successive governments have proved unable to respond and listen to their citizens. Bizarrely, by the most important indicators available to political scientists, the United States is failing.

Even among its most ardent critics, few would consider America’s failure to be anything other than a catastrophe. The domestic deterioration of the world’s biggest nuclear and military superpower would prove unprecedented and frightening beyond rational analysis — rhetoric suggesting this is merely the new “fall of Rome” is almost glib.

The challenge now is whether the world’s oldest continuous democracy can live up to its own ideals.The Conversation

George Rennie, Lecturer in Politics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Border wars split political leaders and embroil health experts


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Who’d be Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk right now?

Facing a tough election in October, Palaszczuk is coming under huge pressure to open the state’s borders, so visitors in search of winter sun can start to get the tourist industry back on its feet.

She’s in the sights not just of the federal government, with Peter Dutton (“a proud Queenslander”) leading the charge, but of NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian as well.

Palaszczuk so far is holding firm, saying she’ll follow the advice of her chief health officer, Jeannette Young. The border closure will be reviewed monthly; it could stay shut until September, and Young says possibly even longer. It depends on the number of active cases in NSW and Victoria, which have far more than Queensland.

It might be Queensland first opens up to South Australia and the Northern Territory before re-opening the border with NSW.

In political terms, Palaszczuk is on risky ground whatever she does.

Depriving the state’s economy of much-needed dollars will give ammunition to her opponents. On the other hand, if an open border led to a serious outbreak in a tourist centre, forcing fresh shut downs, she’d carry the blame.

It’s a dilemma to which there is no “correct” answer.

So far, Palaszczuk has voters’ support in how she’s handled the pandemic (although her government’s rating is lower than those of other state governments.)

In the Essential poll published this week, 66% of Queenslanders answered good or very good when asked “how would you rate your state government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak?” In WA 86% rated the McGowan government’s performance positively. (The federal government received a tick from 73%.)

But voters are fickle, and opinions can change quickly.

We saw this over kids being in school. At first many parents insisted their children must stay home; after a few weeks they were pressing for schools to take them back.

The schools debate produced fault lines in the national cabinet, and now the row over borders is doing the same. That useful body remains intact, but this creates tensions, even though border policies are the decisions of individual states, not the collective.

The conflict might also be something of a reality check on the idea the national cabinet would enable a harmonious road to future economic reform.

A notable feature of the COVID federalism model is that under the national cabinet umbrella, line ups vary according to the issue.

Victoria (Labor) and NSW (Coalition) were the loudest in urging early heavy restrictions, including in relation to schools.

The Morrison government, with its eye on economics, instinctively preferred a lighter hand; it needed a shove to go further. Where it couldn’t be moved and the states had the power, they went their own ways.

On schools, Canberra was adamant – Scott Morrison always wanted them open. Similarly, Canberra wants borders opened.

The border issue sees another cross-party grouping. The Labor jurisdictions of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and the Liberal states of South Australia and Tasmania all have their borders closed.

NSW and Victoria have never gone down this path.

Berejiklian is pushing hard for a re-opening to promote recovery. She’s suggested WA premier Mark McGowan and Palaszczuk are courting popularity.

In the crossfire, McGowan has accused Berejiklian of bullying tactics, and hit where it hurts. “New South Wales had the Ruby Princess … And they are trying to give us advice on our borders, seriously?” he said this week. Palaszczuk said: “We are not going to be lectured to by a state that has the highest number of cases in Australia”.

As notable as the fracture among governments, is the very public division between the health experts.

We saw this on schools, where Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton took a much more conservative position than others.

While Young and WA chief health officer Andrew Robertson were adamant this week on keeping their respective borders shut for the time being, federal deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly said “from a medical point of view, I can’t see why the borders are still closed”. (McGowan had earlier said: “I don’t know who Paul Kelly is – clearly not the singer”.)

Kelly said neither the national cabinet nor the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (that advises it) had made decisions or given advice on state borders. Decisions on what to do were entirely up to the states.

Both Young and Robertson are on the AHPPC, which is described as a “consensus body”. “We talked through these matters and we decided not to have a position on borders,” Kelly explained.

While it has been welcome in this crisis to see the politicians turning to the experts, we are now being sharply reminded experts can differ. How often have we heard from politicians in recent weeks, “We are relying on the medical advice.” But that doesn’t always lead in one direction, and “consensus” can be a useful concealer.

As the border argument intensifies the question of whether the closures are constitutional, canvassed early on in the crisis, has come back.

One Nation’s Pauline Hanson has accused Palaszczuk of “running roughshod over the constitution”, appealed for anyone affected who might want to mount a challenge to come forward, and said “I have a pro-bono, constitutional lawyer who will represent you in a High Court challenge under Section 92”.

Section 92 provides for “trade, commerce, and intercourse among the states” to be “absolutely free”.

No one could be sure how, if there were a case, the High Court would rule. The Court in the past has recognised public health circumstances can justify measures that otherwise would breach section 92. But would special circumstances still apply when the virus threat had apparently receded?

Attorney-General Christian Porter has dodged on whether the border closure could be unconstitutional.

Porter, a Western Australian, has been measured on the issue itself. “These aren’t easy decisions for state premiers to make but there’s a health imperative, there’s an economic imperative and there are strict constitutional rules around what is permissible and impermissible”, he told a news conference on Thursday.

Porter no doubt has in mind the thread of isolationism traditionally running through his state’s thinking, and of the polling showing enormous support for the McGowan government’s COVID management.

The day before, Porter noted “that the federal government’s position,
on a whole range of issues, is to be forward leaning and develop workarounds to get our economy moving again”.

Indeed. We can expect the Morrison government’s “forward leaning” will only increase in coming weeks, with its desperation to boost economic activity. Meanwhile, premiers might need their chill pills before they meet, virtually, at national cabinet next week.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

National and state leaders may not always agree, but this hasn’t hindered our coronavirus response



ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN/AAP

Narelle Miragliotta, Monash University

It is understandable why the different measures introduced across Australia to contain COVID-19 have caused confusion. It does seem inexplicable that the rules – and penalties for breaching them – are different depending on where one lives.

It is also understandable that the finger-pointing between the Australian Border Force and the NSW government over the Ruby Princess debacle is regarded as a sign of weak governance arrangements caused by overlapping state and federal responsibilities for the nation’s borders.

But as understandable as these reactions might be, Australia’s response to COVID-19 is a testament to the benefits of federation, with its multiple tiers of government.

A useful division of governmental labour

The two levels of government have responded to this crisis in slightly different ways, especially initially.

It was the premiers and chief ministers who acted decisively to manage the spread of the pandemic when it first emerged. Their primary concern was to minimise further transmission of the virus, and to prevent the health system from becoming overwhelmed by the influx of infected patients.

While some of the premiers were warning that extreme measures would have to be instituted, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still suggesting it was acceptable for people to attend sporting events ahead of a ban on mass gatherings.

For Morrison, the (very) reasonable concern has been on reducing the human costs of the virus for the economy. This has rendered the prime minister slightly less disposed to push for stringent measures that might cause further economic ruin.




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The different focuses of the two levels of government is in constant tension, but this provides a check on each other in managing their particular core (constitutional) responsibilities during the pandemic.

Moreover, it has permitted a useful division of governmental labour during this crisis. The federal government is able to concentrate on managing the economy, while the states and territories are able to prioritise managing the health of their populations and hospital systems.

And through the National Cabinet, the consultative body consisting of the prime minister, premiers and chief ministers, the country’s leaders have been able to coordinate their activities and share vital information.




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States and territories need to adapt policies for their residents

Although the social distancing measures imposed by the states and territories are different, they stem from guidelines agreed to by the National Cabinet.

Differences in their application by the state and territories can be partly explained by differences in size and demographics.

Some states are more densely populated than others, which places their residents at greater risk of community transmission. Some also have a higher proportion of older Australians and remote Indigenous populations – two communities that are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

These differences are on top of the fact some states and territories have natural geographical features that enable them to more easily control who enters the state, for example, Tasmania and Western Australia. This enables these leaders to consider less stringent social distancing and other measures than their counterparts.

It makes good sense, therefore, that national guidelines should be adapted to meet the unique challenges of each state or territory.

Why the Ruby Princess is not a failure of federalism

It is undeniable the decision to allow the Ruby Princess passengers to disembark was disastrous, since it has been linked to hundreds of infections and upwards of 15 deaths at last count.

However, it is far from clear the incident could have been avoided if Australia had only one level of government.

The fiasco resulted from a series of poor decisions involving multiple state agencies and one federal agency. It was likely aggravated by the possibly misleading or inaccurate information provided by the cruise ship operator about the health of those on board.




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But the decision-making failure(s) that occurred here are not unique to federations. The challenge of adequately vetting information under pressure, and coordinating the overlapping responsibilities of different administrative agencies, occurs within all governments.

If anything, federations have greater capacity to reduce the intensity, frequency and scale of policy failures.

As a model of government, federations do not prevent bad policies from being implemented. Rather, they can minimise the harm caused by bad policies. A policy failure in one state, for instance, will generally only affect that particular state – not the entire country.

Importantly, leaders can learn from the policy errors made by their counterparts.

Federalism as a salve to poor leadership

Those who need further convincing about the benefits of federalism need look to the United States.

The devastation that is unfolding in the US has been amplified by the absence of competent national leadership. The Trump administration vacillates between dismissing the pandemic and arguing the economic costs of shutting down the country are graver than the loss of lives.

But amid the national decision-making vacuum, many state governors have risen to the challenge. Some have even sought alliances with other governors to coordinate regional responses to the crisis.

That federations give rise to multiple governmental leaders might seem inefficient. But this pandemic has revealed that not all leaders rise to the challenge during crises. When this occurs, having other leaders who can step into the breach can prove critical.The Conversation

Narelle Miragliotta, Senior Lecturer in Australian Politics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A state actor has targeted Australian political parties – but that shouldn’t surprise us



File 20190218 56243 para1s.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Prime Minister Morrison said there was no evidence of electoral interference linked to a hack of the Australian Parliament House computer network.
from www.shutterstock.com

Tom Sear, UNSW

The Australian political digital infrastructure is a target in an ongoing nation state cyber competition which falls just below the threshold of open conflict.

Today Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a statement to parliament, saying:

The Australian Cyber Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the Australian Parliament House computer network.

During the course of this work, we also became aware that the networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals – have also been affected.




Read more:
‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties


But cyber measures targeting Australian government infrastructure are the “new normal”. It’s the government response which is the most unique thing about this recent attack.

The new normal

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) – which incorporates the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) – analyses and responds to cyber security threats.

In January ASD identified in a report that across the three financial years (2015-16 to 2017-18) there were 1,097 cyber incidents affecting unclassified and classified government networks which were “considered serious enough to warrant an operational response.”

These figures include all identified intrusions. The prime minister fingered a “sophisticated state actor” for the activity discussed today.

Cyber power states capable of adopting “sophisticated” measures might include the United States, Israel, Russia, perhaps Iran and North Korea. Suspicion currently falls on China.

Advanced persistent threats

Cyber threat actors with such abilities are often identified by a set of handles called Advanced Persistent Threat or APTs.

An APT is a group with a style. They are identifiable by the type of malware (malicious software) they like to deploy, their methods and even their working hours.

For example APT28 is associated with Russian measures to interfere with the 2016 US election

Some APTs have even been publicly traced by cyber security companies to specific buildings in China.

APT1 or Unit 61398 may be linked to the intrusions against the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and possibly the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Unit 61398 has been traced to a non-descript office building in Shanghai.

The advance in APT refers to the “sophistication” mentioned by the PM.




Read more:
How we trace the hackers behind a cyber attack


New scanning tool released

The ACSC today publicly released a “scanning tool, configured to search for known malicious web shells that we have encountered in this investigation.”

The release supports this being called a state sponsored intrusion. A web shell is an exploitation vector often used by APTs which enables an intruder to execute wider network compromise. A web shell is uploaded to a web server remotely, and then an adversary can leverage other techniques like privileges and issue commands. A webshell is a form of a malware.

One well-known shell called “China Chopper” is delivered by a small web application, and then is able to “brute force” password guessing against the authentication portal.

If such malware was used in this incident, this explains why politicians and those working at Australian Parliament House were asked to change their passwords following the latest incident.

Journalism and social media surrounding incidents such as these pivot on speculation of how it could be an adversary state, and who that might be.

Malware and its deployment is close to a signature of an APT and requires teams to deliver and subsequently monitor. That the ACSC has released such a specific scanning tool is a clue why they and the prime minister can make such claims.

An intrusion of Australian Parliament House is symbolically powerful, but whether any actual data was taken at an unclassified level might not be of great intelligence import.

The prime minister’s announcement today suggests Australian political parties have been exposed.

How elections are hacked

In 2018 I detailed how there are a few options for an adversary seeking to “hack” an election.




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The first is to “go loud” and undermine the public’s belief in the players, the process, or the outcome itself. This might involve stealing information from a major party, for example, and then anonymously leaking it.

Or it might mean attacking and changing the data held by the Australian Electoral Commission or the electoral rolls each party holds. This would force the agency to publicly admit a concern, which in turn would undermine confidence in the system.

This is likely why today the prime minister said in his statement:

I have instructed the Australian Cyber Security Centre to be ready to provide any political party or electoral body in Australia with immediate support, including making their technical experts available.

They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those responsible for cyber security for all states and territories.

They have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this malicious activity.

Vulnerability of political parties

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s response alluded to what might be another concern of our security and electoral agencies. He said:

… our party political structures perhaps are more vulnerable. Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities.

I have previously suggested the real risk to any election is the manipulation of social media, and a more successful and secretive campaign to alter the outcome of the Australian election might focus on a minor party.

An adversary could steal the membership and donor database and electoral roll of a party with poor security, locate the social media accounts of those people, and then slowly use social media manipulations to influence an active, vocal group of voters.

Shades of grey

This is unlikely to have been the first attempt by a “sophisticated state actor” to target networks of Australian political parties. It’s best not to consider such intrusions as if they “did or didn’t work.”

There are shades of grey.

Adversaries clearly penetrated a key network and then leveraged access into others. But the duration of such a presence or whether they are even still in a network is challenging to ascertain. Equally, the government has not suggested data has been removed.

Recognition but no data theft may be a result of improved security awareness at parliament house and in party networks. The government and its administration have been taking action.

The Department of Parliamentary Services – that supplies ICT to parliament house – has improved security in “network design changes to harden the internal ICT network against cyber attack”.

This month a Joint Committee opened a new inquiry into government resilience following a report from the National Audit Office last year which found “relatively low levels of effectiveness of Commonwealth entities in managing cyber risks”.

Government response is what’s new

As the ASD and my own observation has noted, this is likely not the first intrusion of this kind – it may be an APT with more “sophisticated” malware than previous attempts. But the response and fall out from the government is certainly new.

What is increasingly clear is that attribution has become more possible, and especially within alliance structures in the Five Eyes intelligence network – Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – more common.

Sometimes in cyber security it’s challenging to tell the difference between the noise and signal. The persistent presence of Russian sponsored trolls in Australian online politics, the blurring of digital borders with China and cyber enabled threats to our democratic infrastructure: these are not new.

Australia is not immune to the new immersive information war. Digital border protection might yet become an issue in the 2019 election. In addition to raising concerns our politicians and cyber security agencies will need to develop a strong and clear strategic communication approach to both the Australian public and our adversaries as these incidents escalate.The Conversation

Tom Sear, PhD Candidate, UNSW Canberra Cyber, Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties



File 20190218 56204 18qp4dj.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
While the government has not identified the state actor, China is.
being blamed.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

“A sophisticated state actor” has hacked the networks of the major
political parties, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Parliament.

Recently the Parliament House network was disrupted, and the intrusion
into the parties’ networks was discovered when this was being dealt
with.

While the government has not identified the “state actor”, the Chinese
are being blamed.

Morrison gave the reassurance that “there is no evidence of any
electoral interference. We have put in place a number of measures to
ensure the integrity of our electoral system”.

In his statement to the House Morrison said: “The Australian Cyber
Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the
Australian Parliament House computer network.

“During the course of this work, we also became aware that the
networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals
– have also been affected.

“Our security agencies have detected this activity and acted
decisively to confront it. They are securing these systems and
protecting users”.

The Centre would provide any party or electoral body with technical help to deal with hacking, Morrison said.

“They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those
responsible for cyber security for all states and territories. They
have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure
Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this
malicious activity,” he said.

“The methods used by malicious actors are constantly evolving and this
incident reinforces yet again the importance of cyber security as a
fundamental part of everyone’s business.

“Public confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes is an
essential element of Australian sovereignty and governance,” he said.

“Our political system and our democracy remains strong, vibrant and is
protected. We stand united in the protection of our values and our
sovereignty”.

Bill Shorten said party political structures were perhaps more vulnerable than government institutions – and progressive parties particularly so.

“We have seen overseas that it is progressive parties that are more likely to be targeted by ultra-right wing organisations.

“Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities. These institutions can be a soft target and our national approach to cyber security needs to pay more attention to non-government organisations,” Shorten said.

Although the authorities are pointing to a “state actor”, national cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon told a news conference: “We don’t know who is behind this, nor their intent.

“We, of course, will continue to work with our friends and colleagues, both here and overseas, to work out who is behind it and hopefully their intent”.

Asked what the hackers had got their hands on MacGibbon said: “We don’t know”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

State governments can transform Australia’s energy policy from major fail to reliable success


Tony Wood, Grattan Institute and Guy Dundas, Grattan Institute

This week we’re exploring the state of nine different policy areas across Australia’s states, as detailed in Grattan Institute’s State Orange Book 2018. Read the other articles in the series here.


Energy policy in Australia is a major failure. The federal government has been unable to forge an effective policy to ensure affordable, reliable and low-emissions electricity. It’s time for the states to step up.

Internationally, responsibility for climate change policies rests with national governments. The federal government says it remains committed to Australia’s target under the Paris Agreement, but it has abandoned the emissions-reduction obligation of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). This leaves Australia’s electricity sector, which is responsible for 34% of our overall emissions, with no credible policy to reduce those emissions.

The states should fill this policy vacuum if it persists. They should work together on a nationwide emissions reduction scheme through state-based legislation, independent of the federal government. A Commonwealth-led national policy would be best, but a state-based policy is far better than none.




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In October 2018 the COAG Energy Council agreed to continue work on the reliability element of the NEG. The states and territories should maintain this support and implement this policy with the Commonwealth government, and so support the reliability of the National Electricity Market during a challenging transition.

The Grattan Institute’s State Orange Book 2018 shows that there is also much the states can do to reduce energy prices. Consumers are understandably upset – household retail prices have increased by more than half in the past decade, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (see page 7 here).

How your state measures up on energy.
Grattan Institute State Orange Book 2018

The federal government is certainly focused on price – Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to Energy Minister Angus Taylor as the “minister for getting electricity prices down” – but many important pricing policies depend on state action.

Retail pricing is the obvious example. Poorly regulated retail electricity markets have not delivered for consumers. Retail margins are higher than would be expected in a truly competitive market. Many consumers find the market so complicated they give up trying to understand it.




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A high price for policy failure: the ten-year story of spiralling electricity bills


State governments should work alongside the federal government to help consumers navigate the retail “confusopoly”. Governments should require retailers to help consumers compare offers and get the best deal. They should also stop retailers using excessive pay-on-time discounts (which tend to confuse rather than help consumers and can trap lower-income households), and ensure vulnerable customers do not pay high prices.

However, governments should resist the temptation to use price caps as a quick fix. If set too low, price caps could reduce competition and drive longer-term price increases.




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Capping electricity prices: a quick fix with hidden risks


Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, which have not yet adopted retail competition, should move in that direction – while learning from the mistakes of others.

Network costs make up the biggest share of the electricity bill for most households (see page 8 here) and some small businesses. This is particularly an issue in New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania, where network values increased substantially under public ownership and those costs were passed on to consumers.

These states should write down the value of their overvalued networks or provide rebates to consumers, so the price of the networks is more closely aligned to the value they provide to consumers. Given the poor performance of publicly owned networks, any network businesses still in government hands should be privatised.

Responsibility for setting network reliability requirements should be transferred to the Australian Energy Regulator to prevent risk-averse state governments from imposing excessive reliability standards, which would drive up network costs again.




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Until recently, it seemed state governments had learned the lessons from the bad old days of excessively generous subsidies for rooftop solar. That was until August 2018, when the Victorian government committed more than A$1 billion to pay half the cost of solar panels for eligible households and provide an interest-free loan for the remainder. Most of these systems would pay for themselves without subsidy. The Victorian government should abandon this waste of taxpayers’ money.




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Finally, Australia’s gas market is adding to the price pain of homes and businesses. As international prices rise, there is no easy way to avoid some painful decisions. But some state policies are making matters worse.

The Victorian and Tasmanian governments’ moratoria on gas exploration and development constrain supply and drive up prices. The moratoria should be lifted. Instead, these states should give case-by-case approval to gas development projects, with safeguards against specific risks.

Australia needs reliable, affordable electricity to underpin our 21st-century economic prosperity. That must be protected while we also decarbonise the energy sector.

Energy market reform was at the forefront of national competition policy in the mid to late 1990s. But reform has since slowed, and the states are partly responsible. The states can rekindle the fire by pursuing a clear, nationally consistent action plan for affordable, reliable and low-emissions electricity.

Australia’s households and businesses – and the environment – are relying on the states to step up.The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute and Guy Dundas, Energy Fellow, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

State governments are vital for Australian democracy: here’s why



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State government remains an important part of the Australian political landscape.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

As Victorians head to the polls in less than four weeks, there is a wider question worth considering than whether or not the Andrews government is likely to be given another term. Do state governments actually matter?

Imre Salusinszky, a former adviser to then- New South Wales premier Mike Baird, recently tweeted: “State government in 2018 is about running four or five businesses. The whole Westminster thing is preposterous. An efficient model would be a six-person executive guided by a People’s Convention meeting biennially for a month. Doesn’t need party politics and chocolate soldiers”.

That seems unlikely, but the idea that state governments have become too municipal to be taken seriously is familiar. For decades, federal politicians with a high opinion of themselves have treated the state government as beneath their notice or contempt.




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The exposure of the rorting and corruption of a number of state politicians – notoriously Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald during the most recent period of Labor government in New South Wales – has also fuelled a more general contempt for state politics. But the states at least have well-developed integrity systems that have landed a few crooks in prison. It would be mischievous as well as libellous to explore whether some of their federal counterparts have been cleaner or luckier.

The habit of treating state government as a poor relation might not be recent. Most of the big names in colonial politics headed straight into the Commonwealth parliament in 1901. Later, it is doubtful whether a federal politician would have ridiculed a Jack Lang or Ted Theodore – New South Wales and Queensland Labor premiers respectively – as dealers in triviality. But they, too, eventually headed for national politics.

With their eyes on the growing power and prestige of federal government as it acquired ever stronger control of national finances, historians have underestimated the continuing significance of the states in major policy areas. Land has always been a big one, as it is today in relation to housing affordability and urban development.

In earlier periods, closer settlement, soldier settlement and land taxation were all state matters. There is also mining. When he was Western Australian minister for industrial development in the 1960s, Charles Court was practically running an arm of Australia’s international policy in his negotiations with the Japanese over new iron-ore projects.

Large fields of activity remained predominantly state matters after federation – education, health and hospitals, public transport and roads, local government, and law and order. The capacity of the Commonwealth to act in a range of fields was either untested, or tested and found wanting.

In the area of social security, it was far from clear before the second world war that the Commonwealth would become predominant. The Commonwealth also left some fields to the states even where its authority to act was unquestioned – such as in marriage and divorce law before 1959-61.

For much of the twentieth century, most major public utilities, such as railways, were controlled by the states. Many became massive government bureaucracies and monopolies. On a smaller scale, Queensland had state-owned butcher shops and pubs.

In social, industrial and conservation policy, the New South Wales Labor governments of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s showed that caution was not inconsistent with policy innovation. Rather more adventurously, Don Dunstan’s South Australian Labor governments of the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, provided a blueprint for the social progressivism associated with the Whitlam revolution. Dick Hamer’s progressive Liberal government in Victoria complemented the Whitlam agenda.

South Australian premier Don Dunstan lead a socially progressive government associated with the Whitlam revolution.
The Centre of Democracy, South Australia

The 1980s revealed some of the limits for state governments in economic policy. The Victorian Cain Labor Government’s economic interventionism won the active dislike of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It ran up against the barrier of national economic policy and, eventually, political turmoil and financial scandal. Other governments were dogged either by corruption, as in the case of Western Australia and Queensland, or financial mismanagement, as in South Australia.

These results pushed the following generation of Labor leaders and governments towards notable caution and probity. By the mid-2000s, the credit ratings agencies were taking on the role of de facto third chamber of the state legislatures.

Still, the Bracks Labor government in Victoria sought to use its personnel and resources to influence the national policy debate. It contributed a National Innovation Agenda, which the Rudd Government took up as a starting point for its own efforts in that field.

The nature of the compact John Howard formulated to get his Goods and Services Tax up, which saw revenue going to the states according to an agreed formula, also provides premiers with a captive national audience whenever the issue of tax policy reform arises.




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Where does this leave state government today? In the first place, it shares with federal government control over areas that are among the most controversial and difficult for government. Energy policy is near the top of the list. And no one would regard Victoria’s new euthanasia law as anything other than a matter of high seriousness.

State government’s capacity for innovation and experimentation in fields that matter, and are not dependent on federal control of the purse-strings, remains alive. The Council of Australia Governments, or COAG, offers a forum in which such influence can be exercised. State governments in Victoria and South Australia have been pursuing the idea of a Treaty with Indigenous people, at a time when the issues of constitutional recognition, an Indigenous voice to parliament, and a Treaty or Makarrata have stalled at the national level. At the territory level, it was the ACT government that passed Australia’s first bill of rights law in 2004.

State governments provide Australians with choice and a government that, for most people, will be less physically and spiritually distant from their daily lives than Canberra. There are also the benefits of variety. For some years during the time John Howard was dominating the federal scene, every state and territory government was controlled by Labor.

Today, there is a more even division between the parties. It remains true, however, that in a time of disillusionment and distrust of politicians, state government provides electoral choice, checks on federal government power, and a large array of the services that Australians think of as peculiarly the province of government.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.