Australians believe states managing Covid pandemic better than Canberra, study finds | Australian politics

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Australians have marked down the federal government for its handling of the pandemic over the course of the past year, while backing the more assertive approach taken by the states, new research shows.

The findings are contained in a paper published by the Australia Institute which has been polling voters about the level of government they think is doing a better job of managing the Covid-19 crisis since August last year.

While the states were viewed as doing the better job at the outset, 31% compared to 25% for the federal government, the gap has substantially widened in recent months.

After tracking a gradual decline in the approval of the federal government’s handling of the pandemic, the July survey of more than 1,000 people found just 16% believe the federal government is outperforming the states, with the approval of the states surging to 42%. One in four people rate both levels of government as doing an equally good job, while 17% are unsure.

Across the states, Western Australia shows the biggest difference, with 61% of people saying the McGowan Labor government is doing a better job compared to 11% for the federal government.

In Victoria, which is currently undergoing its fifth lockdown, the gap is narrower, with 34% saying the state is doing a better job, and 25% nominating the federal government.

The polling also shows state border closures, which prime minister Scott Morrison described as putting “enormous stress and strain” on Australians, are proving incredibly popular, with 77% of voters in favour of the measure.

Across all states, about 40% of people strongly support state border closures, with support highest in WA and Queensland. Only 18% opposed them.

State elections held during the pandemic have favoured incumbents, with the WA, Queensland and Tasmanian elections held over the past 12 months all returning sitting premiers.

Bill Browne, senior researcher in the Australia Institute’s democracy and accountability program, said the Covid pandemic had highlighted a potential re-alignment of state-federal relations.

“Australia’s states are sometimes disparaged as relics or mendicants, dependent on the federal government, and unnecessary for a country the size of Australia,” Browne said.

“However, the states and territories have shone during the Covid-19 crisis with strong, strict and decisive responses, which have in turn won popularity with the public.

“The unprecedented support for Australia’s premiers is one of the standout stories of the pandemic.”

The Australia Institute research paper also suggests the country’s successful handling of the pandemic, which it says has been “excellent relative to other countries”, could be due in part to the federated structure, with states serving as “laboratories of democracy” for different policy approaches.

“The different shutdown, isolation, mask and border closure policies adopted by different state and territory governments have allowed for comparisons in pandemic response,” the paper says.

The paper’s release comes as New South Wales and Victoria trade barbs over their respective lockdowns, with the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, opting for a short, hard lockdown, and his NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian coming under fire for not doing the same earlier.

On Sunday, the NSW government announced 105 new Covid cases, with 27 that were infectious in the community, and put in place new restrictions to try to curb the outbreak.

Victoria reported 17 new cases, but no new chains of transmission.

Browne said the renewed public belief in state governments was a “political opportunity” for the states to take a greater leadership role, including on climate change, federal-state financial arrangements and reform of national cabinet.

“This renewed public belief is a huge political opportunity for our political leaders and community. It represents a once in a lifetime opportunity – the question of course is whether they can take it and what they choose to do with it,” Browne said.

He said the states, which had all committed to a net-zero emissions by 2050 target, were setting the standard for the federal government to follow, but so far it had failed to rise the challenge.

“The Morrison government is making noises about matching the states’ net-zero by 2050 target, but this is unlikely to be the end of state leadership on policy issues that have traditionally been seen as the federal government’s purview.”

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