Tribalism in Covid response

Political tribalism popped up again this week as Australia deals with the Covid pandemic. When Victoria, under a Labor Government, locked down early and hard to fight its second wave of Covid last year, the Coalition Federal Government condemned the action and the Murdoch press stuck the boot into Premier Dan Andrews every day.

But when Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian imposed a similar lockdown (albeit a little late) for exactly the same reasons, the Feds and the Murdoch press say she is doing the right thing. And Lo and Behold, the Feds are now going to kick in $500 million in support for NSW.

The political tribe is at work. Every bum on every seat counts for these tribes. Every parliamentary seat comes with several staffers, dozens in the case of ministers. Each staffer works towards re-election of the MP and the party they represent. 

Every vote for the tribe counts in public funding.

Rationally, the response to both lockdowns should have been the same. We should deal with the pandemic with evidence-based science, not political allegiances.

Francis Fuyuama got it wrong when he talked about “the end of history” as communism collapsed in 1990. He, like many of us, thought that with the end of great power rivalry, politicians – especially those in western democracies – could concentrate on problem-solving, freed of the constraints of ideology.

But politics is not just a creature of ideology. It is also a creature of tribalism. This is the evolved human tribalism of connection and trust of those close in the tribe and rejection and fear of those not in the tribe. How else was homo sapiens to survive in the savannah?

The rationale of political tribalism – my party right or wrong – is that of survival. The trouble is that it is only directed at political survival and the well-being of the political party, and is not directed at overall survival and overall well-being unless by serendipity.

Sometimes the two coincide. It did not take long for individual state and territory leaders to put their political tribe and survival ahead of any national approach to dealing with Covid.

Australia was fortunate that that happened. Left to the national Coalition Government, Australia would have erred on the side of staying open because it would have been good for business amd the Coalition’s mates and donors, at least in the short-term.

Australia could have easily gone the way of Britain, with mass illness and death.

But the state Premiers saw that that was not in their political interests and that it threatened their political survival. They locked down.

Berejiklian has ruled out “living with Covid” and opening up more, overruling many in her own party. She understands exponential spread and that widespread death and disease would end her premiership. She has stated that there will be no full opening up until vaccination rates are high enough to make it safe to do so. In the meantime, lockdowns would be used to deal with any breakouts

Initially, she mentioned an 80 per cent vaccination rate, since varied to whatever rate science determines. The other states have similar policies, only varying according to how quickly and how extensive lockdowns would be.

Western Australia is the toughest. Quick to lockdown. Quick to close borders. Slow to open them.

On Tuesday, a day after Western Australia finally opened its border with the Northern Territory without insisting of 14-day quarantines, the vehicle queue at the Kununurra border post stretched for six kilometres and the wait for Covid and agricultural quarantine checks was five hours.

Rationally, it should have given rise to questions about the competence of the people who are directing the police and agricultural quarantine officers at the border.

But I was in that queue and, judging from the comments of people over CB radio, it is more likely it has enhanced the reputation of Labor Premier Mike McGowan – who has reduced Liberal party-room meetings to phone box size – as the strong leader who can protect Western Australians from Covid being brought in from “the eastern states”.

Conflating political survival with surviving an external enemy is a classical political tactic.

This co-incidence of political and actual survival instincts in dealing with Covid at the state level has changed the balance of federal power in Australia.

Since federation there has been a gradual accretion of power to the Commonwealth. It got to the stage where the Commonwealth could almost always get its way on policies, way beyond its powers listed in the Constitution, by pulling the purse strings.

Now NSW (with the other states) has moved power in the opposite direction in several ways. They have forced money out of the Feds without any of the usual strings attached. They have forced the Feds to forget about changing the isolate-and-eliminate policy approach to Covid. 

And perhaps more importantly they have exposed the Feds’ abject failure in the vaccination roll-out.

To some extent at least some of the states have done similar things with climate change.

And if you think lockdowns, border closures and border queues are tough, look across to what is happening the west coast of North America this northern summer, and prepare for something similar here by the end of the year, especially if La Nina is replaced with El Nino.

Australia has been lucky with the coindence of state leaders’ political instinct for survival and doing the right thing to protect people. But that has certainly not been the case in a lot of policy areas.

Political tribalism – looking after your mates and donors – has for too often been the enemy of good policy. The Feds’ rescue plan for NSW this week was just a happy accident.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 17 July 2021.

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