In a class early this year, I posed the following question to a group of students. Which election result in 2022 would have the most significant implications for them: would it be the outcome of the federal or state poll? The majority of the class nominated the federal election, yet the ensuing discussion demonstrated that events since 2020 had given the students a keen appreciation of the state government’s reach.
No longer could it be reckoned to be of only marginal impact on their lives.
The interventions to manage the pandemic – most dramatically the enforcement of lockdowns –have indeed served as a lesson in the important powers that reside with the states under Australia’s constitutional arrangements. The pandemic demonstrated that the premiers, far from being mere minions to the Prime Minister, are crucial players in the life of the country. Scott Morrison’s establishment of the national cabinet, a forum that institutionalised power-sharing between Australia’s government heads, features premiers sitting alongside the prime minister as de facto equal partners.
Morrison’s prime ministership inadvertently elevated the influence of the states in other ways. With the Coalition federal government inert in various policy areas, the states took up the baton. For example, while Canberra dawdled on the issue of climate change, Victoria and NSW set about meeting ambitious targets for carbon emission reductions.
Perhaps the most fascinating instance of this dynamic has been Victoria’s stewardship of a process for completing a treaty with the state’s Indigenous communities at a time when the Morrison government was dragging its heels on a response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Victoria’s leadership of the nation in this and other fields such as passing voluntary assisted dying legislation, a measure now emulated across Australia, shows how one state can be a laboratory for social reforms that influence other jurisdictions. In other words, a state government’s policymaking can transcend its own borders.
The stakes in this November’s election contest are indeed raised by the activist way in which the state has been led over the past eight years. Daniel Andrews is not only the nation’s longest serving head of government, but the largest life premier of Victoria since Jeff Kennett in the 1990s. His major Labor predecessor, Steve Bracks, was a conciliator, a “group” leader whose congenial style soothed the state’s frayed nerves following the upheavals under Kennett’s bellicose rule.
Andrews has been of quite a different stamp to Bracks. He displays more of the characteristics of an archetypal “strong” leader: bold, conviction driven, and dismissive, even contemptuous, of opposition. He has pushed and pulled the state to his will.