CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s prime minister on Friday rejected demands from within his own conservative party to publicly attack the center-left Victoria state government over its flawed handling of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreak and an economically damaging lockdown.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been widely applauded for attempting to rise above party politics in the national response to the pandemic. State governments ruled by the conservative Liberal Party as well as those governed by the center-left Labor Party are sending nurses and other medical resources to Victoria, the only state struggling to curb a second wave of infections.
But Victoria’s decision to throw 250,000 people out of work in Australia’s second-most populous city, Melbourne, with the country’s toughest lockdown threatens to fracture the fragile political truce.
Morrison said while his Liberal-led coalition tried to influence Victoria’s Labor government in confidential meetings on its pandemic responses, “states have compIete and total control over those types of restrictions.”
“I don’t see a great advantage of engaging in that process in some sort of public spectacle,” Morrison said. “I don’t think that would be good for public confidence. I don’t think that would be good for public assurance.”
Compared to the United States, Australia has largely succeeded in keeping partisan politics out of the nation’s pandemic response.
Morrison has formed what is called a National Cabinet to seek the cooperation of Liberal and Labor state and territory leaders in pandemic decision making.
David Kemp, a former Liberal government minister who remains influential in the party, wrote in The Australian Financial Review newspaper on Thursday that the National Cabinet’s unity is a pretense that is “dividing the Liberal Party and demoralizing its supporters.”
“Premier Daniel Andrews is responsible for the worst administrative failure in Australia’s history,” Kemp wrote of the Victorian leader. “The federal government is making a great mistake if it does not call this out."
Kemp described the Melbourne lockdown as an “authoritarian outrage” and “gross policy overreach” that lacks “coherent justification.”
Morrison has been riding high in public opinion polls with his bipartisan approach since the pandemic began.
Monash University political scientist Nick Economou, who is locked down in Melbourne, said Morrison’s popularity reflects Australia’s success outside Victoria in containing the virus. It also reflects that the federal government had been spared many of the politically hard pandemic decisions, he said.
“The commonwealth clearly has been frustrated with not just this premier, but other premiers at various times, but the constitutional reality that only Australian politics students understand is that the state is the most important level of government where it comes to the delivery of services” such as a pandemic response, Economou said. “I’m shocked at how impotent the federal government has been.”
Victoria has ordered an inquiry into breaches of Melbourne hotel quarantines that were possibly the source of the hundreds of new COVID-19 cases recorded in Victoria each day. Travelers to Australia are required to isolate for 14 days in hotels on arrival.
Media reports have alleged that security firms charged the Victoria government for hotel guards that were not provided. Guards also allegedly had sex with quarantined hotel guests and allowed families to go between rooms to play cards.
Sydney, Australia’s largest city, which in the early days of the pandemic had the country’s highest number of daily new cases, chose to use police and the military to provide hotel security, with greater apparent success.