By Dr Carolyn Holbrook


As we well remember, COVID incited a high degree of tension between the Commonwealth and the states. The former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce probably put it best when he said:

For a while there we went from a federation back to little colonies again. I was waiting for Queensland to get their own air force and Western Australia to get their own navy.

A series of standoffs about border closures between the Commonwealth and the states led to some bold declarations from commentators. The finance journalist Alan Kohler claimed in the wake of the AUKUS submarine deal in September 2021, that:

the federal government runs external affairs while domestically the nation is now a series of fiefdoms run by warlords (premiers) … Each premier has been handed the gift of status and power and no-one will easily give it back; as a result, the balance of power in Australia’s federation has changed in ways that will extend well beyond 2021.

Press gallery journalist Phillip Coorey declared the premiers more powerful than the prime minister in the Financial Review’s 2021 ‘Power List’. Coorey claimed that:

the leaders of the four most populous states have, as a collective, challenged and tested the federation’s power structures like never before in peace time.

When I read these comments, I wondered what history books Alan Kohler and Phil Coorey had been reading. COVID underlined the fact that Australians are generally ignorant of the history of their federation. It also confirmed my suspicion that this ignorance is particularly noticeable in the ‘eastern states’, where the interests of the big guns of the Federation, New South Wales and Victoria, are often conflated with those of the Commonwealth.

Some basic knowledge of our Constitution and the history of our Federation since 1901 makes the events of the last couple of years appear quite predictable. And contrary to the hyperbolic claims of commentators, it also suggests that the rise of the states is a momentary blip in a story of the Commonwealth’s steady aggrandisement.

John Howard Lidgett Cumpston. Photograph by Unknown author – Wiki Comm, Public Domain,

The Constitution enacted in 1901 gave the Commonwealth power over quarantine. But it left the remainder of the public health-related powers—like border closures and the closure of schools and other public places—with the states. There was a drive from early on to centralise public health powers. Some of this impetus came from a dynamic young doctor called John Howard Lidgett Cumpston, who became the director of the Commonwealth Quarantine Service in 1913.

Cumpston was in the vanguard of a group of Australian progressives in the early twentieth century who believed that the application of science through state intervention could make for a better society. He believed that with the resolute application of planning and expertise, problems such as hospital provision, infant mortality, tuberculosis and venereal disease could be alleviated. The emergence of Spanish influenza in the last year of the First World War provided an opportunity for Cumpston to expand the role of the Commonwealth in public health.

The greatest danger to Australia from the Spanish flu was posed by ships carrying troops returning from Europe. Maritime quarantine—indisputably a matter for the Commonwealth—would be the first line of Australian defence. During the second week of October 1918, there was a severe outbreak in South Africa and, soon after, in New Zealand. The Commonwealth responded by requiring that ships that had been in contact with South African or New Zealand ports undergo seven days in quarantine.

Despite clashes between the Commonwealth and the states about quarantine facilities, there was widespread admiration for Cumpston’s maritime quarantine program. It appeared that the disaster that had unfolded in South Africa and New Zealand had been averted in Australia.

By December 1918 Cumpston felt confident to declare that ‘the period of greatest danger was over’.[1] Doing Cumpston’s bidding as ever, the Medical Journal of Australia claimed the success of the quarantine program was one of ‘the strongest arguments in favour of the abolition of State control, and the substitution of Federal control in all matters concerning the public health’.[2]

Though the maritime defence remained intact, Cumpston resolved in November 1918 to devise a plan of action with the states in the event that the disease did escape quarantine. Delegates agreed a clear procedure in the event of the disease breaching quarantine. When a case was recognised, the chief health officer of the state would notify the Commonwealth Director of Quarantine. The Commonwealth would then proclaim the state to be infected and close its borders with clean states. Upon the proclamation of a state as infected, the federal government would take complete control of all interstate traffic by land and sea, in order to enforce the quarantine. If influenza was discovered in a neighbouring state, the border would be reopened.

Cumpston later characterised the Commonwealth’s assumption of border control with state co-operation as ‘a general affirmation of acceptance of dominant Commonwealth authority’.[3]

Hospital Beds in Great Hall During Influenza Pandemic, Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Feb 1919. Unknown photographer. Source: Museums Victoria, Museums Victoria, Item MM 103429.

As leaders gathered in Melbourne for the Premiers’ Conference, which began on 22 January 1919, rumours were spreading of an outbreak of Spanish flu in the city. The rumours were denied by Cumpston and the state’s chief health officer, Edward Robertson. The superintendent of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Dr Ralph McMeekin, had no doubt that the disease affecting an increasing number of his patients was Spanish flu. McMeekin spoke directly to the press in order to force government to act. But still, Robertson, the chief health officer, and Cumpston—who were acting in cahoots—obfuscated.

Meanwhile, in Sydney a returned soldier who had travelled by train from Melbourne on Tuesday 21 January was displaying ‘suspicious symptoms’ of Spanish flu at Number 4 Military Hospital in Randwick.[4] New South Wales authorities acted quickly. On 27 January, the state declared itself infected, with approximately twenty cases at, and connected to, the Randwick Military Hospital. Victoria declared itself infected on 28 January, the day after New South Wales.

The terms of the November agreement determined that the border between Victoria and New South Wales should remain open because both states were infected. Correctly perceiving that the southern state was more severely infected, New South Wales issued a proclamation under its own Quarantine Act on 29 January, which prevented Victorians from entering New South Wales.

This was the first blow to the November agreement.

Cumpston’s push for Commonwealth control quickly disintegrated as premiers from ‘clean’ states moved to preserve their status. Queensland closed its border to New South Wales completely, ignoring an exemption to residents within ten miles of the border under the November agreement. South Australia, which was also slow to declare itself infected, closed its border to Victoria, and Tasmania and New South Wales closed their borders to South Australia.

But as with COVID, the most bitter clash was between the Commonwealth and Western Australia. On 27 January 1919, the day before Victoria officially notified the Commonwealth of its infected status, a passenger train had departed from Melbourne headed for Western Australia. Presumably armed with intelligence that the Melbourne situation was worse than health officials were conceding, the acting premier of WA Hal Colebatch instructed his chief health officer to quarantine the train in order to ensure that seven days would elapse before passengers from Victoria disembarked in WA.

The acting prime minister William Watt professed outrage upon news of Colebatch’s decision to ‘seize’ the transcontinental train. When two more trains were held up at Parkeston, a station some distance from Kalgoorlie, the Commonwealth cancelled the service.

The acting prime minister threatened premiers on 4 February that unless they adhered to the terms of the November agreement and allowed the Commonwealth to police cross-border traffic, it would renounce the pact. Watt’s telegram accused New South Wales, Queensland, West Australia and Tasmania of ‘violation’ of the November agreement.[5] The premiers were furious. Colebatch responded to Watt that:

it seems a monstrous action on the part of the Commonwealth Government to uphold the two States that have violated the agreement, and to prefer an entirely unwarranted charge against those States that have been forced to take action through the violation of the agreement by Victoria and South Australia.[6]

Civic institutions, organised labour and newspaper editorials rallied behind Colebatch. The Fremantle Times newspaper estimated that ninety-five per cent of West Australians would support secession if a vote were held immediately.[7] The West Australian thought the quarrel over the trans-Australian railway was ‘another instance … of the doubtful wisdom of entrusting too much power to a central Government’.[8]

The November agreement was cancelled on 6 February, and states made their own quarantine and border arrangements for several months. Gradually, compromise arrangements were made between the Commonwealth and the states. But the notion of the states surrendering their public health powers to the Commonwealth had proved a disaster, not helped by the collusion of the state’s chief health officer and Cumpston in failing to admit that Victoria was infected.

What lasting effect did this failed attempt at Commonwealth control have? It certainly didn’t slow the expansionary momentum of the Commonwealth.

Former Prime Minister Billy Hughes. National Library of Australia, MS 1538, Series 10, Item 339.

Cumpston convinced Prime Minister Billy Hughes to establish a Commonwealth Department of Health in 1921, which he ran until 1945. Cumpston succeeded in building a federal identity in the sphere of health policy, though his wider ambitions remained unfulfilled. Plans for a ‘tropical frontier’ in the Pacific in collaboration with other colonial rulers were ‘stillborn’ after the resignation of Elkington as head of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine in 1928.

Cumpston then switched his focus to ‘social medicine’ in the south-east of the continent. His driving ideal of preventative public health was sublimated to Treasury’s desire to find savings during the Depression years. The department revived in the later 1930s and made a significant contribution to the building of the post-Second World War welfare state, but, in the judgement of the historian Michael Roe, it ‘never approached the realisation of its founders’ brightest dreams’.[9]

2020 played out in such a similar way to 1919 because most of the constitutional health powers are retained by the states. Just as they did during the Spanish flu, premiers sought to safeguard the interests of their own states by using their power to close borders and enforce public health measures such as lockdowns. Public opinion was solidly behind the ‘recalcitrant’ premiers in 2020, just as in 1919.

Such is the dominance of the Commonwealth, and such is the eastern states provenance of most journalists, that the power of the states during the COVID pandemic came as a shock. The original vision of a Federation in which the states and the Commonwealth were each sovereign in their own spheres has been forgotten.

Contrary to the claims of Alan Kohler and Phil Coorey, the Commonwealth will resume its dominance of the Federation, because it is so financially dominant. That is already happening. And unless we tackle the long overdue issue of federal reform, it will take another crisis, in which the states possess the constitutional upper hand, to remind Australians that we live in a Federation.



[1] Brisbane Courier, 9 December 1918, p. 7.

[2] Medical Journal of Australia, 7 December 1918, p. 472.

[3] J.H.L. Cumpston, The Health of the People: A Study in Federalism, Roebuck, Canberra, 1978, p. 36.

[4] Sunday Times, 26 January 1919, p. 1.

[5] Telegram from W.A. Watt to state premiers, 3 February 1919, NAA: A2, 1919/1302—Influenza Epidemic Commonwealth Regulations.

[6] Telegram from H.P. Colebatch to W.A. Watt, 4 February 1919, NAA: A2, 1919/1302—Influenza Epidemic Commonwealth Regulations.

[7] Fremantle Times, 14 March 1919, p. 2.

[8] West Australian, 6 February 1919, p. 4.

[9] Michael Roe, ‘The Establishment of the Australian Department of Health’, in Cumpston, The Health of the People, p. xxiv.

Cover Image: a group of nurses and children, during the influenza pandemic, outside the Exhibition Building, Melbourne in 1919. Museums Victoria, Item SH 960231.

Carolyn Holbrook
Carolyn Holbrook

Dr Carolyn Holbrook is the Director of Australian Policy History and co-editor with Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe of the recently published Lessons from History: Leading Historians Tackle Australia’s Greatest Challenges (New South, 2022).