Tim Rowse reviews Tom Chodor and Shahar Hameiri’s The Locked-Up Country (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2023), $32.99

 

In 2023 Tom Chodor and Shara Hameiri published ‘COVID-19 and the Pathologies of Australia’s Regulatory State’ in the Journal of Contemporary Asia. Congratulations to University of Queensland Press for giving their argument, expanded to a short book, wider circulation. Chodor and Hameiri are among Australian critics of one manifestation of neo-liberalism – what they (and others in Political Science) call ‘the regulatory state’. They present Australia’s mistakes in handling the COVID epidemic (2020-2023) as a case study in the pathologies of the regulatory state. They urge restoration of a state both more capable and more accountable.

Australia as a ‘regulatory state’

The first chapter lists five features of the contemporary Australian state that began, in the 1990s, to shape its mode of governance. First, the six States’ fiscal dependency on the national government has made them vulnerable to Canberra’s neo-liberal persuasion that they ‘outsource government functions, marketise service delivery and privatise public assets’ (p.25). This pressure has not only undermined the states’ capacity to govern but also forced them to govern according to the national government’s regulatory oversight. Second, ‘independent agencies’ have proliferated, enabled to make policy (e.g. monetary policy under the Reserve Bank of Australia) but accountable to neither parliament nor executive. Third, much service delivery and policy-related research has been outsourced to private providers, draining the public services of knowledge necessary for good government. Fourth, public assets capable of being run as profit-making enterprises have been sold to private owners whose profit-seeking decisions may be at variance with those that an accountable government would make. Fifth, governments have created markets in which private corporations compete with each other for government contracts to deliver services that were once delivered by public servants; in some markets these contracted providers compete with government agencies, in others they replace them.

The ‘aim’ of those promoting these five changes to the ways the state functions has been ‘reducing popular influence over, and expectations of, the state’ (p.4). Chodor and Hameiri do not attribute this ‘aim’ to any particular socio-political entity, but they assert that the changes have suited ‘political leaders’ who have benefited insofar as they can ‘claim plausible deniability over policy decisions and their outcomes in many areas previously under their purview’ (p.5). So, if the first thesis of this book is that the Australian state has come to have certain characteristics (the five features of the ‘regulatory state’), its second thesis is about the effect of these characteristics on ‘accountability’: it has become more difficult to hold elected political elites responsible for their governing actions.

How would we test this second thesis? How does political science measure changes in the degree to which political elites are accountable? The authors refer to data on membership of political parties and on trust in political leaders and institutions. Public dissatisfaction with politicians who are seen to avoid accountability has manifested, they point out, in independent candidates winning seats formerly held by major parties.

On my reading of The Locked-Up Country, Chodor and Hameiri are more convincing on thesis one than on thesis two. That is, describing Australian governments’ responses to COVID, they are able to point to each of the above five characteristics of the regulatory state. Their ‘accountability’ thesis is less convincing, for what they show is that those responses were popular and vote-winning (though they do not neglect the dissenting public that denounced lockdowns and refused vaccination). The relationship between being accountable and being electorally successful (or not) is a question that the book never explicitly addresses. The book’s problem is not that its lacks information about, and insight into, public responses. Rather, the authors do not pause to consider the relationship between the approving public (historically depicted) and their own point of view now as scrutineers of policy rationality. I detect an underlying gap between the authors and the public that they describe, an implication that Australians should have been as critical of underperforming governments as Chodor and Hameiri are now in their narrative of government, 2020-2023. To the extent that sections of the public did consider themselves let down by government, in what terms did they assert their interests and rights? And what is the authors’ view of those terms?

The public approval of improvisation

Ashkan Forouzani (Unsplash)

Australia had planned for an epidemic of respiratory illness – so many plans that they required the coordination of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, formed in 2006 and empowered by a National Health Security Act 2007. In its so-called CDPLAN, the Australian government ‘set pandemic preparedness guidelines for others [the States and Territories] and then stepped back, pushing the funding and implementation onto others’ (p.45). The Australian government took responsibility for stockpiling pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE), but it spent too little. The States and Territories also spent too little – reflected, for example, in small numbers of contact tracing staff without surge capacity. These austere preparations were evaluated by independent agencies (four are named) and by Ernst and Young. All this is typical of regulatory federalism, say the authors.

As severe outbreaks in certain countries (China, South Korea, Italy) were revealed, the Australian government, in February and March 2020, began to ban entry to Australia. Limitations on assembly, quarantine, social distancing, increased unemployment benefits and wage subsidies (pointedly excluding higher education) also commenced, and by the end of March 2020 governments were urging Australians to stay at home. Chodor and Hameiri point out that neither closed borders (entailing quarantine) nor lockdowns had been part of Australia’s pandemic planning. Indeed a 2012 Department of Health review of pandemic response measures found that Australia, at that time, lacked methods of quarantine that would allow governments to control the pace and timing of transmission. Lacking facilities to accommodate the increasing numbers requiring quarantine, governments booked hotels and staffed them, at first, with private security staff. Other capacities were also found to be immediately lacking: test and trace staff (though NSW had them) and PPE. Without means to follow their plans, governments improvised their primary responses to public alarm.

Thus there is much to illustrate that Australia behaved as a ‘regulatory state’ in its response to COVID. But why did border control and quarantine emerge so quickly as the favoured instruments? And what does this approach tell us about public accountability? Medical advice – both in planning documents and at the onset of the pandemic – was initially against closing borders and quarantining arrivals. But plans and advice, devised by ‘experts and unaccountable bureaucrats’ (p.79), were not known and endorsed by the public. Closing borders was what governments could do. Under Australia’s constitution, both the national and the State/Territory levels of government have authority to quarantine. The national government has authority over the external border while states may control internal borders. When premiers compared the rapidly rising number of infections with their assessed capacity to manage cases they ‘pushed the federal government to close the borders to “buy time”’ for their threatened health systems (p.79).

Chodor and Hameiri give a good account of the novelty and intensity of Australians’ fears, and they point to their immediate political expression: ‘a massive boost’ (p.69) of popularity of leaders who closed borders, initiated quarantine and decreed lockdowns. Australians, it appears, were willing to sacrifice liberty to seek safety. When Chodor and Hameiri suggest that in this moment leaders were ‘facing limited accountability for their actions’ (p.69), their point rests on a counterfactual: that the public could have known what the readers of this book’s narrative learn: the speed with which leaders, by the end of March 2020, substituted improvised devices for the measures set out in the poorly resourced but expertly conceived official plans. A more contextual view of ‘accountability’ is possible: the public was frightened and wanted governments to take coercive, corrective action that seemed, at the time, to be warranted by an extraordinary threat. If governments met that expectation, why describe their accountability as ‘limited’?

That governments and populace were in accord in the COVID years thus emerges as a plausible alternative way to tell the story of ‘unaccountable’ elites that Chodor and Hameiri, pursuing their second thesis, seek to tell. We can read their narrative of the period after March 2020 to see how much it supports or undermines their thesis that the COVID challenge revealed governments’ ability (steadily acquired since the 1990s) to limit their accountability.

The management of known or suspected cases of infection through border control and quarantine soon became a public test of the government’s improvised response. The national government, ignoring expert advice, had never drafted national quarantine standards, so each State experimented. In 2020, Victoria bungled hotel quarantine and New South Wales and the national government combined to fail to manage passengers disembarking the Ruby Princess. Governments admitting such failures either took corrective action or found ways to blame other States or the Australian government for their actions and inactions. How was it possible to offset the political costs of such conspicuous trial and error and blame-shifting defensiveness?

What cut governments a great deal of slack was the public belief that restricted mobility – both into and within Australia – was effective in saving Australia from the disasters that were unfolding in some other countries (Italy, then USA and Britain). Border closure was supported by 71 per cent according to a February 2021 poll. Chodor and Hameiri see ‘Zero COVID and Fortress Australia’ (p.90) as powerful political ideas, securing correspondence between what governments thought they had the capacity to do and what the frightened public asserted they had a responsibility to do.

In lockdowns we see the greatest gap between what the public wanted (or at least accepted) and what – in the opinion of Chodor and Hameiri – governments should have done. Referring to epidemiological and public health critiques of city-wide lockdowns, they point to the harm that wide, prolonged lockdowns do: family violence, disrupted learning, missed diagnoses, aggravated mental illness, exacerbated class and gender inequality. Citing public opinion data (an August 2021 Essential poll) and the popularity of Premier Andrews, they acknowledge that lockdowns were ‘immensely popular for a very long time’ (p.99). The same can be said of state border closures (Western Australia, Queensland) that obviated lockdowns such as Victoria’s.

In explaining public support for lockdowns and border regulation, they give surprisingly little attention to the Morrison government’s sweeteners: doubled unemployment benefit and subsidised private sector employment. Perhaps each was felt to be compensating loss of liberty? Without considering the impact of such blandishments, the authors offer two plausible explanations of public support for lockdowns and severe border control. They point to the fact that in the first half of 2020, such measures seemed to have eliminated community transmission, a victory over COVID’s first wave. These 2020 improvisations confirmed ‘Zero COVID’ as the achievable alternative to the catastrophe projected by epidemiologists newly prominent in radio and TV. The second explanation of the popularity of lockdowns offered by Chodor and Hameiri is that those most adversely affected were not ‘the social classes whose voice dominate government, politics, media and culture, notably the wealthy and the…professional middle class’ (p.121). These sections of society and some whose business thrived ‘considered extended lockdowns a reasonable price to pay for eliminating COVID-19’ (p.127). Others smouldered in discontent.

Markus Winkler (Unsplash)

Even when the pathogen evolved into something epidemiologically different – the much more transmissible Delta, named in May 2021, globally dominant by the end of 2021 – public acceptance of the improvisations of 2020 made it difficult for political elites to propose alternative strategies – that is, until a vaccine became available in 2021 and governments canvassed relaxed controls as an incentive to submit to injection. Popular resistance emerged during Victoria’s Delta-era lockdowns, and so by the time governments were in a position to consider modifying civil rights according to vaccination status (early 2022), there were articulate sections of the public hostile to government compulsion. Ignoring the unequal incidence of ‘Zero COVID’ measures, elites ‘basking in their moral superiority’ (p.132) deplored the ‘selfish choices’ of such resistant Australians.

In Chapter Five, (‘The Stroll-out’) Chodor and Hameiri criticise every aspect of the Australian government’s approach to vaccination, officially commenced on 21 February 2021. In procurement, manufacturing, distribution and administration, the Australian government manifested ‘the pathologies of its regulatory state – hollowed out capacity, blurred lines of control and accountability, and political buck-passing and blame-shifting…’ (p.136). They highlight the Morrison government’s recourse to advice from McKinsey and EY, its haggling over vaccine prices, its mediation of advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), its dependence on CSL (formerly a public enterprise, privatised by Keating), its unrealistic aspiration to take responsibility for most vaccinations (while outsourcing much of the task), its lack of data about the needs of those in aged care The Morrison government’s many corrections of its ‘stroll-out’ included assenting to initiatives taken by state governments and appointing a senior military officer (John Frewen) as ‘Coordinator-General’ of the vaccine’s delivery to Australians’ arms. That the military is the most effective instrument in an emergency, the authors say, is typical of ‘regulatory states’ that have wasted and outsourced capacities essential to government.

Reflections

What do we learn about ‘accountability’ from this portrayal of a regulatory state’s ‘stroll-out’? Recall the authors’ second thesis: that a ‘regulatory state’ is made up of many devices that shield those who govern from the demands and criticisms of those they govern. Chodor and Hameiri do not tell us how the public viewed (what they narrate as) state incompetence in procurement and delivery of vaccines. Does their story of the ‘stroll-out’ illustrate the second thesis: that as the features of a regulatory state become entrenched, political elites are less and less accountable for their actions? This thesis remains under-argued. What we do know is that Australians were avid for vaccination and that Australia became one of the world’s most vaccinated nations.

The book’s strength is in its description of the regulatory state’s incapacities and dependencies. Its weakness is its underdeveloped consideration of ‘accountability’. It is not obvious from their story that what governments did demonstrates that they could evade accountability; there is too much that points the other way. The book works better as a technocratic criticism of government action than as an assessment of the degree to which governments taking that action were accountable for it. For the most part, they show accord between governments and the frightened public.

In their paragraphs on resistance to Victoria’s lockdowns, Chodor and Hameiri seem hesitantly aware that a theory of democratic accountability might distinguish between two publics: one that enjoys a high degree of socio-economic security and one that lives more precariously. In Australia in 2020-23, the former put up with an improvising state, but eventually found itself confronted by a constituency of the insecure who sometimes expressed, in deplorable terms, their hatred of these improvisations. The authors’ alignment with the latter is implicit, rather than acknowledged, raising the unaddressed question of their critique’s class position. Certainly, they carry no torch for Morrison’s successors in government: Labor is ‘as embedded in the politics of Australia’s regulatory state as its predecessor, committed to neoliberal framing of spending, and prepared to lower the population’s expectations of the State’ (p.170).

 

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Tim Rowse
Tim Rowse

Professor Tim Rowse is a former Professorial Fellow in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and is Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

He has taught at Macquarie University, the Australian National University and Harvard University (where he held the Australian Studies chair in 2003-4), and he has held research appointments at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the ANU. Since the early 1980s, his research has focused on the relationships between Indigenous and other Australians, in Central Australia (where he lived from 1989 to 1996) and in the national political sphere.