Politically, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing schisms and tensions, as well as revealing new ones.

The nature of Australia’s federation, once thought to be relatively centralised, appears more State-based than envisaged by the Constitution; and Tasmania, whose COVID experience has been comparatively easy, is finding that being locked in (as opposed to locked down) comes with its own unique political challenges. However, arguably the most significant political aspect of the pandemic has been the blurring of lines between domestic and international politics. Tasmania, far from being the master of its own destiny, finds itself impacted, both positively and negatively, by Australian and international factors beyond its control.

It is nonetheless also worthwhile exploring some of the issues that are uniquely international, Australian and Tasmanian. 

Looking back

Historically, international crises, such as war, have often led to greater post-conflict cooperation. Examples include the creation of the (arguably flawed) League of Nations at the end of World War 1, and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) and a number of important, human rights-based treaties at the end of World War 2. There was some hope, that in the age of globalisation, characterised by a smaller, interconnected world, that a global pandemic might be the catalyst for greater global cooperation. 

Instead, what we have witnessed is an increase in nationalism, a rise in what was already a growing distrust in global institutions such as the UN and the World Health Organisation, and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, an unwillingness or inability (it’s not always clear which) from the industrialised, developed world, to offer greater assistance to developing countries that have, or will, suffer the most from this pandemic. An integral part of the post-Cold War order was to shrink the gap between the so-called global north and global south, yet COVID-19 has revealed that the divide between global have and have-nots remains. 

National focus

More locally, the pandemic has revealed tensions in Australia’s federation. The nature of Australia’s more centralised federal structure, especially when compared to the United States, for example, means that in times of national crisis, such as war or natural disasters, Australians have sought guidance and leadership from the national government. In turn, the capacity of the Commonwealth government to act as a source of comfort and reliable information has lent it a degree of legitimacy. The pandemic has impacted on this understanding in two notable ways.

In the early years of federation, the States remained the dominant actors in Australia. It wasn’t until after the end of the Second World War that the Commonwealth started to assume more authority in a variety of public policy areas, so much so that Canberra became the centre of political power in Australia almost by stealth. The States did, however, maintain primary responsibility in the area of public health, so when interstate travel started to pose a threat to the wellbeing of Australians, States, and notably powerful States in Victoria and NSW, against the wishes of the Federal Government, closed their respective borders, undermining long held perceptions about the nature of political power in Australia.

Second, data from the University of Tasmania’s ‘Tasmania Project’ from 2020 revealed that Tasmanian government sources, including information from Premier Peter Gutwein and local health authorities, was relied on much more than information from Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Indeed, more Tasmanians said they relied on information from the World Health Organisation (WHO) as said they relied on information from the Prime Minister. Again, while Australians have been generally apathetic about the gradual transfer of authority to Canberra, this newly assumed power by Australian States might not be readily conceded post-pandemic.

Finally, Tasmania finds itself in a somewhat unique situation. Undoubtedly benefiting from geographical realities, Tasmania’s border closures have been both comparatively easy to monitor and, based on public health measures as they relate to COVID, also very successful. But while not locked down, Tasmanians have found themselves essentially locked in. For a State that has become increasingly interconnected to the outside world, be it via exports and imports, education and cultural exchanges, and tourism, such isolation can be unsettling.

But more than this, the pandemic has demonstrated a number of political realities. First, increased interconnectedness, while having numerous upsides, also has drawbacks, including reliance on other States and countries for essential goods and services. Second, although it is important in liberal democratic polities, such as Tasmania and Australia, for government to claim control in times of crisis, the pandemic has demonstrated that what was once a clear demarcation between domestic and international politics not only no longer exists, but that national and State governments, in an age of globalisation, are increasingly beholden to events and circumstances beyond their control.  

Dr Matt Killingsworth is Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Tasmania. This article was written as part of a series to mark Social Sciences Week.

About Dr Matt Killingsworth

Dr Matt Killingsworth is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Social Sciences. He is currently researching the history of the laws of war and new forms of international criminal justice. He joined the University of Tasmania in 2010 as an associate lecturer in international relations and was promoted to lecturer in 2012.

View Dr Matt Killingsworth's full researcher profile