By all accounts, Gladys Berejiklian already knew her public pleading for more vaccine supply had fallen on barren ground before she gathered with Scott Morrison and the other premiers virtually for the latest national cabinet meeting.
The New South Wales premier came to Friday afternoon’s conversation with her peers armed with a number of requests. But when her time came to speak, Berejiklian acknowledged upfront the additional doses she’d asked for to combat the “national emergency” weren’t going to be forthcoming.
The premier did ask whether or not the commonwealth was prepared to re-allocate doses of Pfizer that had been marked for distribution to GP clinics. Berejiklian wanted that supply redirected to the state-run clinics that would focus on vaccinating people in south-west Sydney – her argument being the current lockdown wasn’t enough to contain this dangerous Delta outbreak.
But that request got a firm no too from the federal officials. One senior official asked the premier (overly aggressively by some accounts) whether she was asking people to cancel their appointments. Morrison told Berejiklian he wasn’t in the business of taking Pfizer doses away from GPs.
Morrison then invited the other premiers to ask questions or make reflections. The West Australian premier, Mark McGowan, queried whether the lockdown Berejiklian had imposed was a serious lockdown given he’d seen pictures of people massing on Bondi beach.
Daniel Andrews wondered whether Berejiklian had modelling to back her approach, and the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Andrew Barr (for obvious reasons given the territory has a porous border and zero cases) asked whether there was a functioning ring of steel between Sydney and the rest of the country. There was a discussion about what role the defence forces might play.
Given lockdowns had been raised, Morrison (who only a few weeks ago pointedly praised Berejiklian for not rushing to lock down Sydney) professed himself fully on board with tough restrictions. But he noted they needed to be effective.
Morrison said that any lockdown that went on for longer than a week, and wasn’t seen to work, would undermine community support for public health restrictions.
And that, the prime minister said, would turn into a “shit show”.
Perhaps some gathered around the virtual table thought the actual “shit show” was Morrison’s predilection for shape-shifting – but I admit, that’s speculation on my part.
Going into Friday’s meeting, some of the premiers did wonder whether they were walking into a stitch-up, given the drama of Berejiklian’s pre-positioning.
They wondered whether the premier’s declaration of a national emergency, and her argument that vaccines needed to be redirected to Sydney urgently, reflected some pre-agreement with Morrison.
The passage of time has taught premiers to keep their wits about them. When these leaders invented national cabinet on the hop in a football stadium in Parramatta in March 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, there was a strong sense of solidarity that bridged the partisan differences.
While this national cabinet – a governance structure to manage a federated crisis – continues to function, there are now a bunch of accumulated resentments that hover in the room, like hungry ghosts.
Andrews, who was once close to Morrison (the prime minister once told me their partnership was the “key fusion” in the federation) feels (entirely correctly) that the prime minister shafted him with all the politicking from Canberra during Victoria’s long (but ultimately successful) lockdown during the second wave.
Andrews and Berejiklian worked closely during the opening months of the pandemic to push Morrison into accepting public health restrictions when the prime minister resisted that approach.
But the feeling around the national cabinet table these days is Berejiklian succumbed to hubris during the period where NSW was held up regularly by Morrison as the gold standard in pandemic management.
In any case, the feared stitch-up wasn’t in. That emerged very quickly in the virtual room on Friday.
It was also clear that Morrison and Berejiklian had spoken before the national cabinet meeting – which begged the question why would the premier go out so hard and so publicly on a battle she would ultimately lose? Berejiklian’s public positioning on Friday is mildly imponderable, given it is generally considered best for politicians to pick fights they know they can win.
But the political risk Morrison had to manage on Friday was abundantly clear. Morrison could not be seen to be “the prime minister for NSW”.
Andrews, who gives as good as he gets, had pinned that pithy label prominently on Morrison’s chest earlier this month after the prime minister was looking like he might be more helpful to Berejiklian, and the people of his home state, than he had been to Andrews, and the people of Victoria, during their lockdowns.
Morrison, nou dadelik, is battling the most substantial political headwinds he has faced since the prime minister was seen to fail in managing Australia’s catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20. The government is weathering a serious public backlash about the “strollout” – the suboptimal rollout of the mass vaccination program. Australians are angry and deeply anxious, and they don’t know if the worst is yet to come.
When the country is a tinderbox, mired in a crisis without an obvious endpoint, the prime minister can’t pick sides, or winners, or favourites, or friends.
He doesn’t have the political capital. Andrews probably could have told Berejiklian that. Perhaps she didn’t think to ask.