State parochialism spreads in COVID-19 era


In a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19, Australian states and territories shut each other out and opened themselves to a bout of parochialism instead.

With the pandemic reinforcing state government powers including over borders, local-mindedness has reached a post-World War II high, La Trobe University emeritus professor of politics Judith Brett believes.

“(Former federal treasurer) Peter Costello once called the states branch offices,” she tells AAP.

“People had been used to thinking about the federal government as taking the lead but what they were reminded of was that the states still have a lot of sovereign powers.”

The nation’s second prime minister Alfred Deakin would often conjure a map post-federation to emphasise that Victorians, South Australians or Tasmanians were now Australians, Brett says.

But with those geographic lines defining how Australians have lived their everyday lives for nearly two years, people are more aware of their state-based identities.

Nowhere have those differences been more pronounced than Western Australia and Victoria, the latter Australia’s most locked-down state.

Melbourne psychologist Chris Cheers believes the starkly contrasting lived experiences, by human nature, have turned Australians against each other.

“In times of stress, we tend to denigrate and stigmatise the ‘out-groups’ and that makes us feel more connected to our own groups and strengthens our identity,” he says.

“You hear it in the language. Often when people talk about Sydney or Queensland or WA, they are not talking about individual people in those cities and states.

“We’re clumping everyone together.”

Professor Martin Drum, a senior politics and international relations lecturer at Fremantle’s University of Notre Dame Australia, agrees COVID-19 exacerbated parochialism among Sandgropers, particularly the hard border.

“It both demonstrated and probably generated parochialism along the way,” he says.

WA’s geographic isolation, competition against other states over pandemic responses and separationist history also play a role.

As a colony, it was the last to join the federation and voted to secede in a 1933 referendum rejected by the Commonwealth.

In a survey of 1029 Australians published by the Centre of Independent Studies in August this year, 54 per cent of WA respondents saw themselves as West Australians first and foremost.

That compares to six per cent of people in NSW, 19 per cent in SA, 20 per cent in Victoria and 22 per cent in Queensland.

Cameron O’Donnell, a 30-year-old youth worker born and raised in Perth, thought of himself as West Australian second and Australian first before the pandemic.

But not anymore.

“That east-west rivalry has always been present,” O’Donnell says.

“But when you have the prime minister attacking our premier for the way we’re doing things, like with the ‘caveman’ comment, it certainly reaffirms that we’ve got to look after WA first.”

Drum notes Premier Mark McGowan’s at times “us-against-them” approach – taking aim at Canberra and often referring critics as those “out east” – has long been a staple of WA governments, as its people already saw themselves as different to the rest of Australia.

“If you tried that same tactic in NSW, it wouldn’t really work because people from NSW see themselves as Australians,” says the political analyst, who grew up in NSW before moving to WA.

Both Brett and Drum believe people won’t ever relinquish their state identities, although the latter is confident the recent reopening of borders in Queensland and Tasmania, plus WA in February next year, will help stem the sentiment.

“It will die down post-COVID but will never completely go away,” he says.

“Because of our isolation over here and distance, people will always see themselves as different.”