Sydney – The viral ad begins with a man repainting a towering concrete barrier. “Today marks 10 years since our once united nation was divided by the Great State Walls,” a TV presenter announces.
The year is 2031, and for reasons unnamed but assumed to be the coronavirus, Australia’s states and territories have gotten used to being cut off from each other. At one point, a young girl in New South Wales stares at the wall with scared eyes and asks her mother what’s on the other side.
“They’re called Queenslanders,” she says.
The ad, released this week by Meat and Livestock Australia, is intended to show the unifying powers of a good lamb chop (one is eventually passed through a crack in the wall). It has punched a nerve and provided a needed laugh, as Australia’s states and territories seem to be disowning each other, wielding hair-trigger border closures that lock out both the coronavirus and fellow Australians.
No democratic country in the world — especially no nation with fewer than 30,000 cases since the pandemic started — has gone quite so far in restricting movement across its own cities and regions to keep the contagion in check. Italy has at times restricted travel between its north and south. California, Connecticut, New York and some other U.S. states have tried to roll out restrictions on domestic arrivals.
But for most Australians, interstate travel has been off-limits for much of the past year, unless the person gets a government exemption and pays for 14 days in hotel quarantine. Fines and the threat of jail time have become standard. And just when things started to ease, a small outbreak in Sydney last month led to another clampdown, which has kept families apart, created huge traffic jams and generally exasperated a country of 25 million people who really love to wander during the holidays and peak summer months.
The hard borders began early in the pandemic with uniform closures — all states shuttered to all others. More recently, after the virus was suppressed nationwide but started popping up again here and there, the restrictions have become a messy patchwork. Some state leaders seem to be trying to outdo each other with new rules, and harsh words tinged with bravado have been exchanged after missteps on the other side of state lines.
Especially for people who live in major cities — which states, when a few cases emerge, label “hot spots” with the speed and sanctimony of a fire-and-brimstone preacher — it’s starting to look as if that lamb ad is not so far from reality.
“We were trying for comedic diversion, but the best comedy has its roots in truth,” said Scott Nowell, co-founder and chief creative officer of the advertising firm The Monkeys, which produced the commercial. “Right now people can just about believe that what’s there could happen, which is just crazy.”
The reasons for Australia’s state divisions during the pandemic are based in both science and politics, and the public’s response reflects not just the present but also the country’s history.
Australia is relatively new at nationhood. Its six original British colonies agreed to become a federation only in 1901, and even then, it was not easy persuading the widely dispersed areas to join forces.
In his comments before Parliament celebrating a century of federation 20 years ago, historian Geoffrey Blainey explained that Alfred Deakin, who went on to serve as prime minister, once declared that the union had only “been secured by a series of miracles.”
Each state covered an enormous expanse of land — Western Australia alone is nearly the size of India — and their leaders were not eager to give power or tax revenue to a central government. Uniform national taxation didn’t happen until 1942, a year of war, and it was intended to be only a temporary loss for the states.
“Federalism is an untidy arrangement,” Blainey said in an interview. “You divide the powers, and you can never do it perfectly.”
Australia’s state governments have always been relatively interventionist. When the first colony, New South Wales, was established in the 18th century, it provided a whole range of services — from water to care for orphans — that were handled by churches or private organizations in Europe and the United States. A quiet appreciation and trust in government became the norm. When the Spanish flu arrived, few Australians complained about the state lockdowns that quickly followed.
“What we’re doing now isn’t new,” David Hunt, author of “Girt: The Unauthorized History of Australia,” said. “In 1919, face masks were mandated. Borders were shut. Children were taken out of schools.”
But those measures faded in about three months. Blainey, 90, said Australians have never had to spend so long cooped up in the states where they live.
And how have they responded?
“I’ve been surprised by how obedient they’ve been,” he said.
Polls show that support for the state restrictions has generally remained high, with the public ready to accept measures that have helped Australia avoid the disasters that have struck the United States and Europe. Inside individual states, the harsher the approach with outsiders, the more love leaders generally enjoy.
In Western Australia, which has a long history of flirting with secession, Premier Mark McGowan, its top official, had an approval rating of 89% a few months ago after going further than any other leader with restrictions and rhetoric suggesting that Australians from other states were diseased threats to stability. He is expected to be re-elected in a landslide in March.
Other premiers have experienced similar boosts based on muscular parochialism — even though Australians were movers before the pandemic.
About 40% of the country’s population changed addresses in the past five years, according to demographic data, more than double the global average (and roughly in line with patterns in the United States). Despite the nation’s vast size, it’s hard to find an Australian who doesn’t have a relative across state lines, and some of the most intense disputes over the state restrictions have involved funerals that loved ones could not attend.
Even those who try to laugh at the situation have cause for complaint. Nowell, who lives in Sydney, said his father is in hospital just over the border in Queensland, which means he still cannot visit him even though officials have contained the Sydney cluster.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has done little to intervene in such situations. But as the new ad’s popularity suggests, the demands for more clarity and national leadership are growing. Perhaps it’s fatigue. Perhaps it is because the restrictions themselves keep mutating, sometimes with unintended consequences.
This week, for example, the state of Victoria established a permit and traffic light system for people from New South Wales, including those coming from areas without infections, causing huge traffic jams at checkpoints and complaints from politicians on both sides.
“We are seeing warring between the state premiers,” said Kevin Mack, mayor of Albury, a town in New South Wales on the Victoria border.
“The community is getting sick of this political spat that they are having,” he added. “We just want this thing over and done with.”
That is, of course, how a lot of Australians feel about the virus as well as the restrictions.
Nowell said his own effort to imagine a nation unified by meat, or just laughing at itself, was really an attempt to cope with the seriousness of the situation — and to remember that, despite the divisions, Australians are still more together than apart.
“There is this sense of trust underneath it all, underneath our banter,” he said. “You just throw your arms up — not everything makes sense, and you just have to be comfortable with that.”
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