A couple of years ago at a pub, a notorious MP from the NSW Nationals Party joked to my friends and I that they had a policy to build a wall to keep the Victorians out of NSW. We laughed at the apparent absurdity of the idea, although I wasn’t completely sure that he was joking either. It wasn’t the first or last outlandish idea from the realm of Australian regional politics that I heard that night. As of two weeks ago however, this joke became a reality as hundreds of soldiers were stationed at the border to enforce the ban on non-essential travel from Victoria into NSW.
While it can be pointed out that the states and territories have had similar border closures, this one is different in two distinct ways. Firstly, the closing of the border is the first time in 100 years that Victoria and NSW have been shut off from one another. The only other VIC-NSW closure was in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic.
Secondly, the first round of border closures earlier this year seemed as close to a blanket national policy as independent decisions from states and territories can be. The states and territories were all facing a similar threat and the decision to close or limit border access was almost multilateral. This time, restrictions against Victorians are only tightening while other states are beginning to open to one another.
Victorians have quickly had to come to terms with the reality that they are now in the same position as foreigners entering Australia. Restriction of access to nearly all states and territories and two weeks of quarantine for individuals with permits are par for the course for Victorians. In some places, Victorians are also facing the same attitudes that foreigners occasionally face in Australia. Many Victorians, including myself, have seen others actively distance to a safe one and a half meters when we are asked where we are from.
This is a perfectly normal and justifiable reaction from states and individuals to the ongoing disaster in Victoria. As of the time of writing, cases have increased to an unexplainable 300+ cases a day and show no sign of decreasing. However, what the reactions do demonstrate is that the concepts of federalism and nationalism only go so far. Aside from questions surrounding the constitutionality of internal border closures, state populations in Australia have become more insular and group identity seems to have significantly shifted ‘state-wards’. This is no surprise, as COVID-policy is overwhelmingly the responsibility of the state and territory governments. The same trend that is seeing State Premiers such as Mark McGowan become rock stars is driving an identity shift away from federal nationalism.
When that notorious MP joked about a Trumpian wall at the border, I doubt that he could see past
the bottom of his schooner glass, let alone what the future held. The Victorian border affair represents just another shift in a long line of changing attitudes and conventions surrounding federalism in Australia. These changes are actively revealing Australian’s overlapping geopolitical identities and redefining what it really means to be Australian.