National Cabinet fractures

There is a serious split in the national cabinet manifest in the current border wars. It has been apparent for a few weeks now but the decisions by a number of states to deny Victorians (or some of them) access through their re-opened borders has brought it to a head.

Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszcuk, has been the main target. Despite public pressure from Prime Minister Scott Morrison she refused to deviate from the plan she announced more than a month ago. This was to close Queensland’s borders until at least the end of June when the government would consider whether it would re-open the borders on 10 July.

She came under fire not only from Mr Morrison but also from within the State where the Opposition Leader, Deb Frecklington, urged that the State be re-opened immediately. Mrs Frecklington had the support of many in the tourist industry – and she was anxious to capitalise on a policy difference with the Premier hoping to win wider public support with the State election due in October.

Ms Palaszcuk refused to budge, insisting that her stance was based on the advice of Queensland’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young. She also pointed out that other states – South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia – had maintained their border restrictions.

In Queensland, the borders will open (from July 10) to all except Victorians. Anyone (including Queenslanders) coming from Victoria will be required to undergo 14-days of self-funded, supervised quarantine in a hotel.

On Wednesday, for the first time, Ms Palaszcuk responded to her critics, who include several Federal Ministers as well as the Prime Minister. She said the border wars should stop and ‘frankly, I’m a bit sick that Queensland has been singled out as opposed to South Australia and Tasmania… I support the national cabinet but what I don’t support is people being friendly inside those walls and then sending out others to do their dirty work. At the moment, what we have is a bit of confrontation where fights are being picked at different states and, frankly, I don’t think it’s good enough.’

And she added, ‘I think a national leader should have been able to bring all of the states and territories together.’

To which the Prime Minister responded that there would be more outbreaks and hot spots but ‘you just can’t shut Australia up every time there’s an outbreak. We need to ensure our economy builds back with confidence and resilience,’ he said. ‘We can’t let us hold us back, and we can’t go stop-start with those things.’

This exchange highlights a fundamental division in the national cabinet. The Premiers and Chief Ministers are still primarily concerned with health and safety issues, reliant on their own health advisors. The Prime Minister has moved on: his only concern now is the economy, and how quickly it can be made to recover.

But he can’t over-ride the Premiers and Chief Ministers on health and safety. They will shut down their jurisdictions if ever, whenever, there is an outbreak of sufficient concern, just as the Victorian Premier is now doing. The brakes are on in Victoria for at least two infection cycles – up to four weeks. Every other Premier would do the same if faced with a similar outbreak. They can’t and won’t avoid ‘stop-start’ if that happens.

But Mr Morrison doesn’t accept the practicality of ‘stop-start’ and shutting Australia up every time there’s an outbreak. However, in these health issues, the Premiers and Chief Ministers are running the show.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is showing us that so far as the economy is concerned partisan politics is driving his show. For example, what’s the logic of this:

The Federal Government was prepared to spend $130 billion between March and September so that employers could retain workers (for whom there was no work) during the coronavirus crisis. But it is not willing to reverse a budget decision made two years ago to slash $83.7 million from the ABC’s 3-year funding beginning in 2019-20. The result? The ABC has to sack 250 employees.

The Government is willing to provide some funding to assist commercial media in regional Australia (which was in trouble long before the virus hit) but not the ABC.

Then there are the universities. Over the years they have been encouraged (in part through underfunding by the Commonwealth) to rely on selling educational services to overseas students. Come the coronavirus crisis the Commonwealth refused to help those students or the academics who teach them. Now it has decided to try to force students into STEM courses and away from the humanities by changing the funding model (but not increasing funding).

I suppose it is logical if your aim is to dumb down the populace and win the plaudits (and votes) of Pauline Hanson. Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party who counted his promotion of the fortunes and academic freedom of universities as one his two most significant political achievements, would be appalled.

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David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.

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