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Morrison versus the states on COVID-19 hotspots

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison is poised to strike on coronavirus hotspot definition (Image by Dan Jensen)

If the states fail to agree on a COVID-19 hotspot definition,  Scott Morrison will strike, using their failure as his justification, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

Contesting the right of states to close borders as they see fit stirs some powerful emotions. The debate tends to bifurcate into two factions, broadly representing those who put health first and those who prioritise the economy.

As with any border, there are those whose sense of belonging this containment nurtures and those who are inevitably othered by its existence.

Perhaps the most powerful current confirmation of this painful split came from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk when she recently declared:

"People living in NSW, they have NSW hospitals. In Queensland, we have Queensland hospitals for our people.”

This is a chilling observation and one that indicates a direction nobody should want to take. The idea that a state should only allow “our people” access to medical treatment is viscerally disturbing. Palaszczuk has since defended her statement. This is but one example of how fraught border closure decisions can become, particularly for the border communities who are most seriously impacted.

At the next meeting of the National Cabinet on Friday (4 September), state and territory leaders will be urged by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to come to an agreement on the criteria for determining which areas are COVID-19 hotspots.

The PM has signalled his intention to establish a national definition with or without agreement from the states.

There is as yet no clinical definition of the term "hotspot", with Queensland imposing arbitrary bans on areas designated as such by the state’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Jennifer Young. Currently, all of NSW is declared a hotspot by Queensland, as well as the ACT, despite the latter having reported no new infections for 50 days and despite the majority of NSW cases being confined to Sydney and its surrounds.

It’s discouraging to realise that nine months into the pandemic, politicians have yet to provide us with this fundamental tool for managing the virus. Yet, here we are.

At the moment, it is unstated whether or not the Federal Government has the power to overrule states on the hotspot definition. Considering that Morrison’s goal is to open up borders as quickly as possible, it’s likely that the Federal criteria will be less stringent than that of most of the states. And if this is the case, does the Federal Government have the authority to impose its own definition and force states to open up?

On 18 March, the Governor-General declared that a human biosecurity emergency exists in Australia due to COVID-19 and for the first time expansive powers under the Biosecurity Act were accorded to the Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt. The declaration and enforcement of areas as COVID-19 hotspots by the Health Minister appear to be within the scope of these powers. This would grant the Morrison Government the power to overrule any state or territory definition and the ability to control border closures, despite the wishes of a state.

Morrison is absolutely committed to the lifting of travel restrictions between states, to the degree that his Government initially backed businessman Clive Palmer's challenge to the West Australian Government’s lockdown. The Morrison Government’s challenge was withdrawn, apparently when it became evident how popular the hard border is in Western Australia. Having lost his case in the Federal Court, Mr Palmer has now progressed to the High Court and the matter will be heard possibly as early as October. Should the court find in Mr Palmer’s favour, this will have implications for all border closures. It will also embolden the Morrison Government in its efforts to open up.

We are looking at two serious lunges for power by Morrison over the states’ ability to control their own borders. Thus far, Morrison has been thwarted by opinion polls that show he is on the wrong side in this fight. Overwhelmingly, voters support state premiers in their right to determine who may and may not cross their borders. However, there may be no way to prevent the Federal Government assuming control under the expansive powers of the Biosecurity Act.

It would be an act of reckless self-harm should Morrison decide to exercise this power at the moment, in the face of overwhelming resistance. However, the concern must be that this power over the states will be available to a federal government to use at will in a situation such as that we are currently experiencing if Morrison succeeds in imposing a national definition of COVID-19 hotspots — as is his expressed intention.

It is entirely up to the states to co-operatively and sensibly agree on the definition of a hotspot. If they fail to do this, Morrison will at some point strike, using their failure as his justification. This is not the time to retreat into parochialism. It is not the time to play a state-based version of identity politics. It is not the time to wage a war between those who belong in a geographical region arbitrarily determined by man-made borders, and those who do not.

If premiers continue to do this, Morrison will take control. They will then have nobody to blame but themselves if they find their authority and their right to control their own borders usurped by an opportunistic Prime Minister, greedy for power and the chance it gives him to further his own agenda.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep. 

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