Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison backtracks on WA border closure

Scott Morrison keeps misreading the mood of a nation gripped by fear. Nowhere is this more obvious than his now-abandoned legal case against state border closures – or, to be more precise, against the lockouts in the Labor-governed states of Western Australia and Queensland. The Liberal-governed states of Tasmania and South Australia escaped his censure.

When you look closely at what happened, it is hard not to conclude that Morrison’s changed position is a cynical one. Especially when you consider that the most grateful response to the news in Perth’s Sunday Times last weekend – that the “PM pulls out of border battle” – was from billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer is the very person the backdown was supposed to leave in the lurch, having started the legal action before being joined by the Commonwealth.

Palmer “thanked” Scott Morrison, according to The Australian, for contributing to his court bid to dismantle the state’s hard Covid-19 border. His gratitude is not misplaced. Legal observers say the Commonwealth solicitor-general, Stephen Donaghue, had to pick up the shattered remnants of the Palmer team’s efforts – to give the case a respectability it appeared to have lost. It is going forward in much better shape.

What forced the prime minister to leave the court action, after ignoring pleas for weeks from his own MPs, was a hard-hitting campaign in Perth’s only major daily, The West Australian. The state’s attorney-general, John Quigley, was fed up with his federal counterpart, Christian Porter, who claimed that the Commonwealth was not supporting Palmer in the court. Quigley told the newspaper that Western Australia would have already won the case against Palmer were it not for Porter’s intervention. Polls in the west were suggesting 96 per cent of the state’s citizens supported the border closure.

Quigley was playing to a political strength when he said it was “disgraceful” the only witnesses in court who supported the border being reopened were those called by the federal government. The state minister accused Porter of being disingenuous and pointed to the notice of intervention on June 12, where the Commonwealth was appearing for the plaintiff, namely Palmer.

On Friday night an angry Porter texted Quigley and taunted him that he was on the losing side. Unbeknown to Porter was the fact his own prime minister was about to back out of the case, plotting his tactical withdrawal in a letter to Premier Mark McGowan. It was duly sent to the media on Saturday. Morrison attempted to distance himself from Palmer’s “private interest” and claimed he was doing no more than taking his “constitutional responsibilities seriously” in defending “established conventions”.

Whatever those established conventions were, they weren’t shared widely in the federation. On the day the letter was emailed to McGowan, The West Australian produced court documents showing Porter was the only attorney-general in the country supporting Palmer. The Liberal states of South Australia and Tasmania joined the Labor administrations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, while Victoria intervened without advocating a position. New South Wales made no intervention.

The High Court is now waiting for the Federal Court to advise it on the facts of the case. Justice Darryl Rangiah is yet to publish his findings. The Australian reported constitutional expert Anne Twomey’s view that “Mr Morrison’s move was political and would not stop Commonwealth evidence playing a role in the ultimate decision on Mr Palmer’s bid”. On Thursday the WA government applied to the Federal Court to “vacate” the current Palmer‑Commonwealth case and set a new trial without the federal government and its witnesses. Attorney-General Porter declined to support this move as the Commonwealth had now withdrawn. He is leaving it to the court to decide without his help.

In a complete departure from evidence led in the court, the Morrison letter sums up the parlous situation and the well-founded anxiety in WA. Morrison told the premier he accepts “that recent events in the eastern states, especially Victoria, are creating real concerns to residents in other states less impacted. I do not wish to see these concerns further exacerbated in Western Australia.”

But at his news conference in Canberra late on Monday, the prime minister brushed aside a question from The West Australian’s Lanai Scarr, who asked: “Given the devastating situation in Victoria, do you concede that it is correct for the WA border to remain closed?” Morrison said he had nothing to add beyond his letter to the premier.

The other target of Morrison’s “open the borders” campaign of the past three months, Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk, slammed shut her state again midweek, banning entry from the whole of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory. Victoria and Greater Sydney were already on the proscribed list. The premier’s opponents joined Morrison in attacking her “anti-business” closure two months ago, but now they are saying she’s not tough enough. Palaszczuk said, “Victoria is not getting better, and we’re not going to wait for New South Wales to get worse.”

Victoria’s Wednesday death toll of 15, the highest daily result, with 725 new infections, certainly makes Palmer’s High Court challenge and the Morrison government’s support of it look dangerously contrarian.

Running almost parallel to the border closure farrago is the resistance to paid pandemic leave. Back in March, the ACTU called for a payment of two weeks’ paid leave for all workers “permanent, casual and contract” who are forced to self-isolate as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was ignored. On Monday, the unions joined the Business Council of Australia in writing to the government “to move quickly to introduce a paid pandemic leave scheme”. They reminded the government that whatever other causes of the outbreak – such as bungled hotel quarantine or overwhelmed community tracing – sick people going to work was also a factor.

As in aged care, the virus has magnified the vulnerability of yet another sector of the economy directly in the bailiwick of the federal government. Insecure work, with millions either having exhausted their sick pay or not being eligible for it because they work one or two or even more casual jobs, has created a lethal risk for everybody. It goes a long way to explaining why 800 of the people who were supposed to be self-isolating on Tuesday were not home when officials checked. But it is as if this reality is news to the Morrison government.

Late on Monday, at a hastily called news conference, Morrison announced that the cabinet’s expenditure review committee had been working all day to come up with a disaster pandemic payment targeted only to Victorians. It really appeared that no forethought had been given to this eventuality. More likely, the attachment to deregulated labour markets was one shibboleth the government really didn’t want to let go.

The $1500 payment, to cover a 14-day self-isolation, was welcomed by the ACTU. But its secretary, Sally McManus, said it doesn’t go far enough to address “the hole in our Covid-19 defences”. The payment is the minimum wage and about half the average wage, McManus pointed out, which means that “nearly all full-time workers who are forced to rely on it will take a pay cut while they isolate”. In other words, the motivation for going to work while sick has hardly been reduced.

After insisting the payment was for the Victorian disaster only, Morrison changed tack on Wednesday. He said if other states or territories want a similar arrangement to Victoria he would be “pleased to do it”. This was grudging acknowledgement that the potential for this “disaster” is not confined to one state, because insecure work is everywhere.

While the federal government demurs on a universal pandemic payment, certainly at full replacement levels, the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund are again urging the government to spend more. Victorian Labor MP Josh Burns is not alone in expressing frustration that the Morrison government is reluctant to do all the things that need to be done after the opposition “has given them the space to do it”.

Morrison has been collecting brownie points for every major rethink he makes. Surely this is because people are relieved that he has come to his senses and finally got it. His fight against border closures and his rejection of pandemic leave are just two examples. The more of these climb-downs he makes, the more it appears he is being dragged towards the decisions he is taking – the ones that are holding the country together in this crisis.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "On the border between life and death".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.