On the eve of National Cabinet, where has all the unity gone?

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Cracks in the National Cabinet appear to be deepening, especially across the Nullarbor in Western Australia.

The latest fracture, in what had previously been celebrated as a new approach to state and federal cooperation, comes over the Commonwealth’s decision to boost the number of stranded Australians allowed back home.

“No phone call, no contact, no nothing,” an irate Premier Mark McGowan said yesterday.

“To ambush the state of Western Australia like this — and I find out in the middle of a press conference — is not the way to conduct these issues.”

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack yesterday announced he had written to state and territory leaders requesting the cap on international arrivals of 4,000 people per week be raised to 6,000.

WA Premier Mark McGowan wearing a dark blue suit and tie in front of blue curtains and an Australian flag.
WA Premier Mark McGowan says the states can’t be treated as though they are children to be bossed around.(ABC News: Benjamin Gubana)

According to the WA Premier, leaders in the Liberal-held states of NSW and South Australia were contacted in advance and approved the plan.

But it was news to Mr McGowan, the popular Labor leader in WA, which has an election due in March.

When asked whether WA would take on the extra 500 people requested by Mr McCormack, Mr McGowan said he had not seen the letter, and the approach had made him “very, very, very angry”.

Mr McGowan’s deputy Roger Cook even called for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “call his dogs off” in the growing spat.

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It is language and rhetoric punters were used to being thrown between the states and Canberra before the pandemic stopped it, seemingly temporarily, in its tracks.

WA recently made a choice to sit outside at least one tent when it rejected a national plan to reopen the country’s interstate borders by Christmas, deciding instead to go its own way.

And Prime Minister Scott Morrison is eager for the country’s interstate borders to lift — so it’s likely WA’s desire to keep its borders firmly closed is testing his patience.

“Not everyone has to get on the bus for the bus to leave the station,” Mr Morrison said at the time.

“But it is important the bus leaves the station.”

Queensland — another Labor state — has similarly felt the sting of Canberra and other state and territory leaders’ disappointment, with leader Annastacia Palaszczuk speaking of the “relentless” pressure she came under to relax border restrictions with NSW earlier this month.

State or Commonwealth — who is responsible for overseas Aussies?

The Federal Government has essentially pre-empted National Cabinet before it sits tomorrow by insisting the current caps be raised.

Queensland has agreed in-principal to increasing its intake of returning Australians into its quarantine system, but Health Minister Steven Miles told reporters he wanted the Federal Government to take more responsibility for the cost and management of hotel quarantine.

Mr McGowan said he agreed at the last meeting of National Cabinet to work with the Commonwealth on increasing the arrival cap.

Two ADF personnel wearing face masks stand near the entrance to the Westin Hotel in Perth.
Mark McGowan is worried Perth’s hotel quarantine system will not be able to cope with an increase in international arrivals.(ABC News: James Carmody)

But he does not want those arrivals sent into the state-managed hotel quarantine system, which he said was at capacity and could lead to a coronavirus outbreak if put under more pressure.

“The problem with doing more hotel quarantine is you run the risk of security making mistakes, you make the risks of there being failures in the system,” Mr McGowan said yesterday.

The Premier wants the Commonwealth to use its federally-run facilities, like defence barracks or detention centres, to quarantine the arrivals instead.

PM says decision has been made for states already

Those ideas have been shut down by the Federal Government, but it is not yet clear if it would consider Rottnest Island, which was also suggested by the Premier as an alternative quarantine option.

But it’s clear the bus may have already left the station when it comes to taking on the extra arrivals, regardless of WA’s hesitation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and WA must accept more Australians flying home from next Friday.

“The planes will land with people on them and they will be arriving,” Mr Morrison said.

People packing their luggage on a plane, wearing masks
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says more Australians will be allowed to return home, regardless of the states’ views.(ABC News: Rachel Pupazzoni)

Mr Morrison said the cap was originally put in place to take the heat off hotel quarantine, but the Commonwealth had done a review of the system — not publicly available — and it was time for them to be lifted.

“We’ve got ADF people in Western Australia and Queensland and New South Wales and other places, so now is the time,” Mr Morrison said on Sunrise today.

“We’ve got to start taking those caps off again … two weeks ago at National Cabinet we all agreed we had to get on with this and so we are.”

The goodwill generated through the new cabinet process appears to have well and truly dissipated.

“We are not children for them (Canberra) to boss around,” Mr McGowan said today.

“Saying they’re just going to fly people in and dump them on our doorstep is not the way to conduct these matters.”


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