December 17, 2021

State politics

Family’s grief compounded by WA’s hard border

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan earlier this week announcing the state will reopen its border to the rest of the country on February 5, after almost two years of border closures. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

WA Premier Mark McGowan earlier this week announced the state will reopen its border to the rest of the country on February 5, after almost two years of border closures. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

The awful predicament of a Melbourne family unable to bring home their son’s body shows the callousness of WA’s border policy

At 10pm on a Sunday evening last month, there was a knock on the door of Katie Grace’s home, in Melbourne’s suburbs. Standing there were two young, grave-faced police officers. As happens, Katie’s thoughts went immediately to the child not with her – Jordan, just days shy of his 21st birthday, who had moved to Perth in February on a semi-professional rugby contract. Had he been in an accident? A fight?

“Is it Jordan?” she asked.

The police officers nodded, then asked if they could come in.

“What’s happened?” she demanded.

“He’s deceased.”

Katie’s teenage daughter screamed, and her husband, Steve, rushed from the bedroom.

“How?” Katie asked.

“Are you sure you want us to tell you?” Katie remembers them saying. She said yes, and they told her.

“They told me that he’d been in contact with police two days before his death, and they gave me a number for the WA Coroner,” Katie told me this week. “They couldn’t tell us anything more. And then they asked if I wanted them to stay. ‘Why?’ I asked them, and they said ‘Well, sometimes people like us to stay.’ I told them they could go.”

Together the family wept and trembled and desperately wondered if a terrible mistake hadn’t been made. It’s almost impossible to describe the anguish of Katie and her family. Almost impossible to do so precisely – or even at all – without the obscuring gloss of cliché. It’s best that I just ask you to try and imagine it.

No one in the Grace household slept that night, and because of the time difference they had to wait until midday the next day before they started their anxious inquiries with Western Australian authorities. They’d emailed their application to fly to WA to identify their son’s body and personally reclaim his items from his house. They also intensely desired to be physically close to their child’s body.

“I just wanted to get over there and be with him,” Katie says.

The Graces made clear their circumstances in their application for entry to Western Australia. They also made clear that they need only visit two places: the morgue and Jordan’s house. “We could even have had just one night there; we didn’t want to sight-see,” Katie says.

Then Steve Grace took a call from WA Police regarding their application. They could come, Steve was told, but they would have to submit to two weeks of hotel quarantine first. Again, Steve explained the circumstances. But the authorities wouldn’t budge. If the grieving parents didn’t submit to those two weeks, they couldn’t come.

Katie and Steve Grace are both fully vaccinated. They would have been entering a state that was then very close to achieving an 80 per cent vaccination rate for the eligible population. They would also have submitted to a COVID-19 test before leaving Melbourne; they would have submitted to another in Perth. They could have been chaperoned by vaccinated police to the morgue; and then to their dead son’s apartment. But none of this was an option.

It should have been.

At a recent press conference, WA Premier Mark McGowan was asked about the Graces plight – and other extreme cases of inflexibility. He offered no apology, but plenty of weasel words. “The issues couldn’t be worked through,” he said. “There’s been effort to try and sort out the situation but the issues that were there, which I don’t know, were obviously insurmountable,” he said.

“I am sympathetic to all these cases, sympathetic to everyone and every single case, they’re all very difficult and the police manage this according to pretty strict protocols … We’ve gotten through the last two years by doing difficult things in difficult circumstances.”

McGowan’s words were salt poured upon a very deep wound. “His sympathy means shit to me,” Katie says. “We’re just another number. No compassion has been shown whatsoever.

“And [McGowan] was making shit up. ‘The issues there,’ he says. What issues? What we needed was clear. WA Police rang my husband [and] we had made everything very clear – only the morgue and his house, we said – and they said you have to hotel quarantine. We said no. So they said ‘Well, your application is denied.’”

Katie and Steve never left Melbourne, understandably, and Jordan’s body was repatriated to them after a fortnight. He was recently buried. Having busily fulfilled the logistical duties of death – arranging the release and flight of the body, and then the funeral arrangements – Katie tells me that the absence of purposeful work means they’re left now with the cold, immovable fact of his death. “We’ve been so busy, and only now…” Katie can’t finish her thought. “It’s really, really tough. We’re still trying to process it. We still can’t believe it. We hadn’t seen him since February. It’s hard to believe we won’t see him again. Losing a child this way.”

Their treatment has been obscene.  

I assume that Mark McGowan is convinced of the virtue of his government’s policies, and of his own rectitude in upholding them. As I assume that McGowan believes that compassionate exemptions are the thin edge of the wedge, an indulgent fancy that would destructively seed the virus. That is, I assume he’s come to accept his own spin: he’s a leader of Churchillian gumption, and not sufficiently vain to yield to a few sob stories and risk the health of the whole state.

That’s typically how our minds work – they uphold the wisdom of our contestable decisions, and this is especially true for political leaders who have polls, egos and sycophantic advisers to help ratify them. In McGowan’s case, he’s also enjoyed the reinforcement of a historic re-election, and the fact of a state largely untouched by the virus.  

This aggressive binary – that either the borders are militantly shut or they’re recklessly open – is reductive horseshit, especially with our current national vaccination rates, but it’s the sort of politically effective theatre of toughness that has defined our international borders in the past two decades.

Additionally, this narrow definition of “success” in handling the pandemic – which is effectively COVID-zero even when the nation is at least 90 per cent vaccinated – is crudely annihilating, in that it ignores all other definitions of success (including, for example, more expansive definitions, such as humanely proportionate responses that allow for very low-risk but high-value exemptions).

Are we, as citizens of one of the most prosperous countries on Earth, two years into the pandemic and with one of the highest global vaccination rates, asked to believe that the Graces proposal was terribly risky? Really?

Just in case you were still tempted to applaud McGowan’s steel-like nerve, recall that in April last year – when no one was vaccinated – billionaire media mogul Kerry Stokes was exempted from WA’s hotel quarantine system after returning from Colorado’s ski fields. So was multi-millionaire hedge fund manager Hilton Nathanson this August.   

Only last week, the Victorian Ombudsman released her report on the Victorian Department of Health’s exemption scheme for the government’s border closure to NSW. “Ombudsman Deborah Glass did not criticise the decision to close the border,” the report said. “The decision referred to public health advice, considered the human rights implications, and allowed for the exercise of discretion. But while discretion to approve exemptions was available, it was exercised narrowly, and most applications did not even reach a decision-maker.”

Note that Glass didn’t condemn the border policy itself or deny the need, at the time, for severely regulating movement. And nor do I. But Glass’s criticism can surely be applied in spirit to WA’s policy. Let me extensively quote Glass:

While we did not review all decisions and I do not suggest that all were unfair, the overwhelming majority of applications did not get to a decision-maker at all, and the guidance did not change even as case numbers in Victoria grew and the risks evolved. The consequences of that were vast, and unfair, for many thousands of people stuck across the border.

The result was some of the most questionable decisions I have seen in my over seven years as Ombudsman … The effect of a complex and constrained bureaucracy meant some outcomes were downright unjust, even inhumane. People felt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare.

It appeared to me that the Department put significant resources into keeping people out rather than helping them find safe ways to get home.

This resulted in a woman’s long estrangement from her sister, who was intellectually disabled and whose 86-year-old mother was struggling to care for her. It resulted in farmers being estranged from their livestock, whom they feared would starve. It resulted in countless missed funerals, and deathbed goodbyes.    

I look forward to the equivalent report from WA.

It should not be that a militantly inflexible policy that deprives people of liberties is only upheld by political popularity or rhetoric. If extraordinary deprivations are required – and I accept that they have been – then it is upon the government to properly fund and resource a bureaucracy that can humanely maintain that system, and adapt it when circumstances change.

This hasn’t happened in Western Australia, because it’s infinitely easier to appeal to fear and parochial fervour than it is to properly fund and modify bureaucratic systems so that they can function more precisely, humanely and proportionately.

Similarly, it’s easier to point to WA’s famously low infection rates and argue, ipso facto, that it’s due to every single government policy – i.e. remove or modify just one, and you risk everything. Any counterfactual to this cynically blunt assertion is haughtily dismissed by McGowan. And McGowan can afford to be haughty because the large majority of West Australians love it.

And before various tabloid journalists excitedly share this piece because it condemns a Labor leader, one issue here is the successively hollowed out health systems we had pre-pandemic, a diminishment made in part by political fear of the witless tabloid pantomime that villainises deficits and bureaucracies. Australia would never have repelled this virus, and we were in better shape than most, but we weren’t as prepared as we could have been. And part of the reason for that is how toxic we’ve made the very idea of public expenditure and investment in this country. Note to debt-and-deficit columnists: our health systems were always more complex than hospital wait times.

This pandemic has been the mother of instructors. But nothing tells me that we’ve learnt anything. In fact, Morrison is effectively formalising our ignorance – and hoping for our amnesia – by making it his de facto campaign pledge: Let’s return to the way things were.

At some point in the past two years, our fear became disproportionate and our parochialism callous. The pandemic has made us narrower and uglier. In June, regarding Scott Morrison’s quickly abandoned and possibly illegal denial of entry to Australian residents returning from India, I wrote: “These aren’t the words of governments confident in their ability to quarantine small numbers of their citizens more than a year after the pandemic’s outbreak, but the words of governments confident in the manipulable abundance of our fear and vindictiveness. That trusts citizens to ignore government failures and instead train our scepticism upon each other – and then to treat things like mourning and homecoming as reckless indulgences.”

The same holds today, and it will hold for a long time. This virus has accentuated so many of our individual and social flaws but I doubt any government has the humility and imagination to see them, much less reckon with their consequences.


Lifeline: 13 11 14

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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