Friday, February 5, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

It’s the constitution
Labor pushes federal responsibility

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking after today’s national cabinet meeting

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking after today’s national cabinet meeting. Image via ABC News

Today’s national cabinet meeting was big, with the premiers pushing for greater federal responsibility for international quarantine, and the prime minister pushing for increased caps on arrivals – a “showdown” the media called it, well before the meeting even took place. With recent breaches in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria revealing the contagiousness of the UK variant of COVID-19, the premiers wanted an overhaul of the quarantine system, and they wanted Prime Minister Scott Morrison to take it on. In advance of the meeting, Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles told The Australian it was “time for the federal government to contribute” to the program, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan called for the Morrison government to take control, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he wanted to talk about ­“bespoke” facilities. But Morrison was already primed to reject these calls, saying yesterday that the state hotels remained “the most effective way to deliver at the scale that Australia needs”. 

So, what was the outcome of the virtual meet-up, and who won the “showdown”? Morrison got his way on caps, announcing in a press conference soon after that numbers were going up: New South Wales and Queensland will lift their previous intake levels from February 15, having halved them in early January, while Victoria and South Australia will increase caps to 1310 and 530 respectively (Western Australia remains a work in progress). He also appears to have got his way on who handles those caps, announcing, once again, that hotel quarantine remains the “primary system” of running quarantine in Australia: “The states run hotel quarantine.” Morrison did, however, allow that the Commonwealth’s intake would go up too, with the capacity of the Howard Springs facility to be more than doubled to 850, and consideration of the proposal in Toowoomba ongoing. There were no “fireworks” at the meeting, he added. “I mean, honestly, we’re professional leaders of governments.” 

On closer inspection, what united those calling for federal oversight wasn’t their premiership – it was their party. In an interview with the ABC’s News Breakfast ahead of the meeting, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian distanced herself from her fellow premiers, saying she didn’t need more federal support and didn’t know what they were on about. “I’m not quite sure what they’re asking for,” she said. She also took some shots at them, telling Today that NSW liked to see “the facts and the science” before closing its border. “You don’t have to worry about being locked in or locked out – come to NSW,” she joked. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was not laughing, offering blunt advice on the same program later in the morning to those who would criticise Queensland, “Don’t come to Queensland.” It’s hard to imagine the meeting contained no fireworks.

The Queensland government doesn’t look likely to let go of this bone any time soon. Federal Labor leaders have also taken up the mantle, returning to the principle of the separation of powers to argue that quarantine is the Commonwealth’s responsibility, whether they act on it or not. In summary, it’s the constitution. Manager for Opposition Business Tony Burke referred to it on Sky News, while Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese brought out the yellow highlighter, emphasising “quarantine” on a copy of the constitution (that highlighter is getting a workout lately). In a post-cabinet press conference, Palaszczuk announced she would not let up, and would continue pushing for the federal government to take responsibility for hotel quarantine, also referencing the constitution.

But, for now, it seems these calls are going nowhere – no matter how many times Labor uses the C word – with no way to force the government to take it on. In the early days of the national cabinet, the premiers often got their way, forcing the prime minister’s hand on major decisions simply by acting decisively when he wouldn’t (arguably, that’s what got them into this burden-shouldering position). Unfortunately for them, they can’t win this one simply by announcing it. It probably doesn’t help that they’re no longer a united front. As Berejiklian’s comments show, party politics have well and truly returned to the national cabinet.

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“Uncle Arthur and Aunty Tanya Day would have lived longer lives if public drunkenness laws were abolished back then and if their health conditions weren’t dismissed simply because they were Aboriginal.”

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The list

“Not one second of the film is wasted, and every inclusion feels deliberate. The bubblegum colours of Cassandra’s daytime life contrast with the dark and grimy night-time world she chooses to occupy. Religious imagery is scattered throughout. Cassandra as a Christ figure. Cassandra standing against a background that forms a halo. Even her name carries with it an extra level of weight. The Cassandras of both Greek tragedy and Promising Young Woman are cursed to see the world as it truly is and yet not be believed when they speak out about it.”

“Central Myanmar, November 8, 2015. It was a bright morning, and we were at a school in Taunggyi, high on a mountain plateau in Shan State. There was a buzz of quiet expectation in the air. People were queuing patiently across the quadrangle and into the school hall. Two uniformed security guys kept their distance. There hadn’t been any disturbance since the polling booth opened first thing that morning. Against fearful expectations, Myanmar’s first real election in decades appeared to be proceeding without incident.”

“You play as Alex, a (deliberately genderless) television network employee who is suddenly thrust into the role of producing the live National Nightly News. You decide what you want the nation to see, and what shapes public opinion. It’s your job to mix four live camera feeds, select headlines and ads, bleep out swearwords, avoid signal interference and build audience numbers. Your ratings determine your wages – and yes, it’s that blatant.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



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