Leaders argue over which of them is “deviating from the national plan”
It’s another national cabinet Friday, which means another round of public comments from leaders about what they intend to discuss, as we wait for the prime minister to come forward and tell us very little about what really went down. In the lead-up to today’s tense meeting, leaders from both state and federal levels have been keen to make known their views on NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s calls for Australia to start “living with the virus”. As Berejiklian and a growing contingent of media supporters attempt to portray other premiers as fearful and unreasonable for still driving at zero COVID cases (while the country is not even half vaccinated), Labor premiers have hit back, suggesting it is Berejiklian who is being unreasonable, and reminding the public that the Doherty Institute’s reopening targets are predicated on low case numbers in the community. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, a new-ish player to the game of premier tit-for-tat, has taken the biggest swing at the idea, accusing Berejiklian of putting unvaccinated young people at risk and making decisions for the entire east coast, while WA premier Mark McGowan (an old hand at the game) has accused NSW of “deviating from the national plan”. After weeks of leaking against and criticising the NSW government, suggesting lockdowns, not vaccination, is the way out of this crisis, the federal government appears to have chosen a side, and it should come as no surprise that it’s that of the NSW Liberal state government. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been out and about, echoing the “live with COVID” message, saying that it’s a “fallacy” to pretend it can be permanently eliminated. (Barr attempts to make clear that premiers and chief ministers are not arguing that it can be.) Scott Morrison, meanwhile, used a pre-meeting press conference to warn premiers against breaking the “deal” they made with the Australian people to open up when we are 70–80 per cent vaccinated, regardless of case numbers. But who exactly is deviating from the plan here?
The federal government has chosen its position, and it appears to have been driven by its hip pocket, amid fears that the Commonwealth will have to keep forking out for restrictions if they go on beyond the end of this year. Frydenberg, clearly having learnt nothing about the political cost of trying to starve a state in lockdown, has begun warning that the Commonwealth tap will be turned off once those vaccination reopening quotas are met, with the treasurer lining up a range of media interviews to spruik the end of the age of intervention (again). “The state premiers should have no expectation that our Commonwealth assistance will continue in the scale that it has been to date,” he told Today. “We can’t live in lockdown forever.”
Morrison, who until very recently was hedging his bets on the NSW lockdown, insisting the state needed to focus on driving case numbers down before opening up, instead turned his ire at the Labor-led states, implying they were betraying the people of Australia by retaining their right to lockdown (despite the “plan” the premiers agreed to certainly allowing for it). “The national plan is a deal that says when we achieve those marks of 70 per cent and 80 per cent there will be changes,” he said. “The premiers and chief ministers have signed up to that plan and, they haven’t signed up with me, they’ve signed up with the Australian people.”
With the short-lived consensus around the Doherty Institute reopening plan having disintegrated, both sides are keen to portray the other as deviating from what was obviously not a particularly well agreed upon plan to begin with. Is it the NSW premier that has abandoned course, in losing control of an outbreak and forfeiting Australia’s hard-to-regain low case numbers? Or is it the Labor premiers, who are now refusing to guarantee freedom of interstate movement, even at the agreed-upon vaccination threshold? (The Liberal premier of Tasmania is also implicated, if the state’s peak tourism body gets its way.) Was there ever any real agreement from state and federal leaders that cases would be kept manageably low, something experts who helped develop the modelling say it is built around? Or was the “national deal”, as Morrison now insists, that states would unlock borders at 80 per cent, regardless of the case numbers? It seems unlikely, knowing the cautious, health-conscious state premiers, that such an agreement was struck (and we’re not likely to know until we finally start seeing some minutes out of national cabinet). But the prime minister, as usual, is going to make sure as much blame as possible for the fact that we clearly won’t be living restriction-free come Christmas falls onto other people’s shoulders.
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It’s another national cabinet Friday, which means another round of public comments from leaders about what they intend to discuss, as we wait for the prime minister to come forward and tell us very little about what really went down. In the lead-up to today’s tense meeting, leaders from both state and federal levels have been keen to make known their views on NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s calls for Australia to start “living with the virus”. As Berejiklian and a growing contingent of media supporters attempt to portray other premiers as fearful and unreasonable for still driving at zero COVID cases (while the country is not even half vaccinated), Labor premiers have hit back, suggesting it is Berejiklian who is being unreasonable, and reminding the public that the Doherty Institute’s...
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