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Scott Morrison discussing with premiers virtually during national cabinet

Grattan on Friday: Premiers facing elections play hardball with hard borders

That old adage “never get between a premier and a bucket of money” has become “never get between a premier and a COVID election”.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, two months from polling day, has been acting with the sort of single-minded political determination and ruthlessness that Scott Morrison might identify with in more normal circumstances.

As the national accounts this week confirmed Australia is in the deepest recession since the 1930s Great Depression, the prime minister, desperate to speed the economy’s reopening, struggled to bring maximum pressure on premiers on matters over which he has no formal power.

At the start of the week, the federal government had two immediate aims for the following days: to force Victoria to provide a roadmap out of its lockdown, and to have the states at Friday’s national cabinet agree to a COVID “hotspot” definition to pave the way for borders to re-open. (At present Queensland, which excludes people from hotspots, defines all NSW and the ACT as hotspots as well of course as Victoria.)

In the wake of a work-over from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced he’d outline a map this Sunday. How encouraging it is remains to be seen.

While several premiers have been recalcitrant about their borders, Palaszczuk has been in the Morrison government’s particular sights – as well as those of NSW’s Gladys Berejiklian.

Medical and other hardship cases, exacerbated by confusion and delays, have brought sharp attacks on the Queensland government, including from the PM. Queensland reacted by saying it would set up a unit in its health department to smooth the processes.

But Palaszczuk will campaign on keeping Queenslanders safe and in general her border toughness has served her well politically, according to polling on the issue. Her defence of it this week was defiant.

Paradoxically, Morrison finds Andrews personally easier than Palaszczuk to deal with. That’s despite the fact the Victorian government’s bungling on quarantine and inadequacies in contact tracing have caused much more damage nationally than has Queensland’s border policy. The relationship seems to endure the regular touch-ups the federal government gives Victoria. Berejiklian has also found Palaszczuk difficult.

Maybe this is a personality thing, but it’s also likely driven by the tensions around Queensland’s imminent election. Palaszczuk is totally focused on survival.

As Morrison prepared to take the hotspot proposal to the national cabinet, the federal government wound back its ambition. The hotspot discussion was just the beginning of a process, was the official word. Morrison called Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan on Thursday morning and indicated the federal government was not seeking to take down the WA border – the feds are now saying WA is different in that it has no border towns.

By Thursday, Queensland and Western Australia had already pre-empted the meeting.

McGowan, with an election in March, declared, “We’re not going agree to bring down the border”, saying the hotspot approach was not as effective. Queensland suggested it would want to see 28 days of no community transmission before it rethought its position with NSW.

It was of no political use but the government did receive support on the issue from an unexpected source. Paul Keating, asked about borders in an interview on the ABC, said: “I basically don’t agree with border closures anywhere. It is a national economy and the economy’s going to be stronger if people can move. Unless you had big emergencies - and we had an emergency on the NSW-Victorian border which is now abated broadly I think - the case for keeping border closures … is a very poor case.”

Palaszczuk has used her border policy in a campaign to secure the AFL grand final for Brisbane, an effort that paid off this week.

The final will be at Brisbane’s Gabba ground before a crowd of 30,000 – a week before polling day.

It is not just those in Melbourne who are upset. Palaszczuk’s critics, including the federal Nationals, piled on to accuse her of according the footballers and their executives privileges in their “hub” while ordinary people suffered.

Regardless, Palaszczuk will do everything to protect this AFL triumph. Her worst nightmare would be having to cancel the crowd because of a serious COVID outbreak.

Meanwhile the federal MPs from Queensland who attended the just-ended fortnight parliamentary sitting are headed into 14 days home quarantine (at least they escape being confined in hotels).

The sitting (the first with a “virtual” component) concluded with a distinctly fractious final couple of days.

After the government gagged debate on its tertiary fees legislation in the House of Representatives, Labor engaged in retributive disruption on a range off issues. The government had wanted to ram the education legislation through this week but the Senate has forced a short inquiry, reporting later in the month.

Morrison will be glad to see the back of the parliament, which doesn’t meet again until the October 6 budget. The government secured the extension of its JobKeeper program for six months until the end of March, but the parliamentary setting gave Labor a platform to prosecute its argument that the rate should not be phased back.

Labor also used the sitting for a sustained attack over aged care, which culminated in the Senate censuring the hapless minister, Richard Colbeck. Morrison dismissed the motion by pointing out this had happened quite often to ministers over the years.

As the government hunkers down to drafting its budget, it’s hard to recall a more difficult one to frame, even in the global financial crisis.

The national accounts told us growth was a negative 7% in the June quarter (6.3% annually) but that’s a snapshot of the past. The present and the future involve real time measurements and judgements that have to be made on inadequate information. The Victorian situation is a wild card.

The scale-down of JobKeeper after September will see some struggling businesses decide their future, but the government won’t have a full picture when it signs off on the budget.

The most elusive challenge is how to generate confidence.

The national accounts showed household income actually rose in the quarter, thanks to the huge amount of government cushioning, but consumption plunged.

This is hardly surprising. Apart from shutdowns and travel restrictions reducing the opportunity to spend, when huge numbers of workers are unemployed or at risk of losing their jobs, many retirees are finding their income squeezed, and the future is unclear, people will be conservative with their money. Savings rose in the quarter.

The budget is expected to bring forward already legislated tax cuts as one incentive to get spending going - although quite a lot of this money could be saved.

Anxious to fan the weak flames of hope, Morrison this week talked repeatedly about the country reaching some sort of COVID-safe normality by Christmas. Ahead of Friday’s meeting, his message to fellow leaders was, “We need to come together, we need to ensure that we are clear with Australians, that we will seek to make Australia whole again by Christmas.”

We’ll see whether that’s optimistic. But Palaszczuk, if she is returned at the election, may become more amenable after October to southerners travelling to Queensland for the festive season. At least, that’s the theory.

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