Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews’ angst at the weekend about the multiple New Zealanders who arrived in Victoria via the travel bubble from New Zealand to New South Wales is, as much as anything, a pointer to the pressure the premier is under.
Andrews says his state chose not to be part of the bubble at this stage and he didn’t know these people were coming to Victoria. Now, he says, 55 have “turned up” from NZ.
The federal government counters that Victoria was at the meeting of the federal-state health officials committee where issues of New Zealanders travelling on were canvassed.
Andrews claims when Victoria asked the feds for details of the arrivals they were slow to pass it on. The feds deny a delay but say dealing with internal border issues is up to the states anyway.
The point is, this is a dispute of little consequence. New Zealand doesn’t have community transmission – the visitors are at the very bottom end of risk.
Andrews might be annoyed that these New Zealanders, and thus the Morrison government, have found a way to circumvent his refusal to sign up to the COVID “hotspot” definition and become part of the (one way) trans-Tasman bubble.
But Victoria has an open border for people going in (it’s a different matter for those exiting, for whom other states make the rules). So provided they’re told to abide by the current state restrictions, the presence of the New Zealanders is neither here nor there.
Western Australia is also complaining about New Zealand arrivals – it is in a rather different position because it has a hard state border.
The overall takeout is that those travelling from New Zealand in the “bubble” – which also involves the Northern Territory – might need to be given more information about the restrictions in particular states and internal borders before they leave NZ.
The micro takeout is that Andrews is picking an unnecessary fight. The verbal Victorian-federal tennis match over the New Zealanders is another indication of the tensions between the two governments.
Federal ministers tried to twist Andrews’ arm ahead of Sunday’s announcements about the next stages of opening in Victoria.
Andrews announced a range of restrictions would be relaxed from midnight. People can travel 25 kilometres from their home for shopping and exercise (widened from five). Groups of up to ten from two households will be able to gather in outdoor public places for exercise or a picnic.
Hairdressers can open, but people can’t have visitors over to watch next weekend’s AFL final (played in Queensland).
Retail isn’t scheduled to reopen open until November 2, when restaurants will be open to diners (with limits), and people will be able to leave home for any reason.
With new cases in single figures for the last five days, Andrews indicated the timetable could move faster than outlined.
The politically embattled premier is determined to minimise risks in bringing the state out of lockdown. The federal government and business community continue to rail. Andrews may judge that he’s taken the attacks from those quarters and the greater immediate danger to him is the possibility of a fresh tick-up in virus numbers.
The eventual fallout – in lost businesses, in the public’s judgement of Andrews – will be months, possibly years, in the coming.
In the meantime, whether his ultra-caution is excessive or well-judged will be fiercely debated.
He maintains it’s all on the health advice.
When asked how come his advice was at odds with the position of the federal government and epidemiologists who disagree with him, his edginess was obvious.
“I will put it to Minister [Greg] Hunt and anybody else who has a view about these things, I don’t accept that anybody has a more complete picture of what this virus is doing in Victoria than the Victorian chief health officer, the Victoria deputy chief health officer, the Victorian health minister and the Victorian premier.” And so he went on.
Some Victorians will welcome the timetable as tangible hope in a bottle. More than a few small business owners will see the hairdresser across the road opening and ask, why not us?
The Australian Industry Group described the announcement as “plodding steps in the right direction”, while raising a nightmare scenario, saying businesses “still have no certainty that [they] will not be forced to shut again after they have been allowed to reopen”.
The federal government’s impatience with Victoria was on show again in a Sunday statement from Prmie Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt, which highlighted economic and mental health costs.
“Victoria’s three-day rolling average is now below two cases per day. Maintaining this result will make a strong case for the retail and hospitality sectors to reopen before the next review date in November,” they said.
“The continued health, mental health and financial impacts of these restrictions will be profound on many Victorians. That is why we encourage Victoria to move safely and quickly towards the NSW model of strong contact tracing and a COVID-Safe but predominately open economy.”
As Morrison and the ministers say, “the national picture is a positive one” in terms of case numbers and handling them. Yet politically, the national handling of COVID continues to fray.
The conflicts around the blunders and inadequacies that led to the Victorian second wave, the imminent Queensland election in which Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is relying substantially on her COVID record, with its tough border policy, and WA’s semi-secessionist mindset are all straining the federation.
The national cabinet initially managed dissent among the various governments. But presently the disunity is swamping the unity. To the extent possible, it is important Morrison keep together what has become an unwieldy beast.
While COVID in Australia may be substantially under control when we say a thankful goodbye to 2020, 2021 will be a challenging year that would only be made more difficult by excessive fractiousness within the federation.