As COVID cases surged in NSW and Victoria on Wednesday, federal attorney-general Michaelia Cash flagged that states that had closed their borders to virus-ravaged parts of the country could be forced to open them again once vaccination rates reach 80 per cent.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian, Ms Cash explained that states that continued to keep their borders closed once the vaccination target was reached could be taken to the High Court to challenge their constitutional authority to do so.
NSW recorded 1116 cases on Wednesday and Victoria announced 120, the highest number of cases in the current outbreak. As a result, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that Victoria’s lockdown would be extended until at least 23 September.
He also flagged that some restrictions would be eased in the state, including reopening playgrounds from midnight on Thursday. The 5km travel limit will be expanded from 23 September, when it is expected that 70 per cent of the adult population in the state will have had their first dose of the vaccine.
Victoria now appears to be following the lead set by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in abandoning the chase for zero cases, and instead is attempting to get as close to zero as possible, which presents a challenge to states that at the moment have no COVID cases.
The West Australian border closure was challenged in the High Court by billionaire Clive Palmer last year but was defeated due to public health considerations.
However, Ms Cash told The Australian that the legal arguments would change once 80 per cent of the Australian adult population was vaccinated.
“When you look at the reasons for that decision, flowing from the Clive Palmer vs WA case, the issue of proportionality was a live issue … we did not know where the virus was going, it was considered a proportional response to COVI-19,” Ms Cash said.
“We now have the benefits of 12 months or thereabouts, but we also have the benefit of the vaccine.
“Now that can only be tested in the High Court, obviously, but based on the reasons for that decision in that initial case, and based on where we are now in relation to the vaccine and vaccination rates, one would now think the grounds of any argument has now shifted.”
West Australian Premier Mark McGowan posted a message to the people of his state on Facebook explaining that he would open up the border to NSW only when it was safe to do so.
“Western Australia will remove our controlled border with other states in the future, when it is safe to do so, and in line with the health advice and the national plan,” Mr McGowan wrote.
“Some people want us to remove our border controls with Sydney when only 70 per cent of adults are vaccinated (which is only 56 per cent of the overall population).
“By knowingly letting the virus in, it would mean we’d have hundreds of people die, have to wind back our local freedoms, introduce restrictions and shut down large parts of our economy.
“I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to see people dying in nursing homes or aged care villages or disability centres or hospitals. I don’t want to bring back harsh limits on local businesses,” he said.
“It’s just odd for the Commonwealth government to keep arguing for this – to be clear, removing ALL travel restrictions, domestic or international, is not part of the national plan at either 70 or 80 per cent.
“When it is safe to do so we will open the borders – when an overwhelming majority of our population has been vaccinated.”
Mr McGowan also attacked the federal government for being more focused on borders than on trying to get the COVID situation under control in NSW and Victoria.
“The fact is, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are all going pretty well at the moment,” Mr McGowan wrote.
“We are not living in caves – we have some of the freest, most open, exciting communities in the world – and we want to keep it that way while we get our population vaccinated.
“The idea that we would prematurely decide to deliberately import the virus and shut down parts of the mining industry, is complete madness.”
Queensland treasurer Cameron Dick was also in no mood to discuss opening the border with NSW, attacking the Berejiklian government’s mishandling of the outbreak from the beginning and the mixed messages to citizens.
“The NSW government did not go hard. The NSW government did not go fast,” Mr Dick said. “Now, as they drag down the national economy and the morale of their own people, all they talk about is opening up regardless of the health consequences.
“It is an obsession shared with the federal government,” he said.
“Our government will not subject Queenslanders to an uncontrolled outbreak of the virus and the needless disease and suffering that follows.
“We are not going to subject Queenslanders to needless economic destruction and mass unemployment that would result from an uncontrolled COVID outbreak.”
Ms Berejiklian said states were eventually going to have to come to terms with opening their borders with states that had the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
“Every state is going to have to accept that you cannot live in a bubble forever,” Ms Berejiklian said at her daily press briefing. “Your citizens will want to travel interstate, your business would want to go interstate, citizens will want to go overseas, and come back from overseas, so if not at 80 per cent double dose, which is what our national plan says, then when?”
The NSW premier also announced that fully vaccinated adults would be able to go out for a meal and a drink once 70 per cent of the adult population of the state had received both jabs, but that it would be done responsibly.
“The national plan does say at 70 per cent double-dose vaccination that you can expect to go out and have a meal, you can expect to attend a public event, you can expect to go and get services that you can’t expect now but obviously we’ll take a very responsible approach,” she said.
Do you think states should retain their ability to control their own borders during the pandemic? Would you support High Court action to force states to open their borders? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
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