Scott Morrison wants a commitment from national cabinet for Australia to return to as much normality as possible for Christmas, provided the medical advice supports it.
As the Prime Minister continues his push to prise open the borders of what he sees as recalcitrant states, he is mixing strong pressure – as on Friday when he demanded an explanation from Queensland over a NSW health case - with a more light-touch appeal for co-operation.
Morrison told Tuesday’s Coalition party room a definition of a COVID “hotspot” would go before Friday’s meeting of the national cabinet.
But he conceded whether states agreed with it would be “a matter for them”.
At the last meeting of the national cabinet its health advisers in the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee were asked to come up with a definition.
Morrison wants states with few or no cases to have open borders; hotspot outbreaks would be isolated locally. The federal government has had run-ins particularly with Queensland and Western Australia over their tight borders.
After saying in the party room “we are dealers in hope”, Morrison told parliament “by Christmas … we should aim for Australians to be able to go to work, to be able to be with their family at Christmas, and to return to visit their friends, and to look forward to a positive 2021.
"We cannot resign Australia to being a dislocated nation under COVID-19.
"That is what our plan is – to work together with the states and territories, to reactivate the plan that we first set out in May, and made great progress towards.
"There are borders that are in place now. And that is understandable. But what we have to work to do is to let Australians know that, by Christmas … they will be able to come together as families and look to a 2021 … that doesn’t look like the difficulties that they’ve gone through in 2020.
That is what [the government is] committed to doing. And we are committed to doing it with everyone in this country, every government in this country, who will come together behind that ambition.”
He said he had had discussions on Monday night with the premiers of Victoria and NSW, Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian, who were committed to seeing the NSW-Victorian border reopened as soon as it was safe to do so. “I welcome that cooperation from the New South Wales and Victorian governments.”
Morrison’s tone about Victoria was in sharp contrast to the Sunday-Monday attacks on Andrews by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. The federal government has wound back its anti-Andrews rhetoric now the premier has promised to produce on Sunday a roadmap for the state’s reopening.
Morrison said Victoria had “turned the corner”.
The Victorian numbers continue to improve with the latest tally 70 new cases.
The federal government believes NSW and Victoria will probably be the most likely to agree to the hotspot scheme at national cabinet.
Andrews told reporters borders were “a central feature” of the Monday night conversation.
“The greatest contribution we can make to get borders open across the country is to continue to drive these [Victorian] numbers down as low as we can,” Andrews said. But it was important not to open up too much too soon, lest by Christmas “instead of a long-term, stable and safe COVID normal”, there would be another lockdown. “We have to avoid that.”
Berejiklian on Tuesday announced a travel bubble to ease inconvenience on the NSW-Victorian border - a single border region will be reinstated extending 50 kilometres on either side.
Meanwhile the extension until the end of March of JobKeeper – which will be scaled down – went through parliament.
Ahead of Wednesday’s national accounts showing the economy falling into a deep trough, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe said on Tuesday the economic picture was not as bad as earlier expected.
“The economy is going through a very difficult period and is experiencing the biggest contraction since the 1930s. As difficult as this is, the downturn is not as severe as earlier expected and a recovery is now under way in most of Australia,” Lowe said.
“This recovery is, however, likely to be both uneven and bumpy, with the coronavirus outbreak in Victoria having a major effect on the Victorian economy.”
Labor continued its parliamentary attack on the government over aged care. But an attempt to bring on a censure motion against the Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck in the Senate failed.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra