All but WA agree to December border opening goal, NZ hotspot plan in the works
4 September 2020, Written by David Simmons & Matt Ogg
The vast majority of Australia's states and territories have today agreed on ambitions to lift border restrictions and reach Stage 3 of the Federal Government's COVID-safe roadmap by December.
In addition, the hotspot approach to facilitating or restricting free movement between states and territories may be expanded to New Zealand, allowing Trans-Tasman tourists to visit Australia.
The agreements were made during today's National Cabinet meeting, which saw every state and territory except Western Australia coming to a consensus; the latter avoiding a set deadline due to its success so far in combatting the virus and avoiding recession.
Essentially, this means by Christmas every state and territory border would be open (potentially excluding WA's border), gathering sizes would be increased to 100, and more staff would be back in the workplace.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the country is in a very different position to where it was back in March when the roadmap was unveiled, but he is hopeful life will soon return to a semblance of normality.
"Now, almost six months later, all the states and territories sit in a different position and they're coming from a different point of risk," Morrison said.
"So we've agreed today, seven out of eight states and territories, that before what you know what you've got to do, you've got to agree where you're going to.
"We said before we wanted to get there in July and the virus prevented us from achieving that, but seven out of eight states wants us to get back to that position in December of this year."
Morrison clarified he understood and respected Western Australia's unique position, emphasising the National Cabinet process meant "the door is always open" should the state change tack.
Therefore, while WA is not joining the rest of the country on agreeing to the December date for open borders, it will engage with the states and territories on a case by case basis at a later time.
WA Premier defends stance, highlighting "gangbusters" economy thanks to hard border
Following the PM's press conference, WA Premier Mark McGowan has clarified his government and health authorities' rationale for the decision.
He notes the state's ongoing position is supported by the findings of the Federal Court, which ruled in its favour against the hard border challenge brought by Clive Palmer.
The court deemed a hotspot approach would be less effective than Western Australia's hard border measures in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"Today at National Cabinet we discussed border controls at length. It was a productive discussion but I made it clear that Western Australia would not be agreeing to a hotspot model or hotspot definition which replaces our successful border controls," Premier McGowan says.
"A date will be set when our health advice recommends it, but that might be some time away.
"We've been through this before, and then Victoria happened. Opening and closing borders just causes more confusion, and it isn't a good outcome for the state's economy."
He emphasises WA is not in a recession like the rest of the country, and opening the borders prematurely could lead to "economic devastation", not to mention more deaths from the virus.
"WA does not have border communities so we don't face the associated social disruption seen on the Eastern Coast. In WA we have positive economic activity, business confidence is buzzing, and retail trade is increasing and businesses are hiring," he says.
"WA's housing and construction market is responding well to stimulus measures. It's going gangbusters. Weekly land sales have reported a sharp increase with the introduction of housing grants - more homes are being built, the building pipeline has increased by more than 75 per cent between late April and mid-August.
"Retail figures for July were released today and they show in WA retail trade grew by 3.8 per cent, and by 6.2 per cent in annual average terms; the best result in seven years."
After 146 days with no community transmission cases and just two remaining active cases in the state, McGowan says the "island within an island" approach gives him confidence, but it also brings consequences for families who haven't seen each other for a long time.
"I feel for those people. I also cannot see my mother and father, and my brother in New South Wales, but I want to thank so many people for their understandings and commitment to doing the right thing as we monitor the situation," he says.
Hotspot approach may extend to New Zealand
With all state and territory chief health officers in agreement about what constitutes a 'hotspot' under a broad definition, PM Morrison says he is working to bring New Zealand in on the approach.
This could mean that if New Zealand is not designated as a hotspot, states and territories could allow tourists from our neighbouring island to visit.
"When we're in a position to do so, and when the acting Chief Medical Officer has come to a set of arrangements with New Zealand, then we would be able to have New Zealanders come to Australia," says Morrison.
"That doesn't mean Australians can go to New Zealand - that's a matter for their Prime Minister - but if there's no COVID in Christchurch and there's no COVID in Queensland then there's no reason both of them can't come to Sydney.
"That will mean an important boost for our tourist economy, whether it's in New South Wales or anywhere else."
Further, bringing New Zealand into the program would take the pressure off states like New South Wales in accommodating Australians returning from overseas.
"New South Wales have had to do the heavy lifting on [hotel quarantine]," says the PM.
"The idea that New Zealanders do not have to go into quarantine, because they come in from COVID-free areas, will also free up space.
"Equally, if states are requiring Australians come in from areas where there's not COVID cases like the ACT, and they don't have to go into hotel quarantine places, well that obviously frees up more capacity."
Agriculture Workers Code adopted by most states and territories
Five out of the eight states and territories have agreed to adopt the proposed Agriculture Workers Code, with just QLD, WA, and TAS declining to join.
The code, designed to ensure border closures do not diminish Australia's food production and supply chains, will be immediately put into place in SA, NSW and VIC.
"They will begin immediately to put that prescriptive code in place to facilitate a greater engagement of agricultural workers and other important workers in the agricultural sector, so as not to dislocate what is occurring in the ag sector between those three states and territories," says Morrison.
Updated at 2.27pm AEST on 4 September 2020.
Author: David Simmons & Matt Ogg