Shortcuts / 16 September 2021

State and territory borders

The closing of our state and territory borders is something most Aussies had never thought possible. But then came COVID-19, and those state lines have become the subject of much conjecture… As we look to a life free of lockdowns, state borders continue to throw up some hurdles in our quest to return to what was ‘normal’. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we give you the background to the responsibility of the states and territories when it comes to our borders, the differing points of view about opening up, and what might come to be.

Let’s start with how our responsibilities are divvied up.
It goes all the way back to Federation in 1901. Australia was declared a Commonwealth, and responsibilities were outlined for the Federal Government, the states, and later, the territories. It’s laid out in the constitution.

What does it say?
The Commonwealth has the power to legislate on areas that concern the nation as a whole – such as trade, tax, immigration, defence, foreign affairs, marriage and divorce, and postal and telecommunications services.

And what about the state/territory governments?
Their role is to deliver services like education, policing, hospitals, public housing, and transport.

Hang on. The states raise taxes…
Yep. And the Feds have a police force. #itscomplicated

So what does that mean when it comes to handling the pandemic?
Because states and territories are in charge of local law and order and services like hospitals, it’s fallen on them to make a call about what their citizens can and can’t do. And they each have their own laws to deal with when it comes to giving public health orders.

Which is why there are different rules?
Yup. It’s up to them to go as fast or as slow as they see fit…

So when it comes to coordinating things?
Enter National Cabinet. It was created by PM Scott Morrison back in March last year to bring together the nation’s leaders to coordinate a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Morrison has said that the National Cabinet has made the federation “more responsive and more coordinated than we’ve seen in many years”.

How often do leaders meet?
At the moment, every week. The PM, premiers and chief ministers get together virtually on Friday to discuss all things COVID – including what a pathway out of the pandemic looks like. But the process isn’t without its problems…

Do tell…
You might have noticed that there has been a growing number of COVID cases in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, and it’s turned those meetings into a discussion about all things relating to new daily cases and target vaccination rates.

What’s that about again?
Ok. So the Federal Government commissioned the Doherty Institute to look into how many of us need to be vaccinated to reopen the country. The key question: at what point are enough people protected from getting sick or dying of COVID-19 that easing restrictions won’t pose too great a burden on our health system. That modelling was then used to underpin a National Plan.

So all the National Cabinet leaders agreed to that plan?
Yup, back in July. There are 4 phases that align to vaccination targets, and the one most talked about is reaching 70-80% full vaccination rates.

What will happen once that target is met?
The agreement says that when 70% of adults aged over 16yo are vaccinated, restrictions can begin to ease, and then when we get to 80%, they can ease even further.

Like how much further…
Think international travel starting up and no more lockdowns, except in localised cases.

Ah, travel… But won’t there be a surge in cases?
There will be COVID cases and deaths, particularly at risk are the unvaccinated. But getting life back on track is the plan once everyone who wants to be vaccinated has had the chance to roll up their sleeves. 

Gotcha. So no more restrictions…
Not quite. There will still be some restrictions – things like social distancing and mask-wearing will still be in place to reduce transmission. Because even if you’re vaccinated, you can still catch and spread the virus. 

And how’s that plan holding up?
NSW and VIC are onboard. They are both deep into lockdowns at the moment and agree that COVID zero is no longer possible with the very contagious Delta strain. The premiers of both those states say getting vaccination rates up is the way out. 

And the other states/territories?
Some aren’t so willing to open up to the rest of Oz…

Name names…
Western Oz and Queensland. Both those states have low to no local cases, and their leaders say they are worried about reopening their borders to places like NSW, Victoria and the ACT, where there are currently outbreaks.

But didn’t they agree on the National Plan?
They did. But WA’s Mark McGowan says he won’t do anything that could risk his state’s COVID-free status. And Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk said she wants more research into the impacts of COVID on children before deciding on borders.

What about the others?
South Oz, the ACT and the Top End have kept pretty low profiles when it comes to the border debate. And Tassie hasn’t had much of a voice in this either, but officials there say a 90% vaccination rate would be the target to aim for.

So what does this National Plan say about state borders?
Nothing specifically. And the states/territories can choose not to implement something agreed on by National Cabinet anyway.

So it’s a free-for-all?
Well, a decision by National Cabinet can only be implemented by each jurisdiction in accordance with its own laws.

Which means it’s not legally enforceable?
Yup. That’s something PM Scott Morrison has recognised when asked about the differing views on state borders. “Every premier, every chief minister has to stand in front of their state and justify the decisions that they’re taking in terms of the extent of the restrictions that are in place,” he said.

But can’t the Commonwealth just overrule state laws?
It can override state border restrictions by passing laws over movement across state lines. But so far, it’s chosen not to do that and has allowed the states/territories to make and enforce public health measures with the advice of their local health officials. And that’s included state border closures.

What about legal challenges?
So far, they’ve been unsuccessful. The most notable case brought by mining magnate Clive Palmer, which the Federal Government initially joined but then backed away from. Palmer argued in the High Court that closing borders were in breach of the constitution. He was unsuccessful, but some experts say future challenges could happen if this all drags on…

And will it?
Well, we can only go by what the state/territory leaders say – and they say there are issues. 

Even with vaccination rates on the climb?
They are, but each state/territory is at a different point of the rollout. So far, NSW is leading the pack with almost 50% of the population fully vaccinated. WA and QLD have the lowest double dose rates at around 40%. So there could be weeks/months between the first states and territories reaching those targets and the last ones.

So will we be able to visit family interstate or travel across borders by Christmas?
Mmm dunno. 

Thought you might say that.
[Insert shrugging lady emoji]

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