Paul Bongiorno: Crass border politics blows up on Prime Minister

Queensland Premier Annastasia Palaszczuk, PM Scott Morrison and the state's chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young.

Queensland Premier Annastasia Palaszczuk, PM Scott Morrison and the state's chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young.

Someone must have thought it was a good idea for Scott Morrison to leverage the grief of one Queensland family to score some tawdry political points.

Whoever it was must surely be having second thoughts, especially as it has thrown a spotlight on its own double standards and at least one member of that family is outraged by the intrusion.

Alexandra Prendergast, 32, whose father Brendan’s funeral was held last Thursday in Brisbane, accused the Prime Minister of turning the sad and “very private” event into a disrespectful media circus at the crematorium.

In an open letter Ms Prendergast demanded an apology and said she was “extremely disappointed” that Mr Morrison had “used my family to try and advance your political agenda”.

sarah caisip father funeral covid

Sarah Caisip was given permission to view the body of her father Bernard Prendergast but could not attend the funeral. Photo: AAP

Mr Morrison held back tears as he told Radio 2GB’s Ray Hadley of his phone call to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to grant an exemption to Ms Prendergast’s stepsister Sarah Caisip to come out of hotel quarantine to attend the funeral.

The Premier told Parliament she was bullied in the phone call and didn’t believe the Prime Minister’s assurance he hadn’t made the issue public.

According to the Premier’s office she told him “No, but you will.”

Ms Palaszczuk’s suspicion that a political set up was in play was confirmed when Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington asked about Ms Caisip’s case straight up in Thursday morning’s question time.

The Premier told Parliament she had informed the PM the decision was entirely in the hands of the state’s chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young.

University of Queensland law professor Graeme Orr confirms that under the state’s legislation “only a public health officer can let someone out of quarantine to go to a funeral”.

Mr Morrison and his ministers were asking the premier for “a special favour” in defiance of the law that would undermine the strict quarantine imposed under the authority of the designated health officer.

As the senior minister in the immigration portfolio, Peter Dutton would be well aware that granting discretionary decrees only encourages more to try.

And in the struggle to control the highly infectious COVID-19, this would be extremely risky.

The federal ministers are contemptuous of Queensland’s crime and corruption law designed to protect the state against political misuse of power.

Professor Orr says “it would be highly inappropriate for a minister to intervene”.

On Monday the Premier was even more defiant, telling reporters she would rather lose next month’s state election than open the borders before her chief health officer advises it is safe.

Dr Young has become collateral damage, revealing that managing the pandemic has taken a toll on her; she is the subject not only of social media trolling but also of death threats that have necessitated police protection.

The fact is with every state, Labor and Liberal except New South Wales closing their borders the Queensland situation has been repeated hundreds if not thousands of times.

Furthermore the Morrison government’s hard-ball politics has only served to show up its own failure of leadership in managing Australia’s international borders.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has 25,000 Australians registered to return home – all claim business or family reasons and in many cases extreme hardship.

Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally has highlighted the federal government’s lack of action and leadership.

Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally says quarantine of international travellers is the Commonwealth’s constitutional responsibility, which it duck shoved to the states.

They are clearly struggling and it’s time for the Morrison government to resume the task.

Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton, she says, should come up with a plan that lifts caps on quarantine places and flights into Australia.

Senator Keneally says there are 13 airports in Australia that can take international arrivals that the Commonwealth should utilise and set up its own quarantine arrangements.

The precedent was set early in the pandemic, with Christmas Island and a camp outside Darwin used for returning Australians.

On Sunday Mr Dutton said he would double the number if the states would only allow it.

Not unreasonably, Senator Keneally says “Peter Dutton is the Minister for Home Affairs. What is he? A minister or is he a mouse?”

Less politics from the federal government and more delivery in this space would be widely welcomed.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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