Paul Bongiorno: PM shirks duty in gold-standard quarantine blame game

The national cabinet was formed to deal with the pandemic.  Photo: TND

The national cabinet was formed to deal with the pandemic. Photo: TND Photo: TND

When it comes to the managing of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, there is plenty of blame to go around. But don’t look to the federal government to accept its fair share.

The Sydney Northern Beaches outbreak has shattered the poster girl image of Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian that her Canberra counterparts have spent most of the year telling us was the “gold standard” among the states.

To be fair to the New South Wales Premier, it wasn’t until Monday that she backed herself in such a way.

“We do have, I believe, one of the best if not the best contact tracing team on the planet,” Ms Berejiklian said.

At the height of the federal pile on of Victoria’s Labor premier Daniel Andrews, she cautioned that “touch wood” her state would not face a similar predicament.

Perhaps she was haunted by the failure of her state health authorities – with no help from Border Force as customs is now called – to stop the virus marching straight down the gang plank of the Ruby Princess cruise ship and across the nation.

ruby princess inquiry records

The Ruby Princess, in Sydney in March, may still haunt Gladys Berejiklian.

Just ask the Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein how devastating that was for his state.

But that brings us to the coal face of border control or, more precisely, the constitutional responsibility to keep the nation safe from contagion.

Look no further than the federal Quarantine Act of 1908 (replaced by Biosecurity Act 2015), enacted seven years after Federation and applied 10 years later when the “Spanish Flu” epidemic hit.

The Commonwealth then set up quarantine stations in every state and back in February, the Morrison government followed the example by organising for Australians returning from COVID-19 central in Wuhan, China to be quarantined on Christmas Island or in the Northern Territory.

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide. Photo: AAP

Early in the pandemic at the first meeting of Scott Morrison’s national cabinet ­– the rolling summit of the state and territory leaders – according to a source close to the meeting, the states were shocked when the Prime Minister came to the meeting with no quarantine plan.

I am told that’s when Mr Andrews, with the support of the other state and territory leaders, agreed to set up and pay for hotel quarantine.

This let the Commonwealth off the hook, not that you would know it with the PM regularly touting his generous offer of the Australian Defence Force to assist with policing the arrangement.

Phil Gaetjens, PM Scott Morrison and Professor Brendan Murphy speak to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

What we now know is the hotel quarantine system is flawed, but it played a big role exposing Victoria’s inadequate contact tracing and the Commonwealth’s “neglect” of aged care.

It allowed Mr Morrison and his ministers, principally Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, point the finger at Labor-governed Victoria for the disastrous second wave that led to a prolonged shutdown of the nation’s second biggest state.

It also saw the Prime Minister attempting to hide from the Commonwealth’s responsibility for 600 deaths in federally funded and regulated nursing homes.

Neither the PM nor his senior ministers have rushed to point the finger at the Berejiklian Liberal-led government for the holes in the quarantine arrangements for international air crews.

Epidemiologists wrote to the Prime Minister and premiers back in December 2019 pointing out the risks.

NSW has borne the lion’s share of international travellers returning to Australia: 88,949 since March compared to Victoria’s 21,508, Queensland’s 29,845 and Western Australia’s 22,751.

But the Berejiklian government, without demur from the Commonwealth, buckled to pressure from airlines to exempt international air crews from strict quarantine.

These are the people flying around the world’s hotspots and left unchecked to leave their hotels to shop or eat or whatever. They are a most likely source of the infection entering the Australian community.

Ms Berejiklian lamely claims there is nothing wrong with the guidelines but with “the few occasions when people have broken them by not self-isolating”.

Someone needs to acquaint the premier with the reality of a “super spreader”.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been forced to defend her state’s guidelines for air crews.

Mr Morrison is more than happy to leave it to the states to apply their health acts to contain the virus – it gives him gold-standard scapegoats and masks his own dereliction of constitutional duty.

In a recorded video from The Lodge at the weekend, the Prime Minister had breezy reassurances for the nation and heaped fulsome praise on Ms Berejiklian and the states for the roles they are playing.

On Monday the Prime Minister held a formal news conference in his  Parliament House Courtyard, but there was no new announcement revisiting quarantine exemptions for air crew, returning diplomats or VIPs.

Clearly he is counting on nobody noticing what he is not doing.

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

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