The trans-Tasman travel bubble is already at risk of bursting, with officials at each other’s throats and blaming anyone but themselves in a bizarre stand-off over New Zealand visitors.
In just the latest fracas between the Commonwealth and states, each level of government is pointing the finger at the other for the breakdown in communication.
Labor premiers are calling for the border blooper to be urgently sorted out at national cabinet. They claim the federal government isn’t doing enough to inform them of when foreigners are due to touch down in their state.
Federal ministers and immigration officials are adamant they told the states Kiwi visitors could leave the bubble and cross borders.
“The Victorian services recognised what was happening. And no objections were raised,” a perplexed Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram told a Senate estimates hearing on Monday.
But the premiers claim they had “no idea” it was going to happen.
Who should the public believe?
Well, watch this space – the dispute is not over.
What’s the problem? Is there a bubble or not?
As we learned this week with the surprise arrival of New Zealanders in Melbourne, Perth, Hobart and Adelaide, the devil is always in the detail.
For while most premiers refused to roll out the red carpet for overseas visitors, their objections meant little once the Kiwis landed in Sydney. From there, New Zealanders made their way to Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia, despite none of those states signing up to the quarantine-free travel bubble.
Why were they allowed to do so?
Because although the federal government told Kiwis travelling from non-virus-hotspots they could only fly to NSW and the Northern Territory, they didn’t restrict what they could do after touching down.
And as Commissioner Outram made clear on Monday, once someone is in Australia, Border Force can’t stop them from criss-crossing state borders.
“They are subject to the same state laws and restrictions in terms of domestic travel as anyone else in Australia,” he said.
No thanks … but OK then
Premier Daniel Andrews was not happy when more than 60 Kiwis arrived in Victoria in recent days.
And he didn’t bother to hide his frustration. Remember, Mr Andrews had only just managed to get Victoria’s daily COVID numbers reliably into the single-digits.
Another 25 Kiwis arrived in WA, five in SA, and six in Tasmania.
Victoria won’t force the New Zealanders to quarantine for a fortnight before being allowed into wider society, but the other states will.
“It seems like the bubble applies to every part of our country, not just those that said yes,” Mr Andrews said.
“We are not particularly pleased that we were asked the question, ‘Do you want to be in a bubble?’ And it turns out that even though we said ‘no’, we are.”
But Commissioner Outram said Victorian officials knew Kiwis would be able to cross over from NSW and were informed at health officials’ meetings last week.
He said Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services was specifically told about the situation at a meeting at Melbourne Airport on Friday.
“I am unaware of any objections being raised through any of those discussions or meetings that occurred,” Mr Outram said.
“This movement of passengers from NSW to Victoria was discussed. So clearly at an operational level the Victorian services recognised what was happening. And no objections were raised.”
Indeed, Victorian chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said of the bubble on October 3 that “New Zealanders are free to come to Victoria”.
“The question is what the requirements are on arrival in Australia,” he said.
“The travel bubble, as I understand it, is that there’s no quarantine requirement for those coming from New Zealand because of the risk status of New Zealand.”
Calls for national cabinet to fix travel bubble confusion
WA Premier Mark McGowan, who is forcing arriving Kiwis to quarantine in hotels for 14 days at their own expense, said leaders needed to discuss the future of the bubble.
He claimed his government did not know about the NZ arrivals, and that people without a valid excuse to enter WA under the state’s exemption criteria would be sent back.
“I’m asking the federal government to take an extra cautious approach to this, to slow down. A rushed approach to border control is not in Australia’s interests,” Mr McGowan said Monday.
“We need to get back to national cabinet to find a workable solution that is in the best interests of our nation.”
National cabinet was supposed to meet last Friday but was cancelled due to Prime Minister Scott Morrison experiencing problems with his plane. The rescheduled meeting is set for this Friday.
WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said 240 applicants from New Zealand were on the state’s exemption system to enter, but authorities didn’t know when they would arrive.
“How can we manage that if we don’t get the information on when people are going to come through the airports?” he said.