Prime Minister Scott Morrison is pushing for a commitment from state premiers to return Australia to as normal as possible by Christmas.
Friday’s national cabinet meeting looms as a major showdown on interstate travel restrictions, with progress hinging on the advice of an expert medical panel.
Mr Morrison will seek agreement from premiers and chief ministers on coronavirus hotspot definitions, which would guide border closures.
But he’s promised to go it alone on the new definition if the states don’t sign up.
Mr Morrison told a Coalition joint party room meeting on Tuesday that he wanted a commitment for things to be “as normal as possible” by Christmas.
He downplayed frayed federal-state relations, despite days of escalating attacks on Victoria from deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg.
“Our goal is not to pick fights but to get outcomes so Australians can safely get back to their lives and loved ones,” he told his party room colleagues.
The federal government wants a similar staged lifting of restrictions as during the nation’s first coronavirus wave earlier in the year.
Mr Morrison said the Victorian and NSW premiers didn’t want hard borders in place any longer than the health situation required.
“We cannot resign Australia to being a dislocated nation under COVID-19,” he told parliament.
“There are borders that are in place now and that is understandable.
“But what we have to work to do is to let Australians know that, by Christmas, they will be able to come together.”
Mr Morrison has floated the Danish traffic light hotspot system, which uses yellow to highlight open borders with cases fewer than 20 for every 100,000 residents in an area.
The orange alert level signals quarantine is needed when case rates exceed 30 per 100,000 people, while a red light bans travel when infection spikes occur.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese accused Mr Morrison of criticising the Queensland Labor government’s border closures, while going easy on Liberal-controlled Tasmania and South Australia.
“It’s not national and it is not a cabinet,” the Labor leader told 4BC radio.
“Scott Morrison chairs these meetings and the premiers tell each other what they’re going to do. Then he goes out and has a press conference and announces it.”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is also keen to have borders open for Christmas, but urged caution about moving too quickly.
He raised the prospect of coronavirus testing before travel, saying the issue will be canvassed through national cabinet on Friday.
NSW will expand a Victorian border buffer zone from 2.5 kilometres to 50 kilometres on Friday. The easing comes eight weeks after NSW closed its border to its southern neighbour, as Victoria’s COVID cases spiked.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian travelled to Albury, on the Murray River, to make the announcement on Tuesday.
“Pandemics are far from perfection when it comes to having to make decisions quickly and can I tell you, hand on heart, that one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made personally and the government has made during this pandemic has been closing the NSW-Victorian border. It was a decision of last resort,” she said.
“One of the main reasons we didn’t move earlier was because we knew the disruption and angst it would cause people in the border communities.
“You don’t see yourselves as a state border, as two communities, but one.”
However, Queensland remains firm on its closed border. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Tuesday borders wouldn’t open in September, preventing thousands of families entering the state during the coming school holidays
She remains concerned about community transmission of COVID-19 in southern states.
“We said we would review at the end of the each month and there has been no advice from the chief health officer to change what we are doing,” she said.
“I’ll tell you what we’re looking for: To keep Queenslanders safe, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Elsewhere, Victoria is beginning to get its deadly second wave of infections under control, with 70 new cases on Tuesday – the lowest daily increase since early July.
The state also had five more deaths, taking the national toll to 657.