Scott Morrison has scolded stubborn state premiers after failing to secure consensus on easing border restrictions or allowing the free movement of agricultural workers.
Western Australia was the lone standout when national cabinet met on Friday to try to thrash out a plan to open state borders by Christmas.
Mr Morrison said it was for WA Premier Mark McGowan to decide when the state’s borders would reopen.
“I’m not going to hold Australia back when one or two jurisdictions, at this point in time because of their own circumstances, don’t wish to go along with the path that the country is seeking to go in,” the Prime Minister said after the meeting.
“Western Australia has a very different border and a very different economy than most of the other states and territories where these decisions have been made.”
Later, Mr McGowan described WA – which marked 146 days without community transmission of the virus on Friday – as “an island within an island”
“Unfortunately, the success of the hard border also comes with some
consequences, particularly for families who haven’t seen each other for a long period of time. I feel for those people,” he said.
“Because of our measures and success in controlling community transmission, we’ve been able to rapidly relax restrictions.”
Queensland has also been firm on border closures. Earlier, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she wouldn’t commit to any plan and called on her political rivals to focus on eliminating community transmission on Victoria and NSW rather than criticising her about border closures.
“It is relentless, it is intimidating but I will not be intimidated,” she said.
Queensland had no new COVID cases on Friday.
After Friday’s meeting, Mr Morrison said he would also change the rules and lower expectations of national cabinet.
“We’ve decided this notion of 100 per cent absolute consensus on any issue is not a way the national cabinet can indeed work,” he said.
“What we will do is we will set out areas where we can come together, and get as many states and territories as possible to come around that agreement.
“Not everyone has to get on the bus for the bus to leave the station. But it is important the bus leaves the station, and we all agree on that.”
State border closures dominated Friday’s meeting as the Commonwealth pushed for a national definition of a coronavirus hotspot.
Premiers and chief ministers agreed to pursue a consistent model, but refused to endorse a definition provided by the country’s acting chief medical officer.
“There will be further discussion on how that can be more specifically defined,” Mr Morrison said.
“This will take some time to get that right.”
States have control over who crosses their borders but the Commonwealth is cranky as it carries the lion’s share of the economic cost. But Mr Morrison said he wouldn’t seek to “punish” states that dug in on borders.
Mr Morrison also asked premiers and chief ministers to endorse a national agricultural code to allow seasonal workers to travel over state lines.
Five out of eight jurisdictions signed up – Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania declined.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged Ms Palaszczuk to soften its border rules to help agriculture, tourism and hospitality workers.
I think it’s really critical for the eastern seaboard,” she said.
“I urge the Queensland Premier to consider carefully the impact that the borders are having on our communities, on our citizens on either side.”
All states and territories, except WA, also pledged to reach the third and final stage of easing business restrictions by Christmas.
Australia’s coronavirus death toll has passed 700 after Victoria announced 59 new deaths.
Fifty of the deaths occurred in July and August but were not reported until Friday.
There have now been 737 deaths from coronavirus across the country.
Victoria also had 81 more COVID infections, two days before Premier Daniel Andrews has promised to reveal plans for the state to come out of its virus-led shutdown.
NSW had eight more virus infections on Friday.