A torrid row over Australia’s state border closures has pushed the country’s prime minister to tears, sparked bitter recriminations among rival regional leaders and even talk of secession.
Travel between the nation’s independent-minded states and territories has been mostly banned since COVID-19 hit Australia in March.
But an unhappy federal government is ratcheting pressure on premiers to open up, sending the argument into overdrive.
Campaigning media coverage has highlighted the plight of grieving families separated by the closures and targeted state officials they deem responsible.
One family facing a huge quarantine bill to see their dying father received over Aus$200,000 ($US148,000) in donations when their ordeal became public.
The family of Mark Keans, who has terminal cancer, had previously been told only one of his four children would be able to enter Queensland to see him.
The state currently blocks almost all arrivals from New South Wales — which it considers a Covid-19 hotspot.
“How do you choose which child gets that chance to see their dad for the last time?” Keans’ sister Tamara Langborne told national broadcaster ABC.
Such is the level of anger that Queensland’s chief medical officer has been forced to seek police protection after threats on her life.
– Commonwealth rivalry –
Australia began life as six self-governing British states and territories that agreed to form a federation around 1900.
Rivalry between those regions had persisted — usually on the sports field and in lighthearted jokes — but coronavirus has made regional sentiment more pronounced, and more popular.
Many premiers advocating state lockdowns have seen their public approval ratings rocket.
West Australia’s centre-left premier Mark McGowan was cheered on as he pilloried the “Pinot grigio-sipping” commentariat in Sydney — near where he was born — for telling him to open up.
West Australia, he insisted, will remain “an island within an island.”
An approving local paper declared its own “Westralia Day” and #WAexit has trended on social media, a West Australian echo of Britain’s rancorous exit of the European Union.
Labor member of parliament Patrick Gorman, writing in The Australian on Friday, warned such talk cannot be dismissed lightly.
“The dangerous idea of secession has been reignited in Perth and across our state,” he said. “Those on the east coast of Australia greatly underestimate the damage this might do to the federation.”
Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has even expressed concern that “at times” over the past months “it has felt like Australia could break apart.”
Although he had long sought to appear above the fray, even as party attack dogs were set on those who support restrictions, he has now joined the fight.
In a recent radio interview, Morrison said he had personally pleaded with the centre-left Queensland premier to allow Sarah Caisip to attend her father’s funeral after travelling from Canberra.
“I’ve appealed to her to overrule the decision that would allow Sarah to go to the funeral,” he told 2GB tearfully.
“It’s not about borders, it’s not about federation, it’s not about politicians, it’s not about elections.”
Morrison’s critics say that is exactly what the row is about.
Many of the border rows are fought down political lines, with Morrison’s ruling conservative national government routinely targeting states with opposition Labor party leaders.
Queensland’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, happens to be in the thick of a hard-fought re-election campaign against Morrison’s conservative coalition candidate.
She has since responded, acknowledging “heartbreaking” cases, but insisting she will not be bullied or intimidated over policies designed to keep Queenslanders safe.
Western Australian Premier McGowan suggested Queensland’s leader was being singled out ahead of a state election in October.
“Tasmania and South Australia have borders — I don’t see them being attacked,” McGowan said of the Liberal-run states.
“I just urge everyone, at a national level, to pull back on partisan attacks,” he said.