For the first time since Western Australia put the ‘closed’ sign up three months ago, the McGowan Government appears to be facing significant pressure over how and when the state will re-emerge from its cocoon.
In WA political circles, the border closure is still viewed as overwhelmingly popular — with Sandgropers enjoying newfound freedoms their eastern states counterparts can’t, attributed in no small part to the severe travel restrictions.
The state’s success in smashing the coronavirus curve is indisputable and many West Australians appear to see the merit in remaining closed off while Victoria struggles to eradicate community spread.
But, in some circles at least, the Government is beginning to face significant pushback against the complete uncertainty over the border policy.
And horrific unemployment data released yesterday has only added fuel to that fire.
WA’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation and is above 8 per cent for just the second time in 25 years.
The 112,000 West Australians in the unemployment queue is an all-time record, while 104,000 jobs have been lost over the past three months.
Calls for clarity over border closure
With that incredibly grim picture laid bare, key industry groups are demanding clarity about what it will take for WA to reopen the border, along with pushing for an indicative date for when that will happen.
“Each day without interstate visitors, Western Australia loses 42 jobs,” Tourism Council boss Evan Hall said this week, pleading with the Government to “establish a clear road map with anticipated dates” for opening the border.
Tourism is far from the only sector making those calls, with the business lobby expressing a similar sentiment.
“We just need that clarity on what the conditions are, what the rules are, because at the moment it’s more art than science,” Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Chris Rodwell said.
The unemployment situation and grumblings from powerful lobby groups aren’t the only factors beginning to pressure the Government.
Just a few weeks ago, WA had plenty of allies in its border stance.
Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania were all shut off and firmly pushing back against Commonwealth demands to reopen.
Now South Australia has opened the gate to West Australians, Northern Territorians and Tasmanians, while both Queensland the Top End have set reopening dates of mid-July.
Add to that the continued calls from the Federal Government and WA Opposition, plus the High Court challenge prompted by Clive Palmer, and the Government is having to defend the border closure on multiple fronts.
Minister talks of ‘advanced’ discussions
The calls for clarity from the business community appeared to hit home with Health Minister Roger Cook, who said this week there were “advanced discussions” about either releasing a road map or offering an indicative date to open the border.
“Industry have been saying to us that they want to be planning around the future and in order for them to plan they have to have some idea about what that future looks like,” he said.
But Mr McGowan has remained steadfast the border must stay closed, lashing out at the Liberals this week for their questioning.
“That time is not yet,” he told Parliament.
“And please let us get on without this constant carping, criticism and negativity.”
Further relaxations on horizon
Complicating the situation further is how far WA has gone with easing restrictions, with another relaxation set to be announced early next week.
In advice from last month provided to State Parliament this week, Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson starkly warned that reintroducing the virus to the community now could be devastating.
“The resultant increased risk of community transmission from such travel into Western Australia would occur in the context of the easing of various restrictions, with the likelihood that the size and scope of community transmission would also be increased,” he wrote.
Dr Robertson wants to see four weeks of no community transmission in other states to feel comfortable about opening the border. With community cases continuing to accumulate in Victoria, that clock appears to still be at zero.
Plus, the state’s imminent move to stage four will make his warnings more pressing, with West Australians about to get even greater freedoms.
But with a dire economic situation laid bare and businesses increasingly agitating for greater certainty about when the border will reopen, Mr McGowan is beginning to face some real pressure to tear down the metaphorical wall dividing the country.