The Queensland Government has received its starkest reminder yet that its strong borders strategy carries considerable political risks.
In Parliament yesterday, the Premier attempted to justify a set of rules that could struggle to pass the pub test.
Why is a grieving daughter, who comes from an area that has had no cases of COVID-19 in the past two months not allowed to leave her Brisbane hotel room to attend her father’s funeral?
Annastacia Palaszczuk struggled to find the right tone, as her answer shifted quickly from a sober explanation and a recognition of the personal tragedy, to outright anger about being under public attack.
“I will not be bullied nor will I be intimidated … to use the tragedy of this personal family is disgusting,” she said.
The LNP Opposition could sense they touched a nerve.
“So you’re the victim now?” was the interjection.
Labor still goes into the October 31 election campaign in a relatively strong position, with a popular leader and importantly an impressive record of keeping COVID-19 largely at bay.
But Ms Palaszczuk can’t rest on her laurels as she seeks to navigate a politically fraught environment in which the threats of the pandemic in Australia are slowly fading, while the effects of tough border restrictions continue.
Queensland borders aren’t technically closed — you can always come into the state if you’re on what is deemed to be essential business, or if you qualify under a number of special categories such as essential health care, returning residents and maritime crew.
Anyone who comes from what Queensland considers to be a hotspot (which includes the whole of NSW, ACT and Victoria) has to apply for an exemption to enter the state and if they want a variation of the strict 14-day quarantine conditions.
That’s why the AFL can hold its competition in Queensland, albeit under strict conditions.
Queensland Health has received 21,000 exemption applications since June — the vast majority of these (80 per cent) relate to border restrictions.
While Queensland Health couldn’t provide a breakdown of these figures, Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has repeatedly said she would not grant exemptions for attending funerals — she considers them too high a risk.
“The last thing I would want to happen is to have an outbreak at a funeral and by definition there are always older people attending funerals,” she said.
Sarah Caisip was granted permission to enter Queensland from the ACT to visit her gravely ill father in Brisbane — and he died while she was in 14-day hotel quarantine.
She applied for an exemption to leave quarantine to attend her father’s funeral yesterday — this was refused, prompting Ms Caisip to write to the Queensland Premier and Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington for help.
It appears this where the Prime Minister became involved.
Scott Morrison called the Premier yesterday morning and later talked about the case on commercial radio — a move Ms Palaszczuk told Parliament was an attempt to bully her.
“It was not my decision … it is the Chief Health Officer’s decision to make,” she said.
“This is a world pandemic, this not the time to carry on like this, this is a time where every single person in this house should be working together and this politics of division are disgusting and disgraceful.”
But it appears the lobbying had some effect, because later that morning Ms Caisip was told she could attend a private viewing after the funeral.
For the past two months, Dr Young has appeared in a joint media conference alongside either the Premier or Health Minister.
But yesterday, Dr Young spoke alone to journalists.
“I can’t go into specifics of any individual case,” she said.
“What I can say is that exemptions are given for people to come to Queensland to see dying relatives or close friends, but they need to go into quarantine.”
Dr Young explained she couldn’t take into account the fact that Ms Caisip’s current home town, Canberra, has had no cases of COVID-19 for more than 60 days.
“Canberra is defined as a hotspot because it’s in the middle of NSW and we know there are cases around them.”
Both major political parties accept Queensland’s border controls are popular, and for the past two months Ms Frecklington has been wary of questioning the overall strategy.
But she’s increasingly focusing on the details of the border restrictions, highlighting apparent contradictions and cases of personal hardship.
Her questioning of the Premier in Parliament about Ms Caisip’s situation was the most sustained attack on Labor’s border policy since mid-June, and a sign of what is to come in the next seven weeks of election campaigning.
“If the Premier can make exemptions for the AFL, she can surely make an exemption for Sarah,” she said.
Ms Frecklington rejected the Premier’s argument that the decision rested with Dr Young.
“The buck stops with the Premier, the Premier has been elected to lead this state.”
And if Labor is going to campaign heavily on Annastacia Palaszczuk’s leadership qualities, as seems highly likely, expect to hear more of this line of attack.