How the shutdown talk ahead of national cabinet spread confusion


But it was not enough to contain the pressure. On Sunday morning, as Morrison outlined a $66 billion stimulus package at a press conference, NSW and Victoria leaked their plans to shut down everything but essential services.

The result was a day of “mass panic” about the scale of the shutdown. Rumours about extraordinary closures spooked Australians who were already jittery about shortages on supermarket shelves.

“The country teetered on the edge,” said one source who opposed the NSW and Victorian demands.

Another called it one of the worst policy communications efforts he had seen: “They even had a run on bottle shops.”

This was not meant to happen. Morrison had arranged a weekend media blitz to unveil the $66 billion in direct spending and loan guarantees, including the press conference at 11.15am on Sunday in Parliament House.

The Prime Minister talked of more “draconian” measures to enforce social distancing but was still on his feet in front of the media when word leaked of the Victorian demand for closures. Indeed, his government was blindsided when the Nine Network reported Victoria would “go its own way” if the national cabinet did not agree to its plan for widespread closures.

Morrison and Andrews sit on opposite side of the political fence but had maintained remarkably good relations since coming to power. However, the coronavirus crisis is testing the friendship.

There was a simple reason for the Victorian campaign. Some within the Andrews government believed Morrison was putting too much emphasis on economics and not enough on health. Victorian officials conveyed this information to the media on Sunday morning to make it clear the state would lock down all non-essential services and close schools from Tuesday.

In NSW, meanwhile, anxiety over whether schools should remain was reaching a critical point. Absenteeism rose from 17 per cent to 30 per cent over the course of last week. A senior NSW government source said it was becoming clear the public school system faced becoming a two-tiered system, with some students at school but many at home, doing very little.

“We couldn’t have a situation where children were staying away from school and were just down at the park, not doing much else,” the source said.

And more crucially, a threat of industrial action from the powerful NSW Teachers’ Federation loomed, which would have thrown the system into complete chaos, a senior source said. NSW was firming on a plan to close all schools, except for students of essential workers or vulnerable children, a solution that would have placated the union.

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“We knew teachers were getting very angry, especially those who had health issues or who were pregnant, and we had a very real industrial problem on our hands,” a senior source said. “And parents were also getting confused and upset and did not know what to do.”

Worried about the capacity of Sydney hospitals to deal with the growing infections rate, Berejiklian was also adamant there needed to be a lock-down of non-essential services. “There is no doubt she was the driving force behind that,” another source said.

Two other factors shaped the debate.

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News had spread on Friday that 2700 passengers had disembarked the Ruby Princess in Sydney when the cruise liner had coronavirus cases on board – an astonishing failure that fuelled fears of community infections. Then, at 5.34pm on Friday, journalist Tom Steinfort tweeted a photograph of hordes of beachgoers at Bondi. The images of the crowded beach went around the world. State authorities were under pressure all weekend to explain why they were not doing more to stop the spread.

With NSW and Victoria ramping up the campaign for lockdown, Morrison spoke with Berejiklian early on Sunday afternoon to argue against the total closures the premiers were advocating.

Federal officials believed the states were adding to confusion rather than issuing clear guidance. Berejiklian’s statement on Sunday signalled a “more comprehensive shutdown of non-essential services” while Andrews announced a shutdown of “all non-essential activity” across the state.

Industry groups ranging from the media sector to the farming lobby raced to clarify whether they were to be treated as “essential” or “non-essential” – a difference in wording that would decide whether they had to send staff home. The smaller states pushed back against NSW and Victoria, to make sure the shutdowns did not go as far as first thought.

“They were walked back from the edge of a cliff,” said one federal source.

All members of the national cabinet accepted the need for shutdowns but some were dismayed at the way the confusion spread. One example of the stress was at the nation’s biggest sporting code, the AFL. Its leaders had sniffed the wind that Victoria and NSW were floating an imminent full-scale lockdown, potentially banning all non-essential travel. Some senior figures at the AFL hit the phones to friendly contacts in Canberra to find out what it meant for them.

The prospect of state blockades and shutdowns wrecked any remaining plans for the season. AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan called a sudden press conference on Sunday to confirm the competition would not go ahead at all.

Some later named the “premature” signals from the Victorian premier as one of the factors that “basically shut” the football down.

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“They wouldn’t have closed if they knew the final decision we had reached,” one federal government source said.

“But Andrews’ statement spooked them. They thought they would be deemed non-essential.”

Sources at the AFL denied this and said it was the unilateral decisions from South Australia and Western Australia to shut their borders that forced the league’s hand.

The speed of the process clouded the outcome when the national cabinet meeting ended and Morrison called a press conference at short notice at 9pm on Sunday night to announce the sectors that would have to close.

This was the first official news to business owners. Morrison named registered and licensed clubs, hotels and pubs, cinemas, casinos and nightclubs, indoor sporting venues and churches as venues that would have to close. He said restaurants and cafes would be restricted to takeaway.

It took until 10.30pm for a formal statement in writing to confirm the list of venues to close at noon on Monday.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews pushed hard for lockdowns.Credit:Simon Schluter

If things were not clear when Morrison left his late-night press conference in Parliament House, they did not improve much on Monday morning. Morrison had said on Sunday night that funerals would go ahead provided a strict four-square-metre rule for mourners to distance themselves would be enforced.

The next morning, Andrews issued a a press release saying the shutdown would include a ban on “weddings and funerals”. His office was forced to call journalists to explain it was wrong.

All sides are now claiming they are happy with the national cabinet despite the conflicting signals on Sunday.

One leader told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that Sunday night’s national cabinet was the “most effective, well chaired and agreeable” meeting yet.

“The idea that there’s a rift or a disagreement just isn’t right,” he said.

“Andrews and Gladys shat themselves and went out on their own. Other premiers had to pull them into line. To blame Morrison on this would be totally unfair.”

But the big two states believe they will have to go their own way on some issues to combat the virus.

“We very much support the national cabinet but we have to make practical decisions about what is happening on the ground in NSW and that might be different to the other states,” said one NSW source.

“NSW has a very unique set of circumstances, we are not Tasmania. We are the epicentre [of the coronavirus crisis] and when we need to take action, we have to do that.”

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