PM's options on the borders are limited

When it comes to state and territory border closures, the Prime Minister is between the proverbial "rock and a hard place".

On the one hand, as the leader of a federation of eight separate jurisdictions which share a common language, common laws, and a shared national identity, he is the chief flag-bearer for Australia's aspirations both at home and abroad.

As such, he is keenly aware of the impact that border closures targeted at residents of some of our most populous states are having on the country's economic recovery.

But on the other, he is equally cognisant of the sensitivities surrounding states' rights, and the constraints imposed by the constitution that brought this nation into existence almost 120 years ago.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in a tough spot on border closures. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in a tough spot on border closures. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

This dichotomy is the reason for the mixed messages Mr Morrison seemed to be sending in the wake of the most recent national cabinet meeting.

After stressing the need to get Australians back into jobs, and then to keep them there, he observed: "National cabinet focuses on areas where we can agree ... when we can't agree, we move on". That seems to be a polite way of saying the federal government's ongoing push to have borders reopened as soon as humanly possible - which saw it join, and then withdraw from, Clive Palmer's campaign to break the WA border ban - made little headway.

Mr Morrison indicated the federal government is now accepting the limits of its authority in this space and, as a result, is pursuing another line of attack. That would appear to be to create a climate of opinion under which the most intransigent state governments are pressured to change their ways.

The issue came to a head recently with growing concerns over the viability of cross-border communities, the ability of farmers and agricultural workers to work on properties that straddle state boundaries, and the ability of Australians caught on the wrong side of a border to travel to work and to access vital medical care.

Further fuel was added to the growing fire when Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce spelt out the cost of the closures to his own company, and the impact they were having on thousands of jobs in the travel and tourism sectors, when he handed down an ugly set of numbers to the shareholders.

In what appears to be a serious attempt to outflank some of the leaders most strongly committed to maintaining the closures - which are, understandably, very popular with their citizens despite the economic damage that is being done - the national cabinet is now pressing for a detailed definition of what constitutes a "hotspot".

While the PM can't guarantee that such a definition would be binding, he is hopeful that "by shining a light" on the issue it would become immediately apparent if a state or territory government was acting outside the accepted definitions.