The federal government’s sudden reversal of its support for Clive Palmer’s High Court challenge to West Australia’s border closures was ostensibly related to safety fears and the health of the nation. But Scott Morrison’s political health was at risk as well.
As the angry backlash escaped the borders of WA to the rest of the country, the prime minister belatedly realised that Palmer is almost as toxic as the virus itself.
He took his time. All last week Attorney-General Christian Porter was in the media defending the court case, and on Wednesday the PM ramped up the rhetoric warning that Palmer was “likely to win”.
But despite the repeated attacks on WA Premier Mark McGowan’s hard border closure right up until a Friday afternoon media doorstop with Porter, that line became harder to defend as the worsening virus forced Victoria into tougher lockdown.
They say a day is a long time in politics. It’s even longer in a pandemic.
In a letter dated August 1 from the PM to McGowan and released Sunday morning, Morrison wrote that he had “taken into account the changed state of the pandemic”, and noted the “high level of concern regarding public health in the Western Australian community”.
“I consider, on balance, that we must set aside the normal convention in these circumstances and not continue the Commonwealth’s participation in this case,” Mr Morrison wrote.
The news was immediately welcomed by McGowan, although he did point out he hoped it didn’t come too late given how far the case had already proceeded after the Federal Court heard arguments last week ahead of a High Court hearing.
Palmer “thanked” Morrison for his support and indicated the Commonwealth intervention had been a great help — just the kind of association they had been desperately trying to play down.
The government’s whole dubious defence of the intervention in the Palmer case had been that they were simply doing what they had to do in any constitutional challenge and not actually supporting a man who had been charged with fraud only weeks before.
While the decision to finally listen to reason should be welcomed, let’s hope the only damage is once again to the PM’s political judgment and not to the nation’s ultimate health.