Border wars


The impracticality of basing quarantine zones on State boundaries is increasingly evident. Quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility; the Constitution says so. Boundaries should be based on communities of interest and economic cohesion rather than arbitrary lines drawn on maps in Whitehall in the 1800’s.

Separating Tweed Heads and Coolangatta just causes tension and economic damage.  Dividing Broken Hill from Port Augusta leads to an expensive waste of resources. The Anangu in central Australia are linked to Alice Springs as their commercial, and even cultural administrative centre; not the State boundaries administered thousands of kilometres away in Adelaide and Perth.

Albury and Wodonga have been divided. So have many other communities along the Murray River.

What is next, a split between Queanbeyan and Canberra?

Emergency declarations and orders including quarantine zones should be under singular, clear, authoritative Commonwealth legislation and appropriately funded. The ‘National Cabinet’ comprised of the Prime Minister, and State and Territory leaders plus the Chief Medical Officer should be coordinating Commonwealth leadership and authority.

Without question implementation must be a cooperative process, but there should also be no doubt where the ultimate responsibility lies. Under current management there are too many chiefs and mixed health protection messages.

The current confusion is exactly what the Australia’s founders were seeking to prevent when responsibility for quarantine was ceded to the Commonwealth in paragraph 51 (ix) of the Constitution 120 years ago. The federating colonies recognised the need for singular unambiguous national responsibility for disease management. Overlooking their prescience takes us back to back to before Federation.

The so called ‘shared responsibility’ is the outcome of the Commonwealth trying to cut costs, aided by States seeking to hold power. Vague authority delegation and ill-defined responsibility leads to events like the Ruby Princess and incompetent enforcement of hotel quarantine.

Resources available for State-based quarantine vary enormously. Monitoring and enforcement is expensive and the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania just do not have what it takes to be effective. Even wealthy Victoria is reliant on military support to handle this second wave.

I was once responsible for animal disease management in the Australian Department of Agriculture. I pondered my role and responsibility versus that of my State colleagues. What was the legal basis for implementing our plans to control, for example, a foot-and-mouth disease incursion? I discussed the matter with the Solicitor General and there seemed no doubt that the Commonwealth has singular authority. ‘Shared responsibility’ is an exercise in cost sharing to save the Commonwealth money. Are we now paying the price for the lack of clarity on responsibilities?

Some history

For nearly a decade after Federation, the former colonial governments hung onto the responsibility that they had ceded. Eventually in 1908 the Commonwealth passed the Quarantine Act giving the Governor General extraordinary regulation making power to declare and do just about anything to manage an emergency.

Under that delegated authority we established quarantine zones, for example on Cape York, to control animal and plant diseases. The State Chief Veterinary officers used letterheads that carried both the State and Commonwealth crests operations were implemented by state officers issued with Commonwealth warrant cards.

In 2008, the Beale Review into Biosecurity concluded that: “The Commonwealth unquestionably has Constitutional powers that allow for a much broader biosecurity reach than it currently assumes. It could, if it wished, manage almost the entire biosecurity continuum itself”.

State borders are especially meaningless in a quarantine / biosecurity context. This a bioecological truth has been revalidated in attempts over the years to manage not only diseases but also introduced pests and weeds.

Responsibility, authority, and coordination

I acknowledge that in a time of crisis it is usually better to stick to what we have rather than to create a new system or set of rules from scratch.

I also note that the extent and definition of ‘quarantine’ has never been interpreted by the High Court, notwithstanding the eminent legal opinion above, and that this is not the time for esoteric constitutional referrals.

The States do have responsibility for public health, the use of hospitals and other State-owned and run facilities, albeit with significant investment from the Commonwealth Health Department. 

Nevertheless, the consequences of continuing the application of State-based quarantine is worrying. Things are not going well. Without a vaccine, this pandemic is going to continue, and the current situation is going to recur.

Clarity about ultimate responsibility is needed to avoid delays, address resourcing differences between States and deliver effective coordination at scale. Local knowledge and priorities need to be considered and not ignored because of jurisdictional difficulties. Here are few more examples of absurdity of not basing quarantine zones on communities of interest and economic integration.

The border between Tweed Heads and Coolangatta runs right through the middle of the terminal of Gold Coast airport. In theory New South Wales controls the southern end of the runway and Queensland the northern end. (Fortunately, aviation is a Commonwealth responsibility by virtue of the Navigation Power, so State-based hegemony does not apply.)

Kununurra quarantine is be based on Western Australian legislation rather than northern Australian cultural and commercial connection and the perspective which the Commonwealth could provide. Kununurra is five times closer to Darwin than Perth.

Shared responsibility is dangerous myth being pursued by both the States and the Commonwealth. The authority for a more epidemiologically sound response based on communities of risk, does exists under the current Commonwealth Biosecurity Act 2015. ‘Division 3 – Human health response zones, Section 113  Determining human health response zones, (1)  The Director of Human Biosecurity may determine that a specified area within a State or Territory is a human health response zone if the Director is satisfied that it is necessary to do so for the purposes of preventing, or reducing the risk of, a listed human disease emerging, establishing itself or spreading in Australian territory or a part of Australian territory’.


Contagion is like a very fast fire and, just like fire, early response and containment is essential. It should be on scientific information, best local information, and minimal politics. The lines of responsibility should be clear to reduce the number of chiefs, jurisdictional blame, and cost shifting. The Commonwealth should accept the responsibility for quarantine which the Constitution says it has.

George Wilson July 2020

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