World News

Australian state heads to the polls amid tension in 'COVID-19 national cabinet'

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s third most populous state goes to the polls on Saturday in an election overshadowed by COVID-19 and which looks set to extend a fracture in the country’s national cabinet on how best to handle the pandemic and economic recovery.

Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who is expected to be returned to power, has adopted stringent anti-virus controls, including the closure of state borders, causing friction with Prime Minister Scott Morrison who wants internal borders open to boost an economic recovery.

The borders between Australia’s six states are either completely closed or allow only restricted travel, as each state battles to reduce virus infections.

“It appears the Labor government will be returned and interesting dynamic will be what happens with national cabinet,” said Chris Salisbury, a politics professor at the University of Queensland.

“The pandemic probably has another year to go and Morrison will not want hostility with state premiers as he looks to repair the economy.”

Australia in March created a national cabinet which includes federal, state and territory leaders to coordinate measures to stop the disease spreading.

Once united, the cabinet has fractured amid a series of squabbles between Morrison and several state premiers.

Morrison will need to repair the relationship as he seeks to revive Australia’s ailing economy and get state approval to get more than 20,000 stranded citizens home.

Australia has for several months capped the number of citizens allowed to return home and several states are reluctant to increase the cap significantly for fears it could trigger outbreaks of COVID-19.

Morrison’s relationship with Palaszczuk has soured in recent months amid Canberra’s frustration with Queensland’s slow reopening.

Palaszczuk last month accused Morrison of bullying her after he chided the Queensland premier’s refusal to let a woman from a virus-free part of the country attend the funeral of her father.

Australia’s social distancing restrictions has been widely credited with limited the spread of COVID-19. Australia has recorded just over 27,500 infections, far fewer than other developed countries.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry