When New South Wales suddenly canned a plan to get about 100 Canberrans stuck on the Victorian border home, the messages coming in from NSW bureaucrats and MPs were clear. The premier was behind the sudden change of heart. So last Saturday night turned into what Chief Minister Andrew Barr now calls "date night with Gladys".
A new kind of diplomacy
No one had any warning when NSW decided to change the rules on August 7, banning Canberrans who already had government permits from driving through the state. But by Saturday morning, everyone thought the situation had been resolved. ACT had offered a police escort to get its trapped residents home, with strict rules for those driving. It seemed like a water-tight plan. To everyone except Berejiklian that is.
Barr says he was forced to pick up the phone to at least get the conversation started again. "I didn't expect last Saturday night would turn into date night with Gladys on various issues," Barr says. They spoke and exchanged about 13 Whatsapp messages that night. A meeting of ACT officials was convened on Sunday morning to work through an updated proposal that might get the premier's sign-off.
Perhaps the most egregious part of the situation was the fact NSW had allowed federal politicians to drive through the state to get to the ACT. Why should regular Canberrans be treated as second class citizens?
"We'd heard NSW's announcement, but because we'd also been working for several weeks on the arrangement for Victorian MPs, we presumed that the exemption would also extend to other people coming through NSW to ACT from Victoria," Barr says.
There was a variety of reasons the Canberrans needed to enter Victoria in the first place. Some were burying close family members, others were essential health workers doing short term contracts. Yet Berejiklian seemed to have little sympathy for their predicament, and had to be convinced people weren't just in Victoria for a holiday. It was a major sticking point to overcome.
"To use a sporting analogy, we deployed all of our available players," Barr says.
"I was the one who rang Gladys and went through the fine details. The [NSW] Health Minister was saying 'You've got to convince the Premier'. The NSW chief health officer was speaking to ours and then there was the various police interactions.
"Almost everyone was speaking directly to their counterparts across all the senior decision-making."
An agreement was finally reached on Wednesday, allowing Canberrans to begin to return home from the next morning. But the solution just posed more questions about why it took so long to come to an agreement. The ACT had days earlier offered a police escort, and to make sure people only stopped at an unmanned rest stop. So it was perplexing that NSW chose a busy McDonald's as the rest stop, and saw no need for police along the way.
It's every state for itself
Those caught up in the bureaucratic nightmare were forced to make some difficult decisions. It was unclear if Berejiklian would ever relent, so they had to weigh up whether they should try to fly home.
Greg Robinson said after five days of waiting, he made the decision to leave his car and all his worldly possessions behind and fly into the ACT. "I wish we could have waited it out, but with no information from NSW for five days, we had to make a decision," he says. Many others stuck it out and drove home on Thursday. But once the relief settled in, anger remained.
Anne Cahill-Lambert was stuck in Benalla after her husband Rod finished a four-month contract as a locum doctor in Victoria. "I should say that this approach to Australia was not what our forefathers - and there were no mothers - had in mind," Cahill-Lambert says. "This is tribal rather than Australian."
In March through to April, interstate relationships appeared to be on a high and people lauded the success of national cabinet. However, the cracks began to emerge when states started coming out of lockdown. The movement of people across borders became a new diplomatic frontier. It's not the first time Berejiklian has been locked in a battle over her state's borders. She exchanged barbs with Queensland when Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk refused to open the state's borders to NSW residents.
The ACT is in a uniquely difficult position. Landlocked within the country's most populous state, it will always be at the whim of NSW to some extent. It is why the lack of cooperation shown by the state is so concerning. Throughout the pandemic, it's been too easy for politicians to deliver a hard-line approach, all in the name of public health. At some point you also need to have some consideration for your neighbours. The stoush could have been resolved almost a week earlier, without any public health risks.
However, Barr still remains restrained in his comments towards NSW, keen to highlight everyone is under pressure.
"This group of premiers, chief ministers and senior Commonwealth politicians have spent more time to together ... than any set of leaders in Australian history," he says.
"We've got to know each other bit, we've also had to share some of the trauma and challenges that go with managing this situation."
Barr points out NSW will likely need the ACT's help and cooperation at some point in the future. And when that time comes, he says he won't be holding any grudges.
"No hard feelings, no harm done," he says.