House debates

Thursday, 29 October 2020


COVID-19: State and Territory Border Closures

4:35 pm

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My electorate of Mallee is one of only nine Commonwealth electorates in Australia that borders two states. It is also the only electorate in the country that still has extensive restrictions on both of those borders. When the South Australian government closed the border to Victoria, followed closely by New South Wales, I was gravely concerned for our border communities in Mallee. First, there were challenges with agriculture and seasonal workers, then people were denied access to essential health care. Businesses lost work, families were separated and people were not permitted to attend family funerals.

I've heard countless stories of despair and heartache due to these border closures from the residence of Mallee. Brett, from Mildura, hasn't been able to visit his terminally ill cousin in New South Wales; Wayne, from Werrimull, has spent months apart from his wife in Adelaide; and Tina, from Mildura, missed her best friend's wedding. There is also John and Jeanette Fader, in Lillimur. I met with John recently in Kaniva. He is suffering with throat cancer. Access to his treatments and appointments in South Australia has been exceptionally difficult for him. I've had to fight for medical exemptions for some of John's treatments. The fact that he needs to jump through hoops every time a new scan is required, and access to essential health care is being severely limited for him, is disgraceful. It shouldn't be this hard.

These stories persist despite recent changes to restrictions by the New South Wales and South Australian governments. The two state governments have had lastly different approaches to the management of the border restrictions. Although I've maintained throughout this pandemic that the New South Wales border closure is excessive and unnecessary, I must commend the New South Wales government for their responsiveness to the needs of border communities and industries as I've represented them. From the beginning, the Office of the New South Wales Cross-Border Commissioner held daily briefings with members of parliament representing affected electorates. These meetings gave me a direct line to the New South Wales government. They heard our concerns and those of our communities, and responded accordingly. The New South Wales government has created a workable permit system, a responsive hotline available to the public and clear lines of escalation for issues. We've also seen allowances for boarding school students, agricultural permits and exemptions for medical and compassionate reasons, and access to the Murray River for regional Victorians.

Compare this approach to the South Australia government's administration of their border restrictions. There is no central point of contact within the South Australian government, no cross-border commissioner and no discernible way to escalate or appeal decisions. The exemptions process has been complicated. It's management has been split between SA Health and SAPOL, and these departments clearly do not communicate with each other. Medical exemptions are unobtainable without significant lobbying and are granted for only the most serious of circumstances. Yes, we have seen relaxations on reasons to cross the border within the 70-kilometre border region, but residents in this region need to be tested every seven days should they wish to enter South Australia. Some residents will be due for their 16th test this week, which is a disturbing imposition on individuals who live in a region that has never had a case of COVID-19.

I've heard stories of abuse and harassment by South Australian locals directed towards Victorians, who have permits to enter South Australia, because their numberplates identify them. Victorians are being treated like lepers, and this is being driven by a campaign of fear dressed up as measures to protect South Australia. The narrative must change.

Despite their differing approaches, I maintain that both the New South Wales and South Australian borders need to come down. No matter what kinds of changes are implemented, there will always be outsiders. There will always be someone who misses out. The only solution is to remove these restrictions entirely. They say that only when you've said something a thousand times does someone hear it the first time. Well, I will say it again and I will say it a million times until the message is received by the New South Wales and South Australian premiers: these borders need to come down, now. They are destroying lives, they are destroying businesses and they are destroying communities. (Time expired)