Wednesday, 17 March 2021
COVID-19: State and Territory Border Closures
Last year I rose in this chamber to talk about the #nobordersforboarders campaign. I introduced to the chamber the story of Barney and Charlie from near Bourke, who travel 900 kilometres to attend boarding school in Victoria and who last year, when their campus was closed, faced the prospect of flying through Melbourne, a COVID hotspot, to Sydney and isolating unaccompanied for two weeks in Sydney before driving 1,200 kilometres back to school. They instead opted to do remote schooling at their boarding house at their closed Victorian school, isolated from their friends and family during a time that, many would agree, was stressful for all. Through negotiations and the efforts of groups like the Isolated Children's Parents Association we were able to get the state authorities to see reason and enable Barney and Charlie to return home. We also worked very hard to get other school students who board across state lines to be able to join their families at home for holidays and then return to school.
One of the key issues, and the need for the 'no borders for boarders' campaign, was the haphazard introduction of border closures by states across the country, with unclear rules and regulations and unclear exemption requirements that changed on each occasion of border closures. So imagine my excitement when I heard that the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Phil Gaetjens, had been appointed to head a new task force that would report to national cabinet and that one of its key terms of reference was to work on a nationally consistent approach to responding to the COVID pandemic.
The Select Committee on COVID-19 heard from Mr Gaetjens last week and, as a member of the committee, I asked what that nationally consistent approach would look like: Do we have a nationally consistent approach to shutting down borders? Do we have a nationally consistent approach to addressing hotspots such that, when Premier Daniel Andrews says it is easier to close a border than to ring fence a hotspot, we won't face that into the future? Unfortunately, what I heard from Mr Gaetjens was:
… states are sovereign governments … the chief health officers have statutory powers, and those statutory powers are not something that the Commonwealth can wind back.
While I appreciate that states are sovereign governments, how hard is it for state governments to agree on a set of rules and trigger points so that the people of their states and the people of this nation can understand when they might face border closures and when they might face these incredible restrictions? Is it going to be when we have 13 cases of community transmission or a hundred cases of community transmission or one case of community transmission? We just don't know.
Last week I was invited to make a presentation at the annual general conference of the Isolated Children's Parents Association in New South Wales. I got to meet some of the families I was able to help last year, and their gratitude was absolutely humbling. But what was concerning was that these families still don't know whether they will have to face the same sort of tumult again if we have other cases of community transmission during the pandemic. I implore the states to come together and agree to a nationally consistent approach.
Senate adjourned at 19:49