Senate debates

Monday, 31 August 2020

Questions without Notice

COVID-19: State and Territory Border Closures

2:05 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Cormann. Last Friday at the Daily Telegraph's bush summit, the Prime Minister acknowledged the heavy burden of restrictions on Australians, particularly in regional communities, who are limited in seeking access to essential and lifesaving health care, education or work and, for farmers, access to their own property to manage crops and care for livestock. As a strong critic of the one-size fits-all approach taken by state and territory governments on border closures, I welcome the Prime Minister's call for relative risks to be assessed on the whole. Can the minister please update the Senate on the steps the national cabinet is taking to secure a national approach from state and territory governments on the definition of 'hot spots'?

2:06 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator McKenzie for that question. Australia is not built to have internal borders. That is why our government is focused on keeping Australia as open as possible, while managing the health and economic challenges that COVID-19 presents. Border management must continue to be informed by the public health advice, which is why we are determined to get a hot spot definition based on that medical advice.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

The national cabinet has asked the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to develop a common understanding of a hot spot across jurisdictions. The AHPPC will consider appropriate movement restrictions relating to a hot spot based on medical advice. This work is ongoing and will provide people who are living in those areas with clear guidance on where and when they can access health services or where restrictions may mean they have to find alternative arrangements. Of course, states do not have to wait for national cabinet to bring forward commonsense, practical and compassionate solutions to their border issues—

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

as the Berejiklian government in New South Wales has already shown—

Senator Pratt interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

by announcing a border bubble with Victoria, states can enact sensible exemptions—compassionate exemptions and commonsense, practical exemptions—right now by listening to and working with local communities in affected areas. The health challenge is significant but we ask all state governments to continue to work constructively to resolve issues affecting the economic recovery. We need to ensure relevant exemptions are in place and apply them consistently and efficiently, so that disruptions to critical services for border residents and all other Australians are minimised as much as possible. We are doing everything possible to help our border communities, and the agricultural industry in particular, get through this pandemic and we call on all to join us in that effort.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, a supplementary question?

2:08 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Being unable to access essential healthcare, jobs or schooling is continuing to detrimentally impact many border residents and their families. Is the minister aware of any risks to achieving a nationally clear, scientifically sound, fair and reasonable approach to defining hotspots?

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

We have seen widely-reported examples of hardship—

Hon. Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

for residents in rural and regional border communities. Such impacts should, of course, be minimised whenever possible.

Senator Keneally interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Decisions on border restrictions must be informed by public health advice. As I said last week, ultimately, these are matters for the states and territories, but it is up to them to set out the medical advice informing their decisions—

Senator Watt interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

and to ensure there is a genuine public health upside in return for the restrictions and costs imposed on individual Australians and on our communities. There is no script and no rule book on how best to deal with this pandemic, but it is critical that decisions are made on the basis of advice—

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order on my left! Senator Bilyk, on a point of order?

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I really, sincerely, cannot hear what the minister is saying—even though I might not want to hear it and might not like it—with the interjections from that side.

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! That's a charming episode of finger-pointing there across the chamber from both sides, I might say. There is a lot of noise coming from the chamber. I was attempting to not interrupt the speaker and call order. Please show your colleagues some courtesy.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

The national cabinet has asked the AHPPC to develop a consistent approach to hotspot management and to ensure that the needs of border residents are properly catered for. As the Prime Minister said on Friday, there will be a definition of 'hotspot'. Hopefully, it's a definition agreed to by the states and territories. Alternatively, there will be a Commonwealth definition based on science and evidence.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Cormann. Senator McKenzie, a final supplementary question?

2:10 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the Nationals calls for an agricultural workers code as a priority and welcome the Prime Minister's announcement at the bush summit on progress being made to give effect to this very important initiative. Can the minister please outline the intended protections of an agricultural workers code and update the Senate on the progress of this work?

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian government recognises the challenges that communities and farmers have faced over the past few months as a result of COVID-19 and domestic movement restrictions. On 21 August, the national cabinet agreed to the development of an agricultural workers code to be considered at national cabinet at its next meeting. The code recognises the importance of ensuring that farmers, seasonal workers and agricultural services—such as vets and agricultural businesses—can continue to operate in a COVID-19-safe manner.

The minister for agriculture, water and the environment is leading the development of the code which would be enforced by states and territories through their public health orders. The fundamental objectives of the code will be to provide consistency across jurisdictions in the application of movement restrictions, including any national hotspot definition developed, provide a simple and practical definition of 'critical primary industries' and set out appropriate measures necessary to manage COVID-19 risks. As always, we're focused on protecting people's livelihoods. (Time expired)