Opinion: border communities are not a virus threat to cities

By Anne Webster

September 2, 2020

Anne Webster (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s declaration on Friday that he will introduce a commonwealth definition for the term ‘hotspot’ and that he would press state governments to adopt it is welcome news in border communities like the ones I represent in Victoria’s north-west. My electorate of Mallee borders both the states of South Australia and NSW.

An official commonwealth definition will give rise to nationally consistent travel restrictions and – by extension – nationally consistent criteria for permissible travel across state borders. This will particularly help towns and regions that adjoin each other along those borders, most of which have long been – and remain – COVID-free.

This matters because every aspect of daily life in border communities has been disrupted and reshaped with the imposition by state governments of border closures, too often without reference to either the national cabinet or the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and without any transparent disclosure of medical grounds for those closures.

As has been widely reported, hard border closures by the governments of NSW and South Australia, under the guise of emergency virus controls, have in recent weeks prevented Victorian children and teachers going to school, stopped farmers tending livestock on interstate properties, impeded access to medical care and kept doctors and nurses from going to work.

There are also significant numbers of rural Australians who have not been allowed to attend funerals, visit family or even return from boarding schools and colleges, when they were coming from – and heading to – non-COVID localities.

People’s lives in border regions – where there have been zero or very low active cases for five months – have been turned upside down, with no scientific explanation or justification from state leaders. This continues to cause distress and inconvenience on a scale which is itself posing very real risks to public health and safety.

These risks are being realised every time a Mallee resident is refused an exemption to access healthcare on the other side of a border.

For months, individuals needing to obtain medical treatment on the other side of closed borders have asked me to advocate for them because their requests for exemptions – which should have enabled them to cross those borders – had been repeatedly denied.

These are people with life-threatening conditions. Josie, a three-year-old girl with malignant cancer, was denied an exemption four times, even though her specialist said she needed follow-up surgery. Sally, Marcia and John – who all require ongoing treatment for cancer – were likewise repeatedly denied permission to cross borders for this purpose. Not one reason or explanation has been provided for these decisions. It is unfathomable that in modern Australia, these decisions are being made by unelected health officials.

An independent examination of how state governments have handled this pandemic would be valuable given we live in a federation under which every single one of us is an ‘Australian.’

People were truly shocked when Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said: “People living in NSW, they have NSW hospitals. In Queensland we have Queensland hospitals for our people.” Ms Palaszczuk’s “people” are Australian tax-payers, as are my constituents. Section 117 of the Australian constitution is meant to ensure all Australians are treated equally by state governments (and their hospitals).

The imposition of tough closed-border measures has been intended not only to restrict, but to deter and prevent, cross-border travel. There has been little understanding for border communities and how they live.

Cross-border movements must be considered sensibly, reasonably and in a balanced way. Australians – including regional Australians – expect access to medical assistance, school and work, and where farmers have properties on either side of a state border, they should be able to access those properties. This is what Section 92 of Australia’s constitution addresses.

The schematic details of a national code for cross-border travel by agricultural workers – the Agriculture Workers Code – is due to be considered by the national cabinet this week and will provide a framework for other contested activities such as health and education.

There is scope for a national health code as well as a national education code, if not a combined all-encompassing national code for borders. After certain tragic events last week, the need for national protocols for the expeditious transfer of patients from hospital in one state to hospital in another state – with minimal red tape – is now glaringly obvious.

Such steps have never been necessary before, but if we are to ‘live with’ COVID for a period of time until a vaccine is available, they will deserve careful consideration.

Where permits are mandatory to cross borders, it is reasonable for Australians to expect that their applications will be considered quickly and afforded a transparent appeals process. I think the creation of a national commissioner would be helpful to arbitrate between states proposing to close borders and to adjudicate appeals from individuals affected by those closures.

The commissioner would head a responsive and agile mechanism, considerate of the national interest, with the agreement of all states to abide by this umpire’s decisions.

The Commonwealth of Australia was not devised to be divided by borders. It was created to overcome them.

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