Victorian watchdog finds border permit system was ‘inhumane’

By Jackson Graham

December 8, 2021

Deborah Glass
Victorian ombud Deborah Glass. (AAP Image/Alex Murray)

Victoria’s border permit system was “unjust, even inhumane”, according to the state’s watchdog, who received hundreds of complaints, many described as “heartbreaking”.

Ombud Deborah Glass tabled a report in parliament on Tuesday outlining issues with how exemptions were applied during the closure of Victoria’s borders during Sydney’s Delta outbreak from July 2021. 

While Glass found the border directions lawful, she found the government had failed to exercise discretion fairly in the permit system and the exemptions that allowed some Victorians to return home.  

“It appeared to us that the department put significant resources into keeping people out rather than helping them find safe ways to get home,” Glass said. 

She acknowledged the pandemic had put pressure on public health officials, but highlighted a “constrained bureaucracy” had led to outcomes that were “downright unjust, even inhumane”. 

Glass’ report details people being left homeless because they lived in Victoria, people paying double rent with no job, people desperate to attend vital medical appointments who were told to see a doctor in NSW, and people needing to return to regional properties to tend to animals. 

People could request an exemption for a number of specified reasons, including end-of-life events or returning home for health, wellbeing, care or compassionate reasons.

But Glass found some faced a “bureaucratic nightmare”, with applications not processed because people had not submitted a COVID test in time yet the applicants could not travel until an exemption was approved. 

She also highlighted people being refused an exemption with no reason or review process, and people being forced to start the process again after applications expired before the travel date. 

“Aside from the myriad of cases that should have been cause for compassion, it is difficult to understand how a fully vaccinated person, testing negative to COVID-19, willing to self-quarantine on arrival, and able to drive to their destination on one tank of fuel, could pose such a risk to public health to justify refusing an exemption,” Glass said. 

“Such a narrow exercise of discretion may have been justifiable while a COVID-19 elimination strategy was still being pursued, but it persisted well after this strategy was abandoned.

“I recognise that the Department of Health was focused on the safety of people in Victoria, seeking to reduce the risks to public health by severely limiting cross-border contact. But the result was some of the most questionable decisions I have seen in my over seven years as ombudsman.”

She said the failure to implement the system fairly could damage public trust in decision-makers and government. 

I welcome recent amendments to legislation which provide greater transparency and accountability during a pandemic, but more is needed. Changes to policy and guidance will help,” Glass said. 

“We cannot let this happen again.”


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