Federation Chamber

Dr HAINES (Indi) (18:47): I first want to acknowledge the member for Mallee for her advocacy for her community during the border crisis and for bringing this motion to this House. Together, we had over 25 meetings with the New South Wales border commissioner—and I’m sure she had them with the South Australian border commissioner on top of that. We share the belief that we need scientific foundations for policies that cause this level of harm or we don’t have them at all.

One week ago today, I stood on the bridge that links Albury and Wodonga over the Murray River. Gone were the police, gone were the ADF and gone were the bollards, the concrete dividers, the tents and the floodlights that comprised the border checkpoint for 138 long days and long nights. At 12.01 am that morning the border opened up again. Cars streamed across as DJ Steve Bowen, a fixture at hundreds of local weddings and formals, provided the backing track for this historic moment.

Along the Murray, the border communities of Corowa, Wahgunyah, Jingellic, Walwa and many others were quietly reunited. Hours later peak traffic returned to normal with thousands of commuters crossing the border unimpeded for the first time in months.

In my electorate we’re experiencing a moment of cautious pride. In this moment, it’s tempting to forget what we’ve just been through. But the border closure has been a deeply traumatic experience as the member for Mallee has just recounted. For many, it rivals the impacts of bushfires that devastated my community just six months before.

My office has dealt with over 700 individual constituent concerns about the border closure, each with their own story of heartbreak, despair, frustration or confusion.

The sudden announcement of the hard border closure on 6 July and the chaos in the week that followed was only a taste of what was to come. The mayors of local councils were not consulted nor were schools or healthcare, construction, agriculture or business sectors. Decades of work to bring the region together was wiped away in the stroke of a pen. The long awaited signing of the Albury-Wodonga regional deal, known as Two Cities One Community, scheduled just days after the border closed was changed, so it happened without fanfare, and the irony was lost on no-one.

An agreement on border closures was on the agenda for the national cabinet. Time and time again, we both called for it. Each meeting ended without one. There was no protocol, no plan, applications for exemptions piled up and, while we waited, jobs were lost, family members got sick and some of them died alone.

Sensible solutions were proposed by the community: move the border north of Albury so it doesn’t split us in two, bring whole communities into the border zone, introduce a daily life permit, but progress was slow and often too late.

In the ‘Framework for the National Reopening’, as the member just described, a key principle is that ‘response measures and decisions should be proportionate to the risk of harm and transmission’.

As a nurse and a rural public health researcher with a degree in public health, I am the first to support public health measures; I’ve been doing so all the way through this pandemic. But I find myself asking: was this border closure proportionate to the problem at hand? Was the crippling economic cost and human toll worth it?

Once established, the so-called ‘ring of steel’ kept the virus contained in Melbourne and only two cases were reported in my border communities in the second wave. So, under these circumstances, I find myself struggling to say, ‘Yes it was proportionate; yes it was worth it.’ I don’t think so. We need to learn the lessons of this experience and understand what can be done better should the borders—God help us—close again.

I’m pleased this will be examined by the New South Wales government, which will conduct a review of the border closure response. But in the interests of transparency, this must be public so that border communities on both sides can participate, and the findings and recommendations must be published. Victorians wore the cost of border closure but did so without New South Wales government support, and their voices deserve to be heard. For those who work daily within the two jurisdictions, we need to learn valuable lessons in the areas of health, education, agriculture, farming and emergency services.

Of course, I share the New South Wales Premier’s hope that this is the last time in our lifetime that the border is closed but, until we have a vaccine, the threat remains. I commend the work of the border commissioners, I commend the work of the electorate officers in my office and right across the border, and the MPs I worked with, including the member for Mallee. I thank the community, who bore the brunt of so much anguish. We must do better if this is ever to happen again.

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