I rise to speak briefly on the Mutual Recognition Amendment Bill 2021 as the proud representative of the thriving cross-border community of Albury-Wodonga and the surrounding areas.
When I ask my constituents about this bill, they say the same thing: this is common sense. Border residents will tell you common sense is not too common when it comes to the New South Wales and Victorian border.
We’re still reeling from the COVID border closure where the New South Wales border slammed shut in July last year, cutting our families in two, cutting our economy in two, and the economic aftershocks continue to eat away at us.
I was told only yesterday by the mayor of Wodonga, Kevin Poulton, that Victor’s Restaurant & Events, a mainstay on the Lincoln Causeway is shutting up shop for good. His business was decimated by blow after blow inflicted by city politicians playing to a city audience. They still see the country as a backwater at the margins, and our community was caught in the crossfire. And the emotional toll is still there.
My constituents remain fragile, struggling and uncertain about whether a border can slam shut again. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about welcoming this bill.
Albury-Wodonga is one of the main places that will benefit. This reform introduces an automatic mutual recognition scheme that makes it cheaper, easier and faster for people who work in registered occupations to work in multiple states.
This applies to tradies of all stripes—electricians, plumbers, builders, architects, real estate agents and many more. In Albury-Wodonga alone, technicians and trade workers are the second largest professional class, making up 15.6 per cent of the population.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a tradie in Wodonga who doesn’t do jobs across the border and vice versa. It’s a fact of life. It’s how our businesses operate.
But these workers need to apply for two registrations to do this work—one in Victoria, one in New South Wales—and this can cost in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it’s a real red tape nightmare that we simply don’t need in a border community.
It must be said at this point, though, that I haven’t heard tradies screaming out for this change. In honesty, that’s because they’re used to it and they just get on with it; they put up with. It’s what you have to do in business if you live on the border. It’s what you have to do to survive.
Registering in two states is one of the dozens of inconveniences that living under two sets of rules creates for every person every single day in a border community. But city tradies don’t have to pay twice the number of application registrations or renewal fees like my constituents. And all they’re asking for, all I’m asking for is fairness, and this is what this scheme will deliver.
A huge number of people in my area cross the border every single day for work. They live in one state and work in another. In 2016, over 20 per cent of people who worked in Albury lived in Wodonga.
In the Indigo Shire, 14 per cent of people in towns like Beechworth, Yackandandah, Rutherglen and Chiltern cross the border for work. Our labour market is very mobile and they move to follow the work. In these times, when the economy is jumping around, with the end of JobKeeper only days away, we need to slash every bit of red tape that might prevent them from taking up new opportunities or sinking their confidence.
For tradies moving to the border from Melbourne, this change can’t come quick enough. We’re seeing a huge influx of people from the city seeking a better life in our region, and they want to hit the ground running, but, for most, it will be the first time they’ve worked in a second state.
Stephen Donaghey, the regional manager of the Master Builders Association of Victoria, flagged this with me as an issue. He told my office that it can take up to 12 weeks to apply for and then receive a New South Wales registration, which means that, if you’ve got a job tomorrow, you can’t go to work. Imagine how much work they could miss out on. It’s not a good start to life in the country.
By making the ability to work automatic, they don’t need to complete a form a dozen pages long, they don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in registration fees and they don’t need to wait for months for the tick of approval. They can just get on with it.
This change also promises to make it easier for a surge capacity to rebuild communities after natural disasters. The bushfires of 2019 destroyed many thousands of hectares of prime countryside and devastated houses and buildings. Many people wanted to help out to rebuild, and we had hundreds of volunteers on the ground building fences, bulldozing and rebuilding houses from the ground up. The last thing you want to do is greet this goodwill with a 10-page stack of paperwork.
This bill has the backing of peak groups in my community who I speak to regularly about issues affecting our small business sector. Neil Aird of Business Wodonga, which represents the interests of thousands of businesses, is very confident that this move will be widely supported by the members. And Steve Donaghey and Ross Mitchell of Master Builders have thrown their support behind the reform, with some words of caution. I’m grateful to them for their time to discuss this reform and for their explanations about how it will play out in practice. However, they did have some concerns about the bill and how it will be implemented, which I’ve raised with the assistant minister, and I’d like to thank him and his office for their time in clarifying its operation.
In regard to obtaining state-based warranty insurance, I’ve been reassured that insurance providers will not require either Victorian or New South Wales registration in order to obtain cover in each state. Having the single registration will be enough, and it will be recognised as such.
I’m also pleased that there are measures in place to prevent licence shopping, which has been raised as a concern for both consumer safety and the integrity of the professions. Noting that Victoria and New South Wales have different continuing professional development obligations, I call on the government to really consider making these requirements more uniform, too.
Significant information will need to be provided to people who are working in occupations about what work they can and can’t perform in the second state. For instance, in Victoria the domestic builder registration allows builders to carry out work in classes 1a, 1b, 2, 4 and 10; in New South Wales, 1b is not termed ‘domestic’. We need clear guidelines for each state about what people in each state can do.
Thinking through this bill has brought back painful memories of the permit system that was in place for six months or more on the very same border that this reform seeks to address.
The New South Wales premier shut the border with very little notice and promised that there would be a permit system. When we woke up to a closed border, the permit system was a complete shambles. We saw police checkpoints and constant queues that made people hours late for work, if they were able to get to work at all. Businesses were shuttered, never to return. People’s lives were completely torn up. Before then, the border was simply a bridge you drove over to do your shopping, go to school, run your business or get to hospital. Now it’s a barrier that could close at any time without notice.
As the government slowly added postcodes to the list of border communities over the months following that closure, it was extremely clear that they had no idea how border communities work. And what we see across governments is a profound lack of understanding of how people like us live on the border and how interconnected our communities are.
There is no shortage of cross-border problems that we face every day. They cause everything from headaches to heartbreak—road rules and anomalies that learner and probationary drivers deal with when crossing the border, different certificates for the responsible service of alcohol in every state, healthcare provision that stops at the border, the availability of the services under the NDIS, and bushfire apps. I could go on and on.
The New South Wales and Victorian cross-border commissioners were created to work through these issues, and during the border closure they did a mighty fine job at it. I want to pay tribute to their work.
But there’s still so much work to be done when it comes to border anomalies. I welcome the assistant minister’s invitation for ongoing discussions about how we can further reduce these barriers to bring our cross-border community back together again, stronger than ever, after this traumatic year of separation.