Federal Member for Mallee, Anne Webster, has welcomed National Cabinet moves towards an ‘Agriculture Workers Code’ to synchronise coronavirus-related state border closures, but warns the need for cross-border movement in border regions is immediate and that she might yet have to ask parliament to intervene.
With Federal parliament due to sit this week, Dr Webster is considering the introduction of an emergency private member’s bill specifying decisive enforcement measures to normalise cross-border movements within border regions: enabled and supervised by Commonwealth officers.
“With border towns in Mallee well and truly in chaos because the governments of South Australia and New South Wales have closed roads to traffic from Victoria, coronavirus-control measures at state borders are creating other emergencies in border regions,” Dr Webster said.
Dr Webster said that while the National Cabinet process had proven to be more efficient than the more formal Council of Australian Governments process, state and federal Agriculture ministers are yet to draft the code and National Cabinet will not approve it before 4 September.
“Until then my constituents are having to suffer the consequences of the unconstrained belligerence of rival State governments, with cross-border permits repeatedly expiring and the rules around those permits constantly changing,” Dr Webster said.
“Adults cannot go to work, children cannot go to school (with some even trapped interstate, unable to come home from school without facing costly quarantine upon going back) and farmers cannot meet even the most basic animal welfare needs of their livestock.
“In some places, closed borders have even stopped people from seeing their regular doctors.
“These are genuine, human emergencies and they are causing genuine – but needless – hardships. COVID-19 is not present in the border regions and the blunt control measures cited in relation to it are neither lawful under the constitution nor justified in practical terms.
“Even if it is eventually adopted by National Cabinet, the proposed code would still be ‘non-binding’ and only serve to persuade state leaders to perhaps better target their restrictions.
“For this reason, with parliament due to sit this week, I cannot rule out introducing a private member’s bill to enforce the spirit – if not the actual letter – of sections 92 and 117 of the constitution in order to normalise cross-border movements: at least within border regions.
“Preparations for a High Court case would take many months and even then, one of Australia’s most senior professors of constitutional law, Prof. Cheryl Saunders from Melbourne University, has said (to the ABC) that neither section 117 nor section 92 actually contain ‘an absolute prohibition’ on state border closures.
“On this basis, it strikes me that a legislative solution would be the most immediate and effective solution until the finer points of the matter can be argued and decided in the High Court.”
“I’ll spend the next two weeks in Canberra fighting for reforms so regional communities can get on and live their lives.”