The NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock held a zoom meeting with Murray River councils on Monday to hear their concerns about border closures.
Federation Council’s Mayor, Deputy Mayor and General Manager were part of the video conference that provided a chance for the minister, and also the NSW Office of Local Government CEO Tim Hurst, NSW Police Force Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys, and a senior member of NSW Health staff, to learn first-hand on the current border impacts that continue to greatly affect communities.
Federation Council Mayor Pat Bourke said Monday’s meeting was a step in the right direction and a great chance for us to put forward real life case studies of the impacts, but there are still no answers yet to many of the questions raised, answers that we desperately need.
“Federation Council understands fully the risks to NSW from the tragic impacts being felt across Victoria everyday with loved ones being lost due to COVID-19 and that measures need to be strong,” he said.
“We did however make two main points. One being to involve Councils prior to making any changes, and not after the fact, as we can try and be part of the solution and point out many of the unforeseen impacts and unintended dire consequences of these drastic changes to our border communities.
“The second point was to extend the border zone south further into Victoria, and also make the permit categories far more practical for genuine employment reasons.”
Mayor Bourke said those in Sydney naturally do not understand how our border region works.
“These changes are not only affecting our own council business as we continue to deliver services to our community, but so many of our businesses, large and small,” he said.
“As an example, one of the largest employers in the Federation Council area, Rivalea, still have 24 workers as we understand, who cannot get access to NSW, to deliver critical services in meat processing and stock-feed processing.
“We also have heartbreaking local examples including small businesses who are working so hard to keep their doors open, to be dealt with these latest even tighter restrictions and having to make all sorts of sacrifices including moving in with relatives, just to try and keep their fantastic businesses going.
“As Council, we have workers outside the Border Zone who deliver critical IT, construction and other works, who no longer can get access to their workplace. “
Council advised that on the latest information, to gain an exemption for a critical worker who lives outside of the Border Zone and Region, you are then advised the worker has to go to Melbourne, fly to Sydney, and then travel out to their workplace.
“This is obviously not practical and puts the worker at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 from those cities, especially Melbourne, and or in the plane,” Mayor Bourke said.
“They could then unknowingly bring the virus to these areas. Even workers who want to permanently relocate to be closer to their place of everyday work, have not been able to do at this point.
Mayor Bourke said that council hopes that moving forward the State Government will consult with local government, prior to making any changes, as this has not been the case so far.
“The changes are made, and we are left to scramble afterwards to try and work through them. “Council does say a huge thank you to the excellent work of our local Member Justin Clancy, and NSW Cross Border Commissioner James McTavish, and their teams, and also Rebecca our Service NSW staff member from Albury, who is at the Corowa offices Tuesdays and Thursdays at this stage, to assist members of the public, including businesses, try and navigate through he confusing permit system.
“If we are given the chance to better explain prior to these changes, just how our border communities work, where they go for education, services, supplies and health and maybe then, the impacts would not continue to be as devastating and unsettling as what they currently are.”
Mayor Bourke said major confusion among the wider Federation Council community continues to be evident, following the release of the latest amended public health order signed off by NSW Health minister Brad Hazzard last Thursday.
“Council understands that some hard calls have to continue to be made in respect to the public health response, but what is really lacking in all of this, is the prior consultation each time, with Local Government through its local leaders,” he said.
“We are the closest leaders to our communities, we understand how they work and we believe we are in an invaluable position to provide real time advice before decisions that are impacting our communities so heavily are made. But the key thing for us though, is for decision makers in Sydney to consult with us prior and we won’t be in these situations as often as we are, after each new change.”
Mayor Bourke said the impacts on the border communities would undoubtedly be felt for a long time especially financially and socially including mental health.
“We’re all in this together - not just through COVID but everyday life and this is what we would like the State Government to see,” he said.
“Work with us, let’s really be in this together to protect the many different facets of our communities and support them through the many changes that need to be made in the best interest of public health.
“The time to engage with us before such drastic decisions are made is long overdue.”