President’s column – 21 August 2020

How different would it have been had local government had been represented at National Cabinet meetings when discussions turned to border closures?

Completely, I would argue.

The substantial risk that comes from sidelining local community voices has been exposed in recent media reports of anomalies arising from Covid-19 border restrictions.

One story centred on a young family from the tiny Victorian town of Kaniva unable to take their small daughter across the South Australian border for medical attention – something they had done many times before.

Only at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s urging did the South Australian State Government relent and grant the family an exemption so they could travel to nearby Naracoorte for scans for their child.

However, for the thousands of other families still unable to cross state borders to go to work, to attend school or to do business, hard closures based on colonial rather than socioeconomic boundaries are more than tough, they are debilitating.

Had we been at the table, ALGA would have advocated for local regional communities, as we did for 28 years whilst a member of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

We would have shared our expertise and collective know-how with first leaders and argued for alternative boundaries or cross-border movement controls in areas where the risk of Covid-19 infection was assessed by health officials as low to non-existent.

ALGA would have conveyed the very well-reasoned alternatives proposed by communities in the south east of SA, the northern Riverland and Albury Wodonga areas, and around the isolated NSW Broken Hill community – with its decades long association with SA – to mention just a few.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But who exactly is speaking up for these communities at National Cabinet?

ALGA warned the decision last May to scrap COAG and constitute a National Cabinet without giving local government a seat at the table could undermine the coordination and joint effort needed to effectively respond to the pandemic.

The frustration and, indeed, resentment felt by communities directly affected by inflexible border closures could be with us for many months.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner recently said his territory’s border would remain closed to coronavirus-affected states for at least 18 months, and Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan has also foreshadowed his state’s borders may remain shut for months.

Restricting people movement to prevent the importation or spread of disease is an entirely appropriate response to a public health crisis, and common sense suggests that to be completely effective, there should be no exemptions.

However, when regulations of different levels, timelines and outcomes are imposed in abutting jurisdictions, the chances are high that there will be unfortunate outcomes – as we are now discovering.

Communities understand the political imperative for making states and territories safe for everyone – and the need for rigorous quarantine measure to bring this about.

What communities have trouble accepting is why, when a region has no recorded cases of Covid-19 and where the risks of community transmission are low, there is no tolerance for considering alternative movement restrictions.

The local level is missing from decision-making about movement protocols along previously porous borders, and it shows.

Mr Morrison has reportedly written to the premiers of NSW, Victoria and South Australia seeking more consistent border restrictions between states and asking them to address known anomalies.

Mayors and their state MPs have also written to premiers proposing “bubbles” around cross-border communities with Albury-Wodonga, this being an excellent and completely logical example of local input.

Federal independent MP for Indi Helen Haines said the region’s  current predicament “could have been avoided if the National Cabinet … had looked ahead and worked to devise an agreed protocol that required consultation with border communities to understand what constitutes a border region”.

Very well said. ALGA should have been at the table, on your behalf, arguing for exactly this type of fine-grained consultation. Local people tasked with finding local solutions.

 The efforts to reverse our absence from the nation’s peak decision-making body  continue. This week I spoke on ABC Radio about the important role councils will play in economic recovery, and why this requires local government’s inclusion in National Cabinet.

The reaction from across the political spectrum was heartening – and support continues to grow. Thank you for your continued backing in this important advocacy campaign for local communities – and their governments – to be heard.

Let’s do this – together.

David O’Loughlin,
National President