21 January 2021

The news of the re-opening of the South Australian and Queensland borders is a welcome testament to the dogged determination with which our community and businesses have complied with health orders. 

We wore our masks, we cancelled events, we checked in, we socially distanced, we disinvited relatives to Christmas lunch and we got tested. And yesterday we reached our twelfth day of zero locally acquired cases.

The health workers on the front line, and those contact tracing behind the scenes, have helped buy back some freedoms with the further restrictions easing for the first time since the Avalon Cluster emerged on 2 January. 

Unfortunately we will still need to wait another two weeks for hospitality venues to expand their capacity to one person per two square metres, and will still be required to wear masks in some places, including on public transport.

It has been widely reported that the Premier heard the news that our northern border would reopen second-hand during a radio interview after it was announced on breakfast television by her Queensland counterpart. 

The clumsiness inherent in that is reflective of a major lapse in teamwork between the states of our Commonwealth, and the community is being very poorly served as a result.

For an island nation that has performed exceptionally well in its handling of the pandemic, the rate at which Australia’s state borders have been snapping open and shut defies logic and has undoubtedly hurt business.

Tourists are now be thinking twice about booking an interstate trip when they suspect the chances are that the borders will close before they board the plane. Or perhaps worse, while they are sipping their first margherita poolside on day one. And this lack of confidence is suppressing demand and stifling the tourism industry as it attempts to recover from a horror year in 2020.

This week, I attended a meeting of the combined local chambers of commerce of the Bega Valley and heard first hand of the trauma still being felt in the south coast business community following the Victorian Government’s snap decision to close its border with New South Wales on 2 January. The decision consigned thousands of its own residents to traffic queues lasting up to 12 hours and thousands more to being stranded. How this could be considered a proportionate health response beggars belief.

At the meeting this week, there were tears and simmering anger as small businesspeople recounted the experience of watching helplessly as Victorian tourists dropped everything to flee for the border.

Some of their guests were midway through a barbecue, while others were reportedly several beers deep when the news came; causing inexperienced drivers to need to take over the wheel and tow caravans, boats and trailers for the first time. They all had to round up their kids and grandparents, and frantically pack their tents and caravans to depart on threat of a 14-day quarantine. As they left, local petrol stations were quickly drained of fuel, and shops were stripped of food and essential items. 

Much of the trauma for locals stems from the cruel timing; almost a year to the day that they gathered at the shore to shelter from the roaring flames that engulfed their towns, before seeing their summer trade evaporate as tourists fled.

Businesspeople in Tathra believe that after a horrific experience like that, many of their regulars will never come back, while Bermagui’s fishing competition is down from its usual 600 entries to 200. 

Merimbula’s representative said that their accommodation providers – motels and caravan parks mostly, were hardest hit and will struggle to recover. The costs and time involved in both COVID compliance and providing refunds are compounding the impact.

In Bega, Eden, Pambula and elsewhere, staff shortages are crippling businesses. Even before the border closure, some cafes couldn’t open due to a lack of chefs and wait staff, despite tourists banging on the door because other venues were booked out. 

Key workers are leaving these regions due to the amount of business disruption, and a housing shortage caused by bushfire destruction and an influx of relocating retirees and professionals from Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

The mental distress being reported in every one of these towns is real, and compounded by the fact that haste and poor communication from government meant that thousands visitors from the Border Bubble left that weren’t required to.

There’s no doubt that the advice of health experts must be heeded by our political leaders, and that swift, short lockdowns are the best way to contain COVID outbreaks as we saw on the Northern Beaches. 

But it is time for some national consistency about how this should occur, and if the Federal Government has jurisdiction, it is high time it used it.