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NSW Ag Minister criticises government over border restrictions

By Geoff Adams

Two senior New South Wales MPs have criticised their own Coalition government while trying to explain their response to the border restrictions introduced to protect the state from COVID-19.

The NSW Coalition government has introduced tough new rules which are preventing agricultural workers from travelling between states to carry out harvesting, cropping and animal husbandry.

The NSW Deputy Premier and National Party leader, John Barilaro, has called for a national code to allow agricultural workers to cross state borders without permits.

The borders are an issue between the states and the federal government can't intervene to resolve it.

Farmer organisations have been appealing to the NSW government to create a system allowing essential agricultural workers to pass between the states.

NSW Agriculture Minister and National Party member, Adam Marshall said he understands the issue is critical as Australian farmers enjoy a bumper 2020 harvest.

“Our farmers have gone through the worst drought for in some cases up to five years, for two to three years ... they have a cash drought at the moment, a lot of farmers have put their last savings into this season's crops," Mr Barilaro told reporters on Monday.

“If agriculture isn't classified as an essential service, we've lost our way as a nation.”

Mr Barilaro said a proposed national code would come with several responsibilities for agricultural workers and employers, including personal protective equipment requirements and a COVID-19 testing regime.

Mr Marshall told reporters the coronavirus-prompted border closures were "hobbling the agricultural sector" and had the potential to spark fresh rounds of supermarket panic-buying.

“If it's good enough for the critical workers in the freight industry, it's good enough for agriculture and agricultural workers as well,” he said.

“Without them, we don't get the crops off paddock in the next few months, don't pick the fruit off the trees and we go hungry as a nation and pay more for food.”

Senior federal government ministers have long called for state leaders to open their borders, citing issues on agriculture, tourism, healthcare and commerce.

The federal government this month announced farm workers from Vanuatu will be brought to the Northern Territory to help pick mangoes despite a travel ban on overseas arrivals.

“Not many politicians want to stand in front of a camera and say ... while we deal with the many deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic, my fear is the deaths that will come from the economic crisis for people who lose their jobs, their home, their business,” Mr Barilaro said.