Victoria border closure keeps NSW company employee Dot Fox far from home — 75km away

Dot Fox has spent more than $10,000 on accommodation and endured three months away from home — 75 kilometres away, over the border in New South Wales — in order to keep her job.

She made the snap decision to leave her Wangaratta home for Albury on May 30 as the NSW-Victoria border closure became increasingly likely.

Thinking it would only be for a few weeks, she told her daughter to “just take a few essentials and we’ll go, we won’t be long”.

Three hours later they were on the road, and they’ve been living out of their suitcases ever since.

“The financial burden of the money, what it’s cost and everything else… it’s an experience you would never want to go through again,” she said.

The New South Wales-Victorian border has been closed since early July.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

‘Just about had a gutful’

Ms Fox does not know if she will get the money she has outlaid back from her employer, given the hard economic times.

“I’m not sure whether … they’ll pay for it,” she said.

“I might have to pull the pin if it goes on for another couple of months. I don’t think I can survive that long.”

The NSW Deputy Premier recently announced the border zone would be expanded from 2.5 kilometres to its original 50 kilometres.

But Wangaratta is almost exactly 50km from the closest border checkpoint, and 75km along the most direct route to Albury-Wodonga.

It’s not known whether the town will be included.

man stands in front of microphones with journalists around him
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro was in Albury to announce the easing of border closure restrictions.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jackson Peck)

Calls for 100km border zone

Under current rules, Wangaratta residents who work in Albury have to drive to Melbourne, fly to Sydney, quarantine for two weeks and then travel 550km to the border town.

Wangaratta mayor Dean Rees is calling for a 100km zone either side of the border.

“A lot of our workers work in Albury-Wodonga and a lot of workers in Wangaratta are from the Albury-Wodonga region and can’t come here,” he said.

“It’s been very, very tough.

“Get some common sense and get people who live and work on the border to get together with local politicians to sort this out, not out of Macquarie Street in Sydney or Spring Street in Melbourne.”

Ms Fox said she could have quit her job, but she was worried about her prospects.

“I’m in my 60s. The thing is I could have chucked the job in and, even though I’m a fit person at that age, age gets against you, and you can’t find jobs really because they don’t want to take you on,” she said.

And she’s passionate about her work.

“It’s in my system and I love it so I just sort of did it, thinking it only would have been a couple of weeks,” she said.

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Country MPs argue to keep 75km accommodation allowance limit while cancer patients miss out

For most days over the past seven weeks, 82-year-old Warren Huxtable has been travelling from his home at Goolwa, at the end of the Murray River near Victor Harbor, to Adelaide’s Flinders Medical Centre for radiotherapy to treat bowel cancer.

It is 75 kilometres each way, made much easier with the support of the Fleurieu Cancer Support Team, a group of dedicated volunteers who drive Mr Huxtable and other cancer patients between their homes and hospitals in Adelaide.

“I’ve been met by so many people with cancer that have been helped by this service,” Mr Huxtable said.

“I personally have had to come for seven weeks, which is not over yet. And I would just not have been able to manage.”

In South Australia, country residents who have to travel to see a medical specialist are entitled to travel and accommodation subsidies through the Patient Assistance Transport Scheme (PATS).

The accommodation subsidy includes a payment of up to $44 per person per night to stay in commercial accommodation.

But the scheme is only available for patients who live more than 100km from the nearest treating specialist, meaning residents of south coast towns such as Victor Harbor, Port Elliot and Goolwa, where Mr Huxtable lives, are excluded.

Tim Whetstone, Stephan Knoll and David Ridgway all handed in their resignations last month.(ABC News/Facebook: @DavidridgwayMLC)

More generous allowance for MPs

While the 100km limit applies to patients receiving PATS, a far more generous border applies to the accommodation allowances provided to country-based state MPs.

Provided their usual residence is more than 75km by road from the Adelaide General Post Office, MPs are entitled to claim up to $234 per night for expenditure incurred while staying in Adelaide on official business, up to an annual limit of $31,590.

Documents released by State Parliament last month confirmed three Liberal MPs had claimed almost half a million dollars under the Country Members Accommodation Allowance while residing on the south coast.

They are the soon-to-be replaced Legislative Council president Terry Stephens (more than $265,000), fellow legislative councillor John Dawkins (more than $168,000) and the Member for Finniss, newly appointed Minister David Basham (more than $29,000).

Yachts in the River Murray
Goolwa is a historic riverport near the mouth of the Murray.(Supplied: Kathy Bowman)

A fourth Liberal MP, former minister Stephan Knoll, has claimed more than $131,000 while residing at Angaston, in the Barossa Valley.

Like Victor Harbor, Angaston is outside the 75km limit applying to MPs allowances, but within the 100km limit which applies to PATS subsidies.

The difference between the two schemes does not make much sense to Mr Huxtable.

One elderly man standing and another sitting, both wearing hats, on a path in a park
Warren Huxtable and his partner Brian Jackson (left) would like the Patient Assistance Transport Scheme to be more generous.(ABC News: Patrick Martin)

A Government spokesperson said the 100km limit for PATS was “a typical distance requirement which operates in NSW, Victoria and WA”.

“The details of country MP allowances are determined by the Remuneration Tribunal, which is independent of government,” the spokesperson said.

Mr Knoll and fellow ministers Tim Whetstone and David Ridgway resigned last month over the expenses scandal.

MP subsidy ‘doesn’t pass pub test’

Greens MLC Mark Parnell yesterday urged the state’s Remuneration Tribunal to extend the limit on country MPs’ allowances to 100km.

“The roads have much improved since these rules were first written. Maybe a trip to Victor Harbor was a big country excursion. Not anymore,” Mr Parnell said outside a private hearing.

“Most people see it as beyond the pale that someone can get over $30,000 of taxpayers’ money to fund a Victor Harbor house and an Adelaide house.

Greens leader Mark Parnell
Greens leader Mark Parnell lives in Adelaide’s southern foothills.(ABC News)

Mr Parnell was one of several MPs, including Treasurer Rob Lucas and Liberal backbencher Josh Teague, to attend yesterday’s Remuneration Tribunal hearing on MPs allowances.

The ABC sought permission to attend to report on MPs’ oral submissions but was not allowed.

In a joint written submission, Liberal MPs urged the three-member tribunal to stick to the current 75km limit.

“We strongly oppose such a change as we submit it would be unreasonable to require a country member [of parliament] to drive 100km home each night after evening functions in Adelaide which might not conclude until 10:00pm or 11:00pm,” the submission read.

In their own written submission, Labor MPs urged the tribunal to review the 75km limit “given the advancements in motor vehicles and upgrades to road infrastructure across South Australia”.

No Greens or Labor MPs live on the south coast or in the Barossa Valley.

Further changes urged

Mr Parnell has also urged the tribunal to end what he describes as the practice of “double dipping”.

Since 2015, every state MP has received a common allowance, currently worth $17,728, which is paid in lieu of an earlier travel allowance, free public transport, and lifetime free or subsidised interstate rail travel.

Mr Parnell said MPs should be forced to expend this money before claiming other allowances available to country MPs, ministers or the opposition leader.

“If members of parliament have to travel, use that money. Don’t claim extra for travel out of the public purse,” Mr Parnell said.

“They need to make the rules clearer. They need to make them fairer and they need to stop politicians from double dipping.”

The front of a house in suburban Adelaide.
Yorke Peninsula MP Fraser Ellis stayed at former Upper House president Terry Stephens’ Norwood house while in Adelaide.(ABC News: Patrick Martin)

In their submission, Liberal MPs also sought clarity around how the Country Members Accommodation Allowance should be claimed.

Mr Knoll and fellow backbencher Fraser Ellis have together committed to repay almost $70,000 in allowance claims, citing what they describe as ambiguity in the tribunal’s ruling that MPs must “incur actual expenditure” to claim the allowance.

Mr Knoll spent time staying at his parents’ house in Adelaide, while Mr Ellis stayed rent free with former Upper House president Mr Stephens.

Government MPs submitted the tribunal should clarify the rule by inserting a clause specifying that actual expenditure could include “those costs of owning, renting and or maintaining accommodation, for example interest, rental, rates, maintenance and any other actual expenditure incurred in connection with the accommodation.”

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