The New South Wales deputy premier, John Barilaro, has come under fire for “highly offensive” comments he made comparing a funeral in the western NSW town of Wilcannia – attended by about 300 people in compliance with the health orders at the time – to “the 16 dickheads in Maroubra” who spread Covid after having a party.
The far western Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party MP Roy Butler said Barilaro must apologise.
“His statements are devoid of fact, highly offensive and must be retracted immediately,” Butler said.
Barilaro’s comments on Tuesday were made just days after the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, expressed regret for comparing the two gatherings.
On 13 August, a funeral was held in Wilcannia for a 27-year-old man. At that time the shire was not in lockdown, funerals were permitted and police had confirmed the event was Covid-safe.
“There was not a single offence by Wilcannia residents detected by NSW police before, during or after the funeral. There were no breaches of the health orders by anyone living in Wilcannia,” Butler said.
“The Wilcannia community have done everything in their power to protect themselves from Covid. They have made sacrifices in the past 18 months beyond anyone’s comprehension.
“In the last week, they have organised themselves to fight against Covid in their community. They have organised food deliveries, they have organised welfare checks, and they looked after themselves for a number of days. It took days and my appeals to see state government assistance finally delivered.
“It’s not within my nature to make statements like this, but I cannot ignore something as appalling as this. The deputy premier must reflect on his comments and apologise to the community.”
Butler attached audio of Barilaro’s comments to his statement. In it, the deputy premier is heard saying: “300-plus people attended a funeral in Wilcannia, illegally you could argue. Illegally. And we’re now paying the price of that outbreak, and whatever resources you could’ve prepared for, I don’t think you could’ve ever prepared for such an outcome. [It’s] no different to the 16 dickheads in Maroubra that decided to have a party last week that have now infected about 50 people.”
Daryl Bugmy, the brother of the man who died, told the ABC: “I would like an apology, and the community would like an apology, and for them to start doing their job and actually start helping out a community that’s actually in crisis instead of judging people and criticising a whole community. He needs to get his facts right.”
Barilaro said he didn’t mean “to place blame” and his comments had been taken out of context.
“I was advised of a funeral in Wilcannia where between 100 and 350 people attended, some of which travelled from locked-down areas, therefore breaking stay-at-home orders,” the NSW Nationals leader said in a statement on Wednesday.
“I was disappointed because we are going to great lengths to ensure the safety and protection of regional communities. But my intention is never to place blame but to encourage people to do the right thing and I apologise for any confusion or offence caused.
“The comment to which Mr Butler is referring has been taken out of context. I was referring specifically to an illegal event in Maroubra and I was not drawing a comparison to the event at Wilcannia.”
NSW police confirmed the funeral complied with public health orders in place at the time. “However, one person … received a $1,000 penalty infringement notice for travelling from Dubbo to the event as stay-at-home orders were in place for residents of Dubbo LGA,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Two further Dubbo residents have been given warnings.”
Hazzard had already expressed regret for comments he made at a press conference on Saturday equating those who attended the Wilcannia funeral to the illegal gathering in Maroubra.
“Each and every one of your doctors, the nurses, your administration people … the cleaners, are all having their lives in a very precarious position as a result of a number of people who are deliberately … not complying with what they’ve been asked to do,” he said.
“The Maroubra party – 16 positive cases to date. I’m hearing there could have been up to about 60 people who attended that party. Another funeral that occurred in western NSW, I’m hearing that there could have been up to between 350 and 500 people at that funeral.
“Each of these people who are going to these functions must understand that they run the risk of either having the virus and transmitting it or getting the virus and taking it home to their families and their communities.”
In a subsequent statement to NITV, the health minister said he regretted “any hurt caused”.
“But the simple fact is that this Delta variant is spreading where large groups of people come together,” he said.
“While no disrespect was intended it is crucial that everybody gets the message – large gatherings spread this extremely dangerous virus that causes severe illness and death.”