Opinion by Phil Jarratt
Remember way back in the mists of time when Prime Minister Morrison and the Federal Government finally stopped tyre-kicking around the vaccine shops and came up with a better-late-than-never roll-out plan?
Remember how wonderfully simple it looked?
We all – or perhaps just the 80-90 percent of thinking, community-minded people – race out and get jabbed and once something approaching herd immunity is established, we begin to return to normal. Or at least the New Normal.
Of course, this was before the arrival of the Delta and now the Omicron variants which have further clouded the road to recovery, and necessitated so many crippling lockdowns that we’re approximately a year behind the original schedule.
No one saw all that coming, but one thing is for sure – the states that erred towards caution have so far come out of it the best, and the Queensland government of Annastacia Palaszczuk stood out like a beacon of common sense.
Not as rabid about isolation as Mark McGowan’s Western Australia, but nevertheless tough enough to stare down the powerful tourism lobby and the ratbag rural right to ensure the best results for the health of the population and the economy.
And it was all going pretty well until last month, when the wheels fell off. But the irony of the situation that we’ve been experiencing for at least the last three weeks, is that unless you live in the tourist belt, you probably don’t even know it’s happening.
Into the home straight, the Premier fell at the last hurdle, to add to a cocktail of festive season metaphors.
In the Noosa context, the disconnect between what has been happening in George Street, Brisbane and Hastings Street, Noosa was no better illustrated than by the fact that during the confusing days between Christmas and New Year, Mayor Clare Stewart felt compelled to write an impassioned letter to Premier Palaszczuk pleading for unfair and unenforceable conditions to be reviewed, for common sense to prevail.
This is powerful stuff. Clearly the mayor had had enough.
Council had been dithering about these matters since Queensland began its transition to the New Normal on 17 December, ramping up its concerns after chef Matt Sinclair vented emotionally on social media on 22 December about having to close Sum Yung Guys ahead of its busiest week because a staffer tested positive. The raw emotion sent shock waves through the business community and Council.
How many others in business were frustrated to the point of despair? What the hell was going on? And why hadn’t Noosa appeared on Queensland Health’s hotspots list since 14 December?
Council staff hurriedly sent out a memo attempting to explain that day’s new rules, which Deputy Mayor Frank Wilkie tried to distill into a short document everyone could understand, but by then the rules had changed again. Confusion reigned, and then it rained. And rained.
On 28 December Council felt the need to calm the horses through publishing a community update: “Mayor Clare Stewart has written to the Premier to seek clarity on the current approach and request assurances that we will have adequate resourcing for future local impacts. We have requested an urgent update on case numbers and exposure sites and for this information to be made public. Council acknowledges there is growing community angst about the spread of Covid being much faster than the Queensland Government anticipated.”
As strong as Cr Stewart’s letter to the premier appears to have been, it was by no means the first attempt to point out Noosa’s realities to the state. In the week before Christmas, Tourism Noosa partnered with Queensland Tourism Industry Council CEO Daniel Gschwind to lobby the health minister and departmental heads, becoming the first Queensland tourism destination to fight back, and inspiring others to join them. At the same time, Noosa’s Covid Response Team formed an alliance with Dr Ian Norton’s Respond Global to push for more realistic options to reopen the economy while keeping the community safe.
“It has been a hectic time for Noosa leading up to Christmas,” Tourism Noosa CEO Melanie Anderson interrupted a well-earned break to tell Noosa Today. “But I definitely think the government has started listening to Noosa. The recent decision from National Cabinet reducing the scope of a ’close contact’ has helped enormously, and I believe that the state will make it a priority this week to re-issue its workplace regulations. It was clear not a lot of thought was given to business when the state decided to open the borders and wrote the mandates. It is critical that our state government is proactive in thinking through its directives and the impacts on business. I believe that they see that now, and hopefully will move towards a ’living with’ Covid approach.
“But the work of our local response team is not over. We will be continuing to work with the ever-changing situation, to ensure Noosa is as safe as possible, but also where businesses are protected and can operate without draconian rules.”
While Noosa Council’s role in the Covid response going forward will no doubt be debated when meetings resume in a couple of weeks, Tom Wegener was one councillor happy to share the broader context of the issue. “I feel frustrated when Noosa Council must embrace state directives when they seem impossible for local businesses to comply with, and there are heavy consequences at stake.”
“For example, all the tourists who’ve been vaxxed and have done their test 72 hours before coming have an expectation that when they get to their destination everyone will be following the rules. But, with nebulous or unworkable contact tracing and unreasonable blocks to Covid testing, the rules melt away and confusion and disappointment become the norm – the Sum Yung Guys closure being the obvious example. The tension in the community is palpable. The directives of the state were simply unrealistic for delivery on the ground, and that’s where local government needs a place at the table when these decisions are being made.”
Cr Wegener believes that the real problem is systemic, and goes deeper than just the Covid response. “I want Noosa residents to feel confident that state government knows what it’s doing, that there is a plan. That’s not what I feel is happening right now. They come up with laws and regulations that don’t make sense or are unenforceable. The same disconnect is what I see happening with water supply in the SEQ population growth zone, with three separate state government departments fighting over water allocations from the Mary River. Unless they resolve this, we are all going to face massive unintended consequences.
“I think the state government really needs to take stock of how it operates, to talk to the community about the ramifications before it acts, not after.”