Queensland is on a collision course with the rest of the nation over border openings in a high-stakes political move that risks flipping the popularity of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
The Queensland government is not confiding in voters, but the intemperate language adopted by Palaszczuk and senior ministers this week hints at Christmas being a closed shop north of the border. That means, ironically, that the state that has best managed to keep COVID-19 at bay may be the state offering its voters fewer freedoms, less travel and a more subdued Christmas than its interstate counterparts — and that’s a difficult message to sell.
“Where are you going to go?’’ Palaszczuk demanded when questioned last week by journalists about opening up. “Are you going to go to India?” Perhaps for the tens of thousands of Queenslanders born in India or the 100,000-plus Queenslanders who have an Indian-born parent, the answer might be yes.
But why choose India? Why not the United States? Or the United Kingdom? That immoderate political performance aside, the Queensland government looks as though it’s trapped itself in a corner, where the only strategy is a no-COVID strategy. And few believe that is sustainable.
Queensland: beautiful one day, closed the next. What the bloody hell is going on?
Queensland has been the envy of the nation as Victoria and New South Wales have battled high COVID tallies and too many deaths. Palaszczuk deserves credit for that. But a single policy lever rarely works when driving a complicated beast. And this next stage — where people deserve to come home or see family interstate — is proving a tad trickier.
This will be a challenge for the government. Queensland’s vaccine levels are significantly lower than NSW and Victoria. For example, 63% of Queenslanders have had their first dose and 44% are fully vaccinated. Compare that with NSW, where 85% have had one dose, and more than 60% are fully vaccinated.
Palaszczuk has to wear that. She appeared reluctant to be vaccinated early, and opted for Pfizer. Her chief health officer — and soon to be state governor — Dr Jeannette Young has also been criticised for providing comfort, early on, to those not rushing for a jab.
But that’s not the only reason why Queensland now finds itself in a bind. Palaszczuk’s mantra has been that she will keep voters safe. She said it, on loop, in the lead-up to the election, and probably every day since. So when the virus inevitably moves north, won’t she be held accountable for those who fall ill?
That’s the risk, and her tactic from day one was to make it as hard as possible for the virus to get here. The cost of that, though, is wearing thin: families torn apart; parents unable to see children; doctors unable to operate on interstate patients; university students forced to study in their rooms; too many families without an income. Many have been highly supportive of the government until now want to be compensated for locking down every time a single case is found. They believe it’s time they were allowed to hug family, visit friends, look forward to overseas holidays and ensure they catch up on health checks.
More than 3000 Queensland families are stranded in other states — but a roll call of footballers has been given red carpet entry into the state. And when genuine and heartbreaking problems are raised — as the state’s human rights commissioner did recently — about who can cross the border and who can’t they are immediately criticised. It’s sounding as though the premier, like a string of Queensland leaders before her, is starting to believe her way is the only way and that no one else deserves a say.
So what’s her next move?
Many voters think — rightly — that it is incredibly unfair that Queensland, where there have been limited cases, will remain locked up when Dan Andrews in Victoria and Gladys Berejiklian in NSW are allowing their voters new freedoms. Palaszczuk has brought that on herself. Policy needs to be more than a mantra of “I’ll keep you safe’’. It needs to be multi-focused, and flexible, and include the next step.
If the Queensland government has one, it’s not revealing it. And criticising residents who might want to travel to India — or anywhere — should not win any votes.Internet Explorer Channel Network