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Best of a bad decision: Why Premier took the odds to another border closure

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This weekend’s sudden Queensland border closure due to the second wave of coronavirus in Australia’s southern states has sparked mixed reactions — from disappointment to relief — among Queenslanders and business owners across the state.

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It comes as a wave of people have been caught either bypassing restrictions or falsifying border declarations so they could bypass quarantine.

Tourism operators said shutting the border to nearly 8 million residents from New South Wales and the ACT could potentially decimate their struggling businesses, with a mass of cancellations.

Queensland Tourism Industry Council (QTIC) chief executive officer Daniel Gschwind stopped short of saying the decision to shut the border was wrong.

“It came so soon and so suddenly — we did not anticipate a whole border closure again,” Gschwind said.

“We thought the situation in New South Wales was not developing too badly.

“It is another blow to the tourism industry that is already punch drunk from six months of bad news and it will introduce more uncertainty.”

Gschwind said there would “be a wave of cancellations”.

“It is happening already… in an environment that makes it very difficult to plan for the future,” he said.

“It is tough times for all of us, but we are calling on the Government for some guidance to create a future — we need a path towards it.”

The border restrictions will be reviewed at the end of August. Today, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk visited the Gold Coast to thank locals, and officers manning the border, for their assistance. The visit came on a day when there were no new Queensland COVID-19 cases to announce, nor any major border breaches.

Palaszczuk took the opportunity to join with Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate, who has backed the restrictions, in announcing the start of the business case to extend light rail to Coolangatta and the airport. The Premier said she hoped it would act as a form of economic stimulus.

Decision made without warning, consultation

Peak industry body the Accommodation Association of Australia (AAOA) described the border shutdown as “extremely disappointing, given there has only been a total of 21 cases in the past four weeks”.

AAOA chief executive officer Dean Long said while he agreed health considerations had to be at the forefront of decision making, this decision was made without warning or consultation.

“It will now mean an acceleration of job losses in Queensland’s tourism sector,” Long said.

“It is absolutely critical that we get the balance right between protecting lives and protecting jobs — the flow-on ramifications of slamming shut borders are huge.

“Decisions such as this destroy the confidence of businesses and tourism-reliant communities.”

Palaszczuk said she would continue to rely on the health advice, noting, again, that the Liberal National Party had repeatedly called for the border to be reopened before the government was prepared to do so.

‘The odds are lousy’

However, economist Nick Behrens said “sometimes you have to lose a little, not to lose the lot”.

Behrens said it was important to keep the economic impact of interstate travel into Queensland in perspective.

“In terms of the importance on interstate domestic tourism, its importance is generally overstated for Queensland,” he said.

“It is worth $5.9 billion to Queensland each year and that is a lot of money, but overall economic activity is worth $359 billion a year — so it represents no more than 1.6 per cent overall.”

Behrens said “from an economic point of view, there is an overwhelming case to shut the border”.

“If you were a gambler at a casino or betting on a horse race, or as an investor, you would not risk $100 for the sake of gaining an extra $1.60,” he said.

“The odds are lousy and … why you would jeopardise our entire economy for the sake of trying to gain an extra 1.6 per cent in economic activity, if there is a health risk.”

Palaszczuk today acknowledged no modelling had been done on the economic impact of the latest restrictions.

“We will see how things go,” Palaszczuk told reporters.

“There will be some economic impacts but … if we have a second wave here it would be in excess of $4.8 billion.”

‘Best of a bad decision’

Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland (CCIQ) spokeswoman Amanda Rohan said she understood the decision to close Queensland’s borders again was based on health advice.

“Will it impact on business? There is no denying that, especially for those who rely on interstate travellers,” Rohan said.

“Conditions are incredibly tough for those sectors, but we also know business generally does not have the bandwidth to go through another shutdown in Queensland — it is the thing they fear the most.

“So shutting the border to avoid a second wave here is the best of a bad decision.”

Rohan said their recent Pulse survey found most businesses has “12 months in the tank on the back of any stimulus”.

“It is time the State Government stepped in with an economic recovery plan,” Rohan said.

Palaszczuk said the government had announced support packages, such as small business grants, and would continue talking to stakeholders.

‘Liars who put lives at risk’

Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate said those attempting to bypass restrictions are “liars who put lives at risk”.

“They are largely to blame for tougher border restrictions being introduced this weekend,” Tate said.

“We had a good go and now the trust is out of the picture, and really with the outbreak continuing to be there in Victoria and Greater Sydney, I think it’s the prudent thing to do.”

Tate said he would work with police to lessen the inconvenience for those who lived close to the border.

But operators like Janita Hanwood, who runs a border cafe at Coolangatta, said no matter which way you looked at it, it was a lose-lose situation.

Hanwood said it was going to continue to make it very difficult for local people to cross.

“They’re going to have to apply for more exemptions,” Hanwood said.

“We were only just starting to build it up again, then with everything happening just over the last two weeks, things have really quieted down again.”

She said she had “almost gone back to the beginning when we first started with the COVID-19 outbreak and everything went into lockdown”.

“I’d say we’ve lost at least 50 per cent of our business and we’re expecting that to stay like that for a long time until everything sorts itself out”.

Hanwood said some of her workers lived just on the other side of the border in New South Wales, so getting to work would continue to be a struggle.

Deputy Police Commissioner Steve Gollschewski today acknowledged there would be longer queues and waiting times on the border as the restrictions were introduced. But new arrangements were being introduced for border communities, and he was confident the changes would improve compliance.

‘Greatest news in weeks’

Meanwhile, in regional Queensland, some locals welcomed the border decision, saying it was the “greatest news in weeks” because it would save lives.

And NSW holiday-maker Neville Mitchell was not fussed about this weekend’s border shutdown at all.

The retiree has decided to keep on enjoying the Gold Coast sunshine, rather than head home to Shellharbour, south of Woollongong.

“I’ve got a brother in Rockhampton, and my son has just moved to the Sunshine Coast from Airlie Beach, so I can go and visit them,” he said.

“I’ve got a mate at Bargara, so I can hang out at his place too.

“I don’t want to go home if the COVID’s getting out of hand down there.

“Queensland’s probably the place to be at the moment, so I’ll stay out of trouble.”

– ABC / Lexy Hamilton-Smith and staff

– With Sean Parnell

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