As Victorians, we need to stay positive and optimistic about the future, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question some of the decisions that are being made to manage the coronavirus pandemic.
Too many of the decisions being made by city-based politicians and bureaucrats fail to acknowledge the fundamental differences between life in metropolitan areas and regional communities.
Coming off years of drought and summer bushfires, we are hurting too many people unnecessarily in regional Victoria with some of the restrictions described in the Premier’s latest roadmap.
Every job is worth fighting for. Every job is worth saving. Because it means one less job we will need to create as we move to the recovery phase from this virus.
Family businesses in particular, are the foundation block of our regional economy and many won’t be there to re-open under the Premier’s roadmap which strangely lumps Gippsland into the results achieved in Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.
When you consider that Wellington and East Gippsland Shires cover the same land mass as Belgium, it’s time for localised rules and municipality-based solutions to this wicked problem.
Let me stress, no responsible person is suggesting open slather. But we have already proven in regional areas that we can safely operate many more hospitality and accommodation businesses with social distancing, hand sanitiser, customer limits, face coverings, testing and people staying home if they are unwell.
Other states, with low case numbers like regional Victoria, aren’t destroying their economies in the same way. We need to adopt rules that reflect the risk in each region.
For example, there’s no reason whatsoever why Gippsland, the Mallee, Goulburn Valley and the north-east shouldn’t be offering ‘locals only’ sit down meals to get our restaurants, pubs and clubs operating again with reduced numbers. Flash your licence at the door, follow all the rules, and help keep more people working until we can safely invite our much-loved friends to return.
Under the Premier’s roadmap, we are many weeks away from achieving that and only if case numbers drop in other parts of regional Victoria, including the major provincial centres.
If we can have a large hardware chain servicing thousands of customers every week in every regional store, with no community transmission, I’m confident our hospitality sector can manage 40-50 customers a night in regions with low case numbers.
Under Stage Two restrictions we did re-start dining very successfully with no outbreaks and if we don’t do it again soon, we risk losing that workforce to states where jobs are available now.
And remember, if you don’t want to go out, because you are vulnerable, have pre-existing health issues or think it’s too risky, then keep ordering take aways.
My point is, there is an element of risk in everything we do, and every decision we make. Some people ride trail bikes or choose to parachute out of aeroplanes because they manage and accept the risks involved, while others wouldn’t dream of such activities.
It is impossible for the state government to manage all risk in our lives and there needs to be elements of personal responsibility and decision-making restored as soon as possible.
The current rules are the equivalent of closing the Princes Highway between Orbost and Cann River, because of a car crash on the Monash Freeway. Conversely, it’s like closing the Royal Botanic Gardens because there’s a bushfire at Wilson’s Prom. The rules don’t make sense to people living in communities where physical distancing is built-in to every day life.
There has to be more consideration of regional variations when you acknowledge that 294 postcodes (mainly in regional areas) have recorded no cases of coronavirus in the past fortnight.
It is frustrating and disappointing at the moment, but I must stress there’s plenty of positives in our regional communities to be confident about.
The agriculture sector has turned around with good rains and residential construction is booming in many towns. We’re likely to see more Victorians recognise the opportunity to live and work in regional areas in the aftermath of the coronavirus.
The challenge for all all levels of government will be to ensure the road, rail, air and telecommunication connectivity is in place to make that happen.
And our visitor economy in regional Victoria is likely to prosper in the next couple of years as options like overseas travel and cruises will be severely limited. Again, the challenge for all levels of government is to invest in the infrastructure on public land to make sure our built product matches the outstanding natural features we can offer.
But we just need to get more businesses operating with COVID-safe plans and more people back to work as soon as possible.
As a local Member of Parliament, I will keep arguing for a more balanced set of restrictions for our regional communities but in the meantime, I will follow the rules and strongly urge everyone else to do the same.
We are all in this together but that doesn’t mean we will all be impacted in the same way. This is not a time for political point-scoring but it is a time for sensible decision-making with input from the regions.
Stay safe everyone and please stay in contact with family or friends who might be struggling at the moment.
These are difficult and uncertain times and we need to look after the people we love and our broader Victorian community.
Published in The Age on September 9.