The Queensland government has come under heavy criticism for its decision to forge ahead with statewide elections this weekend while simultaneously urging the public stay home and practice social distancing to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Despite the pandemic sweeping the country, Queenslanders will go to the polls Saturday to vote in council elections and those who avoid the ballot box will face fines of $133.
Queensland health authorities say it is safe to hold the elections, claiming it would be no more dangerous for people than a trip to the supermarket.
But given the incongruous nature of the decision as states move to tighten restrictions on public movement, many Queenslanders online have expressed bemusement over the decision.
Today Show host Allison Langdon echoed the sentiment of many this morning on Channel Nine’s breakfast show saying “it doesn’t seem right”.
“This is something I cannot believe this morning. Queensland is pressing ahead with tomorrow's local council elections,” she said.
“This is at a time when we are pleading with people, ‘Stay home, limit your movements.’ Why hasn’t Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called this off? It doesn’t seem right.
“I think it is downright dangerous and it’s a decision that could cost lives, because if you don’t turn up you could cop a fine of $133.”
When asked by Yahoo News Australia if people who have been forced to self-isolate will be eligible to avoid fines for not voting, the Queensland Electoral Commission said voting was compulsory.
However the commission said telephone voting is available for certain eligible voters, including anyone who has been advised by a medical practitioner to remain in isolation during the election period due to exposure to COVID-19.
It is directing voters concerned about the situation to its Facebook page to get the latest information.
Fining people for not turning up ‘not a good look’
Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner says threatening Queensland citizens with fines for failing to vote in tomorrow’s elections is “not a good look” for the government.
“My view is that people should not be threatened with fines for not voting in this election,” he told Sky News in a TV interview Thursday.
“There are extenuating circumstances here, this is an extraordinary situation we’ve never seen before and to threaten people with fines for not voting is not a good look, or a good thing to do at this time.”
In a statement Thursday, the Queensland Electoral Commission said more that a million people have cast their vote early. This is in addition to the roughly 570,000 people who will receive a postal vote.
This means that nearly half of eligible voters have voted, or have made arrangements to vote, ahead of tomorrow’s polling day.
There are around 3.3 million eligible voters across Queensland so about 1.7 million are still expected to turn out tomorrow as all 77 local government elections go ahead, despite the number of confirmed cases in the state surging towards 500 on Thursday.
On top of the council elections, by-elections will be held in two state electorates this week with the Ipswich electorate of Bundamba and the Gold Coast electorate of Currumbin up for grabs.
There has been just one reported COVID-19 death in Queensland as of Friday afternoon.
Advice to voters as coronavirus cases rise
The Queensland branch of the Australian Medical Association is demanding more action to limit public health risks this weekend.
“We are recommending that those who have face masks to wear them when they are at the polling stations,” AMAQ president Dr Dilip Dhupelia said on Thursday.
He wants separate fast-track lanes to ensure older people are at polling booths for the shortest possible time and says the government should waive fines for anyone who doesn't vote “for legitimate reasons to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19.”
“It is critical that people who are sick do not attend polling booths. If you are unwell or in isolation, it's important to stay at home for the full duration of the 14-day quarantine period, even if you have tested negative for COVID-19,” Dr Dhupelia said.
Extra measures to be put in place at polling booths
The Queensland Electoral Commission is telling voters to bring their own pens, and no more than 100 people will be allowed at polling centres at a time.
It's also promised to provide hand sanitiser where available, conduct additional cleaning of booths, and have a strong focus on social distancing rules.
There's also a ban on ‘how to vote’ cards or other election material being handed out.
The Electoral Commissioner has also flagged that State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers could be called upon to help maintain physical distancing, the ABC reported.
The Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young on Thursday reassured Queenslanders that there is no risk going to vote on Saturday.
“We know, due to our fantastic pre-polling arrangements, and with the way Queenslanders have responded, and with the postal vote process, with all of that the number of Queenslanders left to vote by Saturday will be relatively small,” she said.
A number of those involved, including Gold Coast mayor Tom Tate has backed the call to proceed, saying the state needs to push ahead with the polls so local councils are not stuck in caretaker mode, unable to function properly.
NSW cancels its elections
South of the border, the NSW state government has decided to postpone its elections later this year due to uncertainty around the coronavirus response.
A total of 126 councils were scheduled to hold elections in September to appoint councillors and in some cases, mayors. However, following the outbreak of COVID-19, the elections will now be postponed for 12 months.
Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock confirmed the postponement in an email to City of Sydney chief executive Monica Barone on Wednesday.
"To provide certainty to councils, communities and potential candidates, the NSW government has made the decision to postpone the September local government elections in the face of the COVID-19 crisis," Ms Hancock said in the email.
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