Travellers from far and wide will descend on the north-west rural Queensland town of Normanton this Easter weekend for its annual Barra Classic fishing competition.
But with no doctors based in Normanton Hospital at the moment, competitors will be strapping on their life vest tightly and keeping a wary eye on rogue hooks.
“If you get hurt out here you’re going to be in dire straits,” Carpentaria Shire Mayor Jack Bawden said.
“It’s Easter break, we’ve got events on, people are out and about.
“We’ve got travellers, we’ve got a vulnerable population, and we don’t have a doctor here.
“I am completely shocked and disillusioned with this health system crisis — we’re going backwards.”
The Carpentaria Shire is one of many across the country hard hit by the “degenerating” healthcare situation, which is sorely felt in the vulnerable communities of north-west Queensland.
At the moment there are too many dead bodies on Mornington Island — the morgue is full following a spike in deaths attributed to a lack of health services.
“It’s shocking — we’ve had 16 deaths before April,” Mornington Shire Council Mayor Kyle Yanner said.
“When I was young, we’d be lucky to have one death every three years.”
In March, a Four Corners investigation revealed negligent healthcare practices resulted in the deaths of Indigenous girls and women in the Gulf community of Doomadgee.
Despite acting as the main healthcare centre for the region, Mount Isa Hospital recently cut back its ophthalmology services.
“There has been a huge decline across the north,” a healthcare worker said on Facebook.
“Our governments have lost the care factor.”
Bureaucracy preventing progress
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath and Opposition Leader David Crisafulli visited the region last week.
“One of the biggest feelings people have is that services have degenerated over the years,” Mr Crisafulli said.
“That is troubling, especially in an economic hub like Mount Isa — it just defies belief.”
Both flagged staff shortages as the issue needing the most urgent attention.
They offered several solutions in the form of better employee incentives and more effective marketing to put rural communities on the map.
But Mr Yanner and Mr Bawden called for changes at all levels of government.
They want to see a complete overhaul of bureaucratic processes and the poor inter-agency collaboration that they say were triggering service failures.
“We lobbied in Canberra for an audit of all levels of government, which is what we’re currently doing on Mornington Island, and no-one there could answer our questions on how much money was going where,” Mr Yanner said.
“The local government has all the problems, the state government has all the power, the federal government has all the money, and they don’t talk to each other effectively.”
Ms D’Ath said she recognised communication was a barrier when it came to identifying issues on the ground and translating them up the chain in a way that delivered meaningful outcomes.
“One of the things brought to my attention was that we actually give free flights back home once or twice a year to people working in rural areas,” she said.
“The problem is those flights are then taxed and it’s taking away the benefit.
“That was good to hear for the first time and it’s those sorts of things we can look at.
“I’m happy to advocate for that to the federal government if it means attracting health workers out to rural and remote parts.”
Mr Crisafulli said there needed to be better collaboration between federal and state governments.
“The federal government’s got a role to play as well, but that doesn’t allow the state to back away and say it’s all someone else’s fault,” he said.
Mr Bawden said having community representation on the region’s new health board, announced last month, was crucial to ensuring remote communities received the attention they deserved.
Less than half of the new North West Hospital Health Service (NWHHS) board members were north-west Queensland residents, while there was no representation for the Gulf Country.
After backlash over the board make-up, the minister last week announced a position had become available.
“I am talking with local elders, communities and councils, and making sure that when we open the nominations, they’re all aware, and able to communicate that to their communities,” Ms D’Ath said.
Selling the rural lifestyle
Before jetting back to the coast, Ms D’Ath promised she would be “sitting down with my acting director-general and thinking of new ways to not only attract healthcare workers out to our regions but keep them here”.
“People aren’t actually saying to us, ‘pay us more’, they’re wanting things like better housing, childcare, cheaper flights, access to affordable food, so those are some of the things we need to be working on,” she said.
She said a marketing campaign would help attract more workers to take up a rural lifestyle.
“The amazing thing is, everyone I talked to came here intent on staying for only a short period of time but continued to stay beyond that because of how amazing the lifestyle is,” Ms D’Dath said.
“I really want to capture that.
“We’re launching a big marketing campaign and we want health workers from across the country and the world to come and work in Queensland.”
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