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Theatre of the absurd: 500 beds sit idle while thousands of Queensland kids sleep rough

A listening and thinking federal government would change its mind on the future of the Pinkenba quarantine centre and use it to offer immediate respite to hundreds of people now sleeping rough, writes David Fagan

Apr 30, 2024, updated Apr 30, 2024
A supplied imageof the Wellcamp quarantine facility in Toowoomba - along with Pinkenba one of two government-funded, completely unused accommodation precincts remaining off limits to our homeless. (AAP Image/Supplied by Queensland Government)

A supplied imageof the Wellcamp quarantine facility in Toowoomba - along with Pinkenba one of two government-funded, completely unused accommodation precincts remaining off limits to our homeless. (AAP Image/Supplied by Queensland Government)

A listening and thinking federal government would change its mind on the future of the Pinkenba quarantine centre and use it to offer immediate respite to hundreds of people now sleeping rough.

Does Anthony Albanese lead such a government? Its decision to hand a 500-bed quarantine centre to the Australian Federal Police suggests not. Instead, it has achieved a rare unifying moment for Queensland’s political rivals.

They are all united in their outrage at the allocation of the Pinkenba quarantine centre to the police for future training needs ahead of the immediate needs of the thousands who are finding themselves homeless because there just aren’t enough houses to go around. It doesn’t need to an either/or situation. Pinkenba can be a temporary relief centre for the homeless now and still house the police training centre once more permanent solutions are in place.

This policy and political failure is a textbook illustration of how our governments so often fail the public’s needs. Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner was the first to raise Pinkenba as a partial solution to the housing problem. While the state was slow to come on board, it belatedly committed funds to make it fit for purpose – all to no avail.

The federal government is vague about what training needs the AFP has that might demand it get first claim on the barely used Pinkenba facility, built for quarantine during Covid.

Right now, Canberra is losing a PR war it did not even know it was entering. But there is worse to come. There are strong indications the training will be very much about developing the AFP’s connections with police services in the Pacific Island nations on our doorstep.

It is very likely that sometime between now and a federal election that the Prime Minister or his proxies will be asked why the accommodation needs of Pacific Island police trainees take priority over the housing needs of families living in tents in parks or in cars.

Will Peter Dutton miss this opportunity? Not likely. Why would he?

The federal government has so far got away without really spelling out its intentions or rationale for putting police training ahead of shelter for citizens. There are hints that the quarantine facility isn’t really suited for alternative housing. It lacks laundries and common areas.

The full intentions, it is suggested, will become apparent through the budget process. I can hardly wait.

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There are valid arguments to build our policing partnerships with Pacific Island nations. We already work co-operatively to intercept drug shipments and fight other crime, including its associated scourge of money laundering.

Australia has strong reasons to build its relations at all levels in the Pacific, a role we have surrendered in the past decade giving China and its chequebooks free rein to extend its sphere of influence closer to our doorstep.

Citizens of the future may very well value a decision to ensure stability and tighten the security net around Australia through better on-the-ground policing, just as the efforts with Indonesia in the early part of the century have helped limit loss of lives through boat traffic to our northern coast.

They may. But citizens of the present, facing the omnishambles (thankyou Justice Michael Lee) of national life want to see practical solutions to current problems.

The cost of living, crime and homelessness are at the top of the list.

Converting Pinkenba to a respite centre for homeless people awaiting permanent shelter would not solve all the problem. But it would solve some of the problem – particularly if you are one of the people looking for a house you and your family can call home.

To discount the value of this doesn’t just display a tin ear to the public’s needs. It displays no ear at all.

The irony in this is the idea was championed by local government which has no role to play in providing shelter for the homeless. It was belatedly picked up by the state government which does have a role but has been ineffective in getting new housing stock into the market. And it was dismissed by the federal government which also has a role but doesn’t rank it as a priority.
It should change its mind – care for the homeless now with the help of the community groups skilled at delivering services and open the training centre later. And make it truly magnificent for each use. But please, just listen and think before acting.

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