Vax mandate not so Territory Together

The Chief Minister’s divisive rhetoric has unnecessarily inflamed sentiments in parts of the community, writes President Jarvis Ryan

Do you remember the early days of the pandemic? It feels like a long time ago now, but you no doubt recall some of the Chief Minister’s favourite slogans, like Territory Together and constantly telling Territorians we were “the best”.

This unifying language has vanished in recent weeks, replaced by sneering disregard for anyone questioning his hard line vaccination policies.

Those who question the wisdom or necessity of the sweeping mandate are lumped in with the very small minority of ardent “antivaxxers”.

Teachers, nurses and others hesitating about being vaccinated are dismissed as not believing in science or medicine.

Lest Mr Gunner tar me or the AEU with the same brush, I’ll establish some facts. I got vaccinated as soon as I could get an appointment. Our union has promoted vaccination from the beginning of the rollout, writing to the Health Minister in February requesting priority vaccine access for teachers and educators, especially those working in higher risk settings such as remote communities and special schools (a request that was never acted upon).

Our members have a high vaccination rate. In a survey we conducted last month of more than 600 members, 83 per cent indicated they were already vaccinated or intending to be. I wager that proportion is well into the 90s now.

Nonetheless it is fair to say there are some holdouts, and we have fielded a steady stream of inquiries over the past six weeks from members wanting to understand their rights and obligations, with the pace picking up since last week’s announcement of the mandate.

Because the mandate is unprecedented and strikes directly at people’s capacity to earn a living, it’s an emotive issue, and best approached sensitively.

The small numbers concerned about getting the jab are typically intelligent, experienced educators. Our union hasn’t denigrated them or called them anti-science – instead we’ve sought to understand their reservations, to work through these and explain the mandate.

Unfortunately, the short implementation time frame and the extremely limited basis for exemptions makes these concerns difficult to address.

For example, we have a small number of pregnant members who want to wait until they’ve had their baby before being vaccinated. The mandate does not provide for even a temporary exemption for these workers.

I suspect once we reach the deadline, the number of holdouts among qualified teachers will be very small, perhaps only a couple of dozen at most.

However, I wonder whether the government has truly considered the implications of the mandate for employment in remote communities.

In education alone, hundreds of local Aboriginal staff are employed in remote communities. Beyond the permanent workforce, many locals are employed casually by school councils performing roles such as classroom support, groundskeeping and working in the canteen.

As things stand, based on vaccination rates in many communities and what we are hearing about attitudes among education staff, I expect some hundreds of people will be stood down next month rather than receive their first dose.

The Government, in attempting to solve one problem, will exacerbate another.

In any case, the mandate will not solve the problem of widespread vaccine hesitancy in some remote communities, because even if every worker in the NT is vaccinated, that still leaves many people in communities who do not work and are thus not covered by the directive.

This brings us back to the need to listen to people’s concerns, patiently explain the benefits of vaccination – and accept that not every person will be swayed.

Ordinarily we accept differences of opinions – think politics or religion – as a normal and healthy part of living in a democracy. At least, we used to before the pandemic.

Since March 2020 we’ve seen Australian governments demand absolute obedience to every new health directive, backed by threat of huge fines and now loss of employment for failure to comply.

Politicians have leaned into this approach because it’s worked wonders for them in the polls. Now the act is wearing a bit thin, especially given the Chief Minister’s strong arming approach.

His divisive rhetoric has unnecessarily inflamed sentiments in parts of the community. Maybe that’s a means to an end for a leader who sees political advantage in demonising an unpopular minority. But it hardly embodies the Territory Together spirit.

This article was originally published as an opinion piece in the Sunday Territorian on 24 October 2021.