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Enhancing the quality of life for all Queensland communities

Glenda Kirk

Branch President

Director Infrastructure Services
Mareeba Shire Council

0438 686 191

NQ Branch Committee 

Glenda Kirk (Branch President)
Director Infrastructure Services
Mareeba Shire Council

Natasha Murray (Vice President)

Senior Transport Engineer, Cairns Regional Council

Joshua Flanders (Ambassador)

Graduate - Civil Engineer

Cairns Regional Council  

Hari Boppudi

Director of Engineering, Flinders Shire Council

Danny Lynch

General Manager Infrastructure Planning, Assets & Fleet, Townsville City Council

Neil Allen

Endgame Projects

Justin Fischer
Manager Asset Engineering, Cassowary Coast Council

Victor Mills
Director, Works and Building Services
Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council

For the June 2020 NQ Branch President's Report, Branch committee members were asked to respond to three questions. 

Glenda Kirk, NQ Branch President Director Infrastructure Services, Mareeba Shire Council

What has been the biggest challenge for your council/ organisation?

Only 30 minutes from Cairns, Kuranda, at the far east of Mareeba Shire has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Known as the village on the rainforest, Kuranda usually plays host to around a million visitors per year, equivalent to around 3000 people per day. The picturesque mountain retreat of Kuranda Village is just 25km northwest of Cairns in far north Queensland. Surrounded by the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest, the colourful village of Kuranda is the second most popular day trip for visitors to Cairns, after a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Tourism is the sole driver of the village’s economy.

Kuranda is home to an extraordinary number of artists and craft workers and this is reflected in its boutiques, art and craft stores, souvenir shops and market stalls, in addition to dining, rainforest walks, wildlife experiences, tours and attractions. It is presently a ghost town (as is Cairns to some extent!) and the streets are eerily quiet as almost all businesses are closed. In addition to tourists arriving by road, they also reach the village by drifting above the rainforest canopy on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or winding through the Barron Gorge on the world famous Kuranda Scenic Railway.

As a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions, many bus coach companies, along with Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway, suspended services from late March. With no visitors, local businesses have also halted trading, leaving the streets empty. While this is a bleak outlook for tourism, council has used this opportunity to give the streetscape a thorough clean and attend to maintenance on the village’s gardens, which include heritage-listed fig trees. As restrictions ease, businesses are beginning to trade on weekends to take advantage of locals venturing out following the latest government advice which permits travel up to 150km.

It is hoped that Kuranda’s natural beauty and vibrant visitor experience means it will welcome tourists back again, and that its makeover will help it thrive once again.

Under biosecurity directives, roadblocks were deployed in late March to restrict travel to Cape York Peninsula with police stopping all non-essential travel in a bid to protect Indigenous communities which have high numbers of vulnerable residents at risk of contracting COVID-19. Health authorities have identified a significant potential risk to the residents of the many Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait Islander communities in the event that the virus is transmitted into that region which has limited health resources. This has meant that public works professionals in those councils have been effectively ‘locked in’ so that they can continue to safely manage essential services, including water, wastewater, waste and road maintenance for their remote communities. Having capable, dedicated public works professionals in the regional parts of our state has never been of greater importance.

Within our own organisation, these roadblocks created unique challenges (and frustrations!) for Mareeba Shire Council. The check points have been established on the Burke Developmental Road at Chillagoe and on the Mulligan Highway at Mount Carbine, which are both within Mareeba Shire.  

The army and police have been intercepting all traffic and establishing whether travellers had a legitimate reason for travelling into Cape York, despite the restrictions only applying beyond council’s boundary. Council manages an extensive road network and other infrastructure within the shire beyond those check points, which were rendered inaccessible due to the travel restrictions. Graziers in those areas were keen for council to undertake its usual road maintenance works so they could gain access to replenish supplies and transport cattle to southern markets after months of isolation due to the wet season. Also impacted was council’s exploratory work to drill for a new, reliable groundwater supply for the township of Chillagoe which has been on level three water restrictions since 2017. A number of council grading and slashing crews were turned around when the roadblocks were first deployed, despite personnel not travelling beyond the shire boundary and therefore having no intention of travelling within the restricted area. Property owners and their employees beyond the roadblocks were also restricted from gaining access to their properties.

Repeated requests from council to relocate the check points to the boundary were declined by authorities. Council was able to resolve this challenge by issuing permits to council workers and contractors for travel within the shire if they could demonstrate to council senior management that they had a legitimate need for their travel in line with requirements from the authorities. Hundreds of permits have been issued to council staff, contractors and residents to date to ensure continuity of essential services and industry in Mareeba Shire.

Is the way we work about to change forever?

North Queensland councils are experienced and well-equipped to manage natural disasters such as floods, cyclones and bushfires, but were somewhat unprepared for dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic. This required re-writing business continuity plans and implementing measures for protection of staff and contractors to ensure continuity of essential services amidst the health crisis. Measures included improved hygiene in the workplace and changes to work arrangements as some staff permitted to work from home, leading to greater uptake of online platforms to communicate and collaborate. As travel restrictions ease and business returns to a new ‘normal’, we have gained confidence in connecting with one another through digital means and will be better equipped if similar impacts are encountered in the future.

Is your organisation resourced and ready for an infrastructure boom?

Councils are being inundated with requests from various state and federal government departments and other stakeholders who look to local government to help the economy recover from the ravages of COVID-19. In an effort to ensure a rapid response, shovel-ready projects that deliver immediate job creation and economic activity are being sought.

This presents challenges and opportunities for public works professionals to ensure that any infrastructure remains sustainable and won’t leave a legacy of financial burden for our communities, as some economic stimulus packages have in past decades. Sound asset management principles should be used to guide us in delivering the right projects for our communities, focussed on renewal of essential infrastructure and carefully selected upgrades that promote resilience and meet the needs of our growing communities.

While local governments have been called on to take the lead, we will be unable to deliver these projects alone. We will be looking to our technical and engineering consultants, contractors, suppliers and service providers in the industry to help deliver these projects which will enable our communities and economy recover. This is how we will create jobs, keep our local businesses operating and ultimately benefit our community over the long term.

Josh Flanders, Ambassador St George Project Services, Cairns

What has been the biggest challenge for your council/ organisation?

The biggest challenge for my organisation was setting up a mobile workforce so that everyone could work from home efficiently and effectively. Employees were to use either a corporate device or a personal device, and in some cases, remote access solutions were used. The use of Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams increased, with people taking a few days to adjust to the change of conditions. After a few weeks most adapted relatively well and productivity was on par, if not increased, from a home office environment. Daily video calls were good way to keep in touch with other employees.

Is the way we work about to change forever?

I believe the way we work will change in some regards and, rather than returning to ‘normal’ working conditions, we will be entering a new way forward. Employers will be more aware of how productive employees can be working from home and, because of this, increased degrees of flexible working arrangements could be introduced. With more people working from home, people will be saving money on public and private transport, lunch costs, and there will be fewer vehicles on the road leading to less congestion and emissions. Furthermore, employers may have the opportunity to downsize offices. I believe that overall we will be more connected online and well equipped, should another event of similar nature occur.

Is your organisation resourced and ready for an infrastructure boom?

Being an employer of choice who targets talent and the most appropriate people to ensure successful project outcomes, I believe that St George Project Services is in a very strong position to manage the industry growth that will be experienced in the future. They have shown capability working in a range of conditions and have grown their professional network within local government, state government and more over the last 13 years.