When Melissa Goffin walked into Red Gum BBQ, the restaurant she and husband Martin own on the Mornington Peninsula, her chef broke the news she’d been dreading: “Did you hear? Victorian restaurants are required to close to diners. As of tomorrow at midday.” As Melissa tried keep a brave face for her staff, a customer approached her and assured her: “We’ll be back. Soon. When this is all over. I promise.” Melissa locked eyes with a colleague and they embraced, momentarily forgetting to social distance as they hugged and cried together. Then they put on hand sanitiser and prepared to close. Not just for the weekend, but the foreseeable future.
This is a year no one will ever forget. COVID-19 became a global pandemic, countries all around the world went into lockdown and by March it had reached Australian shores. The borders were closed and the entire country went into Stage 3 lockdown for almost 50 days.
“It was intense,” says Melissa. “Everybody had those similar feelings of panic and fear and trauma at what was happening.” Of the 45 staff employed at Red Gum BBQ, Melissa was only able to keep 20, utilising the Federal Government’s JobKeeper scheme. “The pressure of making the right decisions to ensure we would come out of it and be alive and thriving on the other side was really enormous.”
By June, there was light at the end of the tunnel. COVID-19 case numbers had dropped to single figures and the country slowly began to open up. Red Gum BBQ opened its doors again, albeit with limited numbers and strict COVID-19 safety measures. Little did Melissa and Martin know that the worst was yet to come. Cases slowly began to rise again in Victoria, escalating to the hundreds by the start of July.
On July 7, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire would be re-entering Stage 3 lockdown. Still the case numbers kept increasing. By August, restrictions were further tightened and metropolitan Melbourne was placed in Stage 4 lockdown. An 8pm-5am curfew was imposed and no one was allowed to travel outside the 5km radius from their residence unless they held a permit as an essential worker.
What did this mean for Red Gum BBQ, situated in picturesque Red Hill? A popular tourist destination, the Peninsula is 70km from the CBD, with a population of 165,800. Considering this, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Peninsula is classified as part of metropolitan Melbourne. Melissa was forced to close the doors on Red Gum BBQ once more. And an issue that had been bubbling away in the background for many years boiled over and started a debate that will likely continue long after COVID-19: why is the Peninsula considered part of metropolitan Melbourne and not part of regional Victoria?
This is a debate that Shannon Smit, president of the Committee for Mornington Peninsula, has been attempting to have for the past two years. One of the organisation’s key policy pillars is ‘securing regional designation and access to commensurate support’. Shannon believes the Peninsula is economically disadvantaged by being classified as metropolitan. “We don’t have the funding regional (areas) get but we don’t have the infrastructure metro has,” Shannon contends. “We are in no man’s land.”
The CfMP has put together a proposal for a study to be done on the regionalisation of the Peninsula. The proposal outlines some of the benefits of being classified as regional:
• Reduced payroll taxes paid by employers;
• Lower rates of state land tax, metropolitan planning levies and some property charges;
• Increased support for post-secondary education students;
• Improved funding for training, education, arts and cultural services;
• Higher subsidies for NDIS support and some medical services; and,
• More appropriate and ‘fit for purpose’ regulatory arrangements.
Shannon acknowledges that one concern over being reclassified as regional is losing the Peninsula’s green wedge. Green wedges are the non-urban areas of metropolitan Melbourne that lie outside the urban growth boundary. However, she points out that the Government has the ability to classify the Peninsula as regional but add planning restrictions that protect the green wedge. “We have no intention of changing that green wedge element,” she says.
Shannon and the CfMP had been working steadily on the regionalisation study long before the COVID-19 outbreak, including making a presentation to the Shadow Cabinet in July 2019. However, the pandemic and associated restrictions have brought the issue front and centre
as residents and businesses struggle to understand why they have been included in the lockdown. According to the Covid Live website, on July 7 when metropolitan Melbourne was placed under Stage 3 restrictions, the Peninsula had one active case and a total of 64 cases, while Greater Geelong had two active cases and a total of 70 cases. By August 2, Greater Geelong had a whopping 98 active cases while the Peninsula had only 17. Yet the Peninsula was moved into Stage 4 restrictions along with the rest of metropolitan Melbourne. It just doesn’t make sense to Shannon.
When she reached out to Nepean state Labor MP Chris Brayne, his response was simply that the Peninsula was included in the lockdown due to the health risk. “I know that the local member of the Andrews Government says he is working around the clock on these issues, but we are not seeing that representation,” says Shannon in frustration.
The CfMP took matters into its own hands, sending many correspondences to Mr Andrews and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton. When she received a response from Professor Sutton, Shannon was disappointed: the reason the Peninsula was included in the lockdown was because of an outbreak at Frankston Hospital.
“Well, those cases were in the last week, not in the month or so ago (he) made that decision,” Shannon says. The outbreak was in fact the week of August 24, three weeks after the Peninsula was included in Stage 4 restrictions. “It was such a pathetic response.”
It was a response repeated in an emailed statement from Mr Brayne when he was asked for comment: “We have been close to clusters of cases in Casey and Frankston, including when Frankston Hospital had an outbreak resulting in hundreds of staff having to be sent home, many of whom live on the Peninsula.”
Mr Brayne believes this push for regionalisation is simply a response to the restrictions. “If, for instance, metropolitan Melbourne wasn’t in lockdown and regional Victoria was in lockdown, people would likely be fine with us being part of metropolitan Melbourne. What people aren’t fine with is being part of lockdown. I get that.”
This is a view that Mornington Peninsula Magazine publisher Lisa Walton strongly disagrees with. “It’s not anything to do with lockdown. It’s to do with local groups, community groups, festivals, everyone out in the community not even knowing if they can apply for regional or metro grants.”
It’s a frustration Lisa knows only too well. In 2018, she applied for the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation grant. Unfortunately, she missed out due to some clerical issues but was set to go the following year for round two. But then she was told she was not eligible because her postcode was not regional – even though it was the same postcode as she’d submitted for the previous year. This year Lisa applied for a metropolitan grant, but with a much smaller pool of money available and pitted against big city publications, her independent magazines didn’t stand a chance.
“It’s not a fair playing field,” Lisa says. “In the arts community it’s particularly difficult – local theatre groups putting on shows at Rosebud theatre are up against someone doing something at the Atheneum in Melbourne. It’s like we are not seen to be in either (metropolitan or regional category).”
Back at Red Gum BBQ, Melissa was surprised to discover when she registered her business that despite Red Hill being almost 100km from the CBD, it was classified as metropolitan. This means Melissa has to pay almost double the payroll tax compared with a regional business. It also means she misses out on funding that is offered to regional businesses to help them attract and retain staff.
The distance from the city, the shortage of public transport and lack of training institutions are all issues the Peninsula shares with regional Victoria. It can take months for Melissa to fill a senior hospitality position. Even junior staff and apprentices can be hard to come by, with many young people moving away from the Peninsula once they graduate. “Every business owner on the Peninsula knows that it’s one of the difficulties – hiring staff. Everyone is pretty unanimous in saying the current classification is not for us.”
For now, the Peninsula remains in lockdown along with metropolitan Melbourne. Red Gum BBQ has been able to stay minimally operational by offering a takeaway and delivery service and expanding into retail, but not all businesses have had that option. “Every restaurant is having their own experience,” Melissa acknowledges. “Some (experiences are) really awful, and I think many won’t reopen.”
For most hospitality businesses on the Peninsula, summer is the busiest and most profitable time of year, with tourists flocking here in droves. With so much uncertainty around when metropolitan Melbourne will be able to start moving out of restrictions, Melissa admits: “My fears are for the future and what will happen over the next six months.”
The Federal Government last month announced a $250 million regional Australia package with $150 million specifically for tourism and infrastructure projects, none of which Melissa or other Peninsula traders are eligible for. The Mornington Peninsula remains a no man’s land, leaving its residents and businesses high and dry.
Jane Flynn is a second-year journalism student at Deakin University