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The politics and pitfalls of Fortress Australia


The Morrison Government is in no hurry to let people in or out of the country, but pressure is growing, writes Michelle Grattan

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Australians of Indian heritage are not just trying to get back home — many are attempting to go to India.

Scott Morrison revealed on Wednesday that since April 23, more more than 1,000 people had sought to travel there. “Now we haven’t let them go — for obvious reasons,” he said.

The government declined to provide a breakdown of the reasons given for wanting to travel. Officials will be quizzed at Senate estimates early next week.

We can presume, however, that a significant proportion sought to leave on compassionate grounds — family illnesses and funerals.

These are absolutely legitimate reasons for people trying to travel. They aren’t some indulgence. And our system should be up to dealing with people caught in family crises.

As things stand, those facing such situations don’t have a hope. The only exemptions currently being considered for travel to India are in three categories: critical workers providing assistance in the pandemic there; people travelling in Australia’s national interest (diplomats and the like); and anyone seeking urgent medical treatment that’s not available here (which would be no one, you’d think).

Morrison and his ministers display less emotion than you might expect in their comments about those Australians desperate to cope with illnesses or deaths of loved ones far away. They do not seem able to walk in their shoes.

It’s a similar story with the children stranded in India.

A Senate committee recently heard there were some 173 minors who were not in a family group.

Surely some children could be flown to Australia in a charter, accompanied by Australian officials. An Australian-based parent could then be taken into quarantine with them.

Such an emergency arrangement could be put in place by Foreign Affairs Department officials and Australia’s High Commissioner in India, Barry O’Farrell, who as a former NSW premier has plenty of experience in organising things.

The India issue is just one of the sharp edges of the increasing debate about Australia’s international border. Attention was focused on returnees from India when the government imposed its controversial temporary ban (now lifted). The wider issue of when the border should be opened flared after last week’s budget assumed it would stay basically closed until mid-next year.

What’s dubbed “Fortress Australia” is objectively driven by the slowness of the vaccination rollout, which has Morrison under pressure, not least because it holds back the economy. But politically, the shut gate suits Morrison, because polling and premiers’ electoral experience tell him the public strongly support closed borders.

This week’s Newspoll showed 73% agreeing “international borders should remain largely closed until at least mid-2022, or the pandemic is under control globally”, and this included 78% of Coalition voters.

Only 21% agreed “international borders should open as soon as all Australians who want to be are vaccinated”.

This mightn’t be an unexpected result, but it is a remarkable one. Australians are saying they are willing to be cut off from the world even when we can expect the COVID risk to be much reduced.

Unsurprisingly, in the vanguard of those pressing for the border to open sooner rather than later are the business groups and individual companies.

Virgin CEO Jayne Hrdlicka was criticised by Morrison for an “insensitive” comment after she said this week: “COVID will be part of the community. We will become sick with COVID and it won’t put us in hospital, and it won’t put people into dire straits because we’ll have a vaccine. Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than with the flu.”

Obviously businesses, especially airlines, have commercial interests at stake in the border opening (although this isn’t across the board – some businesses are advantaged by the present situation).

But, more significantly, the health experts are now talking about the transition to a more open Australia.

Nick Coatsworth, a former Commonwealth deputy chief medical officer and a specialist in infectious diseases, said in an address last week to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons: “At a point in the future when a significant majority of our community is vaccinated, there will be pressure to open our borders. We must not resist that. In fact, when the time is right, we should be leading the calls for it.”

Coatsworth isn’t saying the border should be open tomorrow but that the conversation needs to shift to how we live with some COVID circulating.

This is back to the days when Morrison used to talk a lot about “living with the virus”.

But at that time Morrison did not expect Australia would go beyond “suppressing” community transmission to more or less eliminating it. And this success has changed community expectations.

What medicos like Coatsworth are saying is that you can’t forever have the gold standard we have now.

Morrison not only wants this until the election – at the moment he does not want to jump the conversation forward.

His message is the government has plans – such as for vaccinated people to have guaranteed interstate travel (vaccine passport) and for selective arrivals – but he doesn’t want to go into detail yet.

It’s a stark contrast to those detailed colour-coded spreadsheets for lifting lockdown restrictions he flourished last year.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is anxious for more ambition, urging both a faster vaccination rollout and an earlier international opening.

At the centre of the issue is the shambles with the vaccine program. The rollout has two central problems: its tardiness from the start (with supply shortages and implementation glitches), and then the big hiccup of “vaccine hesitancy”. People became wary of the AstraZeneca vaccine following advice that in rare cases it caused blood clots.

Morrison dismissed a poll published in Nine newspapers this week that showed about three in ten people said they were unlikely to get vaccinated. He said he preferred to focus on the other seven in ten and “get on with them”.

But the hesitancy could remain a major difficulty at least until people can access more choice of vaccine later in the year, and it hampers returning to normality and increases the danger of outbreaks. The president of the Australian Medical Association, Omar Khorshid, has argued giving people a date for opening the international border would encourage more to get vaccinated.

Khorshid is blunt, telling the ABC: “When we open those borders, we’re going to get both of those viruses [flu and COVID]. … We’re going to get a bad flu season. Plus, we’ll get a certain number of people who get sick from COVID. And we’ve got to make sure our [hospital] system is ready to cope with that and our public understand that this is part of our pathway towards getting back to normal.”

A few months ago there was much haste in federal circles to map out Australia’s international reopening and announce it. The AstraZeneca issue derailed that plan. Now there’s not even an effective communication strategy, just a bland information push for eligible people to get the jab.

Australia’s dilemma is that it has effectively achieved local elimination and (so far) maintained it, but it is stumbling in the vital follow-up — rapid mass vaccination. Morrison seeks to turn this weakness into a political strength but is running into headwinds, albeit not from the public.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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