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Australia’s Travel Strategy – Imprisoning Its People Until A Vaccine Arrives – Is Illiberal And Naive

Written by
9 October 2020
Originally appeared in The Telegraph

If you were thinking of seeing friends and family from Australia next year, think again.

Maybe after living under Boris Johnson’s restrictions for the next six months, you’d want to get as far away from your house as possible. Or maybe Australians – some of whom haven’t been able to leave the house for more than two hours since July – wanted to visit you.

But our federal government won’t let you.

On Tuesday Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered Australia’s federal budget, which Institute of Public Affairs modelling says will see Australia in debt until 2080, even under optimistic projections.

And it is hard to be optimistic when you read two key assumptions Frydenberg made about the budget when speaking to the National Press Club on Wednesday: “International travel, including by tourists and international students, is assumed to remain largely closed off until late next year and then gradually return over time, and a vaccine to be available around the end of 2021 is one of the assumptions in the budget.”

The vaccine assumption is naivety. The travel assumption is economically catastrophic and hurts the freedoms of Australians and those who want to visit our country. Frankly, that anyone facing 60 years of debt would cut off a major revenue stream, especially when there are safe alternatives, is astounding.

International travel is vital to the Australian economy. In 2019, there were 9.4 million international visitors – 344,000 of those from the UK – and the tourism industry employed 666,000 people – 5.2% of total employment, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

And as of 2019, international students brought $34.9 billion a year to Australia.

Australia cannot afford to lose this money for another full year. And potentially more years to come.

Because that’s the reality of waiting for a vaccine. No one knows when a vaccine will be available. And even when one does become available, there are now doubts about whether it will be effective.

The Oxford University vaccine, which Australians have thought of as our saviour, needed to be paused after a participant experienced an adverse reaction. Clearly, we’re still a long way from a cure.

These are only the economic problems with this ban on travel, but there is bigger picture here – a liberal democratic government is stopping citizens from leaving its country, and preventing our friends and family from overseas visiting us.

Between March 25 and July 31, 69,310 Australians were prevented by the government from leaving the country, and only 22,640 were granted permission. Among those was Shane Warne, who was allowed to leave to the UK commentate cricket. Among those prevented was Donna Burton, who couldn’t see her only daughter get married and had to forfeit her £1,100 air fare to London.

These numbers have improved as Australians find ways to increase their chances of the governments accepting their application – such as moving to another country for three months as opposed to the traditional length of ‘however long you would like.’ Yet still 13,311 applications to travel overseas have been outright rejected, over 10% of applications.

This banning means Australia joins Belarus, Namibia and the Ivory Coast as countries that have stopped its residents travelling overseas, even though they can quarantine themselves on their return. New Zealand, famous for its aggressive eradication strategy, never even went that far.

And 27,000 Australians have registered to return home from overseas, some have been waiting months. They will have to wait longer.

For Brits, and the rest of the world, the border is closed. As Frydenberg says, it will be until late next year, assuming a vaccine is found.

Britain has a much worse problem with coronavirus infections than Australia. There are less than 250 active cases in Australia, and keeping its citizens safe is one of the most fundamental roles of government.

That does not mean a ban on Brits travelling here is the right response. There are safe ways in which the government can stop coronavirus spreading rapidly while also keeping key freedoms alive and money coming in.

Outside of Victoria, most of Australia has done well with installing mandatory hotel quarantine for international arrivals and keeping the virus out of the community. Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently praised how well home quarantining worked at the start of the virus as well for returning travellers from China.

But the plan can’t be locking down until a vaccine is found. Eradication has not been achieved anywhere in the world, and if the Australian government continue down this path, no cases will mean no hope for the 666,000 people employed in tourism last year and no hope for the thousands cut off from their friends and families by Australia’s border closure.

The Australian government, like all governments, must learn to live with this virus and keep us a part of the world.

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James Bolt

James Bolt is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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