Australia is cementing its place at the top table of international relations with Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s arrival in London today for the G7 foreign ministers summit.
The Antipodean nation has been thrust to the forefront of the West’s efforts to push back against an increasingly aggressive China trying to dominate the Indo-Pacific, and rightly so. Australia has punched above its diplomatic weight in the past year with her scrutiny the Chinese regime, leading calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and bringing attention to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
It has also been bolstered by an effective Covid-19 response, with over fifty-times fewer deaths than the United Kingdom per capita. Life has been largely normal for Australians most of the year.
But those achievements now risk being undermined by an eruption of complacency, isolationism and fear. Australia is becoming adrift, struggling to chart a course through the remainder of the pandemic. The country’s Covid success is largely due to extremely harsh border restrictions: a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine for all arrivals, combined with severe limits on the numbers arriving, has trapped tens of thousands of Aussies overseas. This system is creaking under pressure with regular leaks and snap lockdowns.
Perth recently entered a second three-day lockdown after a single case of community transmission. Melbourne, Brisbane and parts of Sydney have experienced similar over recent months. There is zero tolerance for risk after seeing appalling scenes overseas.
Last week Australia went further by entirely banning entry from India with the threat of a five year jail sentence or $66,000 (£36,700) fine for those who do. This monstrously inhumane step makes a mockery of the idea of Australian citizenship: your own country will not allow you to enter at your time of greatest need. It also raises a fundamental question regarding the strategy: what is the point of quarantine if not to allow Australians to safely return from a virus hotspot? There is no end in sight for these border woes. Australia’s vaccination programme is going painfully slowly, with eight times fewer vaccinations than the UK and few signs of acceleration.
Even if vaccinations were to miraculously speed up, there is no promise of an end to the draconian measures. Last month, Health Minister Greg Hunt declared that “If the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open the borders.” Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Arthur Sinodinos, recently said border closures are so popular they may continue until the entire world is vaccinated — a process that will take many years, potentially decades.
While the rest of the developed world reopens this summer, Australia risks becoming a hermit nation with indefinite border closures and snap lockdowns. As former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has warned, that this risks turning the country into “a land of splendid, parochial and introverted isolation”.
The country’s prosperity has always been dependent on its openness. A liberal polity turned Australia into the richest country in the world by the end of the 19th century.
Indeed, we should learn from what happened to that wealth following the Australian Settlement, a restrictive and racist immigration system along with high levels of protectionism. These policies made Australia’s economy and culture stagnant and turned the 20th century into an era of relative decline.
The Settlement was dismantled in the 1980s, in part due to Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community which forced Australia to look elsewhere for trade. The country’s abolition of tariffs and subsidies, along with a generous but controlled immigration system, has resulted in a prosperous trading nation.
The pandemic has not only shut Australia’s borders to citizens, but also to foreign workers, international students and tourists – all of whom are major contributors to the economy. It has made it impossible for Aussies to visit their relatives overseas or for younger intrepid travellers to explore the world.
Australia needs a new mindset. The politics of closure have become addictive. State leaders are intoxicated by the popularity of closed borders and snap lockdowns. It will take substantial political leadership to come out of this mess.Vaccination transforms Covid from a potentially deadly virus into a common cold by almost entirely preventing severe illness. Once the population is vaccinated the focus must turn from harmless cases to hospitalisations and deaths. At the border there should be a proportionate risk-based approach: reopening access to places with low case numbers and vaccinated individuals.
Foreign Minister Payne is in a highly privileged position as one of the few people allowed to freely travel in and out of Australia. She should use this privilege to promote the need for engagement with the world.
Australia, having fended off a viral outbreak, should not now succumb to unfounded paranoia about the outside world. The tyranny of distance and the fear of virus need not make Australia closed off forever.