Australia is an odd country. A country where 30 percent of its residents were born overseas; a cosmopolitan, globally connected society with an export-driven economy, there are very few elements of Australia that are detached from the world outside its borders. These global connections have been an overwhelming positive phenomenon, driving the country’s wealth and livability. Yet despite this, somehow, the country maintains a deep suspicion toward the rest of the world, a sense that the world is populated by people keen to take advantage of Australia, or do it harm.
These cultural traits have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. No other country has taken to the restrictions necessary to disrupt the virus with such great enthusiasm. Aside from strict internal lockdowns, Australians are not allowed to leave the country without applying for an exemption with a compelling reason, and the country has limited the number of people who are allowed to enter the country each week. The government has stated that this arrangement is likely to continue until mid-2022.
It’s not difficult to posit that the political culture created by Australia’s hardline approach to asylum seekers has been recycled into the country’s response to the pandemic. While this culture had previously produced a sense that Australia is being overrun by swarms of deceitful foreigners looking to sponge off the country’s welfare system (while simultaneously stealing jobs), now the fear is that the rest of the world is clambering to pin Australia down and cough in our collective face.
What is surprising is that this includes Australians trying to get home, who now also cannot be trusted because, apparently, if they were real Australians they never would have left the country in the first place. Pandemic nationalism has not only found an outlet with the competition to procure vaccines; it has also manifested in the zealous finger-pointing at those perceived to be willfully spreading the virus.
While there is a strong argument that the Australian fortress has been an effective pandemic response, with deaths from COVID-19 some of the lowest in the world, there have also been other considerable human costs. There has been a failure by the government to understand that people have personal responsibilities outside the country, and that these responsibilities have often been exacerbated by the conditions created by the pandemic.
The difficulty in Australians being able to return home has proved most disturbing. The airline industry has responded to the limited number of arrivals allowed into the country each week by making the cost of the few seats prohibitively expensive. When the prime minister announced last week that arrivals would again be cut in half, the cost of a one-way economy-class flight from London to Sydney rose to as high as $28,000. There are currently 34,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade looking for a way to return home.
Due to these conditions, earlier in the year two men submitted a complaint to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee arguing that Australia’s strict limits on arrivals were a violation of their human rights. In April the committee made an interim ruling that the Australian government has an obligation to allow citizens to return to the country. However, there is no codified right of return under Australian law, something that sets it apart from many countries that have a bill of rights which include this right.
Australian governments at the state and federal level have refused to create the conditions that would facilitate what should be considered a basic right, codified or not. The quarantine arrangements upon arrival have been highly limited — and as seen last week, subject to be slashed — and most strikingly the vaccine roll-out has been one of the slowest in the OECD. There has been an obvious complacency with the vaccination plan that was created by the strategy of trying to simply lock the virus out of the country.
The result has been that the value of being inside Australia may have risen, but the value of being an Australian citizen has clearly decreased.
If one was to be cynical about this, political events during the pandemic have given an indication that there are votes to be had in maintaining Australia’s bunker mentality. In two state elections held during this period the incumbent Queensland government was able to secure a comfortable victory, while in Western Australia — the state that has been the most heavy-handed with its restrictions — the incumbent government won an astonishing landslide, securing 53 of the legislature’s 59 seats.
Yet this will also be a political balancing act as the country heads toward a federal election in the next 12 months. While there remains a strong insular and compliant national characteristic that state and federal governments have been able to rely upon to limit the virus’s spread, the realities of Australia’s demographic make-up, and the economic necessities of remaining open to the world, will eventually test the country’s patience should a pathway toward normalization not be established.