(Image: AAP/James Gourley)

Australia is now back into the same debate as it had in April, only with the two sides carrying slightly different standards. Back then, it was full lockdown versus a graduated response. Now it’s elimination versus suppression.

There are extremists on both sides — some business figures who just want to let the virus rip and let the corpses pile up so they can get back to making money; some progressives who accuse anyone who tries to take economic factors into account of putting money before lives.

But the different terms obscure that it’s the same debate between the same camps as earlier in the year: those who regard the economic impacts of lockdown as less important than dealing with COVID-19, versus those who, either because they have a more nuanced understanding of the health impacts of lockdown, or can’t afford to focus only on one issue to the exclusion of others, aren’t prepared to countenance the kind of economic shutdown necessitated by elimination.

In the former camp are a growing number of public health advocates and commentators; in the latter camp are public health experts like Peter Collignon, and the federal government, the NSW government and their health advisers. All are plucking aspects of the successful New Zealand and unsuccessful Victorian responses to back their case.

Neither side, however, has an answer for a more fundamental question that both approaches inevitably lead to — at what point, and how, will Australia reopen its borders?

The elimination strategy requires closed borders until a vaccine is found, but suppression also relies on keeping foreign arrivals to an absolute minimum — particularly after the Victorian failure, and particularly given other states have said they can’t handle the quarantine requirements from even the return of expatriate Australians at the moment.

Over a million people work in the higher education and tourism sectors, both of which rely heavily on foreign students and tourists, who provide $60 billion worth of exports each year (not to mention an abundance of easily-exploited labor for avaricious industries like retail, hospitality and horticulture).

The massive construction sector relies heavily on a high volume of temporary and permanent migration to drive continuing residential construction and the endless appetite of state governments and metropolitan local councils for infrastructure.

While the government appears to regard the higher education sector as an enemy and refuses to provide any assistance, it has lavished support on tourism and related industries and provided some limited assistance for residential construction, in addition to the JobKeeper program that the latter two sectors have access to. But for how long can those sectors be propped up by taxpayers?

Do we wait for a vaccine, which is years away, if it ever arrives at all, to reopen our borders? That will cripple two major sectors and undermine a third, cost hundreds of thousands more jobs than those already being lost, and condemn Australia to, at best, a significantly deeper stagnation than that of 2019 and, at worst, an extended recession — with all the health problems that we know will flow from that.

If not, how do we handle the quarantine load of reopening our borders, especially when we can’t even handle the number of expatriate Australians who want to come home now? Foreign students and temporary workers can be quarantined on arrival, given the length of their stay. But quarantining foreign tourists, who make up a quarter of all tourism spending, is unlikely to work, and will add substantially to the cost of visiting Australia.

Pointing out the lack of answers to these questions isn’t a criticism. It’s just one of a number of immensely difficult policy challenges that state and federal policymakers have to grapple with — and which next week’s economic statement must squarely address.

Before the pandemic — even before the bushfires over summer — there was a real question of where growth was going to come from in Australia in coming years, given declining residential construction, a dearth of business investment, a contractionary fiscal policy and a slump in productivity.

That same question now screams out for attention given border closures mean we’re going to see contractions in two major industries and sustained pressure on a third, with second-round effects of those impacts in turn hurting the rest of the economy.

How should Australia approach reopening? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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