Having worked in politics for a long time, as a ministerial adviser to an attorney-general, a premier and several ministers, you learn one thing for sure: governments will always do what is politically popular to get reelected.
“What are the polls saying?” is a common cry, be they comprehensive opinion polls in the lead-up to an election, or small focus groups throughout the term. And governments always love a crisis, because they can call an emergency cabinet meeting, perhaps give it a fancy name (e.g. “Operation Cobra”) and make decisions in the national interest.
It gives oppositions nowhere to go and makes governments look strong and decisive, looking after your best interests (and theirs) at every turn.
After more than a year of COVID-19 dominating almost every news cycle, this is still where Australia finds itself. And don’t our governments love it.
With Mark McGowan’s thumping election win in Western Australia in March and Annastacia Palaszczuk’s late last year in Queensland, every government will feel its position has been endorsed — play to whatever is currently popular, keep the borders shut, sow even more fear and doubt than is necessary and double down on the language about the dangers of allowing people (even Australian citizens) back into the fortress.
It begs the question of who is leading the debate — are our leaders suggesting a new approach and forging a different way forward, having more information than most of us on the virus, testing other ideas to reintroduce us to the rest of the world? Or is it the “keep everyone else out because we’re very safe in our cocoon thank you very much and bugger off” approach that is winning every time?
While Australia has done a great job of keeping COVID-19 under control and ensuring our public health systems aren’t under strain, it’s due to our unique geography, rather than any great political strategy, that this has been possible.
If Australia had porous borders with other countries, like most of Europe, it would have been a lot harder. But governments like to tell the story that it’s their plans and approaches, rather than the fact that we’re a large and very isolated island, that has done the job.
The vaccine rollout and the operation of hotel quarantine systems have been undeniably botched but, instead of acknowledging this, the federal government is just choosing to keep the borders closed for longer and longer and continuing to pat itself on the back.
So, instead of being an outward-looking, international, compassionate country engaging with the rest of the world, Australia is retreating into itself, becoming more xenophobic, more inward-looking, and condemning a generation to treat strangers with far more suspicion and fear than is necessary.
Currently living in France courtesy of dual nationality, we’re fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. Our doctor told us we have a 90-95% chance of not contracting the virus and if we do contract it, our cases will be mild and not require hospitalisation.
With a 5-10% chance of therefore contracting and transmitting the virus, we would still have to enter and pay for hotel quarantine for two weeks upon re-entering Australia. And we can’t leave again unless we apply for another exemption.
Not enough Australians are currently vaccinated to allow us back into the country — we currently have no need or desire to go, but the feeling we have from France is that Australia doesn’t want us back anyway.
It’s an interesting sentiment to experience.
We have been very careful while living here and followed all the government guidelines but will now travel more widely in Europe this northern summer. The approach and language of most European governments is very different to Australia’s, as they are looking forward to opening up, planning careful timetables to allow tourists back, and reiterating how glad they will be when this crisis is over.
By contrast, it seems the Morrison government, and perhaps other state governments, are happy to string out the crisis, keep the borders shut, and keep and tourists (and Australian citizens) out for as long as possible in order to win reelection in 2022 and beyond.
Jane Wilson is a former ministerial adviser for the Bracks and Andrews governments in Victoria.