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Twelve months is enough : we need a clear lead from the PM on freedom of movement

1 February 2021 No Comment


In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, there were almost 22 million international arrivals into Australia. That’s Australians returning from overseas trips and foreigners coming to this country. Twenty-two million international arrivals in a country of 25 and a half million people shows how much we take global travel for granted – or used to, before the pandemic, and rules designed to prevent COVID from coming to Australia made it all-but-impossible. 

From March last year, international arrivals that had been averaging nearly two million a month have dropped to just over 20,000 a month – a whopping 99 per cent decrease – and a large proportion of this mere trickle of entrants has been Australians returning home for the duration rather than people coming and going the way they used to. 

Due to the pandemic, it’s illegal for Australians to travel overseas without special permission; and likewise, other than Australians coming back, no one can enter without special permission. Essentially, coming or going is only allowed if it’s a governmental mission, vital for the maintenance of business, or for urgent compassionate reasons such as a death or deadly illness in the immediate family. Unless it’s a temporary visa holder leaving or a permanent resident returning, the Border Force Commissioner (with his advisers) now sits in judgment on every application to go and every application to come.

As a 76 year old recovering alcoholic, who’d be at quite high risk of death from COVID, I appreciate the importance of measures to keep it out of the country and to suppress any virus breakouts as soon as they occur. But as a widower whose only child and only grandchild live in Los Angeles, I’d also appreciate being able to visit the only immediate family I have and to make my own judgment about the risks I’m prepared to take in order to see them. 

I do accept that it’s quite right that the Australian government insist on two weeks’ quarantine for all returning travellers before they move back into the community. Isolating and testing everyone coming from overseas is essential if COVID is not to become rampant in this country as it has in Britain, America and those other places that couldn’t or wouldn’t control their borders. And if there are only a very limited number of quarantine places – and if there are still, as reported, upwards of 30,000 Australians overseas and wanting to return – it makes sense effectively to ban almost everyone from going overseas. Yet only, it should be stressed, if the quantum of quarantine places really is limited to about 10,000 at any one time.

But given that most of the hotels that used to accommodate international tourists are currently nearly empty, there’s no inherent limit on the number of hotel quarantine places that could be created. And if these additional hotel places would put undue strain on the police and military personnel needed to run it, there’s no intrinsic reason why other forms of quarantine could not be introduced, at least under sufficient safeguards.

The Coate Inquiry in Victoria was essentially a whitewash for a state government that had out-sourced running quarantine hotels to a dodgy private security firm. Justice Jennifer Coate should have probed ministerial amnesia much harder and never have absolved herself from passing judgment on the epic governmental failures that were revealed. Still, along with stating-the-obvious recommendations about the need for clear lines of command and having the police in charge of hotel quarantine, she did recommend the introduction of an effective form of home quarantine that would require fewer resources and could allow far more Australians to re-enter the country. 

This was the one recommendation that the Andrews Labor government did not accept. But think about it: why not allow people with a very low risk of non-compliance to quarantine at home as a matter of course, rather than requiring specific applications to state health ministers for an exemption from a fortnight alone in a single room with bad food? 

The states have fairly routinely allowed senior business people (who need special facilities for work), or (less justifiably) celebrities to quarantine at home, on the not unreasonable basis that the reputational damage they’d suffer from any non-compliance renders that possibility vanishingly small. If the judgment is that people with less-at-stake (and with fewer connections and clout) can’t be trusted, a condition of home quarantine could always be the lodgement of a substantial bond (that would instantly be forfeit on breach) or some form of electronic surveillance.   

If Australians are going to have to live with heavy quarantine requirements indefinitely, as seems likely despite the coming vaccines, simple humanity requires at least making it easier for people who want to see their family overseas and are prepared to endure quarantine to do so. Why should it only be possible for family members to see each other when they are on death’s door? Especially as, unlike last March, Australians have now learnt enough about this virus to understand the need to take it seriously and to quarantine effectively at home. 

The key question is: has the National Cabinet learnt about the need for decisions to open up (with sensible precautions) as well as to shut down? We will never know unless the Prime Minister is prepared to put such a modest and reasonable proposal to the premiers. 

Prior to the pandemic, the only countries that routinely required their nationals to seek permission in order to leave were repressive dictatorships. Why does the right to protest in Australia need to be protected, even in a pandemic, but not the equally fundamental right to freedom of movement (albeit under suitable conditions)? Restoring the right to travel to everyone prepared to quarantine would be a good way for the Morrison government to restore its (somewhat tarnished) liberal credentials. 

In regard to quarantine, surely the PM should ask himself ‘What is right and proper for a free people?’ 

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University Ross Fitzgerald is the author of seven Grafton Everest comedies, most recently ‘The Dizzying Heights’, co-authored with Ian McFadyen, and ‘Going Our Backwards’, which was shortlisted for the Russell Prize for Humour Writing. Both are published by Hybrid Melbourne.

Spectator Australia, 1 February 2021.

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