It has come to this: a government pulling up the drawbridge on its own citizens trying to make it home. Last week’s announcement of a ban on return flights from India marks a drastic escalation of “fortress Australia”.
Yes, it isn’t the first time during the pandemic that Australia’s borders have been closed to people arriving from certain countries deemed high risk. This happened, for example, with China in February 2020.
But this new measure goes beyond a temporary closure of borders. It also involves harsh criminal penalties imposed on people seeking to return from India, including fines and even imprisonment.
There’s something seriously wrong about this. Citizenship is meant to guarantee its bearers certain rights and liberties. The right to vote. The right to expression. The right to live without interference. The right to enter one’s country.
Clearly, we can’t take our basic rights and liberties for granted. It’s no exaggeration to say that this policy undermines the very status of citizenship. The principles of democratic liberalism are under assault.
After all, citizenship means little if you can’t exercise your right to return to Australia in a time of need. Liberal democracy is diminished when your government doesn’t protect you when you’re in present or impending danger.
On every Australian passport, there is a page that bears a request of other governments and people that they “allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need”. Those words now ring hollow. How can we expect people abroad to do that, if our own government won’t do the same to its citizens?
Closer to home, this move inserts some doubts as to whether all citizens can presume they enjoy equal citizenship.
It hasn’t escaped many of us that there have been different standards of treatment given to citizens and residents returning to Australia during this pandemic. Last year, when Covid was rampaging through the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, the government took no step to close our borders to those places, let alone impose criminal penalties on those arriving from there.
The government says it has introduced this policy based on medical advice. Yet, according to the commonwealth chief medical health officer, Paul Kelly, “no advice was given” in relation to the imposition of fines or jail terms for those seeking to circumvent the India travel ban. Moreover, numerous leading public health experts have questioned why a ban has been introduced.
It wouldn’t be the first time an Australian government has engaged in cynical racial dog whistling. As the Australian Human Rights Commission has stated, the government “must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health”. Because right now they do look discriminatory. And they are far from the only way to deal with any public health threat.
Here’s how we should be dealing with things. There remain about 35,000 Australians stranded overseas, including about 9,000 in India. We – and by we I mean the government that acts in our name – must act urgently to bring these Australians home, wherever they are. The way to do that is obvious: charter flights to bring them back, and create dedicated quarantine facilities across the country to make sure it happens safely.
How breathtaking it is that this hasn’t yet happened. We are more than one year into the pandemic. There has been plenty of time to think this through, make plans and deliver.
A choice between two Australias
Then again, you can understand why government hasn’t done this. This pandemic has confronted us with a choice between two Australias: between being an open, confident, internationalist country and being a closed, fearful, parochial nation. Increasingly, it seems as though people are choosing the latter.
There has been a strange acceptance of, maybe even enthusiasm for, a retreat into a hermit nation. Our politicians know all too well that closing borders and imposing lockdowns seem to bring some solid electoral payoffs: just ask Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan.
For too many people, including those who may like to consider themselves progressive, border closures have become a fetish. It was weird enough that the pandemic was generating a competition among some premiers to close borders to other states. Now we’ve got to the point where we’re happy to have our national borders closed off to our own people and fellow citizens. At least some of them, anyway.
Covid has confirmed some timeless political truths. Amid threat, fear is a formidable beast to counter. And in tough times, minorities very rarely fare well. Covid has generated a significant rise in anti-Asian racism. Consider too, the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on migrants and international students.
But now the government is taking things into dangerous territory. Citizenship has been the bedrock of Australia’s multiculturalism: whatever background you’re from, you can be assured formal membership of the community. This latest move signals that, in the eyes of government, some of us are more Australian than others.