Shortcuts / 24 September 2020

Australia’s Border Restrictions

The lockdown of our national border along with state and territory borders, have become some of the most contentious issues of the coronavirus crisis. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we look at why our borders closed in the first place, how it has unfolded and the impact it has had.

Who is responsible for Australia’s national border and those who cross it?

It’s the Federal Government that makes decisions about people coming in and out of the country. And it’s the Department of Home Affairs that looks after immigration and border-related functions like customs, processing visas and passports, and operating those checks at the points of entry and departure, like at our international airports.

How has COVID affected the national border?

It was back in January that the decision was taken to close the border. It started with the the Federal Government testing people at points of entry for COVID-19. Part of the federal government’s role is to deploy health officials to be part of that response if there are concerns about a disease coming into the country that spread and be detrimental to the health of Australians. So that’s what happened with the coronavirus when cases started to build up in China. Australia was one of the first to close our border to Chinese travellers from the mainland, back on  1 February. Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family, legal guardians and spouses were excepted from the measure but they had to go into 14 days quarantine. They could return to Australia and in fact evacuation flights were put on by the Government to get them back to Oz.

What powers does the federal government have to close the border?

In terms of locking down our national border, the government of the day can do that without any legislation or debate. The government has emergency powers that it can invoke to shut our international border, and that’s what PM Scott Morrison did on 20 March. Since then, our border has been closed with exemptions for Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family, including spouses, legal guardians and dependants and others needing to get here for work or compassionate reasons. And of course they have to go into quarantine for 2 weeks in hotels at their own expense.

When will the national border be re-opened?

There’s no timeline on opening our national border. PM Scott Morrison has said he hoped it would be by Christmas but he’s since said that’s looking unlikely. Some commentators say March 2021 is the next horizon – more than a year since the border was locked down.

What have been some issues surrounding the closure of Australia’s border?

There are those who are concerned that the government is blocking people from coming in and out of our country. And there’s reports that there are 27,000 Australians who want to come home but are finding it difficult to get here – including 2,500 who have been determined to be at risk or have an urgent need to get home. And there are those who are concerned that Australians are being prevented from leaving unless they are granted an exemption. Also, just to make things complicated, states and territories are responsible for quarantining international returned travellers. That’s because it’s those governments who are in charge of the health response on their patch, not the Commonwealth. But there’s been far less criticism about the international border than our internal ones.

What happened to the state borders during the onset of COVID-19?

On 20 March, not only was our national border locked down, but Tassie also put in place the “toughest border measures in the country” to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As an island state, it was able to do that a bit more easily than those on the mainland. What it put in place was a regime where travellers into the state had to go into 14 days’ quarantine. And things moved quickly after that with the NT, WA, SA, and Queensland putting their own border restrictions in place shortly afterwards.

What are the main issues that have emerged between the federal and state governments when it comes to border closures?

Once most states and territories locked down their borders, some inconsistencies in the messages and approach between the Commonwealth and the states began to emerge. And the National Cabinet – the forum that was set up at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis for the PM and state and territory leaders to talk about governments responses – hasn’t been effective in harmonising the response around borders. And that’s because ultimately it’s the state and territory leaders who can make their own decisions about those borders. There’s no requirement for consensus in that forum.

NSW and Victoria for example didn’t join in the move towards border restrictions until much later. It wasn’t until early July that the border between Australia’s those two, most populous states was closed. And that was because of what was emerging in Melbourne. It wasn’t as contentious as other border closures had been with both premiers and PM Morrison declaring it was the right thing to do because of the need to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the community in its tracks. But the closure of other state borders have faced more criticism. The main concern is about the effect of the border closures impact on the economy.

What impacts have the border closures had so far?

PM Scott Morrison has talked about those border restrictions costing our economy $4 billion every week that they are in place. And he worries that at the cost adds up, more Australia’s will find it harder to keep their jobs and be in a position to rev up the economy when the health emergency is behind us after a vaccine is found, or another way to live with the virus like an effective treatment. And critics say the states that are adamant about keeping the restrictions in place are those that haven’t had many cases.  And of course their low case numbers are linked to their border lockdowns – but the debate there is about what living with the coronavirus looks like because the economic cost is potentially high.

And the emotional cost is high also with many cases being raised of people missing out on loved ones funerals, being able to seek medical care and the like. For their part, the state premiers have said that they have regimes in place that can grant exemptions for people requiring medical care and in exceptional circumstances. But that system hasn’t been failproof of course.

We’ve also got to be careful with politics playing a part in this. There’s not doubt campaigners are involved when they’re attacking one state leader or another. And when it comes to looking at Queensland, it’s got a state election at the end of October, so it’s good to keep that in the back of your mind when it comes to what’s being said there.

What happened to the Oz-New Zealand travel bubble?

The second wave of cases in Melbourne killed that off. But there has been discussion about travel bubbles being opened with New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and Hawaii with experts predicting that international travel will return via country-by-country ‘air bridges’ rather than an all-in approach.

Where do we go from here?

There’s two elements to this coronavirus crisis. The first is dealing with the health emergency, and the second is trying to safeguard the economy so when the community is deemed to be safe, the economy is in a position to kick back into gear.

But for now, the borders remain closed in line with the health advice, which our leaders have leant on. But according to the three pillar plan that came out of the National Cabinet earlier in the year, in order for restrictions to be eased, state and territory health services had to be able to test for cases reliably and quickly, health officials could trace the contacts of confirmed cases quickly to get them out of circulation, and there has to be a rapid-response health capability on the ground. And the hope then was that we could transition to a ‘new normal’ where we went about our business – including going interstate – because the health system was ready to deal with any outbreaks before they grew to be large and dangerous. But because of the outbreak of the second wave, borders still remain closed for now.

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