Australia’s international borders have been closed for 403 days. Deciding to shut itself off from the rest of the world on March 20, 2020 was undoubtedly the best decision made by the Federal Government in our fight against COVID-19. It has saved lives and given us the ability to live relatively normal lives within our own borders.
Indeed, Australia has been the envy of the world. As the pandemic ravaged China, Europe, the US, South America and now India, we have been able to go to the beach, watch sports games and even go to concerts. Our ‘new normal’ is a hell of a lot better than most.
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As a dual British-Australian citizen with most of my family overseas, I have had no issue with waiting until it’s safe to see them. For the past 12 months I have been patient about the border closures and accepted that it could be years until I see my parents or brother again. I pinned my hope on the vaccine and tried to live my life.
But this week, when I heard of the case of the man from Perth who flew to India on December 10 to get married and four months later returned with his bride and COVID, causing the WA snap lockdown, my patience became frayed.
Why was he allowed to leave the country to go to a wedding? How many other people have been given permission by the Australian Border Force to leave and come back under such flimsy circumstances?
This news must have been an even bigger kick in the teeth for the some 34,300 Australians who are stuck overseas with no idea when they will return.
So frustrated by the border situation, a number of stranded Australians have filed a complaint with the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, claiming the government “has arbitrarily breached their right to return to the land of their birth or citizenship”.
I have to say I agree with their plight. At what point did we prioritise people attending weddings overseas to people trying to get back into their country?
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When asked on Monday about his opinion on Australians being allowed to move in and out of the country, Health Minister Greg Hunt said these exemptions were “for the most profound humanitarian or compassionate reasons”.
“There are exemptions, only exemptions for people to leave the country under the strictest of circumstances,” said Mr Hunt.
“The Australian Border Force operates an exemptions process and that has seen the most extreme reduction in outbound and inbound travel as a consequence,” Mr Hunt added.
To me, a wedding doesn’t seem that profound, especially when you consider that people have been rejected to go overseas to funerals or to visit dying relatives. Who decides what is important and who gets to leave?
Another complete double standard in the international border situation is the fact that many – so many! – celebrities seem to be finding a way into the Lucky Country, even those who aren’t Aussie citizens.
In February, Hollywood star Zac Efron’s brother Dylan Efron flew into Sydney where he undertook 14 days in hotel quarantine.
When Senator Kristina Keneally grilled Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram about the decision to allow Dylan to enter in March, Mr Outram explained that Dylan was allowed into the country to work on his brother’s Netflix show, Down To Earth (on IMDB Dylan is listed as a producer).
“The exemption was granted on the basis of the applicant having critical skills and was supported by the NSW Government,” Mr Outram told Ms Keneally, adding that Efron’s arrival wasn’t part of the NSW caps and didn’t impact any Aussies arriving.
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Critical skills? Come on! Are they really saying that the talent pool is so small in Australia that a US citizen needs to fly in to work as a producer on a Netflix show during a pandemic? A pandemic where ten of thousands of Aussies are still stuck overseas?
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also been allowed to leave the country twice during the pandemic, both times on an “auto exemption” granted for people on government business. It’s hard to understand why Mr Abbott wasn’t forced to undertake this business over Zoom like the rest of us.
It will also be interesting to see what kind of special treatment Aussie cricketers and coaches do or don’t get when they need to return from COVID-ravaged India where they’re playing in the Indian Premier League.
They were obviously granted permission to leave Australia for their “profound” reason of needing to play a ball game.
It’s clear the border closure saved Australia, but over a year on it feels like the government needs to re-evaluate the system.
We need clear guidance on who can or can’t leave the country and why. We need a plan of action to re-open the borders – at the moment it feels like there is no clear path for how we get back to some sort of normality where we aren’t trapped in our own borders.
We need an acceleration of the disastrous vaccine rollout – this glint of hope for a way out was ripped away after the AstraZeneca issues were discovered and three weeks on, the Federal Government still doesn’t appear to have a Plan B.
But most of all we need to start having compassion for Aussies over celebrities.
Riah Matthews is the commissioning editor for news.com.au.
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