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Travel restrictions have played a crucial role in keeping Australia relatively safe from the worst of the pandemic, but the federal government has been reluctant to announce their end date. Today, Paul Bongiorno on why Prime Minister Scott Morrison is so intent on keeping our borders closed.

Morrison doubles down on Fortress Australia

Read Transcript

For over a year now Australia’s international borders have been closed to the rest of the world.

Travel restrictions have played a crucial role in keeping Australia relatively safe from the worst of the pandemic, but the federal government has been reluctant to announce their end date.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on why Prime Minister Scott Morrison is so intent on keeping our borders closed.


Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Read Transcript

[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

For more than a year now Australia’s borders have been largely closed off to the rest of the world.

Travel restrictions have played a crucial role in keeping Australia safe from the worst of the pandemic. But despite growing pressure, the federal government has been reluctant to announce their end date.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on why Prime Minister Scott Morrison is so keen to keep Australia’s international border shut.

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

RUBY:

Paul, in the budget last week, there was one pretty interesting bit of information that I want to ask you about, and that is the fact that Australia's borders will be closed until the middle of next year. Is that the case?

PAUL:

It is Ruby. Last week, the government announced their 2021/22 budget and the headlines focussed on how big spending the policies would be, the major ones. But as in every budget, all the figures relied on certain key assumptions.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“If you start to open up, if you start to have those controls relaxed, then you can expect to see large numbers of cases in this country, even with the vaccination programme in case…”

PAUL:

Probably the most key assumption, if I can put it that way, was the revelation that the Morrison government wasn't expecting international borders to reopen for another 12 months at least. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“And what we've been doing is being careful, being led by the medical advice, being led by the economic advice, and that has got Australia where we are right now…”

PAUL:

Now Ruby, our borders have been closed since March last year when the pandemic began raging. And while initially there was widespread support for that decision, as things have dragged on, families have been separated and our economy has taken a hit, particularly key areas of it like tourism and education. And more people are beginning to query the slammed-shut nature of the closure. 

Archival Tape -- Leigh Sales:

“So if an Australian wants to go and visit their son or daughter in London, say, in July of next year, will they be allowed to do so without having to do the two weeks quarantine on return?”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Well, it's impossible for me to say at this point, Leigh-...” 

Archival Tape -- Leigh Sales:

“Is that your goal though?”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“It's impossible for me to make those sorts of predictions in the middle of a global pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen for a hundred years…”

PAUL:

So when the budget revealed that the status quo would remain for another year, well, Scott Morrison's been facing opposition from a range of stakeholders, concerned about how this will impact them. 

RUBY:

Mm and so what exactly are these groups saying, Paul? And who is making the most noise on this? 

PAUL:

Well, there have been calls from the New South Wales state coalition government from within the federal government's own ranks, from business leaders, as well as the university sector, all saying the borders need to be reopened faster, or at the very least, we need a roadmap on when it's going to happen and how to get there.

Not surprisingly, Ruby, the tourism sector has been the most vocal. Notably, we've heard from Virgin Australia CEO Jane Hardaker, who reportedly made some fairly...well, comments people thought were extreme, at a business function hosted by the Queensland University of Technology on Monday. She told the lunch that Australia can't keep its borders shut indefinitely and said we can't keep Covid out forever. When she went on to comment, according to the reports, that Covid-19 will make us sick but won't put us into hospital. Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than the flu. 

Archival Tape -- Neil Mitchell:

“On the line, chief executive of the Flight Centre group...expanded international travel, how far away is it - Graham Turner, good morning.”

Archival Tape -- Graham Turner:

"Good morning, Neil.”


Archival Tape -- Neil Mitchell:

“When do you reckon we could be flying internationally?”

PAUL:

Well, the chief executive of Flight Centre, Graham Turner, whose business has taken an absolute hammering well he backed Hardlcker, he said her remarks made sense even if they were unpalatable. 

Archival Tape -- Graham Turner:

“A lot of people die on the roads, but it doesn't mean to say you stop, you stop the traffic on the roads…”

PAUL:

Turner spoke on radio Friday and he said it's just the correlation probably doesn't sound that good. 

Archival Tape -- Graham Turner:

“Just like the flu. A lot of people get vaccinated for the flu each year. But I think a couple of thousand people die from the flu every year and it'll be the same-”
Archival Tape -- Neil Mitchell:

“But this is potentially far far worse than the flu…”

PAUL:

And there are plenty of others who also think the borders should reopen, including, as I mentioned, some within the coalition, Liberal MPs Tim Wilson, Dave Sharma and Jason Falinski all told The Sydney Morning Herald they think the borders need to reopen faster than the mid 2022 budget target. 

RUBY:

Hmm. And you’d expect business, particularly travel businesses and airlines to advocate for an opening up of the border but is there criticism of the current policy from other sectors? 

PAUL:

Well, there's also been criticism of our current policies from the Australian Medical Association. The head of the AMA, Dr Omar Khurshid, said Morrison needed to accept that Australia's health system would need to cope with new variants of the virus, and Morrison should put a date on reopening international borders. The AMA is also calling for international quarantine hubs in every state, like the one in the Northern Territory. Of course, she also said that at some point it will not be possible to justify the maintenance of border closures, given their impact on their lives and livelihoods. 

RUBY:

And so, Paul, how has Scott Morrison responded to all of this criticism? Because it's been coming at him from all quarters here. Is he saying that he'll change anything in response?

PAUL:

Well, for starters, Ruby Morrison labelled the Virgin CEO Hardlicker's comments as insensitive. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I regret that those comments were somewhat insensitive, somewhat insensitive. And I would encourage people-... you know, nine hundred and ten Australians have lost their lives...”

PAUL:

But amidst the growing pressure, he did seem to shift his position, somewhat, revealing a potential road map for how Australia might re-engage with the world. He flagged the move to a home based quarantine and confirmed vaccine passports could be developed with the states and territories, although there is some resistance from them about that. However, the plan remains to keep the borders shut until mid 2022. 

RUBY:

Mm. So, Paul, why do you think it is then that Scott Morrison is making this decision to keep borders closed for another year despite the criticism? What is behind this? 

PAUL:

I have absolutely no doubt it's got everything to do with the fact that the next federal election is due to be held by mid 2022. And Ruby, as much as many Australians don't want to accept this, the idea of closing borders to keep us safe is well established in the Australian political psyche.

And in the context of the pandemic, it worked quite effectively for state governments as a policy measure, both to keep Covid-19 out and to shore up public support, especially in the lead up to an election. As we saw in Western Australia...

Archival Tape -- Mark McGowan:

“We are prepared to make the tough decisions to keep Western Australia safe during the Covid period, and to crush the virus.”

PAUL:

Queensland...

Archival Tape -- Anastasia Palaszczuak: 

“I have been absolutely focussed on them and their families, and our tough, strong measures have kept Queenslanders safe.”
PAUL:

and Tasmania...

Archival Tape -- Peter Gutwein:

“My team and I have been decisive and we’ve held firm during the Covid19 crisis, and together with Tasmanians, we’ve helped Tasmania become one of the safest places in the world.”


PAUL:

They all had strict border policies and they all won their elections handsomely.

And Ruby, the good money is on a federal election later this year. So that is the frame which so much of the budget and the policies announced within it were written 

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Paul, just how much is the Morrison government thinking about how to win the next federal election right now?

PAUL:

Well, they're always thinking about it, Ruby. And as soon as the parliament adjourned last week, Scott Morrison hotfooted it to Queensland. It's the state that did most to save his government. And without doubt, holds the keys to the lodge next time. And bolstering the conclusion that an imminent election is in the air, is the fact that Morrison made room on the government jet for the political editors of the two highest rating TV news shows and the camera crew, Channel Seven's Mark Riley and Nine's Chris Uhlmann. Well, they went along for the ride, as did Phil Coorey from the Australian Financial Review, and he had his photographer in tow as well. Morrison's first point of call was the Gladstone based seat of Flynn, held by the retiring sitting Nationals member, Ken O'Dowd. 

This is a seat all sides agree could be vital to deciding who forms government at the next election. And like Morrison, Labour leader Anthony Albanese spent much of the week on the trail in Queensland.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Anthony Albanese, he's back with us again, good afternoon to you sir are you well?”

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Always good to have a chat-...”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Mr Albanese, Welcome.”

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“G’day, Keir-...” 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Mr Albanese joins you this morning, good morning!” 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Good morning. Good to be with you. Looking forward to being in Rockie again…” 

PAUL:

Well, Labor's research, I'm told, shows much of the improving stocks in that state come from the fact Albanese has neutralised the coal jobs issue. It was a big one in Flynn, as Gladstone is one of the world's largest coal ports. 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“This government not only doesn't have a plan for mining workers now in terms of what's happening with the use of labour hire, casualisation in the industry, undermining wages and conditions, they don't have a plan for the future as well…” 

PAUL:

Albanese's message, often repeated in local radio interviews around regional Queensland, is, he supports coal jobs while there is international demand for the commodity

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“Metallurgical coal from the Bowen Basin continues to be exported, and continues to be used for steel production around the world. There continues to be a global demand for it.”

PAUL:

Albanese says the industry's future will depend not on decisions taken by politicians in Australia, but by those taken in boardrooms in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul or New Delhi.

RUBY:

Right. Is this strategy that Albanese is taking working then? What do we know about how popular he is with voters compared to Scott Morrison at this moment in time?

PAUL:

Ruby it's not so much a question, I think, of the leader's popularity, but rather how this is all translating in who people will actually vote for. And according to two major polls this week, the major parties are neck and neck. In fact, Labor is marginally in front in the Newspoll two party preferred and in the new Resolve political monitor in the nine newspapers, there's a similar result and resolves director Jim Reid, and I can tell you he's a seasoned pollster who honed his skills with the old formidable Crosby Textor outfit, well he says the result in two party terms is too close to call. So it's going to be a very tight election. 

RUBY:

OK, so, Paul, we're heading into a potential election campaign. The two major parties are neck and neck, and Scott Morrison seems to be banking on his policy of keeping borders closed, being something that voters will like. Is there a risk, though, that the economic damage, not to mention the social impacts of that, might end up backfiring?

PAUL:

Well, I think there certainly is a risk and we're beginning to see some of that with the way in which Scott Morrison handled the Australians stranded in India. 

And Ruby, it's interesting to note that Albanese said that the government's border rhetoric is all about politics. He says there are alternatives like fixing quarantine and fixing the rollout of the vaccine. 

But it's also important to note that Labor isn't demanding a reopening of the borders, which means that they, too, see it's a politically sensitive area.

RUBY:

Paul, thank you for your time today. 

PAUL:

Thank you, Ruby, bye.

 

[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

 

The NSW government has announced that 23 clinics across the state are now administering the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to people aged between 40 and 49.

 

Another six clinics are due to open in June.

 

And the Victorian government has unveiled this year’s state budget, promising to spend $3.8 billion dollars on mental health services over the next four years.

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard. 

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz.

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 

 

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Follow in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones. See ya next week. 

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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