It probably seems odd to be talking about open borders right now when one of Australia's largest cities is in lockdown (again). In Melbourne the dream is to escape the five-kilometre radius, not to leave the country entirely.
But the Victorian lockdown will be short-term – we hope. Australia's border policy drama, meanwhile, is likely to drag on for at least another year, and it affects the entire country. Plus, it has played a role in Melbourne's current situation. So really there's never been a better time to have a frank discussion.
Because as this latest hotel quarantine leak shows, our current border arrangements aren't really working. As anyone with close family based somewhere else in the world would also tell you, our current border arrangements aren't really working. And as anyone with business overseas, or who relies on business from overseas would tell you – our current border arrangements aren't really working.
So what do we do? The important thing to remember is that this issue isn't a binary one. It's not open or shut. Those who spruik for "Fortress Australia" might say there's no way we're opening the floodgates in the middle of a pandemic, but that's not what a lot of people are asking for right now. This isn't a case of letting the virus run rampant just so we can go on holidays.
Open borders, in other words, doesn't have to mean open slather.
Here's how it could work. Begin by ditching the restrictions on Australians leaving their own country. That whole thing is insane. No other government of a "free" country around the world is doing it.
Allow Australians to leave, but design a "last out, last in" system that prioritises entry and quarantine spots for those who have been trying to get back to Australia the longest. No one is suggesting that those people desperate to return home right now should have their places taken by someone who just wanted to go on holiday for a few weeks.
And speaking of quarantine, we need a federally funded, purpose-built facility, now. Probably several, in fact. And not in a few weeks. Not in a few months. Now.
Don't tell me that's not possible, when the federal government just found $600 million to build a fossil-fuel-guzzling gas-fired power plant which will already be obsolete by the time it's built. Oh, and don't forget the $7 billion they announced for an Australian military "space division" recently. And bear in mind how quickly we always manage to find places to lock up refugees as soon as they arrive.
Quarantine facilities would help stem the virus leaks into the community that we've been seeing recently; they would also protect those in quarantine from contracting COVID-19 while they're locked up; and they would increase space for stranded Australians to return home. This seems so mind-bogglingly simple that you just can't understand why it hasn't already happened.
Eventually, that extra quarantine capacity would also allow for more non-Australians to enter the country. Begin with the close family of Australian citizens and residents. Extend it to include international students, who are vital to propping up a tertiary education sector that gets no love from the government. Eventually, allow leisure travellers as well.
And then, of course, there's another way to allow even more entrants safely into the country: home quarantine for those who have been fully vaccinated.
Home quarantine isn't perfect. Some people will break the rules, regardless of how vigorously they're enforced. However, with growing evidence that vaccination – particularly the mRNA shots – reduces the risk of transmission, coupled with increased rates of vaccination in Australia over the next few months, you have a solid case for allowing those with both their shots to avoid dedicated quarantine facilities, space that could be utilised by others.
Next, looking a little further down the track, traffic lights. More specifically, the traffic light entry system. This was discussed on Traveller a few weeks ago, and is the system the UK is now using for international arrivals.
Countries are given a rating, depending on the current COVID-19 threat there: red, amber, and green. If you arrive from a "green" country, you would be free to go into the Australian community with no quarantine at all; you'd only need to take a PCR test on your second day.
Come in from an "amber" country, meanwhile, and you would need to quarantine at home for 10 or 14 days, and take two COVID-19 tests. And if you arrive from a "red" country, you would have to do the same period in managed quarantine. It's a relatively simple system, but one that makes sense.
And then, eventually, in a time that almost seems like an untouchable dream right now, you just have borders that are open. That's our end point, our final goal.
Until then, the incremental changes mentioned above are all feasible over the next six months or so. Get our citizens and residents vaccinated, and while that's happening begin to open our borders in a way that manages risk but still allows sectors of the economy and of the community that have been slammed by COVID-19 to begin their recovery.
Allow families to be reunited. Allow citizens to return home. Allow Australia to re-join the world and ditch the fortress mentality.
We can begin now.
What changes do you think Australia needs to make to its border policy? Do we need dedicated quarantine facilities? Should we ditch the fortress mentality? Or is it too early for any change?