Australia international travel ban: What most people don't get about our borders debate

If you saw the photos from New Zealand last week, then deep in your heart you already know. You only had to see all those Love Actually-style scenes of family reunions at the airports, the tears and the joy, to know what travel in the COVID-19 age is all about.

It's about love. It's about family. It's about relationships. It's about human connection. That's why we travel and why we want to travel, now more than ever.

There are so many people in this nation of migrants who have deep, personal connections to the outside world, who have lives overseas, who have relationships, who have people they're close to.

And yet, despite how obvious that seems to me, it appears some people still don't get it. Maybe they can't understand it. Maybe they don't want to understand it, since it's much easier to argue for a hermetically sealed nation if you just pretend the only people who want to leave Australia or return are selfish, privileged holidaymakers.

Because if you express any sort of support for ongoing international travel at the moment, or a slight loosening of rules around global movement for Australian citizens, that's the sort of reaction you get. Now is not the time for a holiday, people say. Just see Australia, where it's safe. Stop being selfish and just wait.

But that shows a vital misunderstanding of why people want to travel now, why they want to move around the world, why some Australian citizens want to return to their own country, and why others want to leave it – why, in fact, they're so desperate to get out of here that they will fly to New Zealand and exploit a loophole to then move on to another overseas destination.

People have lives that take place around the world. They have family members they're desperate to see. They have fiancés they want to marry. They have grandkids they want to meet. They have aging parents they want to see. They have girlfriends or boyfriends they want to spend time with.

I don't want to go on an overseas holiday right now. The world out there isn't the same as the one I miss so much. This is a period of massive upheaval. But still, I support the right of those who do want to leave Australia to do that, to make an informed choice and to know that they may not be able to make it back here, and that even if they do it will cost them a huge amount of money and time.

Australia remains the world's only liberal democracy with a blanket ban on its citizens leaving its shores. Even Kiwi citizens can leave if they want to.

But here? Here we're trapped, at the mercy of bureaucracy. Here we find ourselves in a situation where the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, can unilaterally amend the Biosecurity Act to fine or potentially jail Australian citizens using New Zealand as an avenue to access the rest of the world – as he did just as the New Zealand travel bubble opened.

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And we have the West Australian premier, Mark McGowan, railing against Australians leaving the country for personal reasons in the wake of the recent WA outbreak.

"When someone says they are going to a funeral, the Commonwealth just trusts them and lets them go," McGowan complained over the weekend. "If people want to go overseas to COVID-infected countries in the middle of a pandemic… I don't get why that should be allowed."

Really? You don't get that? Of course, there's the hint of a dog-whistle to McGowan's carping, given the source of the recent outbreak in Perth was an Australian who travelled to India to get married before returning home – four months later – with his spouse. People predisposed to suspicion of anyone from the subcontinent get the message.

But what about the basic assertion that Australians shouldn't be able to leave the country for weddings, funerals, and similar family-related reasons? Are we so deep in COVID-panic that we've lost sight of how important this stuff is to people, how vital it is to our society, to our humanity?

If you want to get angry about the recent lockdown in Perth and the potential spread of the virus across Australia, then by all means, get angry. But not at the guy who has been waiting so long to get to India to marry his bride.

Get angry at the governments, state and federal, that still, more than a year into the pandemic, have not improved on the original, emergency hotel quarantine program. Get angry that our federal leaders who haven't seen fit to establish more of the Howard Springs-style quarantine facilities that seems to be working well. Get angry at the West Australian government for continuing to use a hotel that was recently declared one of WA's riskiest facilities due to its poor ventilation.

Just don't make this the fault of people trying to connect with their families – those facing an agonising wait for freedom as Australia's vaccine roll-out crawls on.

More than 7.6 million Australians were born overseas. Plenty more than that have family based overseas, or other close acquaintances living in another country. There are so many people in this nation of migrants who have deep, personal connections to the outside world, who have lives overseas, who have relationships, who have people they're close to.

Travel for those people right now is not about holidays. There are surely very few Australians who want to get out and see the world for leisure at the moment, who want to swan around Europe or the US, India or Brazil, just for the fun of it.

They want to go to these places for love. They want to come home from these places for love. And I'd like to think we live in the country where there's real value placed on that desire.

Why do you think people want to travel right now? Do you think Australians should be allowed to leave the country if they want to? How do we find a balance between compassion and safety?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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