Australia state border closures: On Australia Day 2021, we don't seem one or free

Even though he could do with a refresher course on Australian history, both ancient and modern, the Prime Minister was correct to approve the change of a crucial word in the national anthem.

But, really, he shouldn't have stopped there. He could have easily proposed an alteration to another, arguably more inclusive and unofficial national song, I Am Australian, that some would even prefer to replace Advance Australia Fair.

To better reflect modern-day Australia I propose that we modify the lyrics to: "I am, you are, we are Tasmanian/Queenslander/South Australian/West Australian/Territorian/Victorian/New South Welshperson (the last one may need a bit more work).

On this Australia Day I'm feeling a little less Australian than I did a year ago, though with January 26 mired in increasingly bitter and understandable controversy and resentment (which seems to fester yet more profoundly each and every year), I'm not even sure how I should feel anymore. While nothing could possibly compare to how Indigenous people must feel, Australia Day this year offers an opportunity to  reflect on another growing, pandemic-driven divide in our country.

That Australia has managed to contain COVID-19 better than almost any other nation is a subject of pride that at times has muted into hubris. I wonder whether it's come at a long-term cost to our national cohesion and identity, in that the pandemic has fermented the sort of parochialism and provincialism that has always been at the heart of our federation.

In reality, the public health gains made have not necessarily been as the result of a collective national effort - the federal government has been rendered a virtual bystander in what has deteriorated into a year-long festival of unbridled parochialism and paranoia, staged by the states and territories.

Our success has been built on draconian border closures and sudden lock downs, some of them absolutely necessary with others demonstrably and damagingly less so, especially to tourism.

Premiers and chief ministers may yet come to regret their disregard for an industry that is looking worryingly fragile. Government-issued intrastate holiday vouchers, the latest vogue measure, are mere band-aids.

Now the federal government has got into the act by suspending quarantine-free travel to New Zealand over a single COVID-19 case, albeit a variant of the virus. Yes. One case. Is that the sound of the rest of the world gasping?


Suddenly states like hardline Queensland and Western Australia, with their partisan rhetoric, feel to me less like Australia and almost alien, parochial places hostile to the rest of the country and therefore other Australians. Worse, their leaders seem to revel in it.

The rest of the country is also feeling even a little menacing, in that if you've somehow managed to visit a state or territory legally one day, you could be stranded or detained the next. The state and territory borders we once breezed our way through without much of a thought now feel weirdly like something akin to badlands.

Will a holiday in Queensland and Western Australia ever feel quite the same or as welcoming? Will any Victorian dare to take a digital detox vacation outside of the state, for fear of missing the latest broadcast entreaty to drop everything and head home?

As the country collectively sighed when the federal health secretary announced that overseas travel will not resume anytime soon, you could fairly hear the cheers from the other side of the country,  from the parapets of "Fortress Western Australia", as the state's deputy premier recently proudly described it.

The state and territory parochialism and paranoia will probably make it more difficult to open international borders. Which state will have the courage to allow people in and out of their own borders unless the rest of the world achieves zero caseloads?

Yes, this besmirched Australia Day I feel a little less Australian than I did a year ago. A year since the pandemic officially began we've achieved a lot, but the federation is to me much flimsier and less recognisable.

It really has become mate against mate, state (and territory) against state.

Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

See also: Are other countries' national days as controversial as Australia Day?

See also: Unless we sort out borders, Australia will become a hermit nation