The last week has been as disheartening as any in my relationship with Australia. The reasons for my despondency, and therefore the catalysts for writing this piece, are twofold: first, the re-imposition of severe lockdowns in multiple states; and second, a change in regulations requiring returning travelers to apply for an exemption to leave Australia for their overseas homes. These developments, and the sense I’m getting from friends and family at home, give the strong impression that Australia has entered a new phase of COVID purgatory.
I am an Australian currently living overseas, and intend on coming home for a visit in a few weeks’ time. I am also a proud citizen of a country I've watched descend into a state of despair over the last 12 months. Australia needs a refreshed COVID-strategy; I'm sure this is evident to many people. Australia also needs new leaders; I'd suggest this may be clear to some people. But most of all, Australia needs a new social contract. We need a wholesale reset of what our country represents, and we need to consider whether the current crop of politicians is fit to lead it.
Much has been written inside the country about COVID and the government; I do not wish to add too much to that chorus. But I do believe that through watching from afar, and seeing my own personal contract with the country wither away, I can add something constructive to the conversation. This is an emotive piece with strong opinions, and one I write as a concerned Australian. What's at stake is nothing less than our future, because with our current approach and mentality, our prosperity and treasured way of life are far from assured.
An Australian abroad; my story
I've lived with my fiancé in New York for over three years. We moved here for our careers and to experience one of the world's great cities. We are not alone here. We are surrounded by a lively and ambitious group of Australians, many of whom we call good friends. Pre-COVID, and even until a few months ago, most conversations with Australians over a beer or dinner would inevitably turn to "so how much longer do you think you'll be here?" For many of us, our overseas homes are only temporary, with the gravity of family and our Australian roots too hard to resist forever. So until recently, most of us considered it a given that we'd return home in the near future. But in the last few months, instead of discussing timelines about moving home, the first question at that same beer or dinner has become "can you believe what's going on at home?" As time has gone on, our feelings have shifted from bewilderment, to abandonment, to anger, and our relationships with our home country have changed dramatically. I'll explain why.
It may be difficult to appreciate from home, but those of us building careers overseas are genuinely doing so with Australia in mind. In my time here, I have helped Australian businesses launch into the US, and am building bridges for capital to flow between the two countries. When many of our friends return home, they will bring their expertise, experience and networks from their overseas stints with them. We are clearly here furthering our own self-interest, but we also feel we are helping build Australia's brand and some of its businesses in major markets. We are proud of what we're building overseas, and we do so as Australians invested in the country's future prosperity.
It's within this context that we have watched the government's policy towards those overseas progress from insensitive to deliberately hostile to downright callous. The contract we had with our home country has been violated. It was difficult enough to get home before the government quietly changed the regulations to create the real possibility that those of us who return for a visit may not be able to leave. The extent to which applications to leave the country will actually be denied is irrelevant. The message is clear: don't come home. We hear you loud and clear ScoMo.
It is unclear to me and many others what the end-game is when you openly treat citizens with disdain and indifference. Tali and I, like many others overseas, received the news this week with a combination of sadness and fury. Unfortunately though, it wasn't out of character for a country that’s made it very clear—through COVID and previous challenges—what it stands for, and how it plans to treat its people. The sad reality is the country is now run by administrators with little capacity for actual leadership or imagination. COVID has simply revealed them for what they are.
The administrators’ stubborn inflexibility
Australia was incredibly successful in its early efforts to suppress COVID; this shouldn’t be understated. But the situation and the virus have evolved, while the country has remained in April 2020's state of fear and paralysis. Since that early success, it has been staggering to watch the ineptitude with which the pandemic has been handled in the last 12 months.
It's clear the government bungled the vaccine’s procurement, messaging and roll-out, and that they somehow still haven't figured out how to fix a broken quarantine system. But instead of openly acknowledging their mistakes, they have resorted to dishonesty to cover them up, and continue to insist there is "no alternative" to the current situation. Let’s be very clear: this is not true. Our politicians have perpetuated this lie for over a year, and they have been aided and abetted by a media that’s comically breathless in its desire to drum up panic and hysteria; to overseas readers, Australian newspapers’ coverage of COVID verges on satire. To be clear, I am not suggesting we should measure governments against a standard of perfection; no country or government has a flawless record. I am simply suggesting there must be a very strong justification for the rigid, condescending, paternalistic and draconian approach that Australian governments have chosen as their method, and that the approach must be considered as simply one option, not the only one.
There are alternatives to rolling lockdowns, a crushing police state and indefinitely closed borders. I've spent time in multiple US states and various countries in the last 18 months, pre-and-post the Delta variant, under many different approaches. I have visited countries as a non-citizen, pre-and-post vaccination, where the combination of a PCR-test before arrival and mask-wearing in public places allowed us to move freely with no restrictions; proof of vaccination or short quarantines are additional measures used to absorb incoming travelers. Countries are therefore actively grappling with how to live with COVID, and are adapting and managing risk in real-time; it’s messy at times, but it’s an approach rooted in reality. Contrast this with Australia, who can’t even figure out how to permit its citizens to live inside the country with any sense of freedom, let alone even consider letting more people in! By all means, maintain strict border controls, but stop perpetuating a false binary where you have to choose between submitting to imprisonment in your homes, or bodies in the street. I don’t want to labor the point, but does the chart below really justify a form of martial law for half the country? Risk is a concept to be minimized, not something capable of being removed.
What does “leading” actually involve?
I know there are no perfect solutions, and each involves trade-offs, but to suggest there is only one way to deal with this is simply untrue and disrespects Australians’ intelligence; it treats us as subjects, not citizens. It’s clear that Australian governments have dug themselves such deep holes that they consider changing course now outside the realm of possibilities. The inflexibility and inability to adapt has revealed our politicians’ true nature: they are not leaders, they are administrators; leaders act, administrators respond. I wrote a piece on this topic 11 months ago during Melbourne's long lockdown. Then, as now, the government was repeating the phrase "we are following the health advice" like braindead Quokkas. I wrote then:
"By now we know the government is “following the health advice”. And so they should. But the role of government is to balance the needs of different, and often competing, interests. Medical practitioners will clearly see the world through an epidemiological lens. And so they should. But to suggest that the current regime of restrictions presents the only path forward smells like an abdication of responsibility."
Nothing has changed since then, despite the passage of almost a year, and major developments in the tools we have to reduce severe cases and deaths. The apparatus of government and its legion of bureaucrats exist to give advice; a leader's job is to synthesize this advice with a feel for what's best for the country, and the courage to do what's necessary even if it’s difficult or unpopular. The easy thing is to repeatedly reach back into the toolkit and pull out the same lockdown hammer; the hard thing would be to actually lead and message a change in approach. Here are some very simple and sensible things the government should do: transition the messaging about COVID away from fear and towards practical realities, because we will live with it as an endemic disease for many years to come; move on from a tyrannical obsession with zero cases; widen vaccine eligibility; loosen restrictions for those who are vaccinated, and acknowledge that returning travelers who are vaccinated do not need to spend 14 days locked in a hotel. We must move to a place where individuals have greater autonomy over managing their own risk.
It baffles me that on the one hand, we abdicate COVID policymaking to medical professionals, when on the other hand, refuse to allow scientific consensus to inform our climate policy. It's clear the current government is comfortable with conflict with the governed, but not with conflict with parts of its own government. Maybe we shouldn't have expected change from this cohort of politicians at both the state and federal level. At times it seems like the country is being run like a Centrelink office; there are layers of administrators and receptionists, but nobody in sight that can give a straight answer or actually get anything done.
The whiplash of ongoing lockdowns is leading to long-term emotional and economic scarring; the costs of this approach are real and mounting. But ultimately, the problem runs deeper than the political parties and their current leaders. Labor and the Coalition seem to argue and bicker a lot, but they're within spitting distance of each other on many issues. The narrowness of the policy band across the spectrum is another indictment of our politicians’ lack of vision. The absence of vision and leadership is a function of the people occupying the positions, the system they're working within, and the collective hallucination of prosperity that we're all guilty of perpetuating. If the world was static and our prosperity was assured, then this wouldn't be as much of a problem. But the world is changing, and the future is getting more competitive.
Australia's long-term plan in a changing world
We are a country that pulls things out of the ground, sells coffee to each other, and invests every dollar we don't have in residential property. And that's been fine until this point. Australia, more than any other country, has ridden a wave of prosperity over the last 30 years that resulted in a quality of life almost unsurpassed anywhere in the world. But it has bred complacency, and the country's response to COVID has revealed this complacency and its worrying lack of urgency. We've convinced ourselves that we generated long-term prosperity because there's something special about us; but a lot of it’s been due to luck.
Taking a step back, Australia's approach to COVID implicitly includes the following: a comfort with severely curtailing its citizens’ liberties; the capacity to absorb and pay for economic calamities; a belief that its brand is strong enough to recover from the damage inflicted and to once again attract talent and capital; zero tolerance for risk or its citizens ability to manage it; and conviction that trust in authority will remain despite all the failures, hostility and dishonesty.
These positions suggest to me that Australia is over-playing its hand. The government is relying on the prosperity of the past to underwrite its actions today, and to be the model of prosperity in the future. It seems that the country assumes that when it finally emerges and rejoins the international economic order—where talent, capital and goods are once again moving—it will pick up where it left off. But I can tell you that as a proponent of brand Australia in an international market, that isn’t necessarily the case. The current approach, which looks like it will run well into 2022, is severely impacting Australia's attractiveness as a global destination. I am a citizen of the country, with all my family and roots there. But because of the government's deliberate message to me and others overseas, I am considering not returning to visit as planned; perversely, the government would be pleased with this outcome, as that’s what the policy is designed to do. Anecdotally, expats in Australia are planning their permanent exits from a country from which they currently can’t leave and to which their families can’t visit. This experience will end many expats’ careers in Australia, and end many planned stints before they even began.
It is worth adding that our economy largely prospers at China’s pleasure. China's attacks on Australian barley, wine, meat and coal were simply shots across the bow. With a unified political response and a resolute partner in the US, we seem to have come through this trial in decent shape, but it's clear that China (and the US) sees its initial tussle with us as part of a broader global re-ordering. It is within these complex geopolitical maneuverings that we must find ways to ensure our ongoing prosperity. I know the government is concerned about our long-term prosperity; the Treasurer released a paper on the issue just a few weeks ago. But while the government can make plans, they’ll remain academic papers unless what Australia represents remains something worth aspiring to. For that, we need leaders with vision, and a country with more imagination and compassion. This is the new contract we need.
The importance of our national character
I've found Australia’s response to COVID so disheartening because its emblematic of the way we have dealt with other hard problems. Unfortunately, it seems our politics has developed a comfort with callousness, a lack of empathy, and a willingness to shirk moral responsibility.
Whether it's our treatment of citizens abroad and at home through COVID, our response to refugees seeking our shores, or our stubborn inaction and inability to pull our weight in the climate emergency, it's clear we’re willing to accept indifference to suffering as a feature of our policies. From afar, compassion and a collective sense of morality seem to have been the casualties.
The problems we will be forced to deal with as a country are not going to get easier as time goes on. We will be defined in the coming years by our actions and character, not by slogans and data, both of which have been politicized beyond recognition. The country's soul is at stake, not because of some fluffy notion of national identity, but because the way we treat each other—fellow citizens and otherwise—and the world around us, says everything about our moral character. Prosperity and identity are built upon this type of bedrock, not coal or iron ore.
A country that locks up its citizens at home, effectively bars its citizens from returning from abroad, detains and imprisons asylum seekers indefinitely, and refuses to acknowledge its responsibility to the global climate, is not a country built for long-term prosperity in a world changing along geopolitical, technological and ideological grounds.
Bringing it together
We are an island on the other side of the world. This brings us great advantages and security in many ways, but it also means we must be very deliberate about the message we send to the rest of the world, and the messages we project internally. We must find ways to energize and excite the wealth of talent we have at home, and supplement it with the best and brightest who seek Australia's shores for the quality of life and prosperity we hope to consistently offer. We need leaders who understand and embrace this vision, not administrators who simply see their role as following the advice in pursuit of a status quo that no longer exists. We need leaders with character and imagination, not compliance junkies. We deserve better, and the moment and our place in a changing world demand more.
We will hopefully make it home in the coming weeks. The wedding we've postponed twice probably won't go ahead, but we count ourselves lucky to have the means to visit and the chance to see healthy family; it’s been a really long time. We will hopefully be allowed to return to the US after this visit, and will come back to continue building our own careers alongside our country's brand.
This year has taught us not to take health, freedom of movement, job security and anything else for granted. As I watch Australians descend into despair, I can't help but see complacency, the taking for granted of past prosperity, and our leader's failure to live up to that title. Australians shouldn’t have to look at the rest of 2021 as a write-off; there are other ways of dealing with COVID, and it’s our politicians duty to correct course and at a minimum, simply acknowledge the availability of other options.
I don't know where the broader change will come from, but I know it won't come from a political class that's part of the problem. My hope is the perspective of an Australian overseas, one clearly invested in the country's success, will be persuasive in describing or revealing the nature of our problems. My ask in this piece is not for sympathy as an Australian overseas; my ask is that you view the ineptitude and callousness of the COVID response for what it is: a risk to the prosperity we rightly cherish.
It's upon us to make clear what type of country we want to build and leave for the future, and the first step is acknowledging we need a change that’s bigger than just a new COVID strategy. We first need to see ourselves for who we really are, in order to set ourselves up to be the country we know we can become.