The passport that’ll get me anywhere, except my own country

Almost 40,000 Australian passport holders are stranded overseas as a result of the federal government’s international travel ban. Photo: Peter Hackney.

Australian expat Amanda Smith weighs into federal government’s continuing ‘Fortress Australia’ approach to Covid-19, which has seen tens of thousands of Australians locked out of their own country.

The past 18 months have granted me a lot of time to ponder on what it means to be Australian – an identity I’ve held tightly in the five years I’ve lived abroad.

Australians are laid-back with spirited attitudes and a somewhat ridiculous dialect that entertains our foreign friends. We’re proud of where we come from. It’s the best damn country in the world – and we let everyone know it, righteously defending the long flights and spiders, with a ‘she’ll be right, mate’ kinship. 

The 24-hour flight to get around the world is, we reckon, a small price to pay for the Australian lifestyle – stunning beaches, incredible weather and a high quality of life. Distance, especially for immigrants and expats, is a sacrifice we’re happy to make, to follow an inkling, an urge, to experience the world. 

Until now. 

There’s no doubt we all suffered during this pandemic. No-one got out of this crisis unscathed, on either side of the border. But there’s been heartbreaking lack of empathy or thought for Australians abroad – the very people who return home bringing new insights and ideas to contribute to a better society. To forge ties with the rest of the world, bridge divides and create deeper connections. 

We need more of this, not less. And we certainly shouldn’t be punished for it. 

Prior to Covid-19, Australians abroad rallied to raise funds for their homeland that was suffering through a devastating bushfire season. Three months later, these same people were given two weeks’ notice to pack up their lives abroad because the border would shut indefinitely. 

Talk about unAustralian. Today, there’s just shy of 40,000 Australians stranded abroad, powerless against the myriad obstacles to return to families. I’m one of them. 

“Why don’t you just come home?” is a common question. 

Let’s do some maths, shall we? Let’s say I get ‘lucky’ and get chosen from that list of nearly 40,000. There are only a couple of flights I can see, the best costing $15,523. It’s a 32-hour trip. Great, now let’s add the $3,000 quarantine fees, then we’re forking out $18,523 plus waiting 16 more days to see my family and friends. 

But after being through all of this, if I manage to get back to Australia, I now might not be able to leave to continue my life abroad (where I have a wife, apartment, work and friends). I can’t just leave; I would have to apply (like I did if I was to enter). And yes, I can even be denied. Lovely. 

I wouldn’t be able to bring my wife with me either, as only Australian citizens and permanent residents get the joy of this experience. 

A number of airlines, including Virgin Australia, have grounded all international flights to and from Australia, due to the federal government’s ‘Fortress Australia’ approach. Pictured are grounded Virgin Australia aircraft at Brisbane Airport. Photo: Darren England/AAP Image.

Two weeks ago, Australia extended its international travel ban by three months. This latest border ban is one of many blows for Aussies abroad (and foreigners who chose to settle in Australia). Yet another policy decision that has irreversible effects on families. There are endless, harrowing stories of missing loved ones’ funerals, grandparents not meeting their grandchildren, and in ‘best’ cases, families being kept apart for 18+ months, with no end in sight. 

Tens of thousands of us are straddling life in two countries. It’s hard even at the best of times. But we do it because we’re drawn to experience the world beyond what we know, not because we don’t want to live in Australia. There’s a difference. 

Andrew Coles and Chantelle Franklin are from Adelaide and live in the UK. 

“This nonsensical rule removes the opportunity of even a short two-week visit home. It makes the decision to try and get home much more complex, as we’d effectively have to give away the life we’ve built over the past decade,” Andrew says. 

“Australians seem to be becoming far more insular than I remember. The country is in a holding pattern. The idea that you can turn your back on the problem and retreat from the world and it’ll just go away is ludicrous … a bizarre culture war seems to be dividing people.” 

Andrew believes there needs to be a proactive attitude whereby the government is looking for ways to open borders and re-engage with the world – not taking steps to retreat further still. 

“If they can make an arrival system work for celebrities, politicians and the ultra-wealthy, they can surely cast the net a little wider. Nobody knew how long this would last. People who were in safe, secure jobs (and had visas) found themselves in different circumstances a year later.” 

Australian expats Andrew Coles and Chantelle Franklin have concerns about ‘Fortress Australia’. Photo: Chantelle Franklin/Facebook.

While hashtags like #FortressAustralia, #OpenBorders, #liftthetravelban and #removethecaps are trending, so are tweets like: “I actually wouldn’t mind if we never re-join the rest of the world.” These polarising viewpoints and lack of empathy won’t dissolve when, and if, Australia catches up with the rest of the world. 

I, for one, have lost that Aussie pride and am tired of responding to “What the hell is going on in Australia?” questions. And, in the end, Australia will lose out, with all the well-educated, innovative thinkers and talent that’ll leave – or won’t return. 

Chantelle Franklin, Andrew’s fiancé, will finish her residency at The Queen’s Veterinary School in Cambridge as one of the world’s elite veterinary imaging specialists – and will call Adelaide home. 

“It’s not just a working holiday. Chantelle will have incredibly advanced and valuable knowledge – and she’ll call Adelaide home,” Andrew adds. 

This isn’t just a black and white decision, for many of us. 

Peter Freeman, a fellow Australian living in Canada, believes people are using words to shield themselves. 

“People are afraid and therefore, are happy to do whatever is necessary. It’s fascinating to see it play out in Canada, in terms of freedom of movement rights. We’ve been free to come and go, thanks to the Charter of Rights, much like the Constitution in the US. Australia doesn’t have this,” Peter says. 

“I just have questions, a lot of questions. We’re at an intersection of cataclysmic challenges for society. It’s not easy, but the fear rhetoric isn’t going to move us forward.” 

With more than one in three Australians born overseas, much of the population locked inside are hurting, too. The government’s slow response to the pandemic (compared to the rest of the world) has seen later outbreaks, spikes in cases and thus, hard lockdowns. The polarisation is happening inside Australia, too, with people divided into two camps: ‘re-open the economy’ vs ‘control Covid safely’.

Australia is a multicultural country where one in three people were born overseas. File photo. 

As I write this, there are growing indications that the government will tentatively re-open the borders when Australia reaches a significant vaccination milestone – 80 per cent of the population aged 16 and over fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – which, at current rates, will occur sometime in December. 

Our national airline, Qantas, which grounded international flights at the end of March, has even announced they intend to recommence flying to international destinations from 18 December – albeit to just a handful of destinations, namely Honululu, London, Los Angeles, Nandi, Singapore and Tokyo. 

In the meantime, however, we’re not only grieving the lost time we’ll never get back, but also aspects of our national psyche that have been damaged – maybe beyond repair. 

Amanda Smith is an Australian-born author, copywriter, cultural commentator and journalist based in New York City. Her website is located at www.amandasmithwriter.com.au.