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Australia’s business-driven travel policy leaves thousands stranded

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

You’ll have no trouble coming in and out of Australia, and the world remains your oyster — if you’ve got heaps money and can say you are in business.

The figures, which don’t lie, say there is a huge imbalance in Australia’s travel rules right now, with inequality making the COVID-19 crisis worse.

There are always at least 30,000 said to be on the waiting list to get home, even though well over that many keep returning. How come they cannot make progress with the backlog? Because, with twice as many regularly flying out of Australia, as those stranded, many of those leavers then return to Australia again — and it is getting plain to see they can push their way to the front of the queue.

The figures 

Recent figures from the Government, have more than 37,000 waiting to return home while the total number of Australians who have returned since mid-September is more than 71,000. The total number of Australians returning since March is 443,000.

An ABC investigation made some progress trying to sort out what is going on:

About twice as many people are still flying out of Australia despite COVID-19 travel restrictions, compared to the number of passengers who are managing to secure flights back home.

 

In 2020, outbound passenger movements continued to outpace arrivals, in some months by a factor of three to one. It is unclear how many of the departing passengers held Australian passports.

 

Almost 40,000 Australians stranded overseas have registered … as wanting to come home but have so far been unable to secure return flights.

Trips back to Australia are rationed, with the Federal Government handing it to the states to accommodate arrivals in hotels, in restricted numbers, save for the one camp — Howard Springs near Darwin. 

It got worse this month, when alarm about the new strain of COVID-19 in the UK led to the announcement of a temporary halving of the number of permitted arrivals.  New South Wales will be taking only 1,505 passengers per week, Queensland 500 and Western Australia 512. Arrivals in Victoria and South Australia will stay at low levels and the Federal Government will itself continue to manage arrivals in the territories.

The tightening shows up how much of a bottomless pit it is, a leaking pot that cannot get filled. With the 37,000 stranded Australians set to come home, many other Australians also are set to come home; there are only 3,000 allowed in every week. And there are victims — those short of money, or the right contacts, or other resources needed to get a flight.

The devil is in the fine print

One clue to the reasons for this imbalance can be found in the regulations.

The rules are, if you are an Australian citizen you cannot leave the country, subject to exemptions that you can apply for, especially:

  • if your travel is for your business or employer;
  • or you are travelling outside Australia 'for a compelling reason for three months or longer'.

You can apply also, to the Home Affairs Department on sundry other grounds: if doing work on the COVID-19 outbreak; compassionate or humanitarian reasons; urgent medical treatment; or travelling “in the national interest”.

That’s on top of automatic exit for non-Australians, aircrew, persons shifting freight, those on official government business including the defence forces.

Who gets to go and return?

It stays unclear exactly which  Australians are going and which of those get to turn around later and come back — but it is not difficult telling who cannot return.

The situation of many private travellers, or temporary expatriate Australians, has been well-publicised since it all started early last year, with little change: couples with young children selling up and putting their limited funds into air tickets and still getting bumped; back-packers or students faced with paying over four-times the fares they went over on; professionals turned out of an overseas job they’d held for years; migrant families divided by the crisis, some caught on a visit to the "old country".

Being rich helps

Those people can ask the Foreign Affairs department for a loan or grant out of a $61 million Federal Government “hardship fund”, but that does not seem to be doing the trick. They could try getting rich quick, or get a job with a business employer with a great travel budget.

For the business traveller, or the well to do, one travel operative told the ABC about a few of the deals currently on offer:

On February 14, a Qatar flight from London to Brisbane, where only business class is being offered, will cost roughly $13,000.

 

A flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane on United Airlines on the same date, again with only business class available, is priced at roughly $21,000.

 

Passengers who have purchased a 'low yield' fare may find themselves bumped off a flight to be replaced by passengers who are prepared to pay a premium for their seat to come home.

"Better class" of travellers?

Some of the ‘better class’ of traveller these days who may come and go:

  • The former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has been given a job by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to do with British-Australian trade. He can come and go on the open-travel list;
  • Billionaire entrepreneurs can travel freely; after all, they are deal-makers for industry, and usually have their own aeroplane. Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Metals has just completed a four-month tour by private jet to various places specified and unspecified;
  • Persons such as the passengers and crew of the super motor yacht Lady E, which came in at Cairns from the Maldives, with two onboard testing positive for COVID-19. The Queensland Government said they had some trouble with attitude, not getting full co-operation on topics like where the vessel had been and when; the captain said they were co-operative.

Business not households

The setting up of re-entries with a business and money bias is a sign of the policy stand on COVID-19 being taken by conservative interests world-wide: business not households.

It means a priority to keep industry going, keep up production, and profits — those given preference over lockdowns and health services. The pitch is: you avoid economic collapse and provide jobs. It is backed up with denial and bravado about the epidemic — tell the public it will go away soon. The risk is a resurgence of the disease and death.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, started out in step with this global plan, pushing against any closures of schools, or state borders. And in keeping with the line on business before households, we have the business-first air travel regimen — and 37,000 Australians stranded overseas.

Changes forced through by COVID-19

After COVID-19, will we see the end of mass travel that began with jet airliners around 1960? Will it be back to the days of elegant first class-only travel for the few?

Some of this was already in the air, for example, start-up business class-only airlines. Singapore’s mass-travel Changi terminal is being duplicated with a business centre constructed on a different concept: business class shuttles into a luxury conferencing hub and playground — same profit and fewer travellers to bother with.

One aspect of mass travel has been a change in the migration experience. Many families have a version of grandfather’s story: as a young man, he said goodbye to his mother in England, Greece or Yugoslavia, both knowing they would never see each other again. In this Century and earlier, mass travel changed it; first or second-generation Australians making frequent, even annual visits "home", often involving business.

That has contributed to the volume of demand for seats in the pandemic crisis, and to the pain of separation for many.

What about an air-lift and camps to get people home? Call on the air force with an air charter operation, to pick up the 37,000 (maybe 150 flights), and run a quarantine operation at camps outside of the cities.

Numerous left-over military buildings were used like that during the immigration influx following the Second World War. Would a country which now has a much stronger capacity away from the same kind of challenge now?  

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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