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Federal Government making it hard to call Australia home

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The Australian Government is making its citizens stranded overseas during the pandemic crisis feel unwelcome back to their own home, write Joe Wegecsanyi and Julian Smith.

DURING A TIME of global pandemic and crisis, thousands of Australians remain stuck overseas, abandoned by a government who has effectively told us that our lives are more complicated than any Australian identity should be. It flies in the face of what our understanding of “citizenship” is. There is a particular song, written by Peter Allen in the early 1980s, whose lyrics have long given voice to the value of citizenship, as well as given many overseas Australians comfort:

“But no matter how far or how wide I roam,

I still call Australia home.”

For the first time, during the course of this pandemic, overseas Australians have been forced to ask themselves: “Actually, can we still call Australia home?”

Thousands of us grew up with those lyrics ringing through our heads, not in small part because of watching countless QANTAS advertisements showing planes soaring through skies around the world. Maybe some of us took the words “I'm always travelling, I love being free” a little too literally.

Speaking personally, it has taken both of us on some pretty wild adventures, beyond anything either of us could have imagined. Grabbing your passport and jumping on a plane in your early 20s and setting off for untold adventures is a privilege, but it is also daunting. However, the freedom of travel always came with the reassurance that, at the end of the day, I still call Australia home.

The Australian passport always gave this sense of comfort. But that has now changed. As it turns out, nobody told us it was actually only good for invoking questions from strangers about bushfires, kangaroos and sandpaper. Nobody can recall the terms and conditions stipulating that, in the case of a global emergency, one’s Australian passport is only useful if one’s lifestyle and personal situation conforms to the expectations of a government that is clearly terrifyingly narrow-minded when it comes to the value of citizenship.

“All the sons and daughters,

Spinning around the world,

Away from their family and friends.

But as the world gets older and colder,

It’s good to know where your journey ends.”

Those lyrics imply, of course, that Australia is the place where your journey ends, no matter where it has taken you. But now, as the world is getting colder and deadlier, thousands of Australian’s journeys have been abruptly halted in India, among other places around the world.

India and Australia are two nations whose cultures and histories have long been intertwined through colonialism, commerce and cricket, among many other things. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, roughly 620,000 Australians declared they were of Indian descent in 2016, meaning almost three per cent of the Australian population have deep ties to the subcontinent. At any one time, there are thousands of Australians in India, visiting relatives and friends. Just as many Australians often travel to reconnect with their heritage and backgrounds in the UK and Europe.

Furthermore, for decades, masses of Australians have eagerly visited or moved to India and become enthralled by its smells, sounds, colours and overwhelmingly busy streets.

It is an intense place at the best of times, let alone while a deadly virus surges through its massive and diverse population. One can only imagine the mental weight of being an Australian there now, unable to return home upon threat of heavy fine or imprisonment. Critics might say “well, nobody should have been there now, it’s their own fault”. But many have been there since before the current COVID-19 outbreak began, or had been given permission by the Government to travel.

And besides, each of us who has left Australia’s shores has done so with an assurance in our pockets:

‘The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, being the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.’

Well, Governor-General, perhaps this request needs to be made, clearly and directly, to the current Australian Government.

The hope in writing this is to provide an understanding of why so many of us are feeling aggrieved by the Government’s stance towards overseas Australians throughout the course of the pandemic. Clearly, Australia’s physical isolation has sheltered it from the full horrors of COVID-19. Nobody can blame the Government, or people living in Australia, for trying to do their best to stop the disease from breaking out on the continent.

But the Federal Government has not done its best. It has made it financially impossible for many of us to get home at all and, instead of creating quarantine facilities, it has given a dinky, pathetic handball to the states. When the states inevitably struggled with this enormous task, the Federal Cabinet has refused to accept responsibility and instead threatened the criminalisation of Australians who just want to bring their ships back to the shore.

Should we be surprised? This government is simply following the mantra established by the long-standing Howard Government: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Many Australians applauded 20 years ago when that applied to drowning refugees. And now they applaud when it applies to fellow Australians, abandoned overseas.

Listening to and reading some of the reactions from people in Australia supporting this policy has been hugely disappointing, above all else. How can there be so little understanding of the fact that being Australian does not constitute one way of living, or demand our physically remaining in Australia?

Those of us who have experienced “leaving the sun and the sea” have not turned our back on our homeland. Rather, in foreign settings, we often hold it up as part of our identity in a stronger way than we often would in the comfort of home. Each of us represents Australia in ways that are reflective of our country’s complexity and diversity and one would hope that all Australians could find pride in that. We have been confronted by the fact that, although we might still call Australia home, it is a home we are not welcome to return to.

Joe Wegecsanyi and Julian Smith are two Australian ex-pats in the Netherlands who have both spent the last decade working in European tourism, culture and history communication. They are the founders of Republic of Amsterdam Radio, which aims to communicate Dutch history to an English language audience. Their flagship podcast is History of the Netherlands.

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