As Australia’s COVID-19 curve flattens, social-distancing restrictions are likely to ease. Students across the country are starting to return to school, and Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have all announced minor relaxations of the strict lockdown measures that have been in place since March.
The changes have prompted calls to re-open the country’s state and territory borders, particularly as talk of a resumption of Australia-New Zealand air travel grows louder.
Both countries have managed to keep new COVID-19 cases very low. Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton recently suggested that air travel to Australia’s “natural partner” could be safe to resume soon.
“Welcome talk of restarting NZ-Australia air travel raises the obvious question of why can’t we reopen the borders between our own states immediately and take down the inconsistent and overly cautious cross-border barriers,” says Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox.
“It should not be easier to get from Sydney to Wellington than it is to get from Coolangatta to Tweed Heads.
“And when we eventually can holiday again, wouldn’t it be better for our local economy to take a break in Broome or the Flinders Ranges rather than go skiing in Queenstown?”
The closure of state and territory borders had an immediate and in some cases devastating impact on businesses already struggling to adapt to social distancing measures. Those efforts, and even tighter restrictions on overseas travel, have apparently slowed the rate of infection in Australia, and Willox says it’s time to reassess.
“Business needs a signal that they should be preparing for a return to what will be the new normal beyond the virus, and one of those signals should be an immediate removal of interstate border restrictions,” he says.
“Borders should be reopened fully with the continued understanding and strong messaging that the community and business are expected to adhere to all health and social distancing requirements. Such healthy practices have become second nature to most of us now and we should have confidence in the community to do the right thing without threat.”
Border entry requirements have been set by each state and territory. According to Willox, that has led to inconsistencies and confusion for cross-border workers, as well as fear of legal penalties.
“Some state governments introduced border restrictions that resulted in a patchwork of rules and created a nightmare for communities and business,” he says.
“Ai Group members tell me daily of nervous staff asking for letters of authorisation because they fear police stops and potentially huge fines. Freight is moving reasonably well after a difficult start, but many Ai Group members working across borders do so under threat of self-isolation orders and financial penalties for non-compliance ranging from $13,335 in Queensland to $62,800 in the Northern Territory.”
Willox says that, from an economic perspective, an island continent such as Australia cannot afford to maintain internal borders.
“If we are to restart the economy properly, we need to reach back to the inspiration of Federation and the idea of free trade and movement of people between the states,” he says.
“Competitive Federalism is a good thing, but only when it is about making it simpler to build a better society and grow the economy — not when it makes it harder to live, work and do business.”