Bronte Beach
Bronte Beach

Why making Australia a COVID-free utopia is a mistake

Christmas Day and New Year's Eve are done with and so is 2020, a year just about all of us would rather forget.

Not out of the woods yet, Victoria and NSW are on edge as COVID-19 threatens to lock us all down again. I'm sure no one wants to go back to those dreadful days of constant mask wearing, five-kilometre travel limits and self-isolation.

What a dreadful few months it was, especially in Victoria, made much worse for people who have lost jobs, businesses and loved ones struck down by the virus.

As death rates skyrocket in places like the UK and USA it's perhaps only natural that Australia starts talking about erecting hard borders and turning our backs on foreigners.

Talkback radio has even had debates about whether actual Australian citizens caught overseas during the pandemic ought to be allowed back into their own country.

A very quiet Melbourne Airport on BYE. Picture: David Geraghty
A very quiet Melbourne Airport on BYE. Picture: David Geraghty

Airfares from Europe and the US have soared, with limited numbers of passengers allowed, while securing a quarantine bed in a hotel has become almost impossible.

Aircraft leaving Australia are all but empty, with a close friend one of only 23 passengers on a JAL flight to Tokyo last Sunday night. In business class there were just three people.

There is a creeping view spreading around Australia that we should turn our backs on the world and exist like some COVID-free paradise while the rest of the world collapses.

Only our near neighbour New Zealand would be able to enter our little protected bubble and we can all live happily ever after.

What a mistake that would be - and it wouldn't be the Australia we all love and grew up in. Australians are some of the most travelled people on earth and for many of us an annual overseas trip, or at least every couple of years, is something we desperately miss.

And Australians have always been welcoming to people from other countries travelling here to holiday or work temporarily, taking a gap year.

The backpacker industry is worth billions of dollars and the backlash when Canberra implemented a backpacker tax was swift.

Imposed in 2017 at the rate of 15 per cent on two visa categories that tax is now being challenged in court with the argument being that it breaches trade agreements with up to seven countries.

The backpacker industry and temporary visa employers also argue that the tax will simply force youngsters to find alternative destinations to spend a year off.

This of course was all pre-COVID and Australia effectively shut its borders to international arrivals way back in March. As of now only Australian citizens - if they can get a flight - and travellers from New Zealand can come here.

Christmas Day revellers packed Bronte Beach. Picture: Toby Zerna
Christmas Day revellers packed Bronte Beach. Picture: Toby Zerna

If you go back to April it was calculated that up to two million temporary visa holders were in Australia when the door slammed shut. Many of those two million are still here, either unable or unwilling to go home and who could blame them.

Those in Queensland and WA have largely existed as if COVID-19 never happened, while watching in horror as the virus swept through their home countries killing millions.

For many of those youngsters, part of the attraction of Australia at this time of the year is the opportunity to celebrate Christmas and New Year in sunshine instead of locked away in snow bound towns in Europe and the UK.

Sydney's city beaches like Bondi, Manly, Bronte and Dee-Why are a particularly attractive place to party and welcome in the New Year. On Christmas Day this seems to have caused some concern for local residents in Bronte, east of the Sydney city centre.

Revellers were dancing, drinking and God-forbid according to one eyewitness, even singing. He said they appeared to be British, although I'm not sure how he worked that out.

Now for anyone not familiar with Sydney's beaches, Bronte beach is nowhere near the northern beaches that have been declared a red zone with the so-called Avalon cluster north of the Narrabeen inlet bridge.

A quick calculation shows the distance between Palm Beach in the north and Bronte, where these celebrations took place, is about 50km, or roughly an hour by road.

By any measure that's a very long way from the latest NSW virus outbreak. This didn't stop Jason Falinski - a little- known Federal MP desperately trying to make a name for himself as a lot of backbenchers do during summer holidays - from hysterically suggesting these backpackers have their visas ripped up.

A crowd gathered at Bronte Beach on Christmas Day. Picture: Toby Zerna
A crowd gathered at Bronte Beach on Christmas Day. Picture: Toby Zerna

What seemed to escape Falinski's attention was that not one of these partying youngsters was fined or arrested during the celebrations.

Ironically this Christmas grinch, who wants to send these poor backpackers back to virus ridden countries where they might actually fall sick, holds the Federal seat of Mackellar.

Mackellar takes in all of the red-zone suburbs and houses the Avalon cluster. Falinski was even able to convince his Parliamentary colleague and newly appointed Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to join in the call for possible deportation.

Hawke went public suggesting that anyone on a temporary visa who broke the law or threatened public safety or health could be thrown out of Australia.

Hawke even threatened to put anyone who broke the regulations into immigration detention.

Seriously, these two must just be chasing headlines. Deporting youngsters for singing and dancing on a beach is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

Fifty kilometres away from a COVID-19 outbreak - in one of these blokes' own seat - a few hundred young people celebrate being young and free and the other one of them wants to lock them up on Christmas Island.

This at the very same time as Australian orchardists and farmers are desperately calling for backpacker labour to save rotting fruit from falling on the ground.

At the very same time Australians running tourist businesses are trying to save their livelihoods we have senior government MPs calling for the few tourists actually here to be thrown out of the country.

And their crime? Having fun.

Falinski and Hawke clearly have never been to Bali, the Munich beer festival or Pamplona for the running of the bulls.

If you want to watch young tourists behaving badly while under the influence of too much alcohol might I suggest you have a look in your own backyard - Australians might be world champions at it.

I once spent a week at the Oktoberfest in Munich in the Hofbrauhaus tent back in 1977 and I think we started drinking before midday and the tent shut at midnight.

Instead of calling for backpacking partygoers to be deported, why doesn't the federal government work harder at policing the temporary work visa system and get these fit young visitors out to our farms where they are badly needed.

Australians don't like the fun police, and too many of us have enjoyed the hospitality of other nations while overseas travelling to turn our great country into some sort of COVID-free Switzerland.

Let's hope our Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who infamously oversaw in a previous job the disastrous "Where the Bloody Hell Are You" campaign with Lara Bingle, ignores Falinski and Hawke and encourages our visitors to enjoy themselves.

Originally published as Why making Australia a COVID-free utopia is a mistake