Scott Morrison is not Donald Trump, but it’s the sort of controversy that Donald Trump would have loved to create. The Australian government not only shut the border to India last week, it also spelled out the warning that even returning Australian citizens could be jailed for five years for trying to get home.
Trump used border closures against minorities to give expression to his racist attitudes against Muslims and Mexicans. He had pretexts of law and order but his political purpose was to excite racists among his support base.
Morrison might have flirted with the odd Trumpist idea a while ago, but this was not the aim of the India decision. The policy is to protect against COVID. In fact, Morrison last week announced the first of several shipments of emergency aid to India, including ventilators and oxygen concentrators.
Yet a leader of the Indian Australian community and a prominent Liberal Party supporter, Dr Jagvinder Virk, explained how many feel: “I have always said there is a White Australia policy and today we are seeing it.”
But the decision to close the border was made on the advice of the chief medical officer, Dr Paul Kelly. Virk is a medical doctor himself. So what makes him think the decision is racist? “Because the US hasn’t done it, the UK hasn’t done it, Canada hasn’t done it, why are we doing it?” poses the chairman of the India Australia Strategic Alliance.
He acknowledges there may be good arguments for the ban, but that sentiment is running so hot it is trumping rationality: “Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s how we feel about it. It’s like we are second-class citizens,” he tells me. “The community is very upset.”
The Morrison government is not racist, but this is the sort of conduct that you’d see from a racist regime.
At the outset of the pandemic, the government closed the border to arrivals from China, then South Korea, Italy and Iran under the Biosecurity Act. So why is it so controversial this time? A key difference is that, this time, the government specified the penalties for breaching the Biosecurity Act and applied them to anyone, from any country, including Australia.
The media jumped on the news. As a result, media worldwide now have reported the India ban and the threat to jail any citizens returning home.
On the defensive, Morrison has implied that the government will avoid prosecuting: “We’ve had the Biosecurity Act in place now for over a year and no one’s gone to jail, there hasn’t been any irresponsible use of those powers.”
But too late. The government has managed to unite in outrage many civil society groups, Labor, some Nationals, plus the Greens, independents and even some Liberals, as well as the three-quarter million people of the Indian Australian community.
Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch captures the common theme: “The government should be looking to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences.”
Australia isn’t seeking to damage community cohesion by inflaming race relations, but this the sort of thing it might do if it were. Morrison has taken up one of Malcolm Turnbull’s catchcries: “Australia is the most successful multicultural nation on Earth.” And they are probably right. When the COVID pandemic produced a flare-up of racist incidents against Chinese people in Australia, Morrison didn’t play up the division but sought to unify. He repeatedly praised the Chinese Australian community for its responsible conduct in containing the virus.
And during the great Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, Morrison last year sent his best wishes to India and boasted that “Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world”. If he repeats the message this year, he risks being howled down.
Australia is in a serious confrontation with China and doesn’t want to alienate the next rising great power as well, but this is the sort of thing it would do if it did.
Morrison has embraced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the leader of one of the world’s great democracies: “My dear friend Narendra Modi, greetings on your birthday,” he tweeted last year. “I’m sure our Australia-India relations will reach new heights in the coming year. May you have a delightful birthday. See you soon!”
And he did. In March, Morrison and Modi joined US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga by video in the inaugural summit of the Quad group. This is an attempt by the four democracies to balance against China’s increasing power and to manage its mounting aggression.
But if the impression takes hold in India that Australia is a hotbed of anti-India racists, it will make it politically awkward for Modi to appear supportive.
Australia is thirsty for global talent in key technologies and wants to attract brilliant minds to immigrate. It doesn’t want to deter Indians, on the cutting edge of research and entrepreneurship, but this sort of border controversy is what it might do if it intended to. A country’s reputation – even an undeserved one – matters. Many of the world’s brightest tech talents who were planning to move to the US changed course as a result of Trump’s racist flourishes.
The truth is that there was no malice in the Morrison government’s handling of the India ban, just ham-fistedness. The ban was the culminating point of other failures by the government – the failure to build a robust national quarantine system with cabin-based accommodation, the failure to set up a local capacity to make mRNA vaccines, the type that can be edited quickly to prevent new variants of COVID.
These failures grew from Australia’s permanent enemy – complacency. The Morrison government needs to understand that its early success is unravelling. It it needs to mobilise anew. To build sustainable defences against a pandemic, which is only growing and mutating. To protect all its citizens.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
An earlier version of this article stated that the federal government’s criminal penalties under the Biosecurity Act against people - including Australian citizens - travelling from India had also applied to previous country-specific travel bans. This was incorrect. The previous bans and penalties on arrivals from China, South Korea, Italy and Iran had not applied to Australian citizens.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.