Beware the illusion of fortress Australia. We remain isolated as others reopen

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Erik Anderson/EPA</span>
Photograph: Erik Anderson/EPA

Fortress Australia is one of our abiding national illusions. As an island nation, we are preoccupied with threats from outside, and convinced we have it within our power to keep them at bay.

So it has been with this Covid pandemic. Listening to debate today, there are many Australians perfectly content with the federal government’s assumption that international borders will be effectively closed until mid-2022. Some wouldn’t mind keeping our borders closed forever. They’d say it’s a modest price to pay to keep us safe.

Related: ‘Politics rules’: Australia’s international travel ban not based on science, health experts say

Only it isn’t. We will pay a high price if we revert to thinking we can succeed as a nation protected by fortress walls. We are, after all, a trading nation. Our modern economic success is inseparable from being part of an open, globalised world. Our society wouldn’t be what it is today without immigration.

This modern, open version of Australia is now under challenge. We are in danger of lapsing into some old, insular ways. One entirely comfortable with turning our backs on the world.

To be sure, closing our borders this past year has had the desired effect. Alongside a world-class public health response, it has helped to prevent Covid from spreading through our society. While there has been the odd lockdown, and we’ve had to get used to face masks, life here has for the most part continued normally.

This past week, however, the case has moved beyond Covid-19.

Some have even argued that fortress Australia has been an economic policy winner. Dire predictions about a 20% fall in property prices as a result of the pandemic never eventuated. Unemployment didn’t spike beyond 7%. Instead of spending their cash on overseas travel, Australians have been spending it domestically instead. The economy, with the help of government intervention, has remained buoyant.

Too many have limited sympathy for the plight of citizens stuck overseas

So what’s so bad, then, about this picture? Doesn’t this make us the envy of the rest of the world?

Only our parochialism would lead us to think so. We may have won the “war” of the first phase of the pandemic, but we are at serious risk of losing the “peace”.

Our vaccination rollout has been slow when compared to our global peers. As many countries successfully vaccinate their populations and securely re-open, we remain isolated. Other countries are positioned to surge ahead.

The problem, though, isn’t just about the vaccine. It’s also psychological. As a nation, we simply aren’t ready to contemplate being part of the world again. We’ve been too content with ourselves, too inward-looking, too complacent.

As a general rule, crisis forces society to be confronted with choices. It forces societies to remake themselves. Yet, we often seem immune from this. In times of crisis, we have too often been the victims of our own success.

For instance, it felt as though we were barely touched by the global financial crisis. Other countries found themselves after the crisis debating the limits of financial capitalism; we found ourselves arguing about domestic policy rollout.

Something similar is happening with Covid. The social gravity of the moment feels lost. Those countries ravaged by the virus have had to debate what national recovery must look like, what it means to build back better. Here, our national attention this past year has been fixated with monitoring single-digit case numbers of Covid cases.

Not that there’s been any shortage of ideas about what our society should look like. The pandemic has revealed how marginalised and vulnerable many in our society are. Think of those in aged care who were most susceptible to Covid, or the precarious circumstances of many casual workers, migrants and international students. Think of the spike last year in anti-Asian racism, or the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women. Or think of the vulnerability of being an Australian citizen abroad: there remain some 35,000 Australian citizens still unable to return home.

Related: Criminalising citizens returning from India signals some are more Australian than others | Tim Soutphommasane

Perhaps more than anything, Covid has revealed something troubling within our culture. Too many have limited sympathy for the plight of citizens stuck overseas, believing the stranded have only themselves to blame. There’s been a sense of moral superiority about remaining safe within the walls of fortress Australia.

In the past, our protectionist sentiment found its most obvious expression through a White Australia policy that restricted immigration from non-European countries. While we’re no longer a White Australia, that protectionist sentiment remains. And it’s now directed at fellow citizens in their moment of need.

This is what happens when the psyche of parochialism takes hold. It’s what happens when you start believing that living in an Australian sanctuary isolated from the world represents a virtue, and not just a temporary vice.

Beware, then, the illusion of fortress Australia. That’s not the kind of country we should want to be. Australia is at its best when it’s open and confident, not closed and fearful.

• Tim Soutphommasane is professor and director, Culture Strategy at the University of Sydney. He was co-sponsor of the Open Society, Common Purpose taskforce, a grouping of leaders from business, the professions, education, the arts and civil society, whose report A Roadmap to Reopening was released on Friday

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting