The downside of Australia’s isolation strategy

To political leaders, it often seems easier and less risky to stick with current restrictions, and a lesson from history is that government restrictions often last much longer than is justifiable. Hence, four years after the end of the War, petrol rationing was still imposed in Australia, and Bob Menzies’s message of Free Enterprise was all the more appealing at the 1949 election (see Issues that swung elections: Petrol shortages and the dawn of the Menzies era).

The persistence of restrictions is one of the reasons I’ve been critical of these so-called circuit breaker lockdowns that have been imposed in Victoria, Queensland, and WA. They can so easily be extended unnecessarily, and I’m concerned that, despite all the hopeful messages coming from Victorian authorities, the latest lockdown will be extended and the economic costs will continue to mount.

There is also the risk that Fortress Australia will be maintained much longer than is desirable. The head of public emergencies at the WHO, Dr Mike Ryan, has rightly identified the “genuine dilemma” Australia now faces regarding when and how to reopen, as reported by the Brisbane Times. We need to have the vast bulk of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, but we’ve had a dreadfully slow vaccination program so far.

The downside of Australia’s isolation strategy was nicely summarised by Canadian Professor Douglas Allen of Simon Fraser University in my conversation with him on the costs and benefits of lockdowns (Lockdown CBA podcast discussion):

With isolation, your population always remains vulnerable. And so with isolation, you must permanently remain isolated until you can become vaccinated. And you’re actually lucky that the vaccine came as quickly as it did…in sort of world record time, because if it had taken the normal rate of time of five years, can you imagine being isolated for five years in Australia, or part of those 40,000 Australians that are out of the country and can’t return? …So it’s not clear that isolation was even a smart policy last March. It may look like it turned out maybe to be a good policy, but again…you would not have experienced the apocalyptic deaths that were predicted last March, either.

I suspect a lot of Australians will get really angry if our Premier and reportedly the Brisbane Lord Mayor and the PM actually attend the Tokyo Olympics next month, which was Premier Palaszczuk’s defence for getting the Pfizer jab yesterday even though she is over fifty and should have got AstraZeneca. While our political leaders have often lived by different rules than the rest of the country, this would be an especially egregious case. Alas, Andrew Cooper of LibertyWorks lost his challenge to Australia’s “draconian” international travel restrictions (see Australian court upholds ban on most international travel). It will be up to our political leaders to remove these restrictions, but history suggests our leaders will leave them in place far too long.

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4 Responses to The downside of Australia’s isolation strategy

  1. Dan Petrie says:

    Another excellent article.
    It is amazing how little is spoken of the income generated for example by the likes of foreign students noting the export value of that sector for Australia’s tertiary sector. The fortress Australia mentality in large part simply says countries such as ours are not open for business.
    The roll out of the vaccine will no doubt speed up as dark clouds continue to hover over Victoria but Australia and New Zealand’s hard closed door may yet come back to bite.

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Thanks Dan. Good points. Some Griffith academics recently wrote a Conservation piece on the impact of the loss of foreign students but I don’t think it’s received much coverage.

  2. Mark Beath says:

    ‘Hence, four years after the end of the War, petrol rationing was still imposed in Australia, and Bob Menzies’s message of Free Enterprise was all the more appealing at the 1949 election”
    My Mum and Dad were married in 1949. I doubt Bob Menzies ever used the term Free Enterprise in capitals Gene? Growing up in the shadow of Newcastle Steelworks they did vote for Menzies in 1949 and didn’t return. All of their three children who who were once rusted on politically from different professional backgrounds have since moved back

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. The capitals were an embellishment on my part. Based on political ads from the time I’ve seen, free enterprise was a core message of Menzies’s 1949 campaign if I remember correctly.

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