As the federal government amps up its pressure on state governments to reopen, border protection – that defining political issue for the millennium – is back in a big way.
Once a diversion pushed by proponents of globalisation to validate economic liberalisation, the issue has mutated and turned against those same rationalists who now believe the cost of containing the virus is too high.
The return of the Northern Territory government this weekend highlights the political dividend to incumbents of enforcing isolation, as the act of turning others away becomes a public health imperative.
Despite growing waves of pressure from industry and the carping of some libertarian commentators, the majority of the public has accepted that this level of constraint is the new normal and one that they will not only tolerate but actively support.
This week’s Guardian Essential Report shows that other state governments that maintain closed borders are maintaining strong public support. Approval of the Queensland government’s response is growing as their election approaches and even where the pandemic rages the Victorian government remains politically viable.
The defining story of the lockdown is that in crisis the public has turned to government for protection and they have largely responded positively, building a mutual co-dependence between citizen and state that is minimising the spread in most parts of Australia.
As the pandemic enters its third quarter, while cracks remain in aged care, the public’s priority remains on addressing the public health crisis rather than moving to an early recovery.
Indeed, rather than willing restrictions to end prematurely, our respondents say they would support the scaling up of even more drastic measures to confine the virus.
A strong majority of respondents endorse aged care providers’ call for automatic transfers of residents with Covid-19 to public hospitals to stop one of the proven breeding grounds of infection. Similar numbers endorse closing national borders to all foreigners and Australian nationals that have yet to return home, a sharp rebuff of the government’s current limit of 450 entries a day.
But more restrictive measures are also embraced: 60% support the issuing of tracking bracelets on people who are self-isolating, while a bare majority also support the establishment of dedicated facilities for people testing positive rather than home isolation.
Dig deeper into these numbers and you will see very little difference across partisan voting lines. Where there are demographic differences is in age – older respondents are significantly more likely to support restrictive orders.
There are obvious civil liberty issues that emerge from some of the proposals floated in this poll but that is not the salient point here: as with border security flashpoints in the past, the findings suggest government cannot go too far when it comes to shutting the gate.
As oppositions like those in Queensland and Victoria have discovered when they have rolled the dice and called for the easing of border restrictions, there is currently little political upside in being seen to minimise the risk of the virus.
And while the federal government can push and cajole and talk up the national economic interest, the reality is that there is a new “border security” construct in town; and for once it is the Tories being played.
The integrity of borders has been the conservative plaything for more than two decades, since the MV Tampa came on to the horizon and then prime minister John Howard deployed all his wiles to create a culture of panic.
Porous national boundaries were a proxy for the economic insecurity wrung by globalisations, and Howard’s patriotic defiance on borders was a fig leaf as he wound back tariffs and opened the economy up to foreign workers.
Labor got stuck between its compassion for the human cargo that was being played and its complicity in driving economic globalisation too far. It wedged the party in opposition and condemned it in office as its easing of restrictions saw a new wave of asylum seekers.
This time around our borders are more than a proxy. Unfettered movement has human consequence, and until the virus is controlled, outbreaks will see the economy haemorrhage even further.
And the twist is that this time around it is the economic rationalists who are exposed. The political risk of relaxing constraint is palpable, and until the virus is controlled or a treatment or vaccine found, easing broader restrictions will remain the craziest-bravest play of all.
• Join Peter Lewis and Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy to discuss the latest Guardian Essential Report at 1pm on Tuesday
Source: The Guardian