(Bloomberg Opinion) — Fining and imprisoning Australians returning from India is more than just an extreme effort to discourage travel from the subcontinent during its calamitous surge in Covid cases. It’s emblematic of a siege mentality that politicians, sadly, see as a winning electoral strategy.
While many countries have suspended arrivals from India, where infections recently soared to 400,000 daily cases, Australia’s health system isn’t exactly at a breaking point. The nation has come close to eliminating local transmission of the virus, largely by closing its international border to non-residents. The prospective criminalization and incarceration of citizens for returning to their own homes takes things a step further.
The approach is all the more perplexing given warming economic and diplomatic relations between Canberra and New Delhi over the past few years, as ties with Beijing soured. The Indian diaspora swelled to almost half a million people in the latest census survey, up from 78,000 in 1996, and comprises roughly 2% of the population. Meanwhile, both Australia and India are members of the so-called Quad, an informal group including the U.S. and Japan, which tacitly aims to counter Chinese influence in Asia and the Pacific.
The only explanation, then, is political desperation. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right government has been hobbled by a series of sex scandals in the nation’s capital of Canberra, and a botched vaccine rollout has forced officials to abandon immunization targets. The premier barely scraped by in the last poll in May 2019 — and his position is even shakier today. A national election must be called by the middle of next year, but early 2022 is likely.
It isn’t lost on the prime minister that being tough on borders is a whole lot easier than managing what’s happening within them. Harsh provincial lockdowns garnered surprisingly strong public support in two states where his conservative bloc is reeling after debilitating defeats in recent contests. Both are led by popular premiers from the center-left Australian Labor Party, which is seeking to oust Morrison at the national level. Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan boasted last year of his intent to seal borders so tight he could run an “island within an island.” Parochialism and nativism have become bipartisan.
This calculus gives Morrison an opportunity to build on the wide appeal of closed borders and shore up his right-wing base. Just consider who he put in a prominent position in a recent cabinet shake-up: Peter Dutton, a culture warrior and former Queensland cop, was elevated to the role of defense minister. Dutton is very popular with the ruling Liberal Party’s grassroots and nearly won party leadership in 2018 (and with it the prime minister’s job). He rarely misses a chance to talk tough on immigration and dismiss environmentalists. You’ve seen this movie before, starring Brexiteers and Trumpists.
The government’s emerging political message might be distilled as law and order meets anti-globalization — marked by an aversion to diversity, skepticism of frequent international travel and disdain for gentrified, cosmopolitan inner-city districts. The sad part is that Australia prospered since barriers to markets and capital began coming down in the 1980s and 1990s, the era synonymous with the end of the Cold War and the start of rising fortunes for many countries in Asia, India among them. The economic conflict between the U.S., guarantor of security, and China, the country’s biggest export market, has taken its toll. Does Morrison really need to use India as a prop to demonstrate Australia’s virility at this moment?
For much of the past century, the country hid behind agricultural and industrial tariffs and a “White Australia” policy aimed at keeping out cheap goods and relatively inexpensive labor. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s assumed that this old model, which was responsible for what former Prime Minister Paul Keating called an “industrial museum” economy and its damaging cultural outlook, was safely in the past. That perspective may have been illusory, undone by years of slowing growth and, now, a public health crisis.
Morrison defended his policy Monday, telling a radio interviewer that he was acting on the advice of health officials. “We’re all just working to do what’s right for the health interests of Australians,” Morrison said, adding that he’s “deeply, deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in India.”
For all the concern, Morrison’s travel policy is no accident. That makes it even more tragic. When politicians are cornered, law and order and nativism are still a powerful siren. No matter how those policies get dressed up.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.