As I woke up two weeks ago, rolled over and checked my phone, my heart sank, and a huge rock appeared in my stomach, as once again Australia indefinitely limited arrival caps for its citizens.
In the last 18 months my father has been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, two elderly relatives have been taken seriously ill, my two best childhood friends have had their first babies… the list goes on and on and mine is just one of thousands.
As an Australian living overseas for the past decade, representing the country in two international organisations, I have held tight to ties to the motherland. 2020 was the first year I did not return home. In 2018 I boarded a flight back to say goodbye to my mother after she lost a decades-long battle with illness. I feel sick with the thought that so many have been unable to make that trip, unable to give a loved one, one last hug, unable to say goodbye. Their position is far more arduous than mine.
Despite the longing, I chose not to spend the tens of thousands required to come home. It felt wrong to be taking a place from those more desperate than me, felt sick to have to bid my way into a country that is legally obliged to protect me, felt wrong to move even if I could afford it, given the state of the world. Yet I watched aghast as businessmen and tennis players flew in and out, movie stars arrived and strolled our sun-kissed shores, Tony Abbott came and went at his leisure.
All this while European countries sent repatriation flights around the world to bring their people home, and the country where I was living, France, declared they would never lock out citizens. With time I realised that the caps, the rules, the quarantine, none of them applied if you were rich enough, influential enough, well-connected. Scott Morrison never gave a shit about returning Aussies home in time for Christmas. The system was always designed to benefit those who could pay their way in (and out again).
At some point we must ask ourselves, if there are Australian children sleeping on airport floors, families living in caravans off charity, people with months left to live, continuously being kicked off flights, while Zac Efron relocates to Byron for the lifestyle- what have we become?
To the Facebook ‘patriots’ raging about how we had the chance to come home, how we were warned, how we have somehow relinquished our right to citizenship because we were abroad. There was NO instruction to expats in March 2020 that they should repatriate. I do not know where this myth came from. Travelers were advised to return as some countries didn’t have the same level of healthcare. But in March 2020 I was settled in a country where I had a permanent job, a home, a partner, and a health care system that leaves Australia’s to shame. The idea that expats should have known that if they did not uproot their lives, leave jobs, say goodbye to partners then and there, or they would not be able to return home for years, was never considered. No one knew how long this would last, how insulated Australia would become, how it would fail to facilitate repatriation or quarantine for its citizens, how abominably behind it would be in its vaccination program.
You are not more worthy an Australian than I, or thousands of others, because you happened to be there in March 2020. You are not more deserving of the rights that come with citizenship because you did not move overseas, fall in love with a foreigner, take a diplomatic role, have children, work for an NGO, buy a house, build a home… You do not have some invisible, self-congratulatory + next to the Kangaroo and Emu crest because your life circumstances were different. You are not more entitled to the protection of your country than I.
In every Australian Passport there is a message from the Governor General, “… allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and afford him or her every assistance and protection”. It doesn’t say ‘to pass freely if you can afford it’, ‘if you never dared to leave at the wrong time’, ‘if you know the right people in the Liberal Party.’.. Citizenship is not only a privilege, but also a right, and it comes with a contract that BOTH SIDES are supposed to fulfil.
Three months ago I booked a December ticket home, knowing I would be fully vaccinated, prepared to do some sort of quarantine, assuming by then the government would have got their shit together and Australians would be vaccinated, or there would be some sort of dedicated facilities that allowed for a humane isolation. Given that by that point the pandemic would almost be at the 2-year mark, it seemed a reasonable assumption.
Now that looks increasingly unlikely, due to mismanagement, absolute arrogance, confounding incompetence and a complete lack of humanity. It’s possible I may go another 18 months before I set foot on home soil. That’s 3 years without hugging my dad or my brother, the possibility of never again seeing elderly relatives, not meeting my best friends’ children until they are nearly school-aged. If you think I deserve this because a decade ago I took a job overseas, than there is something fundamentally wrong with your heart and your brain.
The extent to which misplaced Australian exceptionalism has thrived during this period is perhaps one of the scariest long-term impacts the nation will be left with. In a society that was already becoming increasingly insular and sneering, this is what frightens me the most for the future of my beloved sunburnt country.