19 May 2021
Bringing students back
Scott Morrison has declared that “the next step” in reopening the country’s borders is to bring back international students.
Previously, the Morrison government was at odds with universities over how to deal with COVID-19’s impact on higher education. When it delivered the federal budget last week, it suggested borders would remain shut well into 2022 and made little mention of universities.
But Morrison now says he welcomes the efforts of universities and state governments to arrange quarantine accommodation for returning students.
International education is an underappreciated arm of foreign relations. Before the pandemic, it was a key part of Australia’s soft diplomacy, giving future leaders from the Indo-Pacific region an insight into our culture and democracy. It was also Australia’s fourth-largest export, bringing in about A$40 billion a year.
Some analysts predict the sector’s export revenue will be almost halved if students do not return by next year, with smaller private institutions and service providers expected to suffer the most.
The federal government’s shift on the issue comes amid growing criticism of its border policy and may be just in time to save universities. Prospective students and students who are currently completing online courses from overseas are being tempted by the opportunity to study in countries with less strict borders, such as Canada.
Due to tensions between state governments and education providers over how to handle any reopening, it seems the federal government still has a role to play in managing the return of international students. After problems with the rollout of the vaccine program and with Australians re-entering the country from India, the government should ensure Australia’s international education brand suffers no further damage.
Middle East conflict
International efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza have faltered following the region’s worst week of violence in seven years.
The United Nations Security Council has failed to issue a formal response to the crisis after several meetings. According to some reports, Biden privately told Israel to stop the bombing, but he has not supported a statement to this effect from the United Nations. Separate negotiations between the United States, Egypt and Qatar have proved unsuccessful.
The Morrison government has responded cautiously to the conflict, which has left more than 200 Palestinians and ten Israelis dead. On Sunday, foreign minister Marise Payne called for all parties to “return to direct and genuine peace negotiations as soon as possible”.
As its even-handed position suggests, the government faces some significant challenges on this issue, both domestically and internationally.
Australian diplomatic policy has traditionally been influenced by supporters of Israel, but in the Australian community there is growing support for Palestinians, partly due to rising immigration from the Middle East and Muslim countries in other regions.
In South-East Asia, where Australia is trying to strengthen ties to manage China’s rise, Malaysia and Indonesia are increasingly vocal about their support for Palestinians. Indonesian president Joko Widodo, who is not typically engaged by global issues, has called on the Security Council to take action against Israel.
Biden had planned to pull back from Middle East diplomacy to focus on China, but he is under pressure – from other countries and also from members of his own party – to intervene in the current conflict.
Australia, which has often cooperated with US interventions in the Middle East, has a lot at stake in Biden maintaining his focus on China.
Australia will spend up to A$2.4 billion over the next decade to ensure it maintains the ability to refine crude oil into less polluting forms of petrol, diesel oil and jet fuel.
The decision follows the closure of refineries in Melbourne and Perth over the past year due to competition from larger, more productive refineries in Asia, which deliver fuel to Australia by sea.
Scott Morrison outlined the details of his plan on Monday, after flagging it in last week’s budget. He framed it as a deal to save the jobs of refinery employees and associated construction workers in Geelong and Brisbane. He also said the move would allow Australians to buy more efficient cars, which use low-sulphur petrol and diesel.
The long-debated question of whether government funds should support the refining industry is really a major security decision: in the event of a war or other shipping disruption, Australia’s fuel supply would be one of the country’s biggest vulnerabilities.
Australia has not held ninety days of fuel in reserve – the International Energy Agency’s benchmark – since 2012, largely due to falling domestic oil production and rising imports.
Last year, the government struck a deal to store fuel in the United States and promised to boost Australia’s fuel capacity.
Morrison said the full amount budgeted for assisting refineries would only be spent in a “worse-case scenario”. If this eventuated, the multibillion-dollar package would be one of the government’s most expensive initiatives to “reshore” imports and diversify the economy in response to the pandemic and fears of conflict with China.