05 May 2021
The Morrison government’s tough penalties for anyone returning from India are raising questions about its responsibility for Australian citizens abroad.
Up to 9000 Australians have been left stranded in India amid a collapse in its health-care system and a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.
The penalties represent a conflict between the implied right of citizens to come home and the constitutional power of the government to protect residents from disease.
The fines and jail terms, announced late on Friday, reinforce the recent suspension of flights from India. They also represent a significant step up in border protection since the international flight bans of last year.
The restrictions – tougher than those placed on US and UK arrivals – have provoked accusations of racism.
The government argues the measures are necessary, because infections originating in India had grown sevenfold in hotel quarantine and threatened to overwhelm the system. It says it is offsetting the impact on stranded Australians by sending more medical supplies to India.
The government appears to be counting on the flight ban ending by 15 May, or even earlier, to prevent it being undone by a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, the government is resisting calls for the construction of more quarantine housing to accommodate returning citizens, despite experts forecasting that the pandemic will last for more than another year.
Greater legal clarity about the rights of Australians living overseas would be useful for everybody.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has suffered an apparent setback in a series of state elections, which were held as a second wave of COVID-19 struck the country.
Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been progressively winning state elections since he assumed office in 2014, making Modi the most powerful Indian prime minister for decades.
However, his highly centralised and strong-willed approach to running the country has been partly blamed for India’s latest COVID crisis.
Much of the voting in the recent elections, which was conducted in phases, probably occurred before the extent of the outbreak was evident, so the results may not provide a clear picture of public opinion.
Nevertheless, the BJP’s plan to knock out two key bastions of regional opposition in West Bengal and Kerala has failed. India’s once-dominant Congress Party, now the official opposition, also failed to make progress in the elections.
Australia’s strategy of forging closer security and economic ties with India to manage the threat of China is largely built on the assumption that Modi’s centralised power will go unchallenged.
Modi remains dominant, but the latest elections suggest future opposition will come from a coalition of disparate regional forces, such as West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, rather than the Congress Party, which is led by the Nehru-Gandhi family.
That would present Australia with further challenges as it manages an already complex relationship.
Ardern and China
Jacinda Ardern has conceded that some differences between New Zealand and China are getting harder to reconcile, but she still defends her delicately balanced approach to NZ–China relations.
Ardern explained that “there are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot and will not agree”, but “this need not derail our relationship”.
Her comments, delivered at the China Business Summit on Monday, followed recent statements from New Zealand’s trade and foreign ministers, which emphasised the value of maintaining good relations between the two countries.
Ardern’s speech drew immediate support from two of her predecessors – John Key and Helen Clark – in a show of bipartisan support that would be unusual in Australian political debate.
By prioritising a productive relationship with China, the NZ government is setting itself apart from Australia and some other Western allies.
Australia and New Zealand have a similar level of export dependence on China, but the NZ economy is less diverse, which has made Wellington cautious about antagonising or being publicly critical of Beijing, as Canberra was when it pressed for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
New Zealand is also less wedded to the United States by the ANZUS alliance than Australia is.
However, Ardern’s speech suggests she may be preparing to ultimately align more closely with New Zealand’s traditional allies.
With its larger economy and military, Australia will always be more visible than its trans-Tasman cousin in the pushback against Chinese assertiveness in the region.
But Canberra – mired in its worst relationship with Beijing in half a century – should not simply dismiss the Wellington model of being less strident when acknowledging its differences with the superpower.