On Thursday 5 August a friend—an Australian living in Germany with their American partner—sent me a message with screen-grabs from The Guardian and a single tear-face emoji. They revealed that Minister for Health Greg Hunt had—without announcement—amended the Biosecurity Act to close what has misleadingly been called a ‘loophole’. Australian citizens who normally reside overseas would have to apply for an exemption to be permitted to leave Australia.
The purported aim of the new amendment was ‘assisting vulnerable Australians’. Those who are outside will be deterred from coming in, and if they do could have no option but to remain ‘home’. While others, those with lives and livelihoods overseas who find themselves inside, should better stay put for the good of the country, so for their own good. The ministry’s explanation of its decision is simplistic and careless. The automatic exemption was intended for overseas-residing Australians who found themselves in Australia at the outbreak of COVID-19, they note. By now such people have had ‘substantial time’ (that is, retrospectively applied, one year, four months and 16 days) to return to their countries of residence, and should have done so. They suggest this ‘loophole’ has enabled ‘frequent travel between countries’ and that citizens should have ‘tak[en] action’ to return home by now. It’s remarkable that The Guardian, not the ministry, announced this news, four days after it had been written into law. I wonder how the government thought people would ‘take action’ without knowing anything had changed?
The government’s dismissive language obscures the reality of the pandemic and of the citizenry, namely the multiplicity of citizens and the non-categorical nature of human relation and movement. They imply there are just three kinds of Australians with residence overseas: 1) those who used the exemption to leave Australia (once) within the retrospectively-applied timeframe; 2) those ‘frequent travellers’ who abused the exemption to hop in and out of Australia, putting pressure on the limited quarantine system and risking other Australians; and 3) those ‘vulnerable’ ones waiting, ‘stranded … for some time’, who must be got home—to stay. What is made opaque are the reasons or contexts as to why someone may fall into any one of these categories, or indeed more than one of them. Presented in a legal vacuum, these assertions about Australians’ lives and decisions within and outside the country pass for given, homogenising what is implicitly diverse and underestimating how such decisions affect the society at large.
Indeed, there are also the Australians living overseas who, since March 2020, have not been able to travel to Australia. They are the ones who may have hoped to be able to do so in the next year, and to be able to leave again. And we may conclude from the minister’s ignorance of their existence that their waiting has been in vain. But ‘waiting’ is euphemistic here, because there are constraints. One might wonder why these Australians would not have found the time in one year, four months and 16 days to visit, and indeed, this is the government’s unstated official position. One might wonder why they wouldn’t have rushed back in those crucial months at the beginning, when it was relatively easy. There are lots of reasons.
Australians living overseas may have partners or dependents, and they may not be Australian citizens, as is the case of my friend who sent me the screen-grabs. Not everyone is married to their partner and thus many may not have traveled because our foreign partners do not meet the eligibility requirements for entry. Going to Australia to see one’s parents could mean leaving one’s partner alone during a pandemic. Outward travel exemption requirements reinforce traditional ‘family values’ (Marion Maddox’s work is enlightening about how these intersect with right-wing religious values). Exemption applicants have been required to substantiate relationships that may not fit into normative categories with documentary evidence that doesn’t only presuppose and therefore enforce nuclear kin models, but requires applicants to disclose intimate details of their lives with the authorities: ‘Tell us in writing about: how, when and where you first met; how the relationship developed; when you moved in together, got engaged or married; what you do together; time you spent apart; significant events in the relationship; your plans for the future.’
What is unnerving is the indeterminate nature of the questions. Without knowing the criteria for eligibility, one must speculate. Not knowing, and being unable to contact decision-makers for more insight, creates uncertainty in citizens. This form of psychological abuse is consistent with, though not equal to, the torture practiced upon Australian asylum seekers in indefinite detention. The practice has a coercive effect, because non-normative Australians know the undercurrent of xenophobia that inoculates each question as superficially benign.
The government has failed to acknowledge the financial expense involved in traveling to and from Australia. Most individuals do not have $3000 plus for quarantine lying around, never mind the inflated airline ticket cost. Contrary to what the government assumes, not all Australians overseas are on high salaries. Those who didn’t ‘take action’ during that initial autumn 2020 window (remember, people in stable situations overseas were encouraged to remain where they were and not to travel) learned retrospectively that Prime Minister Scott Morrison would cut entry quotas down to 4000 people per week from 12 July 2020 (today the cap is 3000). At that time they began charging the equivalent of over three weeks of the average Australian woman’s salary for mandatory quarantine.
And the government’s diminishing travel quotas have not simply resulted in near-empty jumbo jets flying across the world, delivering the rich to and from Australian shores. Some Australians have had multiple flights cancelled the day or day before, by airlines told by Australian authorities that there’s no space in quarantine. People have been stranded in stop-over locations with no rights, when they may have maxed out credit cards, cancelled rental contracts, taken out loans, sold or given away belongings, etc. Some manage to get on repatriation flights. But can you imagine packing up your house, taking your child out of school, quitting your job, saying goodbye to your friends, all with a couple of weeks notice?
Some have not been able to take time off work, don’t have the savings, lost their jobs or never had one to begin with. We have tenancy contracts, work networks, mortgages, companies, social welfare, studies, dependents, mental illnesses, employees, personal commitments, and so on. These might mean we are unable to leave for extended periods, even if we want to, without risking our livelihood. Personally, I need to be physically present to fulfill my employment contract. For those whose employment moved 100% online, what would it mean to manage the time difference, beginning your desk job at 6pm AEST and clocking off at 2am, five days a week?
It’s been a global pandemic for the last year, four months and 16 days and counting. Some people have been terribly ill, had Long Covid, been grieving the loss of a loved one, been in a visa or other legal processes and unable to leave their residence, some have been made homeless, are at high risk due to a physical condition and obliged to wait for the vaccinated population to increase before travel is safe. The bottom line is that many Australian emigrants (like many Australian immigrants) couldn’t do ‘frequent travel’, even if they wanted to. This raises the question: what are we being punished for? If it takes time to prepare for a visit in good times, you’d think in a global pandemic there would be more leeway, not less, considering the heightened risks to peoples’ lives and the need to be with loved ones?
James Turbitt is a self-described ‘returning Aussie who was denied an exemption to see my mum in her last moments’ in June. He was featured again in Australian media last month regarding the Biosecurity amendment. With all due respect, I’m tempted to borrow a concept from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 1963 meditation on evil and say that what he calls ‘barbarity’ is simply ‘banality’. What happened to Turbitt, who tested negative throughout his quarantine, was perfectly legal and derived from the government’s mandatory hotel quarantine policy (globally unique and demonstrably ineffective). This legal, individualised deprivation takes the private form of physical containment and administrative indeterminacy (forms of punishment), and in its public guise relies on the injunction of ‘health’ (protection). The specific suffering of an individual or a certain group is abstracted from its dependency on a punishing structure and relativity reigns. The structure of punishment has a language, and this language requires a subtext of xenophobia to be understood.
Turbitt’s nightmare scenario—one among many, and more public than most—is not the result of his own misfortune but of a persistent feature of the Australian juridical and political stage: penal logic presented as protection. Our wish to have what is threatening not only far away but punished, reappears in the fantasy of keeping the coronavirus out. The spike in anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic, encouraged by terms like ‘China virus’ and conspiracies about the cause of the Wuhan outbreak, suggest some Australians are targeted for their perceived proximity to the ‘outside’, where the viral threat is presumably situated. In a country where Mandarin is the most spoken language after English, the pandemic becomes a pretense for punishing those ‘guilty’ of its propagation. With minimal attention given by politicians or the media to addressing the inherently international nature of the pandemic, and the fundamentally migratory nature of our country, racism flourishes in the name of an unattainable fiction: zero COVID.
This racist targeting became explicit in early May 2021, when an amendment to the Biosecurity Act meant Australian citizens who tried to return from India during the peak of the virus outbreak there, risked jail time and fines up to AU$66,000. Note both that 1) Australians born in India make up the second-largest foreign-born population in the country (after the UK), and that 2) such repressive measures were not implemented on Australian citizens returning from any other nation with peaking COVID-19 cases. Then you will remember that on 4 July 2020 the Victorian state government confined about 3000 people to their social housing tower-blocks in inner Melbourne with immediate notice, leaving some residents without time to access food and medical supplies. Many of the residents were refugees and are migrants from non-English speaking countries, some residents are mentally ill, some living with drug and alcohol dependency, all of them poor. They are what the state government themselves identified as some of the most vulnerable citizens, and their homes were guarded by police stationed in front of the tower entrances for up to fourteen days. Some were only allowed out for fresh air, supervised, after one week inside.
In September 2020, while Melbourne was still in lockdown, the Citizenship Cessation Bill was introduced by the Coalition to automatically strip dual citizens found guilty of terrorism under new laws of their Australian citizenship. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: ‘We’ll do everything we can to stay ahead of the evolving threat of terrorism to keep Australians safe.’ Who are the Australians being kept ‘safe’, one wonders, and why can this only be done by dismissing others? In what way does this doctrine of ‘Australians being kept safe’ impinge on the human rights of other Australians, and absolve Australia of its responsibility for the social isolation that can lead to terrorism?
This August amendment is obviously not the first time Australian citizens have been legally punished for their affiliation with another culture or nation. The examples above are consistent with the disproportionate punishment rates of other minorities, such as Indigenous Australians, who are over-represented tenfold in our prison system. There is a consistent penal logic at work and it centres on the (disavowed) reality of ‘internal difference’, in the country and its people, which seems unbearable. The citizenry does not and will never correspond to a government’s image of it. The point of democracy is not to govern in your own image but to adopt politico-juridical abstractions (laws) that accompany the citizenry in the formation of their own image. The state just needs to be smart enough to know this image will always transform, and to allow that to happen.
When presented reductively and without any contextual reasoning, the kinds of governmental decisions and legal amendments being discussed here produce punishment. Indeed, in the current set up, citizens who are—or are alleged to be—in any kind of ‘allegiance’ with another nation (whether nation-state or First Nation) are penalised. What appears to be structuring these cases is the possibility that an Australian might at the same time be a something-other-than-Australian (whether this means technically holding a second citizenship is beside the point). Why is this ambivalence unbearable for (the Anglo-Saxon version of) Australia? Why have we not found a way—politically, socially, psychologically—to support Australia’s internal difference, rather than push it away?
Something Western Sydney social analyst Alana Lentin calls ‘Not Racism™’ is operating in tandem with this country’s pandemic policies. ‘Not-racism’ is a white supremacist tool of relativisation and therefore domination. ‘Not-racism’ puts real racism behind us (e.g. back with the ‘White Australia Policy’, 1901–1973), individualises the issue (we don’t have to address racist systems but racist individuals) and universalises racism from a structurally white-Christian perspective. ‘Not-racism’ is carried on by a convenient figure of thought we can name the ‘Australian Security Scapegoat’ (ASS). The ASS is put in place to protect ‘Australians’ from criminality, abuse, terrorism and, most recently, the virus. But which ‘Australians’ are sacrificed in the process? Common amongst these ills is that, somehow, they are all presented as coming from somewhere else, something outside, not from within ‘us’. We must punish that thing outside for breaking into our protected zone. In its current global pandemic form, the ASS reassures us that it’s the virus keeping some Australians out of Australia and some Australians locked in. This way, we can feel safe knowing it is definitely not other Australians (policy makers and the people that elect them) doing this to us. It seems we may also feel safer when we don’t feel responsible.
What goes hand-in-hand with punishment is paternalism, which is how punishment can be disguised as protection. This general movement describes the government’s ineptitude when dealing with its citizens, borders, vaccines and quarantine procedures throughout the pandemic, and it speaks to something much larger. The threat is always external. It could take the form of asylum seekers, ‘African gangs’, the homeless, people of Muslim faith, outspoken rape survivors, sex workers, trans youth, the disabled, and so on. The virus is no exception in this line up of threats at which to yell ‘ZERO!!!’, as if something like a human or a virus can simply be removed from its context and reduced to numerical quota. I wonder: what do we need protection from so badly that we accept the punishment of our ‘own’ (presented as outsiders)?
It is a global pandemic and Australians living overseas—who usually have family in Australia—have received what is effectively an ultimatum from their government: stay away indefinitely, or come back and don’t leave again. I am an Australian living in Belgium with an Israeli partner. I have not been inside Australia since October 2019. My Australian mother’s plans to visit me in May 2020 were cancelled because of the pandemic. I have not seen her, my father or my sister for almost two years. I have been completing Masters studies this year and have an employment contract until June 2022. In 2019, I earned about 11,000€ after tax. My partner’s mother died unexpectedly, aged 65, of a heart attack in November last year. As a non-Israeli, I was granted a travel exemption within one day to accompany her on this most difficult of journeys: returning to a home with her mother suddenly gone. I know how difficult it would have been for anyone to do that trip alone. As a result, I consider myself fortunate because there hasn’t yet been an emergency that would require me to travel to Australia. Should this be a game of fortune?
There is growing anxiety since March 2020, and this new law adds to it. My friend’s tear-face emoji wasn’t for nothing. There are thousands of these stories. As a society, how do we come to terms with those Australian citizens who died in India, criminalised simply for being overseas when they were? How long will we be able to bear these forms of indirect punishment—presented as necessary for Australian security—until we become desensitised to them? What does it mean when a nation disregards a whole section of its population, punishing them for being outside the status quo? Perhaps this comes as no surprise in a nation built on the penal economy. But is that really what we want?
The more arbitrary new security measures are silently drawn into law by the government, the more technocracy is normalised. It’s slow-moving uncertainty, a date in a calendar becomes indefinite, the law changes, you don’t know why, you adapt, you hope it won’t get worse, you wonder why home feels further away than ever. You want to push the thing you love out of you, as if you can reject Australia like it feels it rejected you. But it doesn’t work like that, rejection always carries resentment, a plague on any psyche and any state. Australia resents the outside (it hates it, it wants it! I relate to this), the government tries to justify this resentment through the various guises of ASS. These quiet the population—at least those represented by the governing class—into figuring the outside’s problems are far worse than those inside that are borne daily. This resentment becomes a sort of pride. It is as if life itself were about keeping the ASS in place (for government, it matters little which particular group of people occupy that signifier, they are inevitably marginalised) to ensure that we won’t look too deeply at ourselves. But the ASS figure never holds, and so the punishment must get more severe, more repressive, the denial stronger and more violent, to keep that other image of ourselves away.
‘Living overseas’ is given a rather limited array of cultural meanings in Australia. It’s viewed as the ultimate achievement or the ultimate betrayal, often both. Australians with foreign ties are now forbidden from leaving the country unless they meet very stringent criteria. Deterring Australian citizens living overseas from travelling to Australia distracts from the government’s quarantine circus and botched vaccine roll-out that are evidence of their inability to deal responsibly with Australia’s future. But this decision has consequences beyond the stated wish to ‘reduce the pressure on Australia’s quarantine capacity, reduce the risks posed to the Australian population from COVID-19’. The consequences are psychological, ethical and political. They affect Australian people inside and out, particularly those of minorities. The government is playing dangerously with the limited cultural imaginary about what it means to be ‘overseas’. Australians should be ‘home’, where they will be secured from the outside and from the virus. And there is no question where Australians’ home is, right? Right, where there’s no COVID, no foreigners, no terrorists, no students, no tourists, no poor people, no mixing, no compassion, no boats, no worries.
The groundwork for fascism is accepting others’ punishment as a necessary part of your own ‘national security’. Arendt spoke of the ‘banality of evil’ because she knows that not all Nazis were bloodthirsty deranged psychopaths. Lentin (who is Jewish and Irish) calls out ‘Not Racism™’ because she knows it is the latest white supremacist tool. Bengali literary theorist Gayatri Spivak teaches that ‘an imagination trained in the play of language(s) may undo the truth claims of national identity’, because she saw how nationalism was conjured to subjugate Muslims following Indian independence. African-American political theorist Joy James said recently on the Millenials Are Killing Capitalism podcast: ‘When the state becomes the parent, it invades all levels, there is no intimacy that this state cannot encroach upon.’ As prison abolition activist, Gunditjmara woman Tabitha Lean states in response to those who ask where to put all the criminals with no prisons: ‘The people who have done my people the most harm are not and never will be in prison.’
Getting out of the structure of punishment disguised as protection will mean coming to terms with being part of the world, seeing ‘our’ people everywhere; foreigners everywhere rather than foreigners ‘out there’. Australians do many different things, live different sorts of lives, both at ‘home’ and away; they are not all sports stars, media moguls, or Hollywood actors, the majority do not have six-figure salaries. Australians are heterogeneous and they are far from provincial; this is a nation that is by default international and whose only hope is transformation through an internationalist imaginary with difference at its base. Until the citizens (inside and out) learn this—and it takes the material change of education—the future is more punishment presented as protection from what we refuse to know about ourselves.
Eleanor Ivory Weber is an Australian writer living in Brussels, Belgium. She recently completed a Masters in Political Philosophy at Université Libre de Bruxelles and is co-founder of Divided Publishing. http://divided.online
This essay has been written accompanied by the generous feedback and perspectives of Susan Gibb, Judy Annear, Joel Mu, Amelia Groom, Aurelia Guo, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Amy Ireland, Hagar Tenenbaum, Alice Heyward, Magdalene Keaney.