Australians stranded apart from their loved ones have reacted with despair to the news, contained in the federal budget papers, that our international border is likely to remain shut until mid-2022.
And the hard-hit tourism and higher education sectors have warned they will struggle to survive for another year without travel resuming.
The budget’s economic forecasts rely on an optimistic assumption that the whole Australian population will be vaccinated by the end of 2021. Even if that does happen, however, the border is expected to stay closed for another six months.
“Inbound and outbound international travel is expected to remain low through to mid-2022, after which gradual recovery in international tourism is assumed to occur,” the budget documents say.
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Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was asked about that prediction during his appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 program last night.
“With respect to international borders, it’s quite a conservative, cautious assumption that international borders will gradually reopen from the middle of next year,” he said.
The issue also came up during his brief interview on 3AW radio.
“We’re being pretty cautious and conservative in saying the assumption is that the border will gradually reopen from mid next year,” Mr Frydenberg told host Brooke Corte.
“The confusion around the international border opening or remaining closed, it’s crippling industries like tourism and education. So is the international border going to open by the middle of next year?” she asked, pushing for some certainty.
“Well it’s not a policy decision, it’s an assumption,” said the Treasurer.
“When you’re making budgets, you make assumptions which then feed into the economic forecasts. Our policy decision around the borders will be determined by the medical advice, and you can’t say that this far out from that point in time.
“I don’t think anyone really knows until we get closer to that time.”
The prospect of the international border staying closed for another year is tough for the thousands of Australians stranded overseas, though the budget does include $176 million for repatriation flights and increased consular services.
It’s also hard to swallow for Australians who have been unable to see their loved ones since the pandemic began.
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Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, said businesses need the border to be open “sooner rather than later”.
“It’s impacting them in a range of ways. They’re finding it difficult to get staff into the country. They’re having difficulty to get people in to repair and replace equipment. They’re just finding it difficult to move around,” he said.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce said it was “vital” for the government to begin a “staged reopening as soon as possible”.
“Businesses need certainty,” said the chamber’s tourism chair John Hart.
“The sector hinges on a firm commitment to international restart, from generating demand to accessing skills.”
While Mr Hart welcomed several budget measures, including the funding being provided to Tourism Australia, he said the support would “fall short without a plan to open Australia”.
The opposition is blaming the situation on a delayed vaccine rollout and the continued lack of federal quarantine facilities.
“International borders not reopening until mid-2022. Did I miss the part of the budget where the government was going to build quarantine facilities to manage international arrivals, or where they were going to speed up the vaccine delivery?” said Senator Nita Green.
Speaking to Channel 9 last night, Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers blamed the Prime Minister for the slow vaccine rollout.
“What about keeping the borders closed until the middle of next year? That seems extraordinary. Would you do that differently?” asked interviewer Chris Uhlmann.
“Well it all comes back to the vaccinations and to quarantine, the things that Scott Morrison refuses to take responsibility for,” said Mr Chalmers.
“The budget tonight had some weasel words about when that might be possible, to reopen. But it all comes back to the vaccinations.
“You can’t have a first-rate economic recovery with a third-rate vaccine rollout, but that’s what the Prime Minister has given us.”
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