AFR Op-Ed Fortress Australia populism could cost us best and brightest migrants

July 5, 2021


Zali Steggall MP, Independent for Warringah

Nearly every day my office has a constituent calling us in tears, desperate for the Government to open the international borders or broaden exemption to travel categories so that they can be reunited with family, parents, often in dire and urgent situations.  

As we watch the Prime Minister and Premiers ricochet off one another in a political point scoring battle, so many Australians are desperate for a timeline to be able to reunite with family and for a sense of unity.

But whilst movie stars, politicians and business executives are seemingly allowed in and out of the country regularly, ordinary Australians feel like there are two sets of rules and many are reconsidering their choice of calling Australia home.

The short-term populist gain of ‘Fortress Australia’ may have serious negative long term consequences for our economic future as we risk a skilled migrant exodus and dire mental health outcomes. The Government’s announcement of its four-stage plan to reopening Australia would be useful if it included some targets and timelines for people to assess and for our community to aim for, but sadly, it raises more questions than answers.

Australia has always prided itself as a multicultural nation, and the figures represent this – 29.8% of Australia’s population were born overseas. More so, as a country, we have deliberately targeted the ‘best and brightest’ to come and work here to enhance industries like medicine, engineering, pathology, software development, nursing, aged and disability care and accounting.

The Government recently expanded the list of priority skills eligible for travel exemptions from 19 skills to 41, more than double the previous range of skills. Yet numerous people in those priority skills areas, who are already here working, with established lives and careers and invested in Australia and our culture, are now planning to leave Australia due to the current travel restrictions and further limits on arrivals.

They are leaving because they are disconnected from family and can’t get the support they need. Mothers especially are suffering and unable to return to work because they don’t have the support of their parents to help look after children, with postnatal support services stretched beyond capacity. Others face dire family situations. People planning to marry have plans indefinitely on hold. So many have applied for travel exemptions and been refused, time and time again. And ironically, the reduced cap on arrivals now makes it heartbreakingly more difficult for Australians or anyone with an exemption to come to Australia.

One example is David*, a senior software engineer and his wife Charlotte* who are both Australian permanent residents and have been living in Balgowlah for several years. When Charlotte’s health significantly deteriorated this year, it significantly impacted their ability to care for their young children. They sought to do what we all take for granted: get help from family. With Charlotte’s parents living in Ireland, they sought permission for them to come and help. Her parents are both vaccinated and happy to quarantine. Their request was denied.

Similarly, first time parents Francesca* and her husband Luca*, emigrated from Italy eight years ago to Manly. Francesca, an executive for an investment management firm, and Luca, a management consultant, sought to have her parents come and help with the baby and enable her to return to work. After four rejected exemption applications, they were desperate for a timeline or more flexibility. Following the announcement in the budget that Australia’s borders would remain shut until mid-2022, they sadly decided to leave Australia.

Francesca told me: “We love Australia. This is not what we envisaged or at least not at the terms we planned it would happen. Of course, when you willingly relocate on the other side of the globe you know that the price to pay is the distance. But when travel was allowed, Italy was only 23 hours away.”

For so many, ‘Fortress Australia’ is not sustainable and may result in a skills exodus. As leaders turn to the short-term fix of halving international caps instead of fixing the faulty hotel quarantine system, the economic costs will be felt long after the short term perceived benefit of further tightening our borders.

*Constituent names changed

To read the full article online click HERE