What sucks about being Australian

Australia as a model?

"You can beat the virus if you take the right measures." These are the words of Mark McGowan, the Prime Minister of Western Australia - the largest of the eight Australian states and territories. In an area roughly the size of Western Europe, Western Australia had not reported a single case of Covid-19 transmission beyond the smallest of circles between April 11, 2020 and January 30, 2021. All new cases that occurred were international travelers or close contacts of those already infected. To this end, Western Australia has opted for both “soft” and “hard” measures: an initial light lockdown of less than a month, strict border closings and, in response to the infection of a worker in a quarantine hotel, a hard lockdown of five days.

In Australia, states and territories have largely determined their own measures to contain the pandemic - on legal bases that were hardly applied before the pandemic. The various approaches of the individual states and of nearby New Zealand have often been compared with one another. Taking into account the central importance of border policy for the measures provides a clue to understand whether they could work in other parts of the world as well, or to what extent they are dependent on certain geographic, historical and political peculiarities.

Hard border closings, also internally

Although Australia closed its international borders on March 20, 2020 and ordered a two-week hotel quarantine for returning citizens and other permanent residents, states soon followed suit and closed internal borders. It created an unprecedented situation where travel between states was impossible for months. As lockdowns and other public health measures eased the situation, internal borders were reopened and quarantine regulations for travel from New Zealand to Australia were relaxed. New infections led to renewed, selective closings of internal borders: Certain states prohibited entry from others entirely or only permitted them under certain conditions. For example, New South Wales closed its border with Victoria for over three months from July 2020 after the infection of an employee and private security guards at a quarantine hotel in Melbourne was responded to with a 112-day lockdown. In December 2020, when Sydney experienced an outbreak, people from that state were denied entry to most of the others, although regulations varied over time: some states denied entry only to people from Sydney or certain hotspots; others required testing, quarantine, or self-isolation.

The smallest change in the reported Covid cases can now trigger border closings. For example, when South Australia reported three infections in November 2020 that went beyond the narrowest circles, Western Australia immediately closed its border with this state and demanded a period of 28 days without new Covid cases before the border could be reopened. In January 2021, when New Zealand reported three transmissions of the so-called South African Covid strain, Australia suspended quarantine-free travel, but left it to the states to decide what arrangements should be made for travelers who wanted to fly anyway.

The situation regarding mobility between states in Australia has become confusing. Although there have been high-profile objections to the closing of internal borders, including a constitutional complaint by a populist politician, the population has generally submitted to the restrictions. Western Australia - a state that has long harbored separatist tendencies - was the most prepared to seal off its borders. This state even divided its own territory into thirteen different regions and banned traffic between them for nearly two months. Victoria has implemented a traffic light system that restricts entry based on dividing the rest of the country into red, orange and green zones that do not follow any established political geography. The situation can suddenly change when health and travel policies are adjusted as a result of new data from the epidemiological models. Newspapers publish guides listing ways to move between travel destinations. However, through the chaos, it is possible to discern a pattern. States that have less tourist traffic were more willing to harshly close borders. The decision by New South Wales, the most populous state, to impose softer lockdowns and leave the economy open has also contributed to this willingness to establish hard borders.

Operation "Sovereign Borders"

The basis for the multiplication of internal borders is Australia's international entry ban and the closing of the external borders since March 2020. While the severity of the lockdowns varies in the individual states, it is paradoxically the system of hotel quarantine that is now causing new outbreaks and the corresponding reactions Has. In many cases it was drivers, security guards or hotel employees with unsafe and fixed-term contracts who became infected. Governments and health officials may have handled lockdowns and border closings differently, but either by luck or calculation, they ultimately led to similar results. For an island continent like Australia, which is nonetheless linked to the world by busy international air routes, the severity of border closings is likely to better characterize pandemic control efforts than the relative severity of lockdowns in different states. In other words, regardless of whether states had strategies of elimination or containment, whether they tried to kill the virus or live with it, closing and controlling borders was the key feature of the response.

The social debate in Australia in general has centered more on the harshness of lockdowns than border control issues. Left Critic: Inside and center-left governments have generally favored tougher lockdowns, placing the promotion of health and life above the economy. Nonetheless, these positions have been weakened as a result of social criticism of the unequal distribution of lockdowns in access to care, food, money and work. As a result of the first wave of lockdowns in March / April, and with the exception of Victoria, states have adopted lockdown strategies aimed at stabilizing the capitalist crisis resulting from the pandemic. In the case of the December 2020 outbreak in New South Wales, these were soft, geographically targeted measures. For other states, the reactions were harsh but brief to cases that had jumped the quarantine bar.

The social debate about borders has since been fragmented, depending on which borders are being discussed. The Australian federal government, for example, has often criticized the closure of internal borders, but has vigorously defended the closure of the international border. The left-wing criticism has tended to concentrate on the international border, although there are certainly also left-national supporters of its hard closure. Primarily aimed at an international audience, this criticism has emphasized how the border closure exacerbates nationalist tendencies and reinforces epidemiological knowledge practices based on national classifications. However, these are not concerns for the vast majority of the population, who may feel frustration at border closings, especially between states, but see the closure of the international border as a necessary preventive step.

As Wendy Brown (2020) notes, while the state of the pandemic stems from the fact that microbes do not respect borders, the border closings serve “an important political role in treating the virus as if it had entered us from outside and act as if we were facing this threat with sovereign power. " Sovereign borders) foreclosing off irregular travelers have prepared the population to perceive the government's control over the borders as total and effective. If the maritime blockades carried out as part of the operation were justified with "saving human life at sea", the closing of the Covid borders is also an exercise to "save human life", even if this time it is about the life of the of the entire population and not just that of the illegalized migrants.

Undoubtedly, recent rigid migration policies have raised public expectations of the impenetrability of Australia's borders and maintained a circular logic through which the perception of effective border surveillance has reinforced and justified ever greater investments in border security - and vice versa. The political ability to close borders, however, arises not only from the special sovereign right on display in these migration control practices or, in the case of the Australian states, from the precedent of constitutional suspension of guaranteed internal mobility in order to address emergency health measures hold true. Australia's fearful and violent concern about its internal and external limitations also stems from a long history of quarantine and border controls that dates back to colonial times.

Racism, Nation and Hygiene

In “Imperial Hygiene”, Alison Bashford (2004) documents how the intersection of public health and spatialized biopolitical government techniques influenced the management of colonial and / or national borders from the mid-19th century onwards. She emphasizes "deep cultural and legal links between quarantine measures and measures to restrict immigration". Bashford emphasizes that racist classifications, nation and hygiene are intertwined in many colonial and national contexts at this time and locates the uniqueness of the Australian case in the simultaneity of the introduction of racist exclusions with the moment of nationhood. The fact that racial exclusions were the defining act of the new nation when the colonies became states in 1901 makes “the links between 'racial hygiene', national hygiene, and the establishment of a white citizen body through exclusion (as well as selective inclusion) both formative and tight. "

The history of Australia as a settler colony, which is based on the elimination and segregation of the indigenous population, is also relevant in this context. There are countless cases of Aboriginal people being screened, medically examined, detained on reservations or missions, or otherwise restricted in their mobility. Often times, as Bashford points out, these measures were not enacted through health or penal code, but based on Aboriginal protection legislation. The reverberation of that story in the current expansion of internal borders is evident, especially as Australia's states have often announced border closings at the same time as restrictions or regulations governing travel to remote indigenous communities. Although many Aboriginal councils have requested the suspension of permits to enter their territories, governments have also restricted access to indigenous homes in the name of Aboriginal protection.

The mutations of what Bashford calls the "medical-legal border" reverberate heavily in more contemporary depictions of Australian border and migration policies. Suvendrini Perera (2009) argues, for example, that quarantine arrangements were central to the imagination of Australia as an “island of the whites”, a result of the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the selection / exclusion of migrants. Sara Dehm (2020) examines the role of the “medical border” in both supporting and undermining the Australian immigrant detention regime. She mentions the case of the so-called Medivac Act: Until its repeal in October 2019, it allowed for a period of less than seven months the evacuation of internees in Australia's offshore detention centers, who were classified as in need of medical treatment, to the mainland. Many of these migrants were and are still housed in hotels that function as makeshift detention centers and are an urgent reminder of the mandatory hotel quarantine for citizens and permanent residents who have returned from abroad - a kind of endless quarantine for subjects without Covid.

The case of international students, many of whom are from China and India, is also worth mentioning. Since the international border was closed, the government has consistently blocked the entry of these students into Australia, even though it was granted to Australian citizens and permanent residents. This has massively attacked the budgets of the universities, which have been dependent on international tuition fees as a result of repeated budget cuts since the 1990s. The situation has resulted in the layoff of many university employees whom the government has also excluded from the aid programs applicable to other sectors. Those international students who stayed in the country were also excluded from these programs because they are not citizens or permanent residents, which has resulted in the inability to afford exit tickets and many in overcrowded accommodations and / or To be forced to starve.

Not normal

Australia's racist history shines through in this kind of border politics despite the current multicultural population profile. Apart from the fact that these measures attribute the risk of infection to nationality and geography rather than finer-grained and potentially more precise factors of risk of contagion, the possibility of implementing them is not devoid of geographical and historical conditions, which means that they are not simply understood as transferable models that can be applied elsewhere. In an essay titled “Traveling Theory,” Edward Said (1983) describes how political and social theories forged in an emancipatory setting can have reactionary implications when transplanted to other parts of the world. We can learn something similar from Jamie Peck's and Nick Theodor's “Fast Policy” (2015), which illustrates how a government initiative like participatory budgeting, which had radically democratic implications when it was forged in Porto Alegre, Brazil, solidified the austerity economy further than it did arrived in New York City. Perhaps something similar can be observed in the measures taken to combat the pandemic. Whatever the merits of virus elimination proposals in Europe, praising the determined action of countries like Australia and New Zealand is a dangerous game of abstraction from the specific contexts of those countries.

Undoubtedly, these claims are prone to being reversed by those who argue that the presence of colonial and racist echoes is only a small price to pay for a nation's health. There is also the option of separating the border closings from the perception of an outside threat. New Zealand's Prime Minister has certainly steered her rhetoric in this direction, although she has also boasted that her country has the toughest border restrictions in the world. This is neither about moralizing Covid border measures nor claiming that Australia and New Zealand's successes in containing the pandemic were just a coincidence of geographic circumstances. Rather, this article aims to outline the geographic, historical, and political factors that have led these countries to enforce tough border closings.

The result of these decisions is that, although transmissions are near zero, with the exception of the Sydney and Melbourne outbreaks, life has not returned to normal. Sure, schools are open, workplaces are welcoming their employees again, and many people are no longer wearing face masks.Like life on the set of "The Truman Show," people cannot see the shadow of their own fear or that of those around them. Everything seems to be fine until you get close to the edge that underlies it all. Behind it lies a void, a no man's land, created by the political imagination that presents its ability to draw boundaries as the most effective means of protecting the population from a microbe that doesn't care about borders.


Bashford, Alison. 2004. Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brown, Wendy. 2020. "A Worldwide Mutual Pact." The drift, June 24. https://thedriftmag.com/a-worldwide-mutual-pact/.

Dehm, Sara. "The Entrenchment of the Medical Border in Pandemic Times." Border Criminologies, July 15. https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/entrenchment.

Peck, Jamie and Nik Theodore. 2015. Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.   

Perera, Suvendrini. 2009. Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats and Bodies. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Said, Edward. 1983. "Traveling Theory." In The World, the Text, and the Critic, 226-247. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Translation: Julian Toewe

Brett Neilson

Brett Neilson is Professor of Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. He is the co-author of books published with Sandro Mezzadra Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (2013) and The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (2019).