National Cabinet threatens Australian foreign policy
On Thursday, Australia's national cabinet announced that there would be restrictions on departures to Australia from high-risk countries.
There was also a decision to reduce direct flights from India by 30 per cent. In addition, indirect passengers from India will have to have a Covid test in a transit country before they can depart for Australia. This means that Australian Indians will find it hard to get to their country of origin and, if they do, it will be difficult for them to get back.
These restrictions were made at the instigation of Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, who has wanted a total ban on travel from India to Australia because he had a couple of cases of Covid infection in hotel quarantine.
The restriction on travel from India is unfortunate on a number of grounds.
Relations with India have become important for Australia, particularly since the breakdown in relations with China.
India is a critical member of the Quadrilateral defence arrangement, which is part of the strategy to balance the strategic expansion by China.
India is also viewed as an alternative market to China for major exports like grains and pulses, coal, education and cotton. Australia is in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with India at the moment. It will be unfortunate if India takes exception to being singled out for restrictive treatment.
India has a very high rate of Covid infection (there were 314,000 new infections on Wednesday of this week) and the hospitals in India are overwhelmed.
Ironically, India is also one of the world’s major producers of AstraZeneca vaccine and is exporting vaccine to many developing countries, despite the need within its own borders.
As part of an agreement with Australia, the U.S. and Japan, India is producing vaccine to be supplied to poor countries within the Asia Pacific region.
In the circumstances, it is unfortunate that India has been singled out for special treatment by the national cabinet.
The original position of the McGowan government was seen by the Indian community in Australia as being racist and insulting but they are less concerned about the national cabinet approach.
However, they do see the need to be tested in a transit country as being oppressive, because it requires people coming to Australia to spend a three-day stopover in a place like Dubai, which adds considerably to the cost of a trip.
There are currently 34,000 Australians waiting to come home and the great majority of them are in India. In addition, there are also a large number of overseas students waiting to take up places in Australian universities. These students also supply much-needed labour for the hotel and hospitality industry.
It now appears that the bulk of travellers from India will be quarantined at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory or in Sydney.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian seems comfortable with handling Indian travellers, while other premiers refuse to do so. Despite this, these premiers feel free to set the agenda for foreign relations with India.
If things backfire because of the states’ intervention, it will be the Morrison government that is left carrying the can.