If there is anything we’ve learnt over the 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic it is that the virus presents more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie mystery. Since lodging this motion a week ago, the world has learnt of a new variant, omicron, which has already reached our own shores. It’s early days, and scientists around the world are working quickly to learn what its impacts could be, its likely spread and consequences for health, and how vaccines and treatments will respond. We need to be prudent and prepared, but it is too early to know definitively answers to some of these questions. However, with the incredible success of our vaccination program and our strong health system, we must aim to ensure there is no reversal in the progress we have been making to reopen and reconnect Australia with the rest of the world.
Our international border arrangements have been important, if not the most important aspect of our response to COVID-19 since they were instituted on 20 March last year. Restricting movements across our international borders has kept Australians safer by helping shield us from the worst impacts and dangers of the virus and has helped to protect the lives and livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens.
Nonetheless, the reality of the border closures has carried with it an extraordinary emotional toll for many Australian citizens, permanent residents and visa holders. My own partner comes from Mexico, and I have therefore seen firsthand the impact of separation from families. In a country as multicultural as Australia, we’ve been affected perhaps more than most. Many have been prevented from sharing in those moments with their loved ones that are at the core of our family lives and human experience—travelling for births, watching the marriage of a loved one, and, in some cases, even the opportunity to say goodbye to a family member. As a local MP, I’ve worked with so many residents wanting to travel to be with their loved ones during these times of need or celebration. I’ve heard the jubilation when an exemption for travel was approved. Similarly, I’ve witnessed the heartbreak from residents that didn’t have the opportunity to get where they needed to be.
We also know that these border restrictions have had a profound impact on the economic life of the nation. We do rely on the skills and experience of those coming to work here and the contribution made by international students. The consequences were perhaps masked by the decline in economic activity that lockdowns entailed, but they have been exposed as they have ended and business has resumed with gusto.
That is why I do commend the actions taken by the Morrison government to safely reopen the borders to vaccinated travellers as part of the national plan. I have been a strong advocate for our safe reopening and was thrilled when the government recently announced that fully vaccinated Australians, permanent residents and their families, including their parents, could return to Australia and to New South Wales and other states from the first of this month without the pandemic restrictions that were previously in place. And I welcome the further easing of border restrictions that will happen from 1 December, in just two days time, with fully vaccinated international student, skilled migrant, refugee, humanitarian and temporary provisional, family visa holders able to travel to Australia again. This reopening is a result of the success Australia has achieved through the vaccination rollout and the implementation of the national plan.
Australia has managed this pandemic better than almost any other nation. Of the 38 OECD countries, Australia had the second-lowest number of COVID-19 cases per capita. In fact, at 0.04 per cent of Australians, that is something significantly less than a nation like the United States which has had 12 per cent of its population infected.
Economically Australia was also the first advanced economy to have more people in work than prior to COVID, and we have seen the economy and employment rebound so quickly after lockdowns. And now our economy is set to receive another boost as we welcome back temporary visa holders, including skilled workers and international students, who are so vital to the success of our country and its economy. For example, prior to the pandemic, international education contributed $37.6 billion to our economy and delivered something like 250,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Moreover, as Australia transitions through to the final phase of the national plan, skilled visa holders will help relieve temporary and skilled labour shortages and further support critical export industry to drive Australia’s economic recovery to new heights. These visa holders, including skilled workers and international students, contribute enormously to our economy and our local community. So, in two days time, we will be able to say with enthusiasm, ‘Welcome back.’ We will all be the beneficiaries of being able to do just that.