16 Mar 2021

'Political scratchiness' maybe behind trans-Tasman delay - forum

From Checkpoint, 5:22 pm on 16 March 2021

"Political scratchiness" could be behind delays in a getting a trans-Tasman bubble to fly, according to a group tasked with getting it off the ground.

The Australia New Zealand leadership forum has been working for more than 10 months on gaining agreement for a quarantine-free travel between the two nations. 

The two-way tourism trade, worth more than $5 billion, has been pushed back by community cases of Covid-19 on a number of occasions.

Forum co-chairperson Ann Sherry said, although she wasn't privy to what was going on behind closed doors, it seemed other issues were also now at play, including ongoing diplomatic tensions over Australia's policy of deporting its citizens with New Zealand heritage to Aotearoa.

"I'm watching peripheral political scratchiness happen," she told Checkpoint.

"My instincts say maybe it's not just about Covid-19 borders, it's about all of the other issues as well. I'm hoping both governments have sufficient trust in each other and maturity to just see how much value and opportunity there is that we're locking out.

"This is a complex game, the politics between nations has complexity as well as logic at play, and there clearly is a bit of tension around shipping back to New Zealand [501 deportees] and I understand the New Zealand government isn't happy about that. There's been a bit of snarkiness about it on the Australian side as well."

Yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said things had become more complicated after Australia moved the goal posts during talks over travel.  Australia is also in talks with Singapore with a view to a travel bubble.

Although Sherry told Checkpoint back in January she believed it was possible a quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel connection could be in place by the end of March, she says she's still optimistic it can be achieved.

The groundwork to do so had been laid, health systems to kept Covid-19 in check had held up, and all that was required now was a decision from the governments.

"Everything's ready to go. The aviation sector's ready to go. We've been working on all the protocols for months," she said.

"On the Australian side there hasn't been a single case of Covid-19 as a result of us having our borders open to Kiwis, and there's virtually no community transmission either side of the Tasman.

"So I think the reason for keeping the border walls up diminish by the day and we continue to hope that there's still light at the end of the tunnel by the end of March.

"We're continuing to push and of course vaccination is now in full swing on both sides of the Tasman. So we're running out of reasons to keep the borders with limitations.

"At the end of the day you run out of excuses, you run out of reasons not to do things ... Singapore's pushing our collective doors as well, but particularly the Australian door.

She wanted New Zealand and Australia to lead the way, showing that the nations remained united in bouncing back from Covid-19 economically and opening a commercial path for the rest of the Pacific to recover too.

"I have a very strong view that we want to be open to New Zealand first, but I'm realistic enough to know that if that doesn't happen then we're having exactly the same conversations with Singapore.

"But I don't want the Australia-New Zealand border to follow somebody else. My strong preference is for us to demonstrate the partnership we've had for such a long time, and trust each other's systems and processes and all of the work that we've done to put stuff in place, and just get it happening."

The Pacific's tourism sector was crying out for help and it was imperative a political consensus was reached so that these markets could benefit, she said.

"We're their biggest markets, we're rolling out vaccines in the Pacific to ensure that they're safe as well. I think there's a bigger picture at play here, which I'm hoping cuts through some of the smaller issues that seem to be creating the scratchiness.

"We've got a region that desperately in need of tourism to get back on the feet as well.

"The Australians who've gone to New Zealand, who've been in quarantine, not a single one of them has tested positive. Of the Kiwis coming to Australia with all the systems that are in place, and no hotel quarantine, there has not been a single case.

"So we've tested the systems, they work. People have behaved well. Let's get the borders open."

Sherry said there were long-established reciprocal protocols in health for if a New Zealander were diagnosed with Covid-19 while visiting Australia.

"So if you get sick here you'd be treated as anyone would be treated here. You'd be looked after in the system."

If Singapore won a deal with Australia, it would not mean New Zealand being excluded, she said.

"It's not an 'either/or', hopefully it's an 'and'. But I'd like New Zealand to be first.

"Singapore, I think, is putting a different offering together because they're offering to have foreign students there for two weeks to do their quarantine in Singapore.

"Their offering is a much broader one, similarly for Australians coming back. So the number of hotel quarantine spaces in Australia is one of the limitations to getting more people, more Australians stranded overseas, back into the country.

"I understand that Singapore is offering a system that allows some people at least to quarantine in Singapore.

"The New Zealand-Australian work - all of it builds on the work that we've done, thinking about the trans-Tasman bubble. It would be a shame that the trans-Tasman bubble work ends up being a bubble with somebody else. So, I would prefer that New Zealand, go first not second."

On Monday, Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood told Checkpoint moving from a trans-Tasman bubble announcement to actual operations would only take a few days.

"This is something we've been planning for some time, so it's really for the government to decide when it is right to do so, but we're ready to go," Littlewood said.