Federal budget 2021: ANU head Brian Schmidt calls for safe border plans to ensure Australia's future

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt says the university sector in one industry bearing the brunt of border closures. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt says the university sector in one industry bearing the brunt of border closures. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Australia risks falling behind the rest of the world if the international border remains closed beyond next year, one of the country's leading academics has warned.

Vice-chancellor of Australian National University Brian Schmidt has called on the government to develop a plan to safely allow international students and others to enter Australia, as the government plans to keep Australia closed to the world for at least another year.

The federal budget, to be handed down by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this evening, will include projections based on the assumption that Australia's international border will be closed until at least the middle of next year, and possibly longer.

"We certainly don't expect to see major movements in international borders until into next year and probably some distance into next year," Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said.

International border restrictions had been "perhaps the single most important factor in keeping Australians safe and keeping Australian jobs safe," Senator Birmingham said, echoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison's observation there was "no appetite" from Australians for the border to re-open.

The university sector is one of the industries set to bear the brunt of the border closure, although Professor Schmidt is not calling for the door to the country to be flung open ahead of time.

"We need to really work to find systems that do not cause public health issues for the nation, but really enable our students to get on with their lives," he said, emphasising how hard it was for the university's international students attempting to keep up with their studies from their home countries.

Professor Schmidt said Australia needed to focus on finding safe ways to quarantine travellers to Australia, at scale, with appropriate safeguards in place.

"If it's just a wholesale border closure for another couple of years that will have profound effects on the higher education sector, to the point where it's hard for me to actually imagine," he said.

In the last budget, handed down in October, the government's fiscal projections were based on the assumption international borders would be open in October this year, when the government also projected the vaccine rollout would be largely completed.

As the vaccine rollout timetable has blown out, so has the timetable for international travel. While Australia has long been the envy of the world, other countries are beginning to open up and reap the benefits of successful vaccination programs.

"What's going to happen is the rest of the world, as they get their vaccines rolled out, will open up ... it's not that the disease will go completely away, but it will be manageable. And when the rest of the world opens up, we will be left behind," Professor Schmidt said.

"That has not happened yet. But that is coming in the next six months is my guess."

"That's why it's important as a nation we start using every tool at our disposal, that needs to be a national conversation and it's not a conversation we're having right now."

The university sector would need ongoing government support if border closures were to drag on late into 2022, Professor Schmidt said, with little room to move to cut costs further.

"Without doing major transformations to the university, we have cut the university as far as we can cut it," he said.

The university sector is not alone in its call for a clear calendar for when Australia will open, based on the vaccination rollout.

"It is just too hard for the industry at this point in time when we've got no certainty about dates," Tourism and Transport Forum chief Margy Osmond said.

"When we do finally open the door to international tourists again, what on earth are they going to see and do? Hardly any of those attractions will still be there.

"As countries all over the world put in place calendars and targets for opening, that is all we are asking for."

Health Minister Greg Hunt says the government is creating a roadmap based on three principles for opening Australia.

"It's about progressive opening, and that is very important for hope and understanding in Australia."

The first principle is what Mr Hunt referred to as "green lanes", or travel bubbles.

The second is the vaccination program and the third is possible changes to quarantine requirements for vaccinated people leaving and arriving in Australia.

"The circumstances of that will be determined by the global medical evidence," Mr Hunt said.

"Australians want us to maintain that ability to keep them safe and to keep their jobs safe, and the border controls are a key part of that," he said.

"We will absolutely maintain them because in doing so we're saving lives and we're protecting their jobs."

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the government had dropped the ball on the vaccine rollout.

"They have had a year to prepare in terms of quarantine and vaccinations. And they have bungled both," he said.

"Whilst the quarantine system remains reliant upon hotels in the middle of CBDs and whilst people aren't vaccinated, then there will continue to be restrictions on our economic activity."

Chris Richardson, partner at Deloitte Access Economics, said opening the international border wasn't the only road to economic success, and the confidence fuelled by the closed border was actually helping the economy.

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"Keeping Covid numbers down does make a difference when it comes to confidence. Families and businesses are pretty cashed up - if borders make them confident that's a definite plus," he said.

Acknowledging there was pain in specific sectors like the universities, tourism and those needing skilled migrants, Dr Richardson said closed borders weren't as much of a negative for the economy as first thought.

"But then there's stuff that's hard to quantify, people with family and friends overseas, grandchildren never seen, people at risk where Covid is rising."

Ahead of the budget he said it was necessary for the government to continue "sticky taping" industries that needed the help, but it must be tightly targeted.

With AAP

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This story 'We will be left behind': ANU vice-chancellor calls for border plan first appeared on The Canberra Times.