International Politics

Op-Ed: Australia’s isolationist psychosis

From a country that once prized a spirit of outgoing mateship, Australia has turned into an inward-looking fortress. How did this happen?

Sydney Airport Credit: Hu Jingchen/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

The border stayed locked shut for 20 months for good-standing citizens and expats. Those with money, power, or fame bypassed this rule. Weddings, funerals, and births were missed. These are the things that weren’t televised. 

‘Normal’ people who managed to jump through all the costly hoops to visit home to see family, faced being locked in. An irony, after all of the sacrifices made to get back in. The Government’s ‘zero Covid’ approach was almost obsessive in its pursuit of the perfect lockdown. Drones flew along coastlines to monitor social distancing at popular beaches – and hit Aussies where it hurts. Take away their beach time. A group of teens meeting who ‘broke the gathering rules’ made headlines, while an old mining camp in Northern Territory was transformed into a 2,000-person ‘quarantine centre.’ 

Other states are following suit with their own facilities. Whether these centres are intended for arriving travellers or the unvaccinated remain a question causing great concern. 

Australia’s Federal Police confirmed the use of a Long-Range Acoustic Device (LARD) – a sonic weapon – to control a crowd of peaceful protestors fighting the vaccine mandates. And just when things couldn’t get more dire, it did. 

The number one tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, was deported, due to his unvaccinated status. His visa was cancelled on ‘health and good order’ grounds. Djokovic lost the opportunity to defend his title in the Australian Open. Australia lost the liberty to call itself one of the freest, democratic societies. 

Which all begs the question, what’s going on in Australia? 

On February 20th, the nation opened up its international border. Two years on, the brick wall came down. But beyond the beautiful rendezvous and emotionally tinged tourism campaigns, what country are we really returning to? What does it mean to be Australian now? Can we still call ourselves one of the luckiest countries on earth? Are we returning to the Australia of the 1700s? A penal colony. 

Australia’s isolationism has hurt its own people the most. It’s become a country I no longer recognise. Expats were discarded by the Government, locked out and vilified for leaving in the first place. This was a double blow, given how many of us living abroad rallied to fundraise money when our homeland was burning, during the 2019-20 bushfires. 

The public discourse was littered with comments like ‘well, they shouldn’t have left’ or ‘they chose to move abroad.’ Whether this inhumane reaction was a fear response or that infamous tall poppy syndrome – where people are attacked, resented, or criticised because of their achievements – I remain perplexed by the collective response. 

I left Australia in 2016, on a global quest to experience all the world has to offer. To live with other cultures and learn more about myself. From a six-month stint in Bali, to hopscotching from continent-to-continent, and following a call to settle in New York City, not once did I stop missing home. 

I was, like every other Australian expat I met, the country’s best tourism campaign. We have a comeback for every objection. “I’ve always wanted to go to Australia, but the flight’s too long.” Pop a sleeping pill and you’ll be there in no time. “I don’t like spiders, snakes, and stingrays.” Not unless you go looking for them. “But I’d want to go for like a month.” Yes, you should. Go on, take it off. 

Now, the conversation has shifted, from curiosity to concern. “What is going on in Australia? Are your friends and family okay? What do they all think about this?” Foreigners don’t see stunning beaches, fascinating wildlife, and endless sunshine anymore. They see chilling images of playgrounds with police tape, restaurants with QR code signs to enter, and interstate border controls manned by army officers. 

It deeply saddens me that as a culture, we’re encouraged to travel and see the world, but expected to return home. ‘Because there’s nowhere like Australia’, right? Where is the mateship? The carefree ‘she’ll be right’ attitude? The friendly, welcoming, kind-natured people? Under some of the more authoritarian policies the national psyche has been compromised. With hashtags like #AustraliaHasFallen and #PrisonLand trending, my beautiful country has become an example, a warning for the rest of the world. 

So, how does this happen? Why Australia? What’s going on with the Commonwealth countries? There are more questions than answers. 

When exploring the complexities of the human mind, times like these necessitate a return to the greats. 

Carl Jung investigated the dangers of collective psychosis, where individuals become ‘morally and spiritually inferior’. “Crimes the individual alone could never stand are freely committed by the group,” Jung argued in his book, The Symbolic Life. What’s worse, the individuals spellbound by mass psychosis are unaware of what’s unfolding. Add to this the forced isolation, lack of human contact and news content that feeds an endless loop of fear, our minds. Great power is in the hands of those who distribute the flow of information in a society and the ideas we accept as true or false. 

Peter Freeman, an Australian living in Canada – another country that’s made world news for its strict policies and the recent Freedom Convoy – believes fear is incredibly powerful. 

“The fear of illness and death permeates our approach to life in our sanitised and ‘safe’ Western civilisation. As I’ve observed the events of the last two years, my conclusion is that those deepest fears have been used to manipulate our behaviour beyond the point of rational, common sense. It’s numbed out ability to think critically, and the fear of group repercussions prevents most of us from questioning or challenging the contradictory micro-rules”, Freeman said. 

“Information overload is a significant contributor. We’ve been bombarded daily with media-selected experts sharing doomsday models of death and destruction with very little opportunity or desire for open debate from a scientific or rational counterpoint. Our lives have been micro-managed with pages of very specific, often contradicting rules and mandates. We’re all fatigued, so it’s become so much easier to outsource our thinking. It takes time and effort to think critically and compare information from multiple sources to draw a measured and rational conclusion.” 

Like we’ve seen with skin colour, sexual orientation, religion and political affiliation, the phenomenon of ‘othering’ now exists with Covid. An ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. On a mass scale, this contributes to dehumanising entire groups of people. Australian culture is no stranger to othering, particularly in its treatment of indigenous people. 

Australians undoubtedly processed the pandemic differently to other countries, given its management of infections in 2020. 2021 changed this. Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city for consecutive years, claimed a new title: the world’s most locked-down city. 262 days of ‘stay at home’ orders. Given how strict the State Government’s measures were, and continue to be, what’s really causing the mass fear is coping with another lockdown. When relationships are severed simply because one person expresses their concerns, our society is deeply fractured. 

If what we’re seeking is security, albeit a false sense of it, what quality of life are we willing to sacrifice? There wasn’t great pushback from civil rights groups because this was a health crisis after all. Lives were at stake. So little was known in the early days. The problem is that emergency enactments haven’t been rolled back. Before the pandemic, a violation of human rights was something that happened elsewhere. Not to Australians, in Australia. 

I personally think there’s a silver lining. There’s a whole new discourse opening up about authoritarian and performative policies, migrant and citizen rights. Australia is being forced to reckon with its problems. Living abroad, I’ve come to realise that as Australians, we have to place great faith and trust in our government. We believe that we’ll be taken care of, and most of the time, are treated well as citizens. 

There’s universal healthcare, a nine-month maternity leave package, and the third best retirement system in the world – just behind Scandinavia. Maybe this is why it’s so heartbreaking, so hard to grapple with, the nation’s pandemic response. Political and social issues are now at the forefront of our minds and conversations. As Brigid Delaney from the Guardian wrote, “if you’ve never had to consider your civil liberties before March 2020, then chances are you’ve been living a privileged life.” 

Freeman adds, “repairing the damage is a community effort that’ll require honesty in acknowledging the wrongs and being empathetic with each other, knowing we’ve all been deeply affected in different ways for a multitude of reasons.” 

With Australia now welcoming people back with arms wide open, it’s a pivotal time to define the country’s future. With a national election due mid-year, Australians will pass their judgement on how this pandemic – along with a string of earlier natural disasters – has been managed and communicated, and who they choose to put their faith in, to get the country moving forward again. 

Amanda Smith is an Australian freelance journalist and cultural commentator, living in New York. She writes about culture, society, travel, politics, and LGBTQ+. Her work is found in VICE, News Corp, Metro UK, Business Insider, Singapore Airlines, Travel+Leisure, and Food&Wine. 

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