There are some relationships that are best developed in person. Having spent a year apart from clients has made it one of the toughest for international businesses, but it is this current phase — where Australian borders are closed but the rest of the world is opening up — that is going to do the most damage.
Last year, when everyone had to make do with video calls, it was okay because the whole world was on an even playing field. We worked through it because it was unprecedented. Now, as other countries open up, it’s clear how far behind Australia is and we can’t let that gap widen more than it already has.
International business relationships matter
When people think about Australian exports, they often think of physical goods such as iron ore being shipped off to China. But many exporters, particularly high value ones, are actually export service providers, software and professional services businesses who benefit from in-person meetings while doing business overseas.
In fact, our services export rose 10.2% to $97.1 billion in 2018-19 — and let’s not forget that two of our biggest exports are actually onshore: the $14.6 billion-a-year education export industry, which creates 95,000 local jobs, and tourism, which in the financial year 2018–19 generated $60.8 billion in direct tourism gross domestic product.
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Some long-distance business relationships can be conducted by video calls, but in many countries and areas around the world, it’s important to be face-to-face when meeting. Making the effort to visit is regarded highly and seeing these clients on a regular basis maintains the connection. In 2019 alone — a relatively normal year in terms of business travel — I travelled approximately once a month to lead new and existing business relationships in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Greece, United States and Singapore. All of these countries and business cultures value deep personal relationships, and appreciate in-person meetings.
Australia being closed while other countries open up and resume these relationships is not just a disadvantage on the business level. It also signals to other countries that Australia as a nation will easily forgo these international connections and implies that there is also an element of mistrust about whether they are truly safe for us to visit.
The frustrating part of border closures is that they are blanket rather than sensible. I am fully vaccinated, and I wish to travel to clients in countries that have between 50-70% vaccination rate. That is low-risk travel compared to unvaccinated people travelling, or people coming from countries where vaccination rates are not high or non-existent.
As the rules currently stand, however, I would still need to enter two weeks of hotel quarantine upon my return. Ironically, the probability of getting infected with COVID-19 in quarantine is likely to be higher than getting it from travelling, considering the number of leaks. And, when assessing the validity of flying anywhere, the costly price tag of a $38,000 ticket from Sydney to London is enough to outweigh the benefits of the trip.
If the rules were conditional, we could differentiate between high-risk travel and low-risk travel and treat them accordingly. High-risk travel would be unvaccinated people travelling from an unvaccinated country — they would need to quarantine upon return. Low-risk travel would be vaccinated people travelling from vaccinated countries who can return without going into two-week quarantine and instead monitor for symptoms or take a couple of COVID tests at particular intervals upon return. There would then be travel and migration benefits of being vaccinated, which might incentivise uptake.
To be fair, last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison did propose a four-phase plan to reopen Australia. However, it’s disheartening to see that we are currently doing poorly at phase one, which is to achieve a certain threshold for vaccination. There is no freedom of movement projected beyond the New Zealand bubble, and the government has outlined objectives but has provided no strategy to reopen the borders. Frankly, it doesn’t say enough about the exemptions of borders on vaccinated Australians wanting to travel. Providing sensible travel exemptions may even be used as motivation for people to be vaccinated, accelerating phase one.
We are already seeing that the state and federal budget deficits will take generations to break even, so it’s about time we get a move on letting businesses get back on track pulling in export dollars. Businesses are the backbone of Australia’s taxation revenue, and by curbing business, it makes these horrific government debts harder to claw back. We cannot be isolated forever — it does not keep us safe. The only way to open up carefully is to see risks for what they really are, then minimise the threats and increase the opportunities.