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We must be allowed to break out of our island prison

These are important moments of connection, rites of passage that give meaning to life and to human existence, especially at a time of such social upheaval. And they will not be repeated. Parents are also struggling to see their children. Couples are stranded apart.

Getting permission from the Australian Border Force to leave the country is not straightforward and confusion abounds about what counts as a compassionate reason. Reports suggest many people are not even bothering to try. For others the process has compounded their distress.

Proving an immediate family member is gravely ill, or that you are in a relationship with someone, is not easy. It takes letters from doctors overseas, as well as the production of birth certificates, photographs and other documents. And it takes time to gather that evidence, when death can take no time at all.

It is a terrible and inhumane situation. And one that must be reviewed to make it easier for people to travel when they judge their circumstances require it.

Democracy is based on the concept of reason – that most adults have the cognitive ability to make considered decisions. And as a democracy, we must allow our citizens to decide whether the cost and risk of overseas travel right now is worth it for them.

The rights of an individual must always be balanced with the needs of the community but we do this by requiring those who return to Australia to pay for their own quarantine. You’d have to have a pretty good reason to leave if you’re willing to spend two weeks stuck in a hotel room when you come home and pay for the experience.

The quarantine system has not been faultless, as Melbourne is all too aware, but across the country we are learning from the mistakes made in Victoria. With an improved system in place, there is no reason to deny Australians entry and exit from their own country. We must be careful how we manage those returning. We have learnt the hard way that hasty implementation and putting too much pressure on a system risks destructive outbreaks of COVID-19 within our communities.

A tighter cap on arrivals of 4000 a week has been necessary to allow Victoria to get its affairs in order and take the pressure off Sydney’s quarantine system. But it is untenable there are Australians overseas who cannot get a flight home, particularly because commercial airlines are cancelling tickets and leaving passengers with little option but to buy a business or first class fare.

While the government says they warned Australians to come home months ago, this glosses over the complex situations in which many people find themselves. It is not so easy to pack up a life and just leave, especially if you have built a career or a family overseas. Other Australians may never have intended to come home but their personal or economic circumstances have changed since Scott Morrison blew his shepherd’s whistle in March.

The government must work with the airlines to put in place an orderly passage home for those stranded overseas. Morrison’s announcement on Friday that he had asked Defence and Foreign Affairs to come up with ways to help these Australians is welcome. They must surely get priority access to their homeland over the 300 international students the government intends to allow into Adelaide next month.

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The government claims border restrictions are still required, even with quarantine, to safeguard the healthcare system and its workers. This is understandable. But, Victoria aside, Australians in most states are allowed to take risks that might leave them infected with COVID-19 and requiring care – like spending a few hours in a pub with mates, or hosting a party for 20 family and friends. Surely if we accept those risks as a nation, we should accept those posed by our countrymen returning to Australia, when we are able to manage those risks with proper quarantine processes.

As citizens of a democracy, we must be able to decide for ourselves when to leave Australia and when to return. Australians should not be held hostage by airline managers wanting to maximise their profits, or have that decision placed in the hands of anonymous government officials left to apply their own interpretations of compassion.

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