Two broad factors shape the argument. The first is the vaccination program due to start next month, which forces a new assessment of what success looks like in this pandemic. The commonwealth chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, says test results show the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines prevent serious illness and death. Nobody is sure, yet, about how much they prevent transmission or how long they last. On savings lives, however, the results are good.
This addresses one of the biggest fears of last year: that intensive care units would be overrun. A successful vaccine program keeps people out of hospital even if they catch the virus. Provided, of course, it works against new variants of the virus.
The main measure of the pandemic today, infection case numbers, could become less frightening. There may even be a tolerance for higher case numbers if Australians are confident a positive test will not lead to a ventilator machine.
If health policies keep people out of ICUs, will Australians accept a more open economy? Even, perhaps, an open border?
Australia is making progress on this even before the vaccinations start. The country had 6356 active cases at the end of July, with 330 people in hospital and 40 of those in intensive care. On Wednesday it had only 195 active cases, with 36 in hospital and one in intensive care. Despite the legitimate anxiety about the summer breakout, the numbers are falling.
Australia’s performance is astonishingly good when 2 million people have died worldwide and Californian hospitals have been running out of oxygen. Nobody in Australia was on a ventilator in the latest national figures.
The second factor is the weakness of the economy despite recent good news. Unemployment has dropped to 6.6 per cent and Deloitte Access Economics forecasts growth of 4.4 per cent this year, with a big rebound for Victoria. Even so, big industries have been smashed – not least tourism, hospitality and international education.
How long can this last? The debate has barely begun on whether these industries can survive tight border controls for a second year.
Morrison’s approach is cautious. Insiders say the first, second and third priorities are to bring back Australians stuck overseas. But the reality is that states can find room for others: Victoria did so with tennis players, and South Australia did it with a small number of seasonal farm workers.
On education, for instance, there seems to be no political will to help a big part of the economy. State and territory leaders blame Canberra for not doing enough, but some of those leaders keep shifting position.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews talked up the prospects for international students last week and went cool on the idea this week. Now he talks of a policy in the weeks ahead. His NSW counterpart, Gladys Berejiklian, was optimistic before Christmas but is now cautious given the state’s virus clusters.
The latest figures show there are about 351,000 international visa holders at universities and that 39 per cent are now studying outside Australia. Chinese students have been hit hardest: of 168,000 students, 59 per cent are now outside Australia and presumably studying online.
The second biggest group, from India, has 90,500 university students but only 14 per cent are outside Australia. The next countries are Nepal, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea.
There are 542,000 student visa holders when schools and TAFEs are included, with 30 per cent outside Australia. But these numbers, from the Department of Home Affairs on January 10, are about the past. They do not show how grim things could be when lectures resume next month.
How many will sign up to pay significant fees for online courses an ocean away? They could fly to Canada instead.
This is about more than money. Australia collected cash from overseas students and their families in the good times, but now slams the door. Judging from the bitterness among Indian and other students on social media, the risk to Australia is real.
One industry source puts it this way: if Australia wants friends in the region while relations with China deteriorate, it needs to act. Even a small intake, using university accommodation for quarantine, would show a willingness to fix the problem.
Whether the industry is education, hospitality or tourism, few people will take a public stand on opening the economy when that means being branded as cavalier about health. Yet jobs are being lost by government edict, especially through the international border bans, which means political leaders have a responsibility to help with the cost.
Morrison talked on Thursday about offering some “proportionate support” to tourism. Other industries are putting their hands up, too.
Murphy added a caveat to his forecast this week because he said the virus can change so quickly. “I remember saying this to the Prime Minister: ‘I don’t want to predict more than two or three months ahead’,” he said.
It is good advice. Things will change. The border bans can be assessed again when more is known about the vaccines. Sooner or later, though, the door has to open.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.