The two versions of fairness: one for Australian-Indians and one for everyone else

A SAARI Editorial. 

“If you don't stick to your values when they're being tested, they're not values: they're hobbies.”

- Jon Stewart


The national anthem of Australia is called ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Inherent in the idea of being Australian is a ‘fair go;’ that we as a nation treat fairness as a fundamental value. 

What is fairness? It's something even my five-year-old son understands. It's the basic idea that rules need to be applied consistently. 

When the winds carrying COVID-19 fly from the West, like from the US and UK, we stand firm on fairness. We give hotels to returning Aussies despite virus variants and higher case numbers

Yet, if those winds come from the East - as in the case of India - our national adherence to fairness bends and breaks under the bluster we call ‘safety,’ under laws meant to protect our biosecurity.

When fairness is swept away like changing winds, it is empty.

The Australian government’s travel ban preventing Australian citizens and permanent residents in India from returning to Australia is fear-based and explicitly discriminatory. The ban, created as an emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015, is an abrogation of the responsibilities this nation owes its citizens and residents under law, and is shoddy political action to score points with emotionally-charged supporters.

The ban, in effect since midnight on 30 April, also carries heavy penalties where Australians could face up to five years in jail, a $66,000 fine or both if they breach the travel restrictions. These penalties are far beyond unfair - they are synonymous with a lack of trust in an entire group of people, and the nation at large. 

After media and public attention criticised the travel ban and its heavy-handed penalties, the government pulled back its threats of jail time for incoming arrivals from India. Following this, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the media to say the ban would be "proportionately” implemented and it remains unlikely anyone would be charged if they breached it. Later, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told ABC TV, “Nobody’s going to be jailed.”

Does this change anything? We know the travel ban and penalties still exist in law. We now have to rely on the discretion of bureaucrats, with promises of a sympathetic response that carry all the reliability of a political promise. 

India has now 20 million reported COVID-19 cases, with real numbers likely to be far greater. To put this rising scale in perspective, this figure covers almost the entire population of Australia. According to official numbers, 9,000 Australians are stranded in India, as the country faces its frightful second wave of the coronavirus. 

Among these stranded Australians, at least 650 individuals have been classified as “vulnerable” according to numbers provided by the Prime Minister based on registrations with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In its attempt to cater for these most vulnerable stranded Aussies, the government has considered building a 500-bed quarantine facility on the outskirts of Melbourne, but then claimed it would cost approximately $200 million to build, with long implementation timelines. 

The government’s lack of clarity is evident from the fact that there seems to be no plan B to bring stranded Australians back home from India.

So far the government's thoughts and solutions appear to be superficial lip-service. In these circumstances, it is crucial we question the government’s failure to construct a quarantine facility onshore after COVID-19 numbers were predicted to continually rise worldwide last year. Meanwhile, the cracks in our existing quarantine facilities continue to be a serious concern. 

With vaccine delivery reaching close to 50% of the population in the USA, perhaps the government didn't need to think about a plan anymore. Perhaps their thinking is based on an 'Asian discount' mentality, in which Asians don't require the same standards of 'fairness' and human rights, and a convenient forgetfulness toward providing reasonable treatment and aid all Australians deserve is acceptable. 

A petition to bring Indian-Australians home

Community support to bring home stranded Australians is constantly growing. 

Australian human rights activist Tarang Chawla recently appeared on BBC News to question the discriminatory nature of the travel ban and talk about the human impacts of the government’s decision. Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane also questioned the divisive nature of the law, and community organisations such as IndianCare have called for a more compassionate response.

Indu Balachandran, a Sydney-based Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity, has created a petition on GetUp called “Bring Australians in India home - NOW” which has already been signed by over 1000 people, and is now on its second goal of 100,000 signatures. The petition demands an end to the ban, prohibition of similar penalties, repurposing of quarantine facilities and an increase in repatriation flights for Australians stranded in India.

"The Australian Government has effectively made some citizens' lives lesser than others. And everyone is asking, why was this not the case for the USA, UK or Italy? We should all be outraged that state-sanctioned discrimination has become reality," says Ms Balachandran. 

The SAARI Collective encourages everyone reading this article to sign the petition and to spread the word.

Support for a legal challenge

There has been a growing movement supporting a legal challenge to the travel ban, even before it is potentially lifted on 15 May. Geoffrey Robertson QC is one of many voices calling the ban unconstitutional. “Australian citizens shouldn’t be put in prison for a crime that has not been debated in and approved by Parliament,” Mr Robertson told the Sydney Morning Herald

Hammond Taylor, an Australian immigration law firm, also opposes the ban

“The measures set out under this law are extraordinary. It is the first time we know of that Australians have been prohibited from returning to their own country in the history of Federation,” said Jackson Taylor, a partner at the firm. 

“It appears both discriminatory and disproportionate to implement these arrangements in response to the situation in India.” 

The argument that the travel ban is unconstitutional rests on two arguments. Firstly, that an Australian citizen has an implied right to enter the country. Secondly, that right can’t be limited by particular powers that allow the government to protect public health. These two arguments will likely form the basis of a legal challenge to the law, though there are also other legal routes. 

Recently, Gary Newman, a 73-year old Australian stuck in India brought an urgent legal challenge against the law to the Federal Court on 15 May, and this case is likely to be heard within a day or two.

Until a white Aussie cricketer and a poor Indian-Australian are equally valued, we will remain a country with a racism problem

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower


While we should challenge the travel ban with petitions and through legal avenues, we also have to re-write the story and bring equality to who we label as a ‘worthwhile Aussie.’ 

A Saturday Paper headline from Wednesday 5 May reads, “Australian cricketers, including star batsman Steve Smith, have been left stranded in India.” What the headlines will never say is, “Prabjot Tanna, 7-11 clerk and Aussie Uber-driver, son, husband and father, has been left stranded in India.”

Anti-racism experts like Ibram X. Kendi remind us that racism is hidden in policies, and racism as a system is most clearly expressed in policies that are applied unequally and more harshly to some than others. 

Racism also expresses itself in the narratives we assume represent all of us. Through the framing of their coverage, many corners of the Australian media are effectively saying: Cricketers are all of us writ large, but Indian-Australians are a faceless number. These stories both reflect and set the belief that we should feel strong emotions toward white sporting stars and that they are more important than our regular brown neighbours.

We live in an Australia where fair is foul for those of Indian heritage, and where politics inhibits the compassion we should be showing everyone equally.

When asked about his choices, the Prime Minister stated, "There's no politics or ideology in a pandemic... It's got nothing to do with politics, this is a virus." But the human response to the virus is what’s in question, and those decisions are wholly political. 

If I’m an Indian-Australian stuck in India - looking out at a reality where people are dying every five minutes around me - and there are no options for me from the nation I gave up my Indian citizenship to join - it is without question the very definition of a political situation. 

Racism is built on invisibility; on the denial of differences that exist and the use of our politics to enact that denial. You can bet that an Indian-Australian abandoned in India is feeling both unheard and unseen. And undoubtedly, that transforms into feeling less worthy and a feeling that you are a lesser version of being Australian. 

All we can say to our fellow Indian-Australians in India is this: 

The government doesn’t see you or hear you equally, but we do. We’re fighting to bring you home. We’ve started petitions. We’re arming barristers with legal challenges. We’re speaking out in the media, on social media and in our workplaces and communities. 

We do it because you’re us; we see you that way and not for your differences of origin. 

We do it because those who have been treated unequally before know what it’s like to feel invisible and yearn for safety.

We do it because, at the end of the day, it’s your human right and legal right as citizens. 

But it’s also the only truly fair thing to do. 

And that is who we should be as Aussies, Indian or otherwise. 

“It is no light matter to put in jeopardy a single life when it is the very singularity of each life which underpins the idea of a just society.” 

- Tom Stoppard

The SAARI Collective urges its readers to sign the petition and share this article to amplify your support.