The view from Billinudgel

On edge
Closing the borders is an exercise in futility

Motorists waiting near a police checkpoint in Albury, ahead of the NSW–Victoria border closure on July 8, 2020. Photo by David Gray / Getty Images

Closing borders never really works. The Great Wall of China eventually crumbled and, in modern times, there were always trickles through the Iron Curtain (including the Berlin Wall) until the trickles became an outbreak. These were barriers ruthlessly enforced by totalitarian regimes with no exceptions – guards would shoot to kill. The more porous land frontiers of Western Europe have only ever been temporarily effective, if at all.

So, closing the border to Victoria, or any other Australian state, seems an exercise in futility. The distances involved are vast, the entry posts all but non-existent. Even with the combined might of the police, military and air force, not to mention drones, a closed border can only remain intact if the population cooperates. If not, those determined to find a way through will have no real difficulty in doing so.

The problem is partly historic: the lines were drawn by bored Whitehall civil servants half a world away, with no idea of what they were doing or why. They saw a river and thought: Well, that’s a good place to divide one colony from another. Borders were drawn irrespective of demographic differences, which in those days were barely perceptible in any case. Nominally, New South Wales politicians were predominantly free traders, while the Victorians were protectionists, and that was a good enough excuse to set up inter-colonial rivalry.

Even then, border divisions caused big problems. The rail gauges were not unified until almost a century later. And, in the meantime, settlements grew into towns and towns into cities, stretching defiantly across the borders they were supposed to maintain.

Mildura, while technically in Victoria, spans both sides of the Murray; Albury-Wodonga is an equally homogenous conurbation. To pretend that they are somehow distinct populations is an affront to common sense. And I know, because I live less than an hour’s drive from the Tweed, where Annastacia Palaszczuk has been trying to run an equally pointless exercise.

During the long and now renewed attempt to isolate Queensland, motorists experienced delays of more than five hours as they waited for their passes to be confirmed. Some ran out of petrol, almost all ran out of patience, and in the end almost everyone who wanted to get through did.

Like Albury-Wodonga, Coolangatta-Tweed Heads is basically one city – and in at least one way, it is even more so. A large-scale map reveals that the state border runs straight through Gold Coast Airport, with the runway itself straddling the two states. Imagine the chaos if that ukase was taken seriously, especially during summer with an hour’s time difference between states due to daylight saving.

To save the sanity of both staff and passengers, the facility has been designated entirely as Queensland controlled. And the same measure needs to be implemented immediately on the Murray. Shift the border out of the suburbs – it doesn’t really matter whether it’s north or south.

Of course, the border will still leak like a sieve, but it will at least be a logical sort of sieve. And that, in these crazy times, is about the best we can hope for.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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