Audrey Young: Jacinda Ardern manages expectations over transtasman bubble

OPINION:

It may be time to break out the bubbly for the expansion of the New Zealand bubble to Australia, or maybe not.

The bubbly may well have gone flat given the amount of time it has taken to finalise quarantine-free travel for arrivals from Australia.

Opposition parties are quite right in saying that it could have been done a long time ago – about six months ago when Australia started to allow Kiwis entry without quarantine.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet were also right in calculating there was no groundswell here for it to happen very much earlier than now, and many officials this year were preoccupied with two outbreaks and a vaccine roll-out.

The Government won’t mind the Opposition parties bleating on about how it should have happened earlier. As soon as something goes wrong with the transtasman bubble, as it inevitably will, the Government will able to claim some immunity in the fact that it took an exceedingly cautious approach to the bubble.

No one could accuse it of acting in haste or of not warning travellers about the risks of being stranded.

Health director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield has only just signed off on the travel bubble to begin on April 19, but if a state by state approach had been adopted earlier, and a target date set, conditions could also have been met earlier.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described it as win-win for Australia and New Zealand. But the win may be skewed towards New Zealand families and Australian tourists.

Given that there are many more Kiwis living in Australia than Australians living here, the family reunification opportunities are likely to benefit a great deal more New Zealanders.

That is especially so for low-income earners in Australia who were not able to afford the steep fees charged for managed isolation in New Zealand.

In a worst-case scenario, Kiwis visiting relatives in Australia could possibly be required to go into managed isolation on their return if they were caught up in an outbreak. But they would not have to pay for it.

Kiwis stranded in Australia through a suspension of quarantine-free travel are more likely to have someone to stay with than Australian tourists stranded in New Zealand.

Ardern is set to begin a hard sell to potential Australian tourists with media appearances from Wednesday.

She also strongly hinted thatQueenstown, which is in a parlous state, will be the venue for an imminent transtasman summit with Morrison.

There will be some disappointment that Ardern did not announce that up to 1300 places a fortnight in managed isolation freed up by the two-way bubble will not be used for reunification of split migrant families or workers in Recognised Seasonal Employer schemes.

But that is still likely to happen to some extent, as hinted by Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins in interviews after the press conference.

The Government clearly wants to reduce expectations that the transtasman bubble will deliver too much too soon.

It may be time to put the bubbly on ice, but it may be too soon to pop the cork.

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