Travel exemptions rise as more Australians apply to fly overseas | Australian politics


The number of Australians applying to travel overseas is surging, leading to an increase in exemptions despite efforts to crack down on unnecessary travel.

According to a Guardian Australia analysis of Australian Border Force statistics, 34,616 exemptions were sought in June, up from 23,836 in May.

The surge in Australian citizens and permanent residents seeking to travel resulted in 14,522 exemptions being granted in June, up from 11,879 in May.

However, there are signs that the commonwealth’s promise at national cabinet to crack down on exemptions is starting to bite, with the proportion of successful applications falling in June.

Some 10,147 applications were rejected in June, compared with an average 6,000 a month in the first 14 months of the pandemic.

The release of the statistics follows a week of political contest about Australia’s border policies, including a war of words between Queensland deputy premier, Steven Miles, and the federal home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, about business travellers being allowed to repeatedly leave and re-enter Australia.

On Wednesday, Miles argued Australia’s borders are “not genuinely closed” because it “turns out the only thing that’s required to get a permit from the federal government to leave the country is proof you have a meeting in another country”.

Andrews snapped back that the Queensland government itself had asked for exemptions for film, television and sportspeople and that even the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, had suggested she may attend the Tokyo Olympics to support south-east Queensland’s 2032 bid.

Australia shut its borders in March 2020, imposing two weeks of hotel quarantine on those arriving in the country and banning outbound travel subject to limited exemptions such as critical business and compassionate grounds.

Since the start of the pandemic, 363,796 applications have been made for travel exemptions and 171,029 exemptions have been granted.

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More than 94,000 applications have been rejected, with the balance “otherwise finalised”, including some that were withdrawn, contained insufficient information or were from people already exempt.

On Thursday, the Western Australian premier Mark McGowan claimed that “more than 100,000” people had travelled overseas “unnecessarily”.

“They book a conference somewhere in Europe, then have a holiday, then come back and join the queue,” McGowan told reporters in Perth. “It’s just not right. We need to crack down on this.”

McGowan claimed that a “large group of people” have gone overseas on multiple occasions, increasing the risk of Covid-19 spread on their return and displacing returning Australians.

He cited the fact that of the 51,000 people who had been through hotel quarantine in Perth, 1,308 had been through twice, 506 people had been through three times, and 82 had been through four times.

McGowan called to “crack down very, very heavily on the number allowed to go overseas”.

On Friday, national cabinet agreed to halve the hotel quarantine cap for returning Australians in a bid to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 Delta strain.

As vaccination rates climb Australia will trial allowing shorter one-week hotel quarantine stays for vaccinated people, but it is unlikely it will ease its outbound travel ban until at least 2022.

On 7 May, national cabinet agreed that the commonwealth would “consider tightening ABF outbound travel restrictions for Australians travelling overseas and continue the restrictions in place in respect of applications for travel to high-risk countries”.

The resolution came at the height of the India travel ban after a push from the Western Australian and Victorian governments to tighten outbound travel exemptions.

Despite that agreement, 11,879 Australians received permission to travel overseas in May, a jump of more than 10% on the average of 10,353 a month between February and April.

Australian Border Force defended its handling of exemptions, arguing that approvals in May were “proportionate to previous months this year”.

About 45% of applications were approved in May, slightly higher than the average of 42% between January and April, but much lower than average rates of 70% approval in the final three months of 2020.

“Half of Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been granted an outwards travel exemption were approved on the basis that they were departing Australia for a minimum of three months,” an ABF spokesperson said.



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