London | Beyond the Brexit headlines, the British government’s recent budget may have not have loomed large on Australian radars. But buried in the detail was a small announcement of significant consequence to the hundreds of thousands of Australians who collectively pass through Britain’s airports more than a million times each year.
Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that from the start of the next northern summer, Australians will be able to join British and EU citizens in cruising through the ePassport gates at British airports, shaving at least an hour off the currently soul-sapping experience of extracting themselves from Heathrow and its ilk.
The story of how the Chancellor came to announce this is a tale of an Australian diplomatic coup. But it’s also an unfinished story. Although it’s a breakthrough, it’s part of a wider Australian push, going back at least half a dozen years, to ensure that the traditional relationship between Britain and Australia endures – and that Australians still look to Britain, as they have in decades past, as a place they want to visit, live and work.
When former prime minister David Cameron’s government began closing off visa options for Australians in 2011, diplomats began to worry that Aussies would turn away from the traditional rite-of-passage or mid-career-enhancing sojourn in Britain.
Diplomats saw the personal relationships, experiences and successes of Australians in London – from Clive James, Germaine Greer, Tim Minchin and Skye Gyngell to the ubiquitous baristas and bartenders – as a bedrock of the two countries’ unusually intimate relationship. If those people-to-people links weren’t nourished and sustained, a gradual distancing could ensue and potentially spill over into the pair’s broader and still very important political, security and trading relationships.
This wasn’t immediately on the mind of Alexander Downer when he started as high commissioner to Britain in 2014. That summer, though, he found himself in a familiar place: the tediously long passport queue for incoming passengers at Heathrow.
Any Australian who has been through it knows the drill: Brits and Europeans sail effortlessly though the e-gates while the rest of the world shuffles blearily along in a turgid, daze-inducing human snake that sets you back at least an hour – and that’s if you’re lucky. It was so bad in the summer just gone that Virgin Atlantic set up a trolley offering drinks and snacks to help people go the distance.
For Downer, as for many Australians, the sight seemed a bit of an affront. The British are our closest cousins. We fought wars for them. We contributed to their prosperity. We took their convicts. And this is the thanks we get?
“When I passed one of the officials who looks after the queue, I couldn’t help make a sarcastic comment: ‘So the Finns and the Spanish and the Czechs go this way – but where do we foreigners go?’,” Downer recalls.
“It also struck me that when I go back to Australia, our e-gates have all these flags for other nationalities on them – and that includes Britain. So why couldn’t they offer that to us?”
Fired up, he decided to make it a personal mission. He told his diplomats to lobby for it, and raised it himself during his introductory meeting with the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd. “I got a good hearing, but there were questions they needed to ask themselves – the practical issues,” he says.
The problem is that Britain, unlike Australia, doesn’t require short-term visitors to get a visa. That removes the ability for any pre-screening, so there’s a requirement that all arrivals from outside the EU need to be eyeballed by a Border Force guard and asked about the plans for their visit. And the Border Force kept insisting that it needed to give all those arriving Aussies a light-touch vetting, meaning the e-gates were a no-go.
Meanwhile, the Cameron government had set a target to slash annual net migration into Britain to “the tens of thousands”, from what was then well over 200,000 a year. Since EU citizens had free movement, the only way to go about hitting the target was to turn off the spigot of non-EU migration.
Whole visa categories were shut down, including some of those most popular with Australians. The visas also became harder to obtain, more expensive and less flexible: it was no longer possible for an Aussie student or working-holidaymaker to land a good job and easily switch to a working visa.
The number of visas granted to Australians plummeted. More than 35,000 a year were issued in the mid-2000s – by 2012 it was half that. To be sure, some Australians may have been turned off by the post-financial-crisis environment in Britain, but even in 2017 the number was just 19,092. Unless they could get a working holiday visa or ancestry visa, the Aussie teachers, nurses, nannies and junior professionals – all well-loved by their British hosts – found the door shut.
Australia’s diplomats teamed up with the Kiwis to fight a rearguard action. The Home Office had no wriggle room on visas, but they found an olive branch: the highly symbolic and visible airport passport queue. To get around the Border Force’s worries, they created a scheme called Registered Traveller. For a pretty steep £70 a year, people who came in an out reasonably often could have a one-time online once-over from the Border Force and then use the e-gates. Several thousand Australians eventually joined the scheme.
But that’s only a small fraction of the traffic, and doesn’t help the mum-and-dad visitors who make up its bulk. So the new High Commissioner, George Brandis, who started in May, took up the fight.
“I made it one of my priorities to re-agitate this issue, which I did at meetings with various meetings, including with the prime minister,” he tells AFR Weekend. “I rather forcefully explained why it would be a good thing to do for the UK in a Brexit or post-Brexit environment, to make this concession to Australia in the broader context of the closer trading relationship after Brexit.”
He says he got a sympathetic hearing but no commitment. Behind the scenes, though, the British government had been collecting better data on who comes and goes from the country – and that was one reason the Border Force was now ready to relent and give open access.
So the budget announcement was something of a victory for high commissioners past and present. But the campaign on visas continues. At the very least, observers want to see a drop in the cost of the visas, which can run to tens of thousands of pounds for a family, and an increase in the ability to switch between visas without having to fly all the way back to Australia.
But it’s a long-term campaign. The post-Brexit free trade agreement between Britain and Australia is the clear opportunity to re-open the pathway to London, trodden by many a previous Australian generation. Watch this space.