Scott Morrison will discuss a possible Australia-Japan quarantine-free travel bubble this week, but it’s the Prime Minister who will have to isolate for a fortnight when he returns to Canberra.
So important was the Japan trip, in the PM’s eyes, he’ll be forced to video-call in to the last sitting fortnight of Parliament for 2020, the first PM to appear virtually during question time.
Unlike ordinary Australians returning from overseas, Mr Morrison won’t have to front up the cost of staying in a hotel for 14 days of isolation before returning home.
He will instead spend his time in his second home The Lodge, a 40-room mansion in Canberra with landscaped grounds including a pool and tennis court.
Touching down in Tokyo on Tuesday, Mr Morrison headed in for meetings with the country’s new PM Yoshihide Suga, business groups, and the International Olympic Committee boss. It’s his first international trip since the beginning of the pandemic.
The fact that, under his government’s strict rules, he will have to quarantine for two weeks when he returns is seen as a sign of how seriously Australia values the friendship with Japan.
“They are an important partner on so many issues within our region,” the PM said.
“We are special strategic partners.”
Energy, climate, defence in talks
Mr Morrison’s trip meant he became the first foreign leader to meet Mr Suga in Japan since he took over from Shinzo Abe in September.
A landmark military pact, in negotiation since 2014, was top of the meeting agenda. It included a “reciprocal access agreement” for each country’s military to undertake exercises on each other’s soil.
But a sticking point was whether Australian defence force members who commit serious crimes while visiting Japan would be subject to the death penalty.
The two leaders are working on an agreement that would change Japan’s policy on lethal punishment to be determined on a ‘case by case’ basis.
— PM&C (@pmc_gov_au) November 17, 2020
Late on Tuesday, Mr Suga and Mr Morrison announced an “in-principle agreement” on the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that will enable both countries to intensify military co-operation in the face of rising tensions with China.
Mr Morrison hailed the “landmark treaty” as a “pivotal moment in the history of Japan-Australia ties” and suggested China should not fear the pact because it “adds stability to the region”.
“The significance of the RAA cannot be understated,” he said.
“It will form a key plank of Australia’s and Japan’s response to an increasingly challenging security environment in our region amid more uncertain strategic circumstances.”
The agreement, which will be finalised next year, is expected to help facilitate military co-operation, including in the increasingly contested waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
It follows Australia’s long-awaited return to India’s Malabar naval exercise in October after a 13-year hiatus.
Japan and the United States had been pushing diplomatically for Australia to return to the Quadrilateral exercises.
The federal government had pulled Australians out of Malabar in 2007 over concerns it could damage its relationship with Beijing.
During the Tokyo visit, Mr Morrison was also hoping to spruik Australia’s plans for a hydrogen industry and other low-emissions technology.
Japan has committed to a net-zero emissions by 2050 target, but Australia has controversially not expressly committed to that yet.
The PM told business leaders that Australia had an “ambition” for net-zero emissions.
Mr Morrison and Mr Suga are expected to discuss the potential for a travel bubble between their countries, but such an arrangement would be some time away.
Despite managing the pandemic well in the early stages, Japan’s cases have exploded in recent weeks, and the country recorded more than 1700 daily COVID cases in recent days.
Mr Morrison also met International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to discuss plans for next year’s postponed Tokyo Games, and Queensland’s aspirations to host the 2032 event.
Plane rules explained
COVID rules meant Mr Morrison travelled with just a small entourage, including space for only a trio of journalists.
More than 30,000 Australians are stuck overseas, with limited opportunity to get home due to border closures and airport arrival caps.
Some had suggested Mr Morrison’s private plane pick up Aussies stranded in Japan, but it’s not so simple.
The issue regarding Australians unable to get home is about beds in quarantine, not seats on planes.
Australia’s hotel quarantine system is subject to capacity limits, and investigations by federal and state governments found it would be inappropriate to loosen arrivals caps by vastly increasing quarantine places or allowing people to quarantine at home.
Therefore, calls for the PM to throw open the doors of his plane to the masses probably wouldn’t be much help.
Mr Morrison is exempt from hotel quarantine because he was travelling on official government business.
PM to isolate on return
Overseas trips have been off the cards for some time, but Mr Morrison made the Japanese trip in spite of his government’s hardline border policies.
On his return, Mr Morrison will go into isolation at the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra.
This arrangement, he said, would enable him to video-call into Parliament when it resumes for 2020’s last sitting fortnight in December.
“That will be a first and I can only look forward to that, as I am sure all of you will also,” Mr Morrison told journalists last week.
While regular Aussies have to quarantine in sterile hotels for a fortnight on their overseas return, or at home if they’re very lucky, Mr Morrison and other government leaders get to operate under different rules.
“Government officials, and/or their dependents, who are returning from official government travel … may quarantine at their home, usual place of residence or private accommodation,” according to the Department of Health’s official travel advice.
Just a short skip from Parliament House, in nearby Deakin, The Lodge isn’t a bad place to quarantine.
Built in the 1920s, the stately manor home boasts beautiful gardens, a tennis court and a pool.
But Canberra COVID rules state those in quarantine after returning from overseas must not have visitors, enter shared spaces or leave the premises – so it’s unclear how much of The Lodge’s luxuries the PM will be able to enjoy.
One thing Mr Morrison will have to rely on will be decent internet, as he’ll have the tricky task of answering the usual barrage of question time zingers via video link.
Federal politicians only made concessions for the so-called ‘Zoom Parliament’ in recent months, with many interstate MPs unable to travel to Canberra due to border closures and travel rules.
Most MPs think the rules have been working well, with only a few embarrassing moments with mute buttons and audio issues.
Mr Morrison’s video appearance in QT will be the most interesting application of the new rules yet.
We look forward to seeing what he’s got in the background of his camera shot as he beams in live from The Lodge.