Claire Trevett: Australia, here we come! Or do we? The shifting sands of the transtasman bubble

The long-drawn out saga of the transtasman bubble is proving to be a saga of shifting sands, over-promising and excuses.

There is rarely smoke without fire, and numerous puffs of smoke had emanated from the Beehive that Cabinet was expected to sign off on a mid-April date for the bubble today.

Instead, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she would announce the date of the bubble in two weeks’ time – on April 6.

Some will be optimistic the bubble itself will begin soon after that, despite earlier talk about the need for a three-week period between the announcement and the start of the bubble to allow airports to prepare. Airports have said they are already prepared.

Ardern gave some hope of a quick start, when she said she did not want to announce the date too far in advance in case there was an outbreak that scuttled it before it had even begun.

It is clear Cabinet has already set an ‘in principle’ date. Not revealing it early is not ideal for businesses, or for those longing to visit family who need to get flights and book leave.

That decision was driven by politics: Ardern has struggled with the management of expectations on this for a long time, and does not want to deliver a date she cannot meet.

So instead of a date, Ardern set out yet again the reasons there was not yet a date: or rather the “conditions” that needed to be met.

Many were the same reasons given since the prospect of a bubble was first dangled before us nine months ago.

Many of them are also practical or logistical issues on New Zealand’s side that do not need Australia’s agreement. One element that did need Australia’s agreement was the scrapping of the “exit visa” for Australians wanting to visit New Zealand.

Perhaps in anticipation of Ardern’s announcement, the Australian Government dropped the exit visa for New Zealand the night before it.

It beggars belief that the other issues were not sorted out during the nine months of cogitation about the bubble, so all was ready to go once political will was ready.

As of this week, Ardern was still raising issues such as how contact tracing would work and whether pre-departure or arrival testing would be needed.

The third is the question of what to do with New Zealanders “stranded” in Australia in the event of an outbreak – or having to come back to New Zealand all at once.

It has taken months to find the solution to that: and that solution appears to be to do nothing.

The Government has now issued a “flier beware” warning that if there is an outbreak in Australia while they are there, they may simply have to stay there and ride it out until there is space in MIQ, or it is safe to return again, or possibly quarantine at home.

On the bright side, within a month or so the bubble seems set to begin. Maybe.

The bubble will work by effectively treating New Zealand as the seventh state of Australia.

It is how Australia has treated New Zealand since opening its own borders to us in October. Some states have opened to us and when there was an outbreak in the de facto seventh state, those borders closed temporarily.

The bubble would creak open the doors in Fortress NZ again a year after those doors slammed shut. It is more akin to opening the side-door that only your friends and family know about than the main gates over the moat.

But it wouldn’t be too bad to swap the shifting sands of waiting for the bubble for the sands of Bondi Beach.

Make the most of it, because the PM also delivered a warning that if Australia enters a bubble with someone else, the good times could end a lot more quickly than they began.

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