Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Matters of Public Importance
COVID-19: International Travel
I have received a letter from the honourable Deputy Leader of the Opposition proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government's failure to help Australians stranded overseas to come home.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
It is now December. There are 24 days to go until Christmas, and on this day there are 37,000 Australians abroad who are seeking to come home. Eight thousand of those have been determined to be vulnerable. This government owes every one of them a promise that it made back in September to bring those people home by Christmas. In the next 3½ weeks we are going to discover whether there is any meaning whatsoever to the obligations and the promises which those opposite make to these Australians and, indeed, to the Australian people as a whole.
Everyone knows that this has been a year unlike any other. The COVID-19 crisis has affected all of our lives and the lives of humanity, as a health crisis and as an economic crisis. We are seeing the strategic landscape of the globe rewritten as we speak. But one of the most significant ways in which the COVID-19 crisis has manifested is in the way that borders around the world have become closed and in the way that international aviation and international travel has been reduced to a trickle. As our borders closed in February and as we started to see borders around the world closing through the months of March, April and May, we saw this crisis begin to unfold. On 10 July of this year, the government established a national review into the hotel quarantine arrangements, and it appointed to that the former Secretary to the Department of Health Jane Halton. Amongst the terms of reference that she was asked to consider, one was changing capacity requirements of hotel quarantine related to changes in border restrictions. As we start this story, the place to begin is that this is absolutely an obligation of the federal government. National borders belong to the these people. National borders belong to the Commonwealth government. Section 51 of the Constitution paragraph 51(ix) says:
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:
… … …
That's an important point to make because quarantine is the responsibility of the Commonwealth government. As we have watched this government each and every day seek to avoid responsibility at every single level in relation to this crisis and go out and suggest that somehow quarantine is the issue of the states, never forget that, when it comes to the Constitution, it is spelled out in one word—in black and white. It is their job.
As this issue rose during the course of the northern summer, during the months of July and August as the effects of COVID-19 were affecting countries around the world, not surprisingly, we saw more and more Australians seeking to take the opportunity to come home. Indeed, on 2 September, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gave evidence to Senate estimates and said that the department expected the number of Australians registering an interest in returning will continue to increase. It's at that moment that this government and this minister started to offer a promise to the Australian people. As he left this chamber on 13 September the Minister for Health said, 'We want to ensure that every Australian who wants to come home is home by Christmas.' That's what this minister said in September, and it was backed up by the Prime Minister who said, 'I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas.'
That's the promise that this minister and this government made to those Australians who are stranded overseas. That's the promise that they made to all Australians. The minister says that there were a certain number who had registered at that point. That number was 26,800. At this moment in time, only 14,000 of that number have come home. But, since then, just as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade predicted, the numbers have continued to increase. As the flow of international travel has reduced to a trickle, what we've effectively seen is international airlines basically only selling business-class tickets to come back to Australia, which means that people are faced with bills of tens of thousands of dollars in order to come home.
All of the electorate offices of members on both side of this chamber have had a flood of people coming in and advocating to us on behalf of constituents who have been stranded overseas. David and Kate Jeffries, with their son Mitchell, are an example. They're still in Canada. They gave evidence in the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 and said that financial pressures built further as it became increasingly evident that if they are to have any hope of boarding a flight home:
… we will likely have to upgrade to business class tickets, which range anywhere from $9,000 to as high as $17,000 each to get us home. After the $5,000 bill from the Australian government for quarantine, we expect to have paid an absolute minimum of at least $25,000 just in travel expenses to get home. We estimate that the direct additional cost—
as a result of being stranded—
to be well over $50,000 to my family, money which we would much rather put toward Mitchell's education.
In the midst of all of that, this government has done essentially nothing. They have not responded to this.
The Halton review made a whole lot of practical recommendations which could have been implemented. The first thing Jane Halton pointed out is it is their power to legislate in respect of this. She gave advice about how the federal government could run quarantine safely, with exclusion zones around quarantine facilities. She made the point that additional quarantine centres could be opened up, like RAAF Base Learmonth. She suggested that there needs to be a national scalable quarantine facility to deal with exactly the sort of issues that we are facing right now. It was a thorough and thoughtful report and response, but from this government we have seen nothing.
On 15 September the Leader of the Opposition made the point that maybe we could use the Air Force to get our people home. Maybe we could use the VIP fleet to get some people home. It would make a difference. Well, we didn't see the VIP fleet go to Europe to bring stranded Australians back home, but the VIP fleet did go to Europe. It went to Europe carrying former senator Mathias Cormann from Perth. Mathias Cormann, in pursuit of a job for himself, has visited Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. It doesn't stop there! There are further visits planned to Austria, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and France. And all of that is at $4,300 per hour. So instead of using the VIP fleet of the Air Force to bring Australians home, we see that the priority of this government is to use that fleet to support a former colleague in pursuit of a job for himself. That says everything about the priorities of this government.
There is a fundamental obligation in this nation to allow Australians to return home. It is an obligation of our law and an obligation of international law. In Air Caledonie International v Commonwealth, in 1988, in the High Court it was put in these terms, as has been said: such a citizen had under the law the right to re-enter the country without need of any executive fee or clearance for so long as he retains his citizenship. That's the obligation that exists. We have a situation now where, despite that being the obligation at law, in order to get home as a stranded Australian, you are effectively faced with a bill of tens of thousands of dollars. What that means is that that fundamental obligation at law is not being met by this government. Much more significantly, the promise that this government offered to those 37,000 Australians who were stranded overseas is not being lived up to right now. We have 3½ weeks for this government to demonstrate that when it makes a promise it actually delivers on it. It is time for this government, on this day, to actually say something in respect of that promise and to stand up and deliver.
The opposition continues to be in denial about what has occurred in this very difficult year for Australia and the globe. We in the Morrison government know there has been a global pandemic; we have been dealing with it all year. Look at the structure of Australia. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition discovered here in his speech today that we are indeed a federation. Australia has led the way in how federations have dealt with what is the most challenging set of circumstances that we have faced in a long time. Other societies in the world today haven't coped as well as our society has, and that's because of the cohesion of the national cabinet of the states and territories working together with the Commonwealth, under the Commonwealth's leadership, to provide the certainty that the people in Australia need in handling an evolving and difficult situation.
It's important to know that since the beginning of this, since Australians were advised that they needed to reconsider their need to travel overseas, 432,000 Australians have returned home. Almost half a million Australians have come home, and we welcome them home. We have done everything possible within the evolving situation of the pandemic to ensure that people can get home. That isn't easy when the entire globe has been closed. That isn't easy when all airlines have had to reduce the number of flights, have had cancelled flights, have had increased costs of operation and, of course, have had to deal with rolling restrictions and changes in multijurisdictional situations with nation states around the world. For the opposition to pretend that, somehow, that has been a failure of this government again ignores the fundamental situation—the challenge posed by a pretty unique pandemic, a once-in-100-years circumstance. In fact, since the government made its announcement that we would return those people home by Christmas we have had over 31,900 Australians return on 370 flights, including 11,000 people on 74 government facilitated flights. Ten of these flights have been facilitated since 23 October, returning over 1,600 passengers. And there is more to do. When we think that almost half a million Australians have wanted to come home because of the work that the government has done, the states and territories have done and the people of Australia have done and the sacrifices they have made, we are a safe harbour in a very difficult world at the moment.
Of course, more Australians are going to want to return home, and we are going to have to continue to do the work and continue to work with people to get them home as soon as practicable. But, given we are now nine months into a pandemic and there is a long time to go until a vaccine is rolled out, we have to work with people as they make their choices and we have to work with them in a constrained environment, in which the airline industry is suffering its greatest hit in 100 years, as well. We'll keep doing it. We've worked to ensure the right priorities on returns have been there. Of course it hasn't been possible to get everybody home when they wanted to get home, but vulnerable people had to be dealt with first. It was the logical thing to do. It's what the Deputy Leader of the Opposition said we should be doing. In fact, the government prioritised vulnerable people. Nobody would think otherwise, that we shouldn't try to get people with medical needs, that we shouldn't get women who had pregnancies, that we shouldn't prioritise people who needed to get home first. Those people had to be prioritised. They have been prioritised. When you think about half a million Aussies coming home, that is more by far than our entire migrant intake in a year coming back to Australian shores. That's a lot of people coming home. We understand why more people will seek to come home when we look at the second and third waves in Europe and the US and at the safe harbour that Australia represents. We will welcome them home and we will work with those communities to get them home. We will get as many people home by Christmas as we can get home from now until Christmas, as well. There are many flights that are booked. There are many people who will come. There is much work that the Commonwealth and DFAT will do. As these lists expand we will keep getting more people back into the country, and that's what you would expect.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, of course, discovered the Constitution in all of this. I would say to him and to the opposition: it is not opposition for opposition's sake. The argument they have made today again demonstrates they are not serious about the business of dealing with the No. 1 challenge in front of Australians, because they are seeking to undermine the work of agencies like DFAT and the serious work of states and territories and to ignore the facts in relation to what has happened in our states and territories. We make no criticism. States and territories have had to do the things they have had to do. We have made arguments with them. We have had conversations with them about what we believe settings should be, but when you have an outbreak in Victoria and a quarantine failure in a hotel system operated by the state government, of course the second major port in Australia was offline for many, many months. The caps were reduced in other states, which were dealing with smaller outbreaks and which contained those outbreaks. That is supported by Australians. That is supported by us.
Whatever our disagreements about how things should opened and how soon they should be, the fundamental unity and the fundamental cohesion provided by the national cabinet, by the leadership of the Prime Minister, by the leadership of the states and territories in combination with the Commonwealth has meant that we've had an orderly return of people. It hasn't been perfect, that is true, but there are not many governments—in fact, there are no governments—that can point to a perfect record this year. There are not many societies that can point to a perfect record in handling what has been an evolving and difficult challenge. But I can tell you one thing, Deputy Speaker O'Brien: Australians can be proud of themselves and their government, and the cohesion that has been provided by the states and territories and the Commonwealth through the national cabinet in service of our citizens.
I know that the officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in every consular office around the world have worked tirelessly from the beginning of this pandemic to do their absolute best to help Australians stranded in very difficult situations. When countries shut their borders, which is their sovereign right, and when countries contained areas, which is their sovereign right, to handle the pandemic, many Australians were stranded. It has been very difficult for everybody concerned; there is no denying it. But our officials worked tirelessly. They did an outstanding job of getting everybody back as soon as they could. They did an outstanding job in providing services. They are doing an outstanding job. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade know their business, and they work very, very hard, and they and all government agencies have stepped up this year. In fact, we can say to the whole Public Service this year: you have excelled in serving the Australian people at the Commonwealth and state level, and we thank everybody who has stepped up this year to do that. We say it genuinely and we should be joined in that by the opposition.
In fact, the opposition of course supports everything that we are doing to return Australians home. They are trying to find a point of opposition. There isn't one. They're trying to say something has been done wrong. Nothing has been done wrong, given that this has been an evolving, very difficult situation. On health advice, on scientific advice, on outbreaks within states, on the lowering of caps, we have had to work together as a federation. On balance, Australia has done that better than anywhere else, and we have done that because, whatever our arguments, we have essentially retained unity. We've stayed together.
Our message to the opposition today is: do not threaten that unity. We are not out of the woods yet. Don't question that solidarity that Australians have shown at the state and federal levels, that our Public Service has shown and that the people want us to keep showing on these essential questions. It is not a partisan issue to say we would love to get people here faster. Everybody knows that. Of course we'd love to move people around the world faster and get them to safety faster. Health safety is the top priority of this government, Australians here and Australians abroad, and we work on it every single day.
I finish by saying that the opposition can make cheap points about our candidacy for the OECD, but I go back to this essential point so that every Australian understands this: the Labor Party support the government pursuing this candidacy—not my statement; their statement. They support it. And, if they believe that you can legitimately campaign for a candidacy of this importance and not spend any money, that's in defiance of their own policy when they were in government and they sought a seat on the Security Council. We know that. The Australian people know that. Again, they are looking for division where no division exists. They support the government's attempts to secure this candidacy. It is important, and we hope that we can secure it for this country.
Australians have done an outstanding job this year. We know that there are still people that want to get home. We want to get them home. We will keep working on getting them home. It is a focus of government every day. We'll get as many people home as we can, and we'll keep getting them here—as many of those who want to come as we can.
Australians stuck overseas are telling me that they feel as if they've been abandoned by their own government and as if the government has for months ignored their pleas for help to return home. This government's failure to act is generating widespread anxiety among people stuck overseas and also their families at home. It's costing people huge amounts of money—enormous amounts—just to try and get a seat on a flight, and it's exacerbating pre-existing mental health conditions to a point where individuals and their families are fearful for their lives. This is a fear that runs through many of the emails and phone calls to my office, from parents who know the signs of adult children and can see slides into depression, and from trapped Aussies making disclosures of suicidal feelings. When John Howard declared in 2001 that under his leadership 'we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come', these Australians could never have imagined that there would be a Liberal government applying the same words to them. The Prime Minister's promise of getting everyone home by Christmas and now his attempt to spin it and say he's done what he promised are an absolute insult. There are 37,000 Australians stuck overseas. Eight thousand of them are considered vulnerable, and I have emails from some of those. The Prime Minister has just eight days to keep his promise to get all these Australians home to their families and out of quarantine by Christmas.
His claims are an insult to people like Liz, whose son has been stuck in Germany. He's been registered for months with DFAT, and he was recently told that his flight, booked for yesterday, had been cancelled. He has no access to a replacement flight, with three repatriation flights from Heathrow completely full. Like so many, Liz's son has had no work for two months, has no accommodation and is couch surfing. It's winter. It's minus two degrees. You can imagine the mental health impacts. There's Maddie, whose German visa to work as an au pair has expired. She's sleeping on a friend's mother's couch in Italy as her remaining funds run low, all the while trying to find a way home. Then there's Donna and her family in India. They were there for a year's work but were unable to get a flight until just last week, when they flew to England in order to get a flight home. As an Australian citizen, Donna said she had never thought she'd be on the wrong end of Australia's border policies. She points out that they had only three days between the advisory to come home and India going into lockdown, and it wasn't enough time to pack up an apartment and pack up their lives there.
I have constituents trying to get back from Dubai, Laos, Taiwan, Denmark, the UK and Canada—the list goes on, with example after example where the government has forced them to reveal personal, private details of their health in order to try to get special treatment and get themselves home. They should not have to do that and expose themselves to bureaucrats. Even when they do eventually return home, there's significant damage that will have been done to their mental health, to their finances and, depending on their exposure to COVID, to their physical health. You have to ask: why aren't there chartered flights, or why isn't the RAAF being used to bring these people home? We have no explanation from the government for why they are not prepared to do that. They're prepared to put on a plane for Mathias Cormann, and they're not prepared to bring Australians home.
Those opposite are going to blame the states and the caps on quarantine for the failure to get everyone home by Christmas. They'll single out Labor states even though it's the practice of every state. It begs the question: if border security is a federal responsibility, why has the federal government just handed it to the states? I'll tell you why: because it's a government that tries to absolve itself of any responsibility when it can pass it to someone else. It's done it with aged care during COVID, letting the states carry the can. It's done it with the royal commission recommendation for a national firefighting fleet, again letting the states take responsibility. Just as it did with Ruby Princess, it's doing it again with COVID and border protection, sitting back with a smirk and a shrug saying, 'Oh, it's not us.' Yes, it is. The Prime Minister could boost safety quarantine capacity. There's a report on his desk telling him how. Australians have a right to come home. This government has a responsibility to make it happen, and it looks like all those people stranded are only going to get a broken promise for Christmas. (Time expired)
Undoubtedly one of the most important and significant decisions this government made at the onset of this pandemic was the decision to regulate the international border—something that hasn't been done to the extent which it has in the last nine months in the history of our Federation. We have seen what has happened in countries around the world that didn't or couldn't put that kind of regulation in place. We are very lucky that we are an island continent nation. It is obviously much easier in a country like ours to put restrictions in place on our borders than it is in countries that have complicated land borders. But certainly it was still a very significant decision of the government, and I might say that it was undoubtedly a decision in cooperation through the national cabinet process that the Prime Minister established—one that had at the time and still has to this day the support of both Labor and Liberal governments across the state and territory jurisdictions. That was vitally important, because there is no way in the world you can put in place a regulation of our border without the Commonwealth government working hand in glove with the state and territory governments.
More importantly, to the erroneous point of the previous speaker, far from us not taking responsibility when it comes to this, we could have done the exact opposite of what we have done and said, 'We won't take any responsibility for initiating a cooperative approach to securing our border.' We could have easily said, 'At the end of the day we won't put any restrictions in place on people coming back into this country.' We could have said to the New South Wales government: 'We are responsible for the Sydney international airport. It's Commonwealth land and Commonwealth jurisdiction. We won't restrict who comes back into the country.' We could undertake our responsibilities when it comes to Customs border protection et cetera, but after that we could have said to the New South Wales government: 'You're on your own; there you go! These people are leaving the terminal, and you do what you will with them as they walk out, with their suitcases, completely unregulated.' That's what we could have done. Of course, we would never do that because that would have been completely ludicrous. It would have been outside of the spirit of our Federation. In quite the reverse, we recognised that the state and territory jurisdictions with the Commonwealth would have to work together to put in place the quarantine mechanisms and procedures that have now been in place since the end of March.
It's very important that we worked with the states on this, because, of course, the states run the health systems. When we were regulating the return of Australians into the country from a health point of view, there was no way in the world we could have done that without working with the states and territories. And that meant, of course, discussing, negotiating and agreeing with them on the quantity of people that could be brought back into the various jurisdictions around this country of ours in a manageable way that wouldn't put their systems, particularly their health systems, under a pressure that couldn't be borne.
We know, of course, that the greatest prevalence of this insidious virus has been in returning international travellers. There have been some notable exceptions, but by and large we are one of the great success stories across the planet in managing our border and more generally managing the spread of this virus within our community. Returning international travellers are the greatest risk that's posed, and we have ensured that, rather than having arguments with state jurisdictions about the number of people they believe they can handle in their various border checkpoints they share with us, we have come to agreement with them. That is the bottleneck in this process. All the other points are largely irrelevant, because in no jurisdiction do we have a situation where a state or territory government is saying, 'We'd love to take more internationally returning Australians but the Commonwealth won't facilitate it.' That is not happening anywhere—quite the reverse. We are agreeing with state and territory jurisdictions that we will not put more pressure than they have said they can bear on the capacities that they have created to manage quarantine.
On the concept of sending people to far-flung, remote destinations to quarantine: no health expert would ever say, 'Let's take people with potential life-threatening diseases and have them completely dislocated with the health infrastructure needed to care for them and keep them alive if, in the worst-case scenario, they are in the position where they are in quarantine and need to be urgently taken to significant health capability to look after them.' It is patently in the capital cities where we're undertaking this with the state and territories. We've got the support of state Labor jurisdictions as much as state Liberal jurisdictions. This is petty political pointscoring.
I thank the member for Sturt for his great contribution. It reminded us so well of the cold, dark hand that this government is putting out to Australians stuck overseas. Today there are 37,000 people feeling completely abandoned by their government—and this hasn't started today. It's a matter of public importance today because we need to ensure that the Australian public understand that the Prime Minister made a promise and the health minister made a promise to bring those Australians home. So the member for Sturt can give us as much of the weasel words as he likes and talk about negotiations with the states. As the member for Corio pointed out, so simply: borders are the federal government's responsibility. Quarantine is the federal government's responsibility. And this Prime Minister promised 30,000 Australians that they could come home.
From the outset, this has been a debacle. From the first days of the pandemic, members on this side of the chamber have supported locals in getting home from overseas. Our officers have worked just as hard as DFAT have worked to support people getting home. Every single person who works in my office has dealt with one of these cases. I want to share with the chamber one case study, an email I received this week. I want to contextualise that: remember that in the Northern Hemisphere winter is upon them. The third wave is upon those in Europe. There are still countless cases in the US, and countless cases in India and South Asia, where we have thousands and thousands of Australians.
When those countries decide that they're not renewing visas of Australians working overseas, when those countries decide—like this government decided that, if you're not a citizen and you're not a permanent resident and you're caught in Australia in a pandemic, you're on your own—that Australian citizens are on their own, which they are doing now, with companies in England now saying to workers, 'We're not going to renew your working visa; you need to get yourself home,' that is how the numbers are growing. People have lost their jobs.
I have one question I want to put to the Prime Minister: are we going to ask the British government to support the Australians stuck in the UK now without a job? How are we going to do that when we wouldn't support the UK citizens stuck here during the pandemic? This government needs to step up now to deliver on this promise. It's not just because Australians deserve to be home for Christmas. It's not just that there will be thousands—37,000—families without members at the Christmas table, at Christmas lunch, if this government doesn't get a move on. It's people like my constituent, who was planning to return to work in Sunshine Hospital's ICU. This is an Australian doctor needed in the western suburbs of Melbourne. To replace this doctor, who hasn't been able to get home, it's costing $200 an hour to get a locum in.
This person is stuck. They've had flights cancelled. They've now secured a flight, they think, to depart Heathrow on 12 January, after other flights had been cancelled. Meanwhile, Sunshine Hospital's ICU is a person down. So there's a cost to this that is more than just people who got stuck overseas because they chose not to be here. There is a cost here for Australia, and this government needs to really think about what it's going to put in place. We all know about their priorities. Their priorities throughout this pandemic have been to try and find ways to make everything someone else's problem. Prime Minister, this time you signed up. Your health minister signed you up. You made the promise. You both made the promise to get these Australians home.
On this side of the House, we're standing today to call you out on that promise and to say you've got three weeks. You've got three weeks to do something about this. You found the VIP flight for Cormann. That's the priority of this government: to have planes used for things other than bringing standard, abandoned Australians home, in the European winter, in the Northern Hemisphere winter, in a pandemic, with growing numbers every day. Shame on this government.
I can sense the frustration of every MP who has constituents overseas—Australian citizens hoping to return. But I'm somewhat disappointed by the candour of this debate. We've focused on Australian citizens trying to get home. We've forgotten equally important inputs into the Australian economy. There are the 10,000 skilled visa holders every month, the overseas residents who commit to supporting Australia's economy in the workforce in places where we can't provide Australians. Our economy has lost those arrivals as a result of COVID. Then there's the entire international education sector, around 900,000 students who come from overseas—because Australia is not just the food bowl, not just the provider of resources, but the educator of South-East Asia. All these things are in suspended animation through COVID.
I want to inject a little bit of fact. The House needs to know that, on 6 July, not one, not two, but all state premiers, in a concerted message, came to national cabinet and informed the Prime Minister there would have to be caps. This was because Tullamarine, with 27 per cent of Australia's inbound traffic, was closed due to the second wave. And what did other state premiers do? Did they say, 'We will support a mate; we will increase the number of arrivals through our airports to do our part to support this great federation'? No. The conversation was completely the opposite. Premiers of all backgrounds effectively mugged the economy, because COVID was too important in their states. They chose not to take a heavier load and support their Victorian friend but to cap arrivals.
The merits of that will be discussed in future histories. What I'm saying today is that those incredible arrivals into Sydney of 4,000 a month through those darkest weeks was utterly commendable. Gladys Berejiklian gets 10 out of 10 for that. But I've been extremely critical of Queensland's and WA's Labor premiers for taking barely 300 to 500 people a week, which is barely a third of a plane, into those states—Queensland, the great state, with 2,000 hotels, using just 12 of them for quarantine! Queensland and WA walked away from the federation. Now those numbers are slowly coming up, and it's due to the cajoling, the pushing, by the Prime Minister in the national cabinet.
Anyone on the other side who doesn't like the numbers and the caps can easily pick up the phone to their pal Anna. She'll take your call! Pick up the phone to your mate Mark in WA. He'll take your call! And pick up the phone to 'Disaster Dan', responsible for the 800 deaths in Victoria's second wave because as a premier he never figured out how to say yes to the ADF assisting. The Commonwealth has assisted, at every step, states to raise their caps, and it was Daniel Andrews who—bravely!—fought off that assistance by shredding the correspondence, ignoring it and then letting out that disease, which was let into other states directly from Victoria. Those deaths are not all the deaths there are. The Australian Bureau of Statistics will report that. When doctor-reported cases and cases that went off to the coroner are reported, we will find many more deaths that are not directly related to COVID but are related to the quarantine and the shutdown.
We need to raise these cap numbers. You've never ever, not once, heard the Prime Minister not say, 'Please raise your state caps.' You've never ever, not once, heard a state premier say, 'We'd like to raise our cap, but the Commonwealth's stopping us.' Some of our Labor friends, on the other side, have been saying, 'We need to set up some arrangement in the desert somewhere and make the Commonwealth responsible.' You need a quarantine centre where there are staff to man it. I noted that our friends on the other side didn't support Christmas Island. You didn't support Christmas Island opening up! That would have been a bright idea—and another failed one.
You've got state Labor premiers in Queensland and WA. I commend the Northern Territory for taking those first steps to bringing in not only citizens from other states but international students. You're happy to put Mike Gunner, the Chief Minister, into that position and let that state cop COVID in quarantine while he helps other states and territories. South Australia is trying to resuscitate the international student economy—doing the right thing as well. The ACT will be bringing in 360 before Christmas, and Tasmania, 450, but Queensland and WA have made gutless contributions to the federation.
MPs on that side have got the direct phone numbers to the premiers of those states but—oh no—no courage to phone them to say, 'Raise those caps.' They'll never do that, because they'd rather natter away to their constituents that they're doing all they can and try and blame a prime minister and a coalition government that have done everything they can to raise those caps. In finishing I say these caps could have been far higher. It's sad that we had a second wave, because the rest of the nation had this under control by April. The price we pay is predominantly due to Labor premiers.
It's absolutely clear that the government has failed Australians who are stuck overseas. The government simply does not get what stranded Aussies are going through, so I want to share the stories of local people who have been left stranded and feeling abandoned to help those opposite realise the seriousness of the situation for so many.
James is from Shoalhaven Heads, but he is currently stuck in south-western Siberia. James was due to return home in March, but when COVID-19 hit he was unable to leave. Since then, James has booked several flights home, all of which have been cancelled at the last minute. He was booked on a flight in July, in August, on 29 October and another due to leave today, Russian time. All of these flights were cancelled.
James' immediate concern was that his Russian visa was due to expire. Luckily, he has had it extended several times, but it has been an extremely anxious time for him, fearing that he will be left to languish in a foreign country illegally with no means of getting home. Here is some of what James said to me in recent emails: 'Unfortunately the chances of coming home via commercial airlines are becoming more remote. As of the last month, several airlines have cancelled Australian services in accordance with the arrival cap. Flights are getting increasingly expensive, and I simply cannot afford most of them. I have had my last flight cancel on me again.' He says, 'I want to know when I will be able to come home.' I want to know: what is the government doing to help James get home?
Amy from Surf Beach has been living in the UK for the last two years. At the time COVID-19 hit, Amy had a job and a home. Now she has neither. Amy had flights booked on 28 April, 12 July, 12 August, 3 September and 25 October. She was kicked off all of them. To be clear, the flights were not cancelled. Because of the government's arrival caps, Amy was kicked off so they could take more of the higher paying first- and business-class passengers. So what is the government going to do to help Amy get home?
One of the most heartbreaking examples of the government's failures to help and support Australians overseas is Colin from Berry. Thankfully, my office successfully helped to get him home, but his story is a stark reminder of why it is urgent and critical that we do more now to help stranded Aussies. Colin had been house-sitting with his wife in France when COVID-19 hit. His wife returned home, but Colin wanted to fulfil his commitment before coming home. Multiple flight cancellations left Colin up to $10,000 out of pocket. When the owners of the house returned, Colin was forced to live in his car while he awaited a flight home. In the meantime, Colin became very ill and required emergency surgery, which left him with significant and ongoing health issues. But his flights continued to be cancelled. Thankfully, Colin is now back in Australia. But why should he have had to suffer through this?
I just want to tell one more story of Matt and his young family, from Cunjurong Point in my electorate, who are stuck in Hong Kong. Matt's daughter was born on 10 November, and, sadly, she has a serious heart condition. Matt and his family are desperate to get her home to see a paediatric cardiologist at Westmead Children's Hospital. They were due to fly home on 3 December, but they were bumped from that flight, with the airline citing 'unexpected limitations imposed on flights by the Australian government'. They want to quarantine at home to protect their daughter on doctors' recommendations, but the New South Wales government has rejected this. In his email to me, Matt said they were totally devastated and that worse, come 14 December, they won't have anywhere to live as they have to leave their apartment. Matt has already lost his job, and they are feeling hopeless. They just want to be home. They are now due to leave on 7 December, but they have been given no guarantee they won't be bumped again. If that happens, Matt has been told there won't be another flight until April. What will Matt and his family do then?
The government needs to start taking the plight of Australians stranded overseas seriously. We need to bring them home now.
Let me assure those opposite that we do take those Australians stranded overseas very seriously. This is an extraordinary challenge that all governments around the world are living through. We are in a once-in-a-century pandemic, which has caused huge loss of life—1.4 million people around the world and still counting—which has caused a massive economic contraction around the world and which has caused a massive disruption to people's lives and lifestyles, with internal and external borders closed, with air travel dramatically wound back and with new health and movement restrictions introduced. This has undoubtedly caused hardship to many. Like others here, I've heard from many constituents, from many friends and from many family members who've been impacted by this. There are Australians who've wanted to go overseas to visit dying relatives. There are Australians who've wanted to go overseas to attend weddings, to visit children, to visit loved ones. We've had those who've wanted to visit close relatives in places like Queensland and Western Australia but have not been able to because of closed borders internally within Australia. And there are Australians, and I've got several within my family and many more within my electorate, who are overseas and who are keen to return home and who are finding it hard to do so. I share their distress and I empathise with them. Indeed, I want to do all that we can to ensure that we can fix it, but these are not normal times. We are operating within the constraints imposed by a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Australia has done remarkably well, better than nearly any other nation in the world, in protecting the health of our population and in saving lives in this pandemic. One of the key reasons that we have been able to do this is that we could close our international borders early and effectively. We've seen since that countries that have allowed free travel and have not been able to close their borders have seen second and even third waves of COVID-19. We've seen that in Australia it's been overwhelmingly overseas arrivals which have brought the disease back with them, and we've seen in Victoria the consequences of an ineffective quarantine arrangement. So we cannot afford to be reckless with our borders. The consequences would be all too real. And no-one in Australia would thank us for compromising their lives and compromising their health. This is why, at least for the foreseeable future, we must maintain effective quarantine for all international arrivals. I know that this is frustrating to many. I've heard from many within my own electorate, because demanding that people do compulsory quarantine on arrival means that there are fewer flights and fewer spaces available, and it means that there is a backlog of people who want to return. But the government and governments of all persuasions have to take the difficult but necessary decisions even when they may not be popular and they may not be easy. This is the very definition of responsible government: resisting the clamours of the day to govern long term in the national interest.
The availability of quarantine—not only beds but people to staff and manage and police quarantine effectively—and the willingness and ability of the states to manage the inflows will necessarily put an upwards limit on how many Australians can be returning to Australia on any given day and in any given week. Given these constraints, I think we've managed a great deal. Since the government urged people to reconsider their need to travel abroad on 13 March of this year, almost 426,600 Australians have returned home from overseas, half a million Australians. That's a massive amount; two per cent of our population has come back since we closed the borders. It's important to note that of those returning since we introduced that policy about 1.3 per cent have tested positive for COVID-19. As I have said, the main vector for new infections in Australia is international arrivals. Since the Prime Minister spoke about this issue on 18 September, we've had almost 36,000 Australians who've returned. DFAT, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has helped over 31,600 Australian citizens and permanent residents return home on more than 369 flights, of which 72 have been directly facilitated by the government. The government established the International Aviation Network in April, working with Qantas and Virgin Australia to run 62 commercial flights from London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland. There are still many who wish to return home. As of 25 November there were 46,800 people registered, of whom 36,000 wish to return home, and we will do our best to get these people home. We'll do our best to get those Australians still wanting to return home back home for Christmas, but we are not going to compromise the health of those residing here now to do so.
I share the frustrations and the disappointment and the distress of those who are overseas and want to return home, and I share the frustrations and disappointment and distress of their families. But we are operating in the reality based world here. None of this is straightforward. For the opposition to pretend otherwise—that there is a magic wand which can just be waved to bring these people home—is irresponsible.
When the member for Bowman was in here just before he reminded us all that on 6 July, which is quite some time ago now, the Prime Minister met with the premiers and the chief ministers. The premiers and chief ministers obviously needed caps so that they could manage the numbers, line up quarantine facilities and get a process going that could return stranded Australians in an orderly way. The point is that there was obviously a limit to how many people could be quarantined and processed.
Knowing all of that, the Prime Minister promised to have stranded Australians home by Christmas. He promised that. It was an ironclad promise. As we've heard from previous speakers, Jane Halton told the Prime Minister how to expand quarantine above and beyond the capacity that the states and territories were informing the Prime Minister of. He has been ignoring her advice. There were many opportunities the Prime Minister could have taken since Jane Halton made those recommendations. As the Prime Minister failed to act, the number of Australian stranded overseas continued to climb and the number of stranded Australians categorised as vulnerable also continued to climb. As a local member I've been working with many families who have their loved ones stranded overseas and I've been endeavouring to get them home.
It is clear that the Prime Minister, through his own intransigence, has failed to keep his promise. There were ways and means open to him and recommended to him. He has decided not to take that advice. As a result, thousands upon thousands of Australians, including thousands who are categorised as vulnerable, will still be stranded overseas during Christmas and the new year. The Prime Minister hasn't admitted that there were ways and means available to him to get more stranded Australians home. Instead, he picked blues with Labor premiers. That behaviour is unbecoming of a leader of a country. In a time when we needed cooperation in the federation the Prime Minister showed he was incapable of providing that leadership.
He made a promise and then didn't act in order to fulfil that promise to Australians. I think Australians were looking for not only some action from their Prime Minister but for the Prime Minister to leave to the side the excuses and the fighting and bickering with the state and territory premiers and chief ministers. Australians expect so much more than that. The federal government is responsible for our international borders and it simply took far too long for the Prime Minister. He was too interested in passing the buck on quarantine to the states, just like he did with the Ruby Princess and the deaths in aged care.
The House has heard many of the arguments as to why getting stranded Australians home has to be racked up as an absolute failure by the Prime Minister, but in the time remaining I want to say how proud I am of the Northern Territory with the role it has played in getting stranded Australians home. We've recently increased the number of stranded Aussies who will be coming home through the Howard Springs quarantine facility in Darwin. We're proud of that. We play an important strategic role for the country. We could do more with federal support. Let's see more stranded Aussies home by Christmas.
It's fantastic to have an opportunity to rise in this place and put on the record the situation we have found ourselves in, with so many Australians stranded overseas. We must also understand that so many of the restrictions have been put in place by the various states. Victoria simply hasn't allowed any overseas travellers to come back into Victoria. They have just said: 'We're in such a mess here with what we've done with hotel quarantine. We've made such a mess of it, we've botched it up so badly that we are not going to take any risks. We will simply make 'zero' the number of people that we are willing to bring back into Victoria from overseas.' That just puts all the responsibility on other states and other premiers. As has been said by the previous speaker, thank goodness Howard Springs in the Northern Territory has opened up to bring a few stranded Australians back in through that facility. It's not going to be until 7 December that the Victorian government is going to be in a position where they can bring stranded Australians back into Victoria.
The previous speaker was talking about how political leaders are prepared—he was talking about the Prime Minister. How on earth can he do that with a straight face—talk about political leaders that aren't prepared to accept responsibility? In Victoria, we've got a Labor premier who is totally in control of what's gone on in Victoria, except for one critical decision, and they can't quite work out who made that decision. The greatest load of rubbish that the people of Victoria have ever been asked to swallow is the fact that Daniel Andrews wasn't in control and he didn't put a Labor mate's private security business in control of hotel quarantine. Apparently he didn't do that, even though that security company is a big donor of the Labor Party. Apparently Daniel Andrews, whilst he's in control of every other issue to do with COVID-19, had nothing to do with this decision. It is simply unbelievable. It's a stretch too far. We really do need some political leaders in Victoria to stand up and accept responsibility for their decisions and the deaths that have followed from those decisions.
Like every member in this House, I have been inundated with people's heartbreaking stories of loved ones that are stranded overseas. Many people have been booked on various flights and, on the sheer commerciality of it, those airline companies have been very cold-hearted. Fancy ringing people two days before their flight's due to take off, after they've been booked for three or four weeks, and saying, 'Unless you're prepared to pay business class you're going to be bumped.' Just recently I heard from a young lady from Cobram in my electorate, Millie Cassidy. Her mother, Karen, and her father, Mark, were absolutely beside themselves because Millie kept getting bumped from her flights from Europe to Australia. Eventually we got Millie home. She's done her two weeks quarantine in Sydney, and now she's enjoying being back home with mum and dad. As some of the speakers have said, since September, 31,000 Australians have found their way home. From the time we asked Australians to reconsider whether they should be travelling, 432,000 Australians have found their way home.
A whole range of assistance measures have been put in place by DFAT, and some $60 million for a hardship program for those people who have been caught overseas, have needed to stay there and have needed a bit of assistance. But so many of these restrictions that have been put in place around COVID have been put in place by state premiers. We've had people miss funerals of loved ones—all the stories associated with COVID have been incredibly heartbreaking.