House debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

Private Members' Business

COVID-19: International Travel

5:12 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises the economic and personal impact of state government international arrival caps, including;

(a) economic costs of skilled visa workers and international students; and

(b) personal and mental health costs for stranded Australian citizens; and

(2) urges state governments to review their caps on a weekly basis and initiate training of quarantine staff, so that industry-led, large-scale quarantine arrangements can be in place before the next calendar year.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Angie BellAngie Bell (Moncrieff, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This important motion was actually drafted nearly six months ago, recognising the failure of a nation that shut down its international borders early only to see so much of that early intervention unravelled by very, very slow, tardy hotel quarantine that has cost us most of our international student sector, those on skilled visas and, of course, almost all of our inbound tourism. Before we get the guns out—and this is particularly a message to my friend the member for Bruce—this is not a partisan motion. This looks purely at the activities of all levels of government, state and federal, and all jurisdictions.

Back in March, I noted publicly on Twitter that we as a state could get the first wave of coronavirus under control within three to four weeks, and I was a couple of days out. At that point, on 25 April last year, we should have been well on the way to developing an industrialised level of hotel quarantine that could get our economy back on track. It's so tragic that 12 months on that still hasn't happened—hence today's motion looking at the massive economic costs, the loss of skilled workers that we so badly need not only on our farms but in our industries, the annihilation of our inbound international education and, finally, the fact that we just need to get real and understand that hotel quarantine and international movement is inevitably going to have to come back while we manage COVID, and we have to be skilled enough to be able to do it.

I note the current microscopic levels of hotel quarantine in the major states and New South Wales bearing almost 50 per cent of the burden. Before I get too partisan, I don't care who runs that state; having 3,000 inbound per week is an amazing effort. Victoria is at 1,100; they've got some making up to do, and they're not doing it. There are 1,000 in Queensland, having come up from 800. South Australia is at 530. WA has a Premier seeking re-election. I say to the Premier of WA: what a pea hearted effort that your state has done nothing to pick up the slack for a Labor colleague who fell over in Victoria. You are taking in just 512 people per week. It's unbelievably pea hearted in both courage and compassion to be making such an invidiously simple effort at letting people back in. That is simply not enough to run any kind of economy. Cruising on your mineral wealth is one thing; not standing up as part of a national cabinet is another.

Let's turn to Queensland. In the Hotel Grand Chancellor outbreak, we had a couple of infections that came from two hotel rooms on opposite sides of a non-CCTV-monitored corridor, and then an outbreak from one of that hotel's workers. People were talking about the fruitcake possibility of it moving through the air conditioning, as if it goes from one room, across the corridor, and into that room and nowhere else. Of course, after a month's police investigation in Queensland, that was ruled out. It was dirty hands and gloves, and touching handles. It raises the question: are we paying our workers sufficiently to be properly infection controlled and trained? And the answer is we haven't seen any form of increase in infection-control training in the states where we need it most. It shows a general lack of political will to increase hotel quarantine. Once it's under control and there's no community spread, of course you need to be increasing your hotel quarantine numbers week by week, nudging those up to meet the global demand—because those people, 300,000 of them, eventually citizens, want to come home.

I'll criticise my own government. We haven't been clear enough in identifying those who need to come back on compassionate grounds, we've left too much to self-assessment and we've left too many people with genuine grounds stuck overseas, while others who are pulling the passport out from under the mattress after 12 months and want to come back and see family make up their story and get in. That's not good enough either. This is an all-of-party, all-of-government criticism.

But, I tell you what, when we review our performance, one year and five years from today, we'll look back at these brain-fades—like setting up a Toowoomba hotel quarantine system in the middle of nowhere, simply because one of your workers had dirty gloves and suddenly you're forcing it on Toowoomba. The Premier of Queensland genuinely let down the public, particularly the people of Toowoomba, by not coming up with a clear, detailed proposition for how they do it. You don't need to be spooked by hotel quarantine; you're only using, what, 20 hotels out of the 1,900 hotels there are in Queensland. We've got 30 million to 50 million hotel nights a year up there in Queensland. We can do so much better as a state. We can run our economy so much better.

The Mint can't print enough money to make up for this economic damage from states of all colours. And I do want to congratulate the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. There's a Labor leader who's actually got some guts and is showing some heart and some ticker with Howard Springs. So, other states, lift your game! South Australia tried; they got knocked down unfairly because of international students. Every state can do better, starting this week.

5:17 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Isn't this fantastic—a motion about quarantine and borders, and it's all about the states! Ten out of 10 for the creative nonsense and blame-shifting that this motion is. It continues the Morrison government's slippery slope to blame-shift everything onto the states.

In case anyone read the Australian Constitution and thought the Commonwealth was actually responsible for quarantine, borders and international arrivals, the motion tells us it's the states' fault that there are 41,000 stranded Australians. It's not the Commonwealth government's fault; it's the states' fault. It's the states' fault that tens of thousands of partners, husbands, wives and children of Australians are stuck overseas. It's the states' fault that international students aren't allowed to come to Australia and we're literally destroying—annihilating, to use your words, Member for Bowman—the international education industry. I was left wondering, wishing, 'If only we had a national government that was actually responsible for the stuff they're responsible for if you read the Constitution!' Seriously. This motion is no, no, no, no. The fact is that the Morrison government is responsible for quarantine and borders.

In the last three months, every one of Australia's biggest five cities has had outbreaks from quarantine, and—I agree with the member opposite—the social and the economic disruption that this has caused is profound. Australians are losing patience. But to keep blaming the states, playing the blame game, is not the answer. Let's be clear, the Commonwealth government are responsible for quarantine. It's in the Constitution. The Commonwealth has always had responsibility for quarantine and international borders. If you're an animal, a dog or a cat or a horse, you go from the airport to the Commonwealth quarantine facility. But, if you're a person, apparently it's the states' problem.

When it really matters, the Prime Minister runs away—not literally to Hawaii this time; he's running away from responsibility. You wouldn't find a politician in this parliament, not one, that has banged on more about how he's in control of the borders. He's going to keep us safe. He's going to manage the borders and keep all those nasties out. He turned away the boats, but he's turned his back on 41,000 Australians who are desperate to come home. They were going to be home by Christmas, weren't they? How did that go? That was an untruth if ever there was one. It was just a line in a press conference; just an announcement that we did not deliver. But it's not his fault of course. He's just an impotent, poor little man. He's not in charge of anything. He just wanders out with all the flags behind him and announces whatever the premiers agree to. That's not leadership.

The previous speaker went on about for the need for training and infection control and workforce. I agree. All of these things are in the report that has been on the Prime Minister's desk—the report from Jane Halton that he commissioned himself. It's called the National Review of Hotel Quarantine. It says that national standards, a workforce plan for quarantine, consistent standards for PPE and infection control training are needed. It's fun to bash the states and Dan in Victoria and all your favourite little enemies, but it is way past time to act. The report has not been responded to. It's sitting on the Prime Minister's desk, saying to do all this stuff. They haven't done anything. They just wander out and blame the states. The health of the Australians and the economy depend on the government acting on it.

I agree with the previous speaker that we are still going to need hotel quarantine in the coming months—maybe for a couple of years; we don't know—because no-one is safe from this virus until everyone in the world is safe. That's the truth of it. That's what we get told by the international development experts and by the health experts: that the whole world needs to be vaccinated so we don't have reservoirs of this virus mutating into more infectious strains. So we are going to need these facilities. But it's way past time that we look at dedicated national facilities outside capital cities and national standards for PPE.

The final thing I want to acknowledge and call out is that it's the height of hypocrisy for any government member to profess care and concern for international students, when they're led by a man who told students to literally go home—he made people feel so unwelcome in this country—and has done nothing for the international education sector, which is our fourth-biggest export sector. Tourism got $240 million of support in the budget. What did international education get? Zero dollars; literally nothing. It's all very funny for the government to say. 'Oh, we're not going to help universities. Ha, ha, ha; they'll lose jobs. Silly universities. We don't like universities,' but what about the reputable private businesses that are literally facing the cliff in July? They are literally going to go broke—and this government does nothing. It's not good enough to blame the states. You've got to take responsibility.

5:22 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, this is the second time I've stood in this place to hear the opposition effectively say that quarantine is the responsibility of the federal government, when we know that, when Ruby Princess had the enormous implications it had, which was a disaster for New South Wales, it was then identified very, very clearly that the states were taking over the control of the health orders and that, once the health orders were in place, they took over controls around those health orders, which entailed taking over responsibility of quarantine. This has been proven beyond any doubt.

It's quite comical and childlike that we have politicians from the Labor Party come into this place and try to say that, because it's in the Constitution, it is so. But the states have all taken full responsibility over the health orders that are applied to quarantining arrangements. They have taken over full control. That has been proven again by the fact that, when Queensland needed fruit pickers, the Queensland government were able to put in place a fruit-picking regime. They went and sourced the people from the Pacific Island nations to pick the fruit. They brought them out and they made them quarantine on farm. All these arrangements were put in place by the Queensland government. The federal government was there to stamp any visa, to agree with any part of the arrangement that needed to be put in place. The federal government was helpful. When the Northern Territory government needed mango pickers, again, they went and sourced the workers, to come in and pick the fruit. They had them quarantine at Howard Springs. Again, the federal government was there with them all the way to facilitate each and every action that was needed.

For the opposition to make the claim that the fact that we don't have another 15,000 or 20,000 fruit pickers in Victoria or New South Wales is somehow or other due to the inaction of the federal government is ridiculous. We have done everything we possibly can to assist these state governments, and these state governments are more or less saying, 'It's the fault of the federal government because you haven't been able to encourage the Australians to come and pick the fruit.' We've been telling these state governments for the last 10 months that the Australians wouldn't do it. You can put in place every incentive in the world—the Australians will not get off the couch and come and pick the fruit. If you want to save the hundreds of millions of dollars of fruit, of produce, that is going to be wasted, you, as the Victorian government, are going to have to get off your backside and go and source a labour force. And that labour force exists in the Pacific island nations, which are free of the virus.

We can go into countries where the virus is rife and bring in tennis players and those tennis players' entourage, knowing that that carries a real risk of bringing the virus back into Australia. But we can't possibly go and get fruit pickers from Pacific island nations that are free of the virus!

One of the most horrific failures of any government was what the Dan Andrews government didn't do in relation to this fruit season. We are still seeing the damage and the absolute disaster from the inaction of the Victorian government. This has cost literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. Plus, there are now thousands of tonnes of fruit sitting in the orchards, and that is going to be a real disaster when it comes to trying to prevent Queensland fruit fly. Queensland fruit flies will make their nests and lay their eggs in that fruit and then they will get the biggest kickstart they've ever had, because we simply have so much rotting fruit lying on the ground.

So it is again quite comical that the member here has put this motion up simply to put it on the record that, when we had this second lockdown, when we had the most dramatic quarantine failure by the Dan Andrews government, we went for months not bring anybody back into Australia—we couldn't bring anybody back in, unless they flew in via Sydney—and yet we still had the worst record in the nation. Then we had the third lockdown because of more quarantine failures. Now we've gone to zero, so we're happy in Victoria.

Dan Andrews is happy for everybody else to do the heavy lifting when it comes to bringing Australians back, but he won't bring the fruit-pickers in and he won't bring in returning travellers, who are going through a horrible time in these other countries and are just desperate to try to get back to Australia. Thanks for nothing!

5:27 pm

Photo of Daniel MulinoDaniel Mulino (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a bizarre motion this is! And what a bizarre performance from speakers opposite, for them to come in here and have the audacity to lay the blame at the state government's feet for conditions which are worsening day by day because of their inaction—their inaction in response to reports which they themselves have commissioned!

This motion would have made a lot more sense before 1 January 1901. But in the intervening period a small thing happened: the nation of Australia was formed. I want to refer to a particular document that is relevant to the creation of that nation. It's a document called the Constitution. Those opposite keep referring to this document as a 'technicality'—it's a 'technicality' that certain things are referred to in the Constitution—but in fact it lays the bedrock of how different governments assume responsibilities for different actions within this country.

Let's talk about one section in that document: section 51. I want to quote three words that are referred to specifically—three heads of power: one is 'quarantine'; another is 'immigration' and another is 'emigration'. There's another section of the Constitution, section 109, and what section 109 says is that there are some parts of legislative responsibility for which both the Commonwealth and the states can have joint responsibility, but, where there is a conflict, it's the Commonwealth's legislation and the Commonwealth's actions which take precedence, particularly where the Commonwealth covers the field.

This is an area where, if you went into the street and you said to most people, pre-COVID: 'We are going to be subject to one of the worst pandemics in history and facing the challenge of trying to safely bring back tens of thousands of Australians,' I suspect their initial reaction would not have been that the response should be put down to state governments having to manage this in ad hoc arrangements through a whole range of inner city hotels. They would have said: 'I would much prefer, and expect, this to be dealt with through a national response,' and that is indeed what we see recommended in the Halton report. Section 109 specifically says that if the Commonwealth had stepped in its response would have taken precedence over whatever the states had done. If we had have had national leadership, it would have taken precedence and would have been given effect to. But, instead, because the Commonwealth rather than filling the field had left the field before the game even started, we've had to have states do all the heavy lifting. Then this crowd comes in, and all they can do in response to the states having done the best that they could is to criticise them. In fact, what the Commonwealth should have done first is manage all the various risks in an appropriate and coordinated way in relation to the many thousands of Australians who had to come home. These risks included the wellbeing of the people coming back and the fact that they were going to have to go through quarantine. Their physical and mental health wellbeing were risks which should have been managed in a nationally coordinated way.

Then, of course, there was the risk to the broader community, which, again, should have been coordinated in a national manner. Instead, what we had from those opposite was to push all the responsibility onto the states and then for the Prime Minister to blithely make promises he didn't keep and probably never intended to keep—that 'all Australians would be home by Christmas', something which he hoped the news caravan would move on from. He got nowhere close to that; tens of thousands of Australians are still overseas, many of whom live in my electorate—many of whom would like to be living in my electorate!—but are stuck overseas—

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And what was Dan's response? Did they say 'Lock them out'? That is a despicable attack!

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Daniel MulinoDaniel Mulino (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's interesting that those opposite can't control their emotions because they feel guilty at the inaction of this government and how so much more could and should have been done. It was a failure to act by this government. Let's look at their actions compared to the recommendations of the Halton report. Rather than putting a petty motion forward like this, what you should be doing is coming here and explaining what you have done in relation to recommendation 4 of the Halton report, which said, 'Options for new models of quarantine should be developed …' What have you done?

And, in relation to recommendation 6:

The Australian Government should consider the establishment a national facility for quarantine to be used for emergency situations, emergency evacuations or urgent scalability—

what have you done? Rather than a pathetic petty motion blaming other levels of government, come in here and explain what you've done for the benefit of tens of thousands of Australians stuck overseas because of your inaction.

Opposition members: Hear, hear!

5:32 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do my ears deceive me? I just heard a long rant from the member for Fraser, and all he talked about was the incompetence of the Victorian state government on their management of hotel quarantine. As a former member of that state government, I don't want to disabuse him of that notion but it's very rare we come into this chamber and we have such honesty from the member for Fraser, who used to sit in the Victorian parliament egged on and applauded on by Dan Andrews' chief adviser, the Premier of Victoria's chief adviser, the member now for McNamara. So I welcome their contribution to this debate in saying the state government of Victoria has failed.

I can tell you, Deputy Speaker, the people know the state government of Victoria has failed, not just failed but failed the people and their abilities through the lockdowns that have followed through from their incompetence and mismanagement of the hotel quarantine scheme. So this admission of honesty is welcome; it's a well spring of ideas and generosity. But, frankly, it comes with a tinge of sadness, because we all accept that there are Australians overseas and we desperately want to get them home. This has been one of the key focuses of the Morrison government: we've provided surge capacity and had repatriation flights—that is, surge capacity around facilitating quarantine where we can in places like Howard Springs—entirely consistent with the recommendations of independent reviews but we've also turned and worked with the states in a cooperative way to say, 'You have to be part of this solution, because we don't have all these facilities, we don't have the workforce and we need to utilise it.'

There is one state that has consistently stood out in letting Team Australia down. As the member for Fraser correctly points out, with the support of the member for Macnamara, it has been the great state of Victoria. New South Wales has accepted four times the number of people who have gone through the hotel quarantine scheme. We take our hat off to the people of New South Wales and the state government of New South Wales because they showed it was possible, working with the Commonwealth to get the right outcomes for Australians.

Is it really a surprise that there are still, sadly, Australians overseas? We work with them every day in the Goldstein office, and I know the member for Chisholm would do the same, as would the members for Moncrieff, Bowman and everywhere else—and maybe even some on the other side of the chamber too. Australians are still stuck over there because Melbourne Airport, the second-busiest airport in the country, was shut down for so long last year. But, even more egregious than that, even more outrageous than that—let's go right to it: even more despicable than that, the recent intervention by the Premier of Victoria was to say to Australians living overseas, 'Go and get stuffed,' giving them the one-finger salute and saying that they are not allowed—

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Goldstein will withdraw that comment.

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will withdraw. But there is the despicable behaviour that has occurred, where he said, 'We've got to keep open the option of shutting down access to our country,' denying Australian citizens the right to return to their own nation. The member for Fraser and the member for Macnamara applauded it every step of the way because they don't care about returning Australians, which is why they run interference. It is disgraceful for an Australian politician to even discuss the option of denying citizens their right of return—their right to enter their own country. It is one of the most despicable political acts I have ever heard of. It is completely contrary to what this government has been focussed on doing. What we've seen is more and more Australians trying to get home, and the response from the Victorian Premier is to tell them that they are not welcome in their own country.

We make no apology for standing up and making the case for making sure Australians can come home. We make no apology for saying that we have to be part of the solution, working with the states. But we will not be lectured to by the opposition—including members who used to be part of the government that is betraying the people of Australia—saying they are not welcome in their own country. The member for Macnamara should know better because he's a former adviser to the Premier, calling him out and saying his conduct is disgraceful. We're on the side of Australians, we're on the side of them coming home, and we're going to keep doing that so that Australians can enter their country.

5:37 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There are moments in this place when hypocrisy knows no bounds, and this motion is one of those moments. Let me take you back to when we were in the middle of stage 4 lockdown in Victoria. Things were pretty rough. Families were distressed and there were a lot of COVID cases. The contact tracers were struggling to keep up with demand, and eventually we saw the Victorian case numbers come down. What did we get from the federal government? We got a press release from the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health saying that Victoria should be acting more like New South Wales and that they don't support the measures of the Victorian government—essentially, that Victorians were on their own and that Victorian tracing wasn't up to their standards. The most astounding thing, other than the diminishing role of the federal government, was that their answer, their excuse and their attempt at contact tracing was the $70 million contact tracing app. We all remember that app, don't we? That was a massive help during this pandemic! That was sold by the Prime Minister as our ticket out of lockdown, our ticket to freedom—by the marketing Prime Minister. We remember that. Of course, that turned out to be a complete dud, and it reflects the contribution of the federal government.

We want to talk about Australians being stuck overseas. We came to the table with a constructive suggestion, as we have throughout the entire pandemic. What was the suggestion by the federal Labor Party? It was: 'You have a fleet of government jets, the RAAF jets. Remember those jets that you've got that you sometimes fly around the country on? Why don't we send those jets overseas and bring Australians back?' Of course, they didn't send a single jet—not one single jet—to go and get Australians back.

But they did use the jets. The jets were occupied. They obviously thought there was a better reason to use those jets. What were those RAAF jets doing over the coronavirus lockdown, member for Bowman? The first thing one was doing was flying the Minister for Home Affairs to launch his grants that hadn't actually been approved by the guidelines for the Safer Communities Fund. He was taking an RAAF jet to announce grants for things that weren't even approved in guidelines. The other thing that they happened to use an RAAF jet for was Mathias Cormann's job interview in the OECD. The hypocrisy is ridiculous. They'll use government planes to get Mathias Cormann a job but now they're complaining that they didn't bring Australians back from overseas. What nonsense! What rubbish! You literally have more government resources at your disposal than all of the other forms and layers of government combined—and what do you do with it? You send your mates to Europe to try get them a job.

Let's just hope that the incompetency and unwillingness to take responsibility doesn't extend to the vaccine. Hopefully, with the help of our health authorities and our incredible health workers across the country, we actually get that right. But, if you look at the other ways in which they've contributed to this pandemic, it has been shambolic. It has been void of responsibility. They had JobKeeper, which they are now pulling from businesses when businesses are still relying on it—not to mention the $70 billion that they happened to lose on a spreadsheet; let's park that ridiculous accounting error to the side.

When it comes to quarantining, this is clearly a federal government responsibly. Of course the federal government could set up their own quarantining arrangements. Of course the federal government could do as the states have done and set up quarantining arrangements outside our capital cities. Of course the federal government could spend money on quarantining. They do it all the time. They do it in so many different circumstances. The fact that the Prime Minister organised a review into quarantine and got handed a report—this isn't our review; this isn't the state governments' review; this is the Prime Minister's review. The report said that there should be national standards and that there should be national quarantining. What's the response? They walk away from responsibility, they walk away from actually doing anything and they blame the Labor states. Victorians and all of the other people around the country are absolutely sick of it.

5:42 pm

Photo of Gladys LiuGladys Liu (Chisholm, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am proud of the Morrison government for working with the state governments that are willing to work with the federal government to bring Australians home. Australia has gone through thick and thin over the course of COVID-19. I know this period hasn't been easy on any Australians. It is a blessing that it looks like we have almost made it through to the other side of this difficult period. I believe that part of our ability to overcome this virus as a people has been our ability to unite. We look out for each other in Australia; it's what allows us to go through some of the toughest times and emerge stronger and more resilient than before. I'm sad to say that some Australians have not been afforded the luxury of support from their fellow citizens, and still aren't. There are still a number of vulnerable Australians stuck overseas.

As I say this, the Australian government continues to work tirelessly with jurisdictions to bring these people back home. Some jurisdictions have been much more helpful than others in helping to bring fellow Australians home. On this note, I want to give a special shout-out to both the Northern Territory and Tasmania, who have consistently and productively worked with the Australian government to repatriate Australians returning from overseas. The Morrison government entered into bilateral agreements with both the Northern Territory and Tasmania. The Northern Territory agreement supports the return of 850 Australians per fortnight and will remain in place until 31 December 2021. This means that more Australians can return home. They can return home to their friends and family, who, I'm sure, have sorely missed them. They can return home to a nation that has the rare luxury of remaining almost entirely COVID-19 free. I feel the plight of these Australians and remain thankful for the Northern Territory's contributions in helping this to happen, and thankful to the Morrison government for contributing an estimated $243 million.

In addition, the Morrison government is working with the Northern Territory on options to further safely expand the capacity at Howard Springs, the quarantine facility dubbed as the gold standard of quarantine facilities. It's important to note that, while hotel quarantine arrangements are predominantly a matter for state and territory governments—as each jurisdiction is responsible for managing their COVID-19 response under its public health legislation—the Morrison government is committed to supporting these programs as best it can.

As I said, though, the Northern Territory is not the only state endeavouring to bring Australians home. Under the Tasmanian government, the state will support the return of up to 450 Australians over three flights, with financial support from the Morrison government estimated to be up to $7 million. Let's not forget the important role New South Wales has taken in bringing Australians home as well. One of the benefits of maintaining the world gold standard of COVID-19 contact tracing means that they can comfortably accept those returning home, without putting their state at risk.

Supporting all Australians in this time of need is imperative. I'm thankful to the states and territories, as well as our federal government, for doing all they can to support these Australians coming in from overseas. It is my wish that those states who haven't worked with the federal government to reach a meaningful solution on returning citizens are able to bring their facilities up to gold standard and start supporting their fellow citizens desperate to return.

5:47 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This motion is an absolutely unmitigated and unqualified absurdity. It attempts to blame the states, particularly the Labor states, for a responsibility that lies squarely with the federal government: responsibility for quarantine. Section 51 of part V of the Australian Constitution enshrines this responsibility, making the Morrison government exclusively responsible for quarantine. This motion criticises the states for not doing enough, and it is the federal government that is not doing enough. The Morrison government should be taking a leadership role, creating overarching quarantine arrangements—their own review recommends this—and supporting the states, rather than coming to this House and placing blame. Thousands of Australians have spent far too long stranded overseas because this government is not doing its job during a deadly pandemic. On 18 September the Prime Minister said he understood the problem. On 18 September the Prime Minister promised to fix it. But there are still Australians overseas, crashing on couches, extremely financially stressed, and people who need medical care who have lost thousands of dollars in cancelled flights.

I've heard many tragic personal stories from constituents of my electorate who are stuck overseas. Those who have made it back have made it back because the state government has acted when the federal government has not. A humanitarian worker from Anglesea, on the Great Ocean Road, spent the past year selflessly giving of himself to limit the destructive impact of COVID-19 in Africa. Ian Dawes had been stuck in the Middle East with no return date. He and his wife were growing increasingly anxious as their visa expiry date neared. Ian was in South Sudan and Iraq doing humanitarian work before becoming blocked from returning home from Duhok. Ian asked my office a very sensible question: 'A major concern is that, if I cannot go home, where am I expected to travel after Iraq? Why does the government assume other countries would allow me entry when my own country won't?' Ian is just one of many, many constituents that have called, emailed, written and Zoomed my office to seek support where this government has failed in its duty. Ian is home now because he was quarantined by the state government in Adelaide, no thanks the federal government.

Labor has a suggestion: the federal government must step up and do all it can to safely get Australians home. There are several different models of air mobility craft in the Royal Air Force. There is a built-for-purpose COVID field hospital only eight kilometres from here in the ACT that the territory government constructed in 37 days. There are spacious and sweeping areas with no standing population across this great country. The task is challenging, to be sure, but it is the federal government's job. If the Morrison government wanted to solve this problem, they would have already solved it, but they don't want to. The priority of the government is playing politics and blaming others instead of helping those who need it. So let's not play politics. Let's put the safety, the health of people and the return of citizens from overseas first. Let's see this leadership from our federal government. It is their job.

5:51 pm

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank my good friend the member for Bowman for putting forward this motion. It's a topic that I have spoken about time and time again up until now. Our priority is of course to get Australians home. To do this, we must have all states working together towards being able to successfully quarantine as many international arrivals as possible.

Since March last year, we have seen over 211,000 Australians return home, but there are still many Australians and their families separated and hurting. The last 12 months dealing with the COVID pandemic have been difficult for all of us. But, as I know many members in this Chamber would know, some of the most difficult calls we have had to make and listen through have been from constituents whose family members have been stranded overseas, constantly searching for new flights to open up only to have them booked out or cancelled, having flights stopped or changed due to changing quarantine conditions from their country of origin. Whether it be a mum, a dad, a son, a daughter or a friend, it's incredibly stressful. It's impacting many families across our community as they struggle to be reunited.

We know many made the decision, when the pandemic first started, to stay where they were. We respect this decision. But of course it's been over 12 months now. Lives change and elements of your family and your situation change, and that has led many to try to come back. While there are many elements we cannot control—like overseas airlines putting in place restrictions about transiting through other countries—we can help Aussies get home by having sensible and effective quarantine arrangements in place in all states.

We have seen it can be done. This is not beyond our ability. New South Wales has been a standout during this process and has done the heavy lifting when it has come to international arrivals. They still do. Those on the other side of the Chamber, the Labor MPs, are having a little giggle to themselves, but these are the numbers, plain and simple. You can hear them for yourselves. New South Wales takes in 430 passengers per day, compared to my home state of Queensland, which takes in just 1,000 a week. That's 1,000 a week versus 430 per day. WA takes in just 512 a week. WA is hardly taking more in a whole week than New South Wales is taking in a day. That's not to make a political point.

Opposition Member:

An opposition member interjecting

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't say which side of politics either of those premiers who run those states are on. If the Labor MPs opposite are feeling a bit worried about it, it's because they have noticed the trend that these are all Labor premiers. This need not be a political issue. The success of New South Wales, with their gold standard contact tracing, has shown how it can be done. Having a contact-tracing system in place that works has meant New South Wales can continue to take more international arrivals, because they have faith in their capacity to deal with any issues that may arise.

Let's contrast this to my home state of Queensland, where we are still taking far fewer than New South Wales. In Queensland we had a case where a hotel quarantine worker contracted the virus. Within just six hours notice, Brisbane city was put into a lockdown and masks were made mandatory. So tough were these restrictions that people were told to wear masks in their car when travelling alone. The reason for this snap lockdown was that the Queensland government had so little faith in their contact tracing that we were told there were no other options but to lock down the city while the government scrambled to identify close contacts. The impacts of this snap lockdown were significant. They shouldn't be mocked by the Labor MPs opposite. There were businesses who had ordered all their fresh produce and had to tip it in the bin, restaurants who had to cancel a long weekend's full of bookings and tourism operators, like those in the member for Moncrieff's area, who lost another long weekend of takings.

Of course, the broader implications speak to confidence. The businesses that rely on domestic tourism and this confidence face yet more difficulties. After this lockdown, the Queensland Premier spoke about looking at a regional facility to facilitate quarantine. But like a lot of announcements the Queensland Premier's made, it just came short on detail. It wasn't much more than a thought bubble and a few dot points written down. As we progress into the future we must look at increasing international arrivals overall. It's time for the Queensland state government and other state governments to look at the New South Wales example. For us all to work together, we have a gold standard there that we can point to. If we work together, we can help lift these caps and get more Aussies home.

5:56 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I support part of the intent of what the member for Bowman is attempting to achieve here in advocating for the repatriation of Australian citizens and residents who are stranded overseas. I want to acknowledge all those from both sides who have acknowledged the role that the Northern Territory has played during the pandemic to get Australians home.

Like most Australians, I know that this crisis has caused a lot of disruption to Australian families. Too many Australians are still stuck overseas looking for that rare but often very expensive opportunity to get home. Our Australian citizens are stuck, still. I thought they were meant to be getting home by Christmas, but they're still stuck. Our economy is also missing people, whether they be skilled visa workers or international students. There's a not a single member of this place that hasn't heard from a constituent that's trapped overseas or from their loved ones that are worried sick. So obviously it's a very difficult situation.

I've been encouraging the federal government to increase the capacity at Howard Springs in Darwin from the start. This was months and months ago. It was very slow to occur. Some expansion has happened now, which is a good thing, but the member for Bowman refers to the impact of state governments in international arrival caps and urges state governments to review their caps. But I think, if I can be bipartisan for a second, the problem here is not state governments, Liberal or Labor. They've simply filled a vacuum that's been made by a lack of leadership by those opposite, by the federal government. The ultimate responsibility for entry and exit into this country and for quarantine lies exclusively with the federal government. I know this because I've taken the time to read a book. The book is called the Australian Constitution. It's a cracking read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to those opposite. If I can—not to use it as a prop—quote from part 5 section 51, 'legislative powers of the parliament', it includes 'quarantine' as a federal responsibility. It goes further in subsection (xxvii) to include 'immigration and emigration'. Immigration and emigration are a federal responsibility. That's from the Australian Constitution right there. It's pretty unambiguous. My message is simply this: the Commonwealth government has full responsibility for who may enter or exit our nation. The quarantining of people is entirely an issue for the federal government, obviously to work with the states and territories. In normal circumstances, when you fly into Darwin, whether it be from Dili, Singapore or Denpasar, it is Commonwealth public servants who are there monitoring the comings and goings of our nation, obviously. Quarantine is also done by federal public servants, because, as I just said, the constitution sets out that it is a federal responsibility.

State and territory governments have been left to arrange quarantine and international arrival caps just because of the political opportunism from the Prime Minister and from those opposite. They saw an opportunity to have fights with the states and territories when they wanted to. Thankfully, in the case of the Northern Territory, there was a higher purpose—that of getting as many people back to Australia as possible. But I am really disappointed that the federal government has shirked its responsibilities. I am glad it is working constructively with the NT government. I just want to say about the NT government that they have done an excellent job, working cooperatively with the federal government and maximising the numbers of Australians that we could get back. There's more that they could do in Darwin; there are more facilities there that could be used to get more Australians back.

So leadership in a crisis is important, and good leadership makes all the difference between either surviving a crisis or succumbing to it. I think, overall, we've seen pretty good leadership from state and territory governments, but they've had to step up and assume matters for which they are not normally responsible. The Commonwealth government, unfortunately, has not shown leadership. I know that that will be the judgement of history: that the federal government failed to step up. And I encourage them to do so, because there are still more Aussies stranded overseas.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers on this particular debate, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.