Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Matters of Urgency
I also rise today to support the motion put forward by Senator McCarthy. I have risen in this place on a number of previous occasions to speak on the government's failure to secure safe passage home for vulnerable Australians abroad amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this issue first arose I've been immensely disappointed by the lack of action from those opposite to assist our fellow citizens. My office, like many others in this place, has been inundated with requests, with appeals for help, for assistance, by their government, the Australian government. They are so desperate to come home, home to a safe place, and not because they decided to just pack up and leave Australia and go on a holiday but because they have been trying for months to come back to Australia—months.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, Australian governments understood their responsibility to assist Australians in need who are overseas. Once upon a time, Australian governments would have sought to actively facilitate those in strife returning home to safety. But, sadly, this understanding has been lost by this coalition government. Their responsibility has been lost.
There are in the order of 9½ thousand Australians currently stranded in India. Almost a thousand of them are considered vulnerable. Almost 200 of them are unaccompanied children. These are Australians that have been abandoned, abandoned by their government, and there's no other way to characterise it. These are Australians that the government have made clear they aren't in the mood to help. Up until recently the message to these people was, for all intents and purposes, 'You got yourself into this place; you get yourself out'. We have heard the stories of many Australians who have tried to organise flights, who have tried to organise ways to get home, to fund and facilitate their own return to Australia, independent of this government. But, as if on a mission to compound their misery, the government has decided to up the ante, to threaten these people, these fellow Australians, with imprisonment upon their return. At no point were such measures required when the global hotspots were in China or Italy or the United Kingdom.
So why do this now? The answer seems plain and clear: this government's complete inability to manage our quarantine system appropriately has led us to this point. If we had a proper quarantine system in place, we wouldn't be here today. These Australians would already be home with their families. Instead, what we have is this hot mess, this abandonment of responsibilities by those opposite, this abandonment of responsibilities for their constitutional obligations. We should always follow the health advice—there is no doubt about that—but we also need to do what we can to make sure that advice like this never becomes necessary. One is left to wonder how little confidence the medical authorities have in the government's quarantine arrangements that would lead them to providing advice like this.
We had members of the coalition, Senator Paterson and Senator Canavan, as I asked the minister questions in question time today, give their view that this government needs to do a better job of making sure that stranded Aussies have a right to come home and that they should be assisted in doing so. But the answer was very clear: this government is focused on making sure that it will do whatever it can to make it very hard for those who are currently in India, that they don't get a chance to come home safely and that they have to wait for the government to sort out the mess here. The government should have looked after this mess some months ago and not just relied on the state governments to pick up the tab and manage our quarantine system; quarantine is the federal government's responsibility. The way ahead is clear, that this government needs to admit that it got it wrong and it needs to work hard to fix it. As members of the government themselves have said, they should be helping stranded Aussies in India to get home, not locking them up for making their own way here. The time for blaming others is over, and the finger pointing at the states must end. Quarantine is a federal responsibility and has been since federation.