Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Matters of Urgency
I would like to start by expressing my deepest support for and solidarity with India as it continues to respond to this ongoing crisis. Australia is both a close friend and a comprehensive strategic partner of India, and we stand with the people of India as they continue to confront this surge in COVID-19 cases. We have a vibrant almost 70,000-strong Indian diaspora in Western Australia who make up some of the 700,000 Indians who live in places across Australia. All of them form an important and integral part of our local communities. We have all seen that in our own communities, and no doubt every single senator in this place knows what a valuable contribution those that have decided to move here and raise their families here are making in this great country of ours. So our thoughts, of course, are with the thousands of Australians who are still living in India. It remains an extremely difficult time for our friends in India. Australians in India and those with loved ones there are no doubt experiencing significant stress. We continue to stand with them and we remain committed to doing everything we can to support India through this time.
India has shown both leadership and generosity during the COVID-19 pandemic. They've exported over 66 million vaccines globally, including to our neighbours in the Pacific, so now it's our turn to repay that amazing generosity and show our support for India. Just last week a chartered flight to India delivered essential medical supplies as part of the Australian government's package to assist India to combat COVID-19. This shipment included 1,056 ventilators and 43 oxygen concentrators. We've also helped the Indian Air Force collect four privately sourced oxygen tanks from my home state of Western Australia. The government is continuing to work with both state and territory governments as well as the private sector to assist with the urgent deployment of further support. Helping Australians return home remains a key priority of this government. We made the call to pause flights from India to ensure that we prevent the virus from coming back and starting a third wave here in Australia. Temporary restrictions on arrivals into Australia help to balance the interests of Australians who are seeking to return home while also managing the risks to the wider community and, of course, public health. Restrictions like this are critical to the integrity of Australia's quarantine system as well as the safety of the Australian community as a whole, and we have used this method before.
Closing our borders and utilising quarantine for returning Australians is not something new. Australia was one of the first countries to close our international borders when the pandemic first began. It has proven to be the best strategy to protect the health of all Australians during the pandemic, and it has helped us maintain a way of life which is, of course, the envy of the world. There has been nationally widespread support for the temporary pause on travel from India. WA's premier, Mark McGowan, went on the record multiple times last month proposing a temporary ban on arrivals from India. He even went so far as to urge the federal government to suspend flights out of India, describing India as the epicentre of death and destruction. Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, also backed our choice to suspend flights into Australia saying:
Other countries have done a temporary suspension. I don't think it would be out of kilter for Queensland and Australia to also do the same.
The shadow health spokesman, Mr Butler, the member for Hindmarsh, also supported the pause for flights and stated, 'Given the scale of the crisis in India right now, the proper thing to do is to pause travel from India to Australia.' The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Albanese, the member for Grayndler, also noted, 'It's understandable, these border closures, given what has occurred in India.' Yet all of a sudden he's saying that the Commonwealth has a duty to not abandon Australians stuck in India. So which is it, Mr Albanese? Are the temporary restrictions understandable or not?
It's pretty simple: India is currently identified as a high-risk country due to the significant increase in positive case numbers in returned travellers from India. Of the recent cases of COVID-19 detected in hotel quarantine in Australia, over 50 per cent of overseas acquired cases since mid-April 2021 reported acquired their infection in India. What the government has done is respond to the current situation, ensuring that we protect Australians both overseas and in India. And we're seeing positive signs from this latest temporary pause of flights, which has reduced the number of positive cases within the quarantine system to a level that is manageable and has reduced the risk of COVID entering the community. The number of confirmed cases in Howard Springs is also starting to fall.
The government remain committed to continuing to bring people back safely from India, but we have to make sure that we do it in a way that won't subject the rest of Australia to a third wave of COVID-19. The Biosecurity Act was deliberately drafted broadly to protect Australians from health risks. These tools will always be used responsibly and proportionately. These measures have been in place for 14 months, and in that time they've been used very judiciously to protect Australia, so it's not fair to suggest that these penalties in their most extreme forms will likely be imposed anywhere.
When you go into Western Australia—and this has been the case for, I suspect, decades—you have restrictions on the importing of fresh fruit and vegetables and nuts and various things, and there are penalties if you do that. There are very strong penalties that could go in the extreme if one does that. Just because there might be an upper limit of a penalty doesn't mean that we need to scaremonger around this particular issue. Australians in India right now that are trying to get back into Australia are under immense stress and pressure, and we don't need scaremongering. We need to obviously work as judiciously as we possibly can to see flights returned, to see as many flights come back in and to ensure that our quarantine system is able to deal with it.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Australian government has helped over 45,200 Australians return home, including 18,500 people on 125 government facilitated flights. Of these, 38 flights have departed from India, so far assisting around 6,300 Australians. Over 20,000 Australians who have registered with DFAT in India have safely returned since the pandemic began. There are still 9,000 Australians in India who are all keen to return home, of which 900 are considered vulnerable. As of 15 May, government charter repatriation flights to the Centre for National Resilience at Howard Springs for returning Aussies from India will resume. An estimated 1,000 Australians will be able to return home by the end of June, with one repatriation flight into Howard Springs every seven to nine days. We have put in place new measures for all flights resuming from India to the Northern Territory, requiring all returning Aussies to provide both a negative polymerase chain reaction test and a negative rapid antigen test prior to boarding. These new measures will help protect those returning home and the Australian community at large as well. So we are helping Aussies who are in India return to Australia. We are not leaving them stranded. We have done the tough job of making sure our quarantine facility has the capacity to handle those coming in from overseas, and it has helped ensure that we protect Australian communities and prevent any further outbreak of COVID-19.