Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Matters of Urgency
The fact that Australians have not been able to return home at a time of international emergency is a clear indication of how this government has failed when it comes to meeting its responsibilities to keep all Australians safe—all Australians, not just those lucky enough to be within our borders when the COVID pandemic hit. Quarantine is clearly a responsibility of the federal government but one this government has shirked from the beginning of this pandemic. The Northern Territory government stepped up to the challenge when the pandemic hit. A dormant workers camp on the outskirts of Darwin at Howard Springs was offered up as a place where Australians returning from countries where the virus was raging could quarantine before returning to their homes. The first Australian coronavirus evacuees from Wuhan arrived at Howard Springs in February last year. Since then it has developed into what health experts have called a gold standard purpose-built infection control facility, safely quarantining thousands of arrivals, including domestic travellers, overseas fruit pickers, international students and repatriated Australians.
Throughout the pandemic NT Health has been managing the domestic section of the facility, where no cases of coronavirus have been recorded in people arriving in the NT from interstate. I take this opportunity to speak directly to our frontline workers in the Northern Territory and in particular at Howard Springs and the AUSMAT team under the guidance of the Chief Health Officer, Dr Huge Heggie, and now acting Chief Health Officer, Dr Charles Payne: a deep and sincere thankyou from not only this side of the Senate but indeed the Australian parliament, because it is you who are working at the front line and have been consistently since February 2020 to take care of vulnerable Australians and indeed those Australians who now just wish to travel across the country and who know that that is a place they can go to quarantine.
But there are still Australians, so many thousands of Australians, still stuck overseas who so desperately want to come home without having the threat of a jail sentence on top of them. The Commonwealth has been managing international arrivals, and management is now being handed over to the Northern Territory. Throughout the pandemic NT Health has been managing the domestic section of the facility, where no cases, as I said, of coronavirus have been recorded in people arriving in the NT from interstate. So, under the federal agreement, capacity at Howard Springs will increase to 2,000 individuals per fortnight; 2,000 extra Australians are able to come in to Darwin and feel safe.
I have no doubt the Northern Territory and all of those frontline workers, not just in health but also in emergency services, our retail sector, the transport sector—the bus drivers—who need to be so much a part of this safety mechanism to protect Australians from coronavirus, will continue to do an excellent job. I have no doubt the Northern Territory will continue to do an excellent job in running a gold-standard quarantine service, giving a place to quarantine, and, just as importantly, protecting the Territorians who so generously welcome all Australians to that facility.
The federal government would have been better served using Howard Springs as a model for quarantine facilities elsewhere in the country. We would, perhaps, not be facing the situation where not only have Australians in India been banned from coming home; they have been threatened with jail time and huge fines if they do so. How horrific is that on top of an already desperate and depressing situation for those families wanting their loved ones back in this country? If the Morrison government had not so comprehensively failed to deliver our vaccination program, we would not have to be banning Australians from coming home.