Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Matters of Urgency

COVID-19: Quarantine

4:01 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 today, 23 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate the following letter has been received from Senator McCarthy:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Helping Aussies in India return, not jailing them; and fixing our quarantine system rather than leaving our fellow Australians stranded.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly. Senator Keneally.

4:02 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator McCarthy, I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Helping Aussies in India return, not jailing them; and fixing our quarantine system rather than leaving our fellow Australians stranded.

Having an Australian passport used to mean something. It used to mean that your government looked after you when you were in a crisis, when you were stranded, when you were in trouble. It used to mean safety, protection and security. But, as we've seen in recent weeks, with Australians stranded in India it seems to mean that the Morrison government is going to leave you behind. Nine thousand five hundred Aussies in India, 950 of them considered vulnerable, and, tragically, 173 unaccompanied children—all left behind by Scott Morrison.

Last week, in the COVID committee, we heard the moving story of a Sydney parent, Dilin. Dilin told the committee that he and his wife had not seen their young daughter for almost 17 months, despite constant efforts to get her home from India. Dilin said: 'We have not seen our daughter grow. When her grandma says she has grown, I feel sad. We have not been able to see her grow taller. It's time we have lost and we can never get back.' I cannot imagine how difficult it is for this family. How could any parent be separated from their child for that long during their child's young, formative years and not feel that loss deeply? We still don't know when Dilin and his wife will be reunited with their precious child.

I asked DFAT officials in the COVID committee hearings whether they had considered sending a special mercy flight to India specifically to bring home children who were separated from their parents in the middle of this global pandemic, and the officials confirmed that the government had not. Let's be clear: banning Australian citizens from trying to return home from India and threatening them with jail and with fines is unprecedented. It did not have to be this way.

The Morrison government has failed in its responsibility for quarantine. If there had been a national quarantine facility, as Jane Halton recommended to the Prime Minister, more stranded Australians would have been able to get home to safety. These stranded Australians—our fellow citizens, our mates—would already be home if the Prime Minister had just done his job and ensured that the federal government had been responsible for quarantine, something it's been responsible for now for over a hundred years. Instead, he has left these Australians behind, trapped overseas and exposed to the coronavirus.

The Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, said last week that the India travel ban is a direct result of a lack of quarantine facilities. So let's just be clear: Scott Morrison ignored Jane Halton's recommendation to set up national quarantine facilities with surge capacity to get stranded Australians home. If Scott Morrison had taken that advice from his hand-picked expert, Jane Halton—if he had listened one of the three times she briefed him on her report and if he had acted—the Australians in India would already be home. They would not have been left behind by this Prime Minister. Of course we need to follow medical advice. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. Of course we need to keep the virus out of Australia. No-one is suggesting otherwise. But the best way of protecting Australians is through a proper national quarantine system and getting on with the vaccine rollout. Quarantine and vaccination: the two jobs that the federal government, the Morrison government, had during this pandemic, and they are failing at both.

The truth is that our current quarantine arrangements are unable to deal with a surge in demand during a crisis—the exact circumstances that were referred to in the Halton report. Inadequate quarantine facilities mean we are unable to deal with the 40,000 Australians who are still stranded overseas and can't get home to Australia, and this failure sits squarely with the Prime Minister. Quarantine has been a federal responsibility for 120 years. The Prime Minister used to know this. He used to hold the job of Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. He commissioned for himself a big trophy. 'I stopped the boats,' he said. He used to be responsible for the borders. I'll tell you what: he is stopping Australian citizens from getting back to their home country, because he is washing his hands of quarantine. He is ducking responsibility. He failed to act. He shoved it all onto the states. This is the 'I don't hold a hose, mate' attitude of Scott Morrison. 'I don't run quarantine,' he says. 'I'm not responsible for aged care'—except he is. The vaccine rollout: 'Not my fault'. Australians are getting sick and tired of a Prime Minister who fails to take responsibility, who ducks and weaves, who does not act.

Scott Morrison is all about the re-election of Scott Morrison. Everything he does is designed to ensure that he is never responsible for any problem but he's always around to take credit when things go well. When Gladys Berejiklian and Dan Andrews acted during the pandemic, at the height of the pandemic, they saved Australia. Australian citizens responded to the leadership of Dan Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian, but where was Scott Morrison? The Australian people are to be credited for following the advice and leadership of the state premiers and chief ministers. Where was Scott Morrison? All he did was stand around after national cabinet and announce what the premiers had told him they were going to do. That's not leadership.

Scott Morrison is all about Scott Morrison. He is not about the Australian people, and he is not on the side of the Australian people. If Scott Morrison were on Australians' side, he would have rolled out the vaccine; he would have secured enough vaccine deals; he would have ensured we didn't put all our eggs in one basket, the AstraZeneca basket; and he would have implemented a national quarantine system, as his own hand-picked expert, Jane Halton, told him to do. Let's remember that the Prime Minister said, 'We're at the front of the queue, Australia, when it comes to vaccines.' We're nowhere near the front of the queue. We're 100th in the world. We're at the back of the class. This is a Prime Minister who loves an announcement but doesn't pay attention to the details of delivery. This is a Prime Minister who promised we'd have four million Australians vaccinated by the end of March. We'll be getting to the end of May soon. We're nowhere near that. He is now promising six million are going to be vaccinated by—I think his deadline is the end of May. We're not going to hit that.

This is a government that always loves an announcement but doesn't pay attention to the delivery. Understand where we're at. The Prime Minister says we're at the front of the queue. We are lagging behind countries like Mongolia, El Salvador and Panama. Mongolia, El Salvador and Panama are doing a better job of vaccinating their citizens than the Morrison government is doing at vaccinating Australians. Scott Morrison announced that we were supposed to have every adult in the country vaccinated by the end of October. It's laughable and it's tragic. The failure is tragic. The people who are paying for it most acutely right now are Australian citizens and permanent residents who are stranded in India. As Senator Matt Canavan said, we shouldn't be jailing our fellow citizens; we should be fixing quarantine to help get these people home. As Senator Paterson said, this is a step too far—threatening to jail our fellow citizens who want to come home in the middle of a tragic humanitarian crisis. More than 22 million people in India have the virus. More than 246,000 people have lost their lives. They have a shortage of oxygen in hospitals. This is a difficult time for India. My heart goes out to our friends in India. The help we give them is right, but we need to get our fellow Australians home. (Time expired)

4:12 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I really felt, after we'd been out of this place for six weeks, that it was like to coming back to school almost—new year, new teacher, you weren't quite sure what room you were supposed to be in. But clearly those opposite missed out on that. They haven't quite got the same fresh approach, coming back after six weeks, because they are still spouting the same old negative energy. Nothing is right. Nothing is ever good enough. It wouldn't matter which way we looked, which way we went; those opposite would find a way to complain.

But what I think is incredibly interesting is that it's not everyone in Labor who has looked at the situation in India and constantly flip-flopped, changed their position and taken a politically expedient position just because it's the opposite of what the Morrison government has done. In fact, there are many in Labor who have actually embraced the decisions that the Morrison government has made, based on health advice, making sure that Australians are safe. I just thought I would take this opportunity to remind those opposite of what some of their colleagues have said, and perhaps they might like to take this on board and, with regard to their objections, raise it with them, because it might get a little bit awkward at some of those federal council convention things you all get together with.

Admittedly I am not a big fan of Mark McGowan, the Premier of the one-party state. He said he could do it all, and then, as soon as he got one case, he shut the borders again, shut everybody down, closed the businesses, panicked, overreacted—the knee-jerk McGowan that we always tend to see. But even Mark McGowan here decided to support Prime Minister Morrison and the coalition government. I quote:

With more and more arrivals coming from India, we need to seriously look at temporarily restricting travel of people who have been in or through India. … They are trying to put a stop to the third wave—

That would be us, the Morrison government, trying to stop that third wave—

however in Australia we need to do everything we can to keep this double mutant variant away.

So it was, in fact, the Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, who came out urging—in fact, normally when it's Mr McGowan, it's demanding—the federal government to suspend flights out of India. 'There needs to be a suspension,' Mr McGowan told reporters. But it wasn't just Mr McGowan in the one state of WA; it was also 'Princess Palaszczuk' up in Queensland, the woman who likes to claim—

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Urquhart?

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would ask that the senator opposite use appropriate names.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hughes, you need to use the appropriate titles.

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Premier of Queensland—the other state known for slamming those borders shut, ruining its tourism industry at every opportunity but then sticking its hand out for the federal government to bail out its industries yet again—even came to the table on this one. She welcomed the federal government's decision to increase aid to India. But, while she acknowledged the decision to suspend flights was difficult for families, Premier Palaszczuk said, 'It's the right decision at this time.' When Premier Palaszczuk gets that COVID is unprecedented and we need to take different responses at different times, I think it says something to those opposite that they need to pay a little more attention to their colleagues. But it's not just the state premiers—no, no, no—it's quite a few that sit over in the other chamber. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition himself said: 'It's understandable these border closures have happened, given what's occurred in India. The health officials recommended a reduction, and I think that's appropriate.' But, of course, while Mr Albanese likes to have a bet each way—and I won't use the term that he's colloquially known as, out of respect for those opposite—it was his predecessor, Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong—

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hughes, you do need to use the appropriate titles.

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I sometimes forget the name of their seats; my apologies. 'Senator' is a much easier term to remember. The member for Maribyrnong came out claiming that it was well past time to shut our borders to flights from India. The man who told Arnie Schwarzenegger he was going to be Prime Minister, the next PM of Australia—he wanted to let us all know—the former Leader of the Opposition, said, 'Let's be clear: as a general principle, let's just close the borders for traffic from India and then we can send them some supplies.' Whilst we have acted on the health advice, whilst we have looked to keep Australians safe, whilst we have acted to ensure that a third wave of COVID does not occur in Australia, we were actually supported in this, remarkably, by a number of people on the opposite side. Unfortunately, in their party room or caucus meeting, that message didn't get through to the senators putting forward an MPI today.

But, of course, when it comes to the vaccine rollout, we get the same 'boohoo, isn't it terrible' story. There was no recognition that last week saw the largest number of vaccines delivered across the country. The vaccines are being rolled out, and, as every country's experienced when they've started their vaccine rollout, it's had to be done in a safe and measured way. Now we're seeing those numbers increasing exponentially. I hate to think how upset you'll be when you do start to see increased numbers of people vaccinated. In fact, the fantastic work of Gladys Berejiklian means that those in the 40 to 49 age bracket—an age group I only just slip into—have been able to register for a vaccine. I registered for the Pfizer vaccine yesterday on the New South Wales government website. If only every state were as effective as New South Wales, I'm sure you'd all be in a much happier place. I don't know what Senator Keneally has against Mongolia, El Salvador or Panama, but I am not sure she will be getting an invitation to visit any of them soon.

There are a couple of things that India has done that we might like to recognise now that the world is looking to support it in response to the generosity it showed prior to the crisis that is now enveloping that country. Prior to experiencing this COVID wave, India had actually exported 66 million doses of a vaccine globally—in our region, 10,000 to Nauru and 100,000 to Fiji—and manufactured over 130,000 vaccines for Papua New Guinea and 24,000 for the Solomon islands. A chartered flight left Sydney on Wednesday, just last week, carrying essential medical supplies which included over 1,000 ventilators and 43 oxygen concentrators as part of the Australian government's initial package to assist. This is the initial part of the package. This assistance will continue as India is being supported globally, particularly in recognition of the generosity it showed prior to its COVID crisis.

India has 9,000 Australians waiting to come home, of which 900 have been marked as being high-risk. From 15 May, we will start to see repatriation flights. A couple of states have decided that they will participate in the quarantine of the repatriation, and the federal government along with the ACT, in running the Howard Springs quarantine facility, will be there to bring those Indian Australians or Australian Indians—I'm probably getting it mixed around—home through repatriation flights commencing 15 May, but don't let the truth get in the way of a good scare campaign over there!

These Australians will be coming home in a way that's not only safe for them, not only safe for the frontline workers who will work with them through the quarantine period but safe for the whole Australian community. That's the way the Morrison government has approached all of COVID. Our decisions are based on health advice; our decisions are based on how to best keep all Australians safe. Since February into March, we've seen the number of Australians coming home increase and it will continue to increase. It's not helped when states decide to shut down everything over one case of COVID. Again, I would urge the state premiers to look to the Berejiklian government for leadership on how to manage this crisis. Rather than scaremongering, we should look to the solutions, appreciate the support that the Indians are getting and know that they will start coming home from 15 May.

4:23 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

My heart goes out to the people of India, who are basically experiencing immeasurable suffering at this moment. We are thinking of you. We are trying to do everything we can to support you and are pushing the Australian government to meet its moral obligations. The government's disregard for the lives and the health of people overseas has become striking over the past couple of weeks. The Morrison government's threat of jail time for stranded Australians trying to return home from India is absolutely horrific, it's discriminatory and it is racist. The move was a reminder for non-white migrants to this country that our citizenship will always be conditional. For migrants of colour, terms and conditions will always apply to our citizenship. In the fine print, you discover that, for you, being Australian means greater scrutiny, harsher policy responses and fewer protections. You find out pretty quickly that 'we are all in this together' is a false slogan. Some of us will always be excluded.

Health care is a human right. Your visa, citizenship or COVID status shouldn't change that. People whose homes and lives are here must be brought back immediately. Australia should also be flying back any sick citizens, permanent residents and partners home for treatment, and the cost of quarantine and flights should be covered by the government. Quarantine facilities should be humane, comfortable and safe. These should be places where people can stay with dignity. It is beyond unacceptable that Prime Minister Scott Morrison thinks it's the right thing to leave sick people in India, with no access to local vaccines or work rights, little access to health care and no prospect of coming home with partners or family members when they're allowed to return.

The Subcontinent diaspora that I've been speaking to are telling me that they are feeling like second-rate citizens. They are telling me again and again that their hearts are heavy thinking about loved ones suffering the consequences of the pandemic. They are telling me that they dread phone calls from India because they will inevitably bear bad news. We must do everything we can to also provide healthcare aid and resources to India and make sure that they're delivered to those in need. I urge the government to immediately return Australian citizens, permanent residents and their partners in India back home to Australia.

4:25 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

4:31 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

4:40 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

4:46 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on helping Aussies in India return, not jailing them, and fixing our quarantine system rather than leaving our fellow Australians stranded.

Here in Australia and around the world, people were disgusted when our government announced the travel ban and then, further, threatened to jail and fine Australian citizens and permanent residents if they dared try and return home from India. India is suffering a terrible humanitarian crisis, with COVID cases continuing to spike. Right now, people need help. Australian citizens and permanent residents in India need help. The Morrison government has abandoned our citizens and residents who are trying to escape and come home from a desperate situation. There are 9½ thousand Australians in India right now who would like to come home. They include 950 vulnerable people and 173 unaccompanied minors, whom the government didn't even know about until there were questions asked in the COVID committee last week.

The government introduced this racist ban—that's what it is—because our hotel quarantine system is not up to scratch. It cannot handle positive cases with a guarantee that COVID will not escape. We've had examples of that. The whole point of quarantine is to be able to handle positive cases. That's the whole point. What's happened over the last 12 months is that the Commonwealth has offloaded onto the states the responsibility it has for quarantine under our laws. It is continuing to refuse to fix a system that is clearly broken, to show the leadership to make sure that we have quarantine facilities around this country that are the best they can possibly be. We do have Howard Springs and that's being expanded, but not quickly enough to deal with the most immediate crisis in India.

People may think that the government is acting, but all it has done is announce three guaranteed flights once the ban ends—and that should end now; those should be leaving to bring people home. The first three flights will bring home only 450 people. There are 950 vulnerable people, let alone the other 9,000 that still need to come home. The government has no time line to bring them home. It can only guarantee that it will get 450 home at the moment with the possibility of another three flights that may get some of the vulnerable home. (Time expired)

4:49 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Here is my question to Labor: is it okay to shut borders to protect citizens and ensure internal health services are not overwhelmed, or is it not? It's a simple question. If you don't think it is appropriate, then why don't you ring Premier Mark McGowan, who shut his border on 5 April last year right through to December—nine months. It was a nine-month ban on travel. I had a member of staff who was born and raised in Perth. She could not go home to visit her family for nine months. You might want to call on Premier Dan Andrews, who slammed his border shut with less than four hours notice on New Year's Eve, preventing families from getting together to ring in the new year. You might want to ring Premier Palaszczuk, whose border was shut for eight months last year.

I am on the record speaking about those border closures. I am on the record speaking about the negative impact of families stuck on opposite sides of the border, supporting boarding school students and university students who couldn't get home for holidays and families who were split by a divide. I am on the record calling for common sense. But I never once questioned the right of the state premiers to listen to health advice and impose restrictions they thought necessary to protect their citizens.

Let's put it in context. Nine months in Western Australia. You, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, were restricted from travelling beyond your state borders other than the fact that you're an essential worker in this place. That was nine months. Our government announced this Indian travel ban on 27 April to come into effect on 3 May, so there was no four-hour notice like Premier Andrews; we gave them a week's notice. It is now being lifted on 15 May—12 days. Twelve days to buy us time to ensure that when we reopen and accept people returning to Australia from India we have the capacity to care for them.

In the middle of April, 50 per cent of all our quarantine COVID cases were returning travellers from India. Fifty per cent. At that rate, we would have been overwhelmed. Twelve days is what we asked for so that we can put in place systems to make sure we can care for our citizens. In the words of Premier McGowan, we need to do everything we can to keep this double mutant variant away, talking about the disease that has occurred in India. When we reopen our borders on 15 May, we will be focusing on prioritising the most vulnerable and getting them home, and we will have the confidence that our systems won't be overwhelmed and that we can look after them.

I agree it is heartbreaking for families and citizens who've found themselves on the wrong side of this border ban temporarily. I share their concerns, but I also stand with the premiers from around this country—from both parties; Labor and Liberal alike—who have themselves taken measures to protect their citizens. I stand with them to say we need confidence. We need to make sure that we have capacity, that our health systems are not overwhelmed and that we don't inadvertently do things that would make us vulnerable, because we don't want to be the next India. We don't want that level of COVID in this nation. We want to keep our citizens safe.

4:54 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The last contribution demonstrates that the coalition government doesn't grasp the situation that it is in. It doesn't grasp its responsibilities. The government doesn't understand that, as Senator Patrick just said, with 12 months to prepare it's the federal government's responsibility to deliver quarantine services and vaccine services and a vaccine rollout that would keep Australians safe. You see, in the middle of last year the Prime Minister said that all Australians overseas who wanted to come home would be home by Christmas. There are still 40,000 people waiting. Late last year the Prime Minister said Australia would be at the front of the queue for vaccines. Now, we're last in the queue—100th in the queue for vaccine delivery. This government's abjectly failed. The Prime Minister said four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March. There are still less than three million Australians vaccinated now, and we're in May! The Prime Minister thinks this isn't a race. Of course it's a race. It's a race for our economy; it's a race for our public health.

The real human consequences of the government's failure to appreciate the urgency of the situation, to appreciate its responsibilities and to act, is the India ban last week—lock them out, and then threaten to lock them up. That's all that's left to this miserable excuse for a government. Its failure has real-world consequences for ordinary Australians. Ziva Narang is just 19 months old and staying with her grandmother. They couldn't get her and her family on a flight back last year. They are trapped. Here's what her parents told the committee, 'Every time I see her on the video cam I feel like crying, but I can't cry in front of my own parents—it makes them so disheartened.' This miserable excuse for a government is confounded completely. I remember having them all out there, all through last year, bellowing out, 'Open the borders!' 'Open the borders,' they said, confounded by the fact that Australians in the states and territories were rewarding the performance of state premiers who took a tough line on the pandemic. You know what the difference was? The difference is that the state premiers have done their jobs. They have carefully examined their responsibilities, done their jobs and delivered. The economic figures that ministers over there crow about are a result of the delivery of the state governments, not the performance of this joke of a government. (Time expired)

4:57 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It is the responsibility of the Australian government to assist Australians who are in difficulty overseas, not to criminalise them for coming home. I'm going to say that again: it is the responsibility of the Australian government to assist Australians who are in difficulty overseas, not to criminalise them for coming home. And, certainly, any such decision to do so should properly be the decision of the parliament, not some faceless official drafting an instrument and getting the minister to sign it into law. A single minister should never have the authority to outcast an Australian from coming home. It's improper, and it's immoral. There are powers available to the minister to deal with Australians that return home, to put them in quarantine, to make the Australian citizenry safe. The government has, of course, failed in its setup of quarantine. We know from the COVID committee that it's a capacity restriction that has caused this instrument to be brought into effect.

I'd just indicate to the Senate, noting this on the Notice Paper now, I will be introducing a bill tomorrow in the Senate, a 'Biosecurity Amendment (No Crime to Return Home) Bill', which will seek to firstly remove or repeal the instrument but also to make sure that doesn't happen again. It will certainly allow the continuation of powers for a minister to deal with people who are here, but never should we criminalise an Australian for wanting to return home.

4:59 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia is very fortunate to share many things with our friends in India. We are both democracies. In fact India is the largest democracy in the world. We obviously share a love of cricket, we share cuisine, we share the rule of law, we share many other legal and bureaucratic systems and of course in this day and age we share with India a growing Indian-Australian population. In fact I saw some figures on the weekend which showed that the Indian-Australian community is now the fastest-growing migrant community in Australia. I think we now have over 700,000 Indian Australians living with us in this country and from whom we benefit. Indian Australians have made an enormous contribution to our country, whether that be in academic fields, in business fields, in community areas or in sport. In so many ways our own country has been enriched by the contribution of Indian Australians.

So you can well understand why Indian Australians feel so desperately abandoned by their government at this time. India, the world's largest democracy, we all know is going through an absolute crisis in terms of COVID infection rates at the moment, and it is extremely distressing that several thousand Indian-Australian citizens are stranded in India at the moment. The important point there is that no matter where these citizens may have been born—it may well have been in India—these are Australian citizens who have been let down by their government. I had the great honour of hosting a forum this weekend just passed with leaders of Brisbane and Gold Coast's Indian communities, which was joined by Senator Wong as shadow foreign minister and two of my other federal Labor colleagues, and it was entirely obvious the level of distress that people in the Indian-Australian community are experiencing right now. This government tried to make this an argument about whether Australia's borders should be closed at this moment in time, and that is not what this is about. There is no-one arguing that we should bring back all several thousand Indian-Australian citizens now, but what this government should have done is put in place quarantine facilities so that we could bring back people safely rather than leaving them stranded overseas.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the urgency motion be agreed to.