Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Statements by Senators

COVID-19: International Travel

1:03 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Sunday marked the 15-month anniversary of Australia's international border closure. In the first few months of the pandemic, the chaos and the lack of a plan were understandable. We were facing a once-in-a-generation pandemic, a scramble to keep Australia safe and get the pandemic under control. But here we are now, 15 months on, and still there's no plan from the government, no plan for how to reunite Australian citizens and permanent residents separated from their partners by the border closure. Loved ones remain separated because their relationships don't meet the right definition or they don't hold the right visa.

While we welcome the Senate passing part of our motion yesterday, calling on the government to make holders of prospective marriage visas automatically exempt from the inbound travel ban, this partner visa class should never have been excluded in the first place. These 593 couples should never have been kept apart by this government.

The reality is that our partner visa system is broken. Couples wait up to 22 months for their visas to be processed—and that was before the pandemic. Their pain and despair is palpable, with no end in sight. The government also has no plan for how to reunite children on temporary visas who are separated from one or both of their parents by the inbound travel ban. We don't even know how many children are separated under existing guidelines because, according to the government, providing that figure would involve an unreasonable diversion of resources. My office alone is aware of 70 children that are separated from one or both of their parents. Thirty of those children were living in Australia before the borders closed and 15 of these children were born in Australia. The onshore parents are already living and working in this country as skilled workers, professionals, tradies and students, contributing alongside everyone else to our society to our economy and to our COVID recovery.

Labor and the government couldn't even bring themselves to support the second part of the Greens motion in the Senate yesterday which may have enabled those 70 children to be reunited with their parents. The government tells us that the parents in Australia separated from their children should pack up their homes, quit their jobs, give up on their futures in this country and leave Australia. That's what the government is telling them. Yet the government let 160 personnel, technicians and media into Australia for the Australian Open earlier this year, not to mention the 869 tennis players and eight family members of those players. And that's not to mention the wealthy people who hold investor visas in this country, who can come and go as they please due to being completely exempt from the inbound travel ban. The hypocrisy here is despicable. If you aren't rich, famous or a sports star, the government doesn't want you here. If you are rich, famous or a sports star, you can come and go as you please. So I ask the government: what are we doing to these vulnerable children and their parents? What harms are we inflicting on them now and into their futures? And what does this say about us as a nation?

The government also has no plan for the parents of Australian citizens and permanent residents who are desperate to reunite with their children and grandchildren living in Australia. These are more heartbreaking stories of Australians suffering from severe life-threatening illness, mental health issues and post-partum depression, all needing the support of their parents. Last week, I tabled on behalf of the Greens a petition in the Senate signed by over 70,000 people calling on the government to make parents an exemption category. A third of Australians have parents living overseas, and their plight can no longer be ignored. Yet this government continues to ignore it.

What about the thousands of other temporary visa holders stranded overseas and unable to return to Australia through no fault of their own? Again, the government has no plan for them, the 145 people stranded overseas who are waiting for their 887 permanent residency visas to be processed. If this government processed visas in a timely manner, these people would already be permanent residents and back in their homes with their families in Australia or have the right to come back here. The 8,463 people stranded overseas on 489 and 491 visas were meant to be Australia's next group of permanent residents, but their futures are now at risk because they might not be able to meet their permanent residency requirements. Years of hard work and planning are slipping away before their very eyes, thanks to the government. And the 3,835 people stranded overseas on expired bridging visa Bs who own businesses and have lived in Australia for many years while waiting for their substantive visas to be processed are locked out of Australia in a visa limbo. Then there are the 14,475 people on subclass 485 visas who've invested thousands of dollars studying in this country and who are begging the government to provide automatic extensions and visa reinstatements so they can return to Australia when the borders reopen. That is not to mention the 1,443 people on subclass 476 visas—recent engineering graduates Australia desperately needs to fill critical engineering skill shortages across a range of sectors. They are also begging for their visas to be extended. And we have international students, many of whom have worked their guts out to afford their degrees in Australia and contribute to the tertiary education sector. They too need visa extensions and a pathway to return. They too want a plan.

So I ask the government, yet again, where is your plan to address the heartbreak of loved ones and immediate families separated by our border closure? Why won't the government extend people's visas and outline a plan for their return and a time frame within that plan? You were very quick, Minister, to roll out your plans for the rich, for the famous, for the sports stars and for the wealthy investors who can come and go as they please. But what about everyone else? Don't their lives count for you? Families should be together. I honestly think we can all agree on that. But we cannot continue to ignore their pain, and we should stop ignoring their pain. Australia's temporary visa holders have built lives, or want to build lives, in this country. So many of them have jobs here or run businesses here. Their kids go to school here, they pay their taxes here and they have a future here. They deserve so much better than the absolute disdain and lack of care and regard they have been shown throughout this crisis. I demand of the government, on behalf of all of those people I've mentioned here today: tell us—and tell them—what your plan is.