Deputy PM open to shutting Aussies out
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack says "there is" room for a discussion on drastically lowering the number of Australians allowed back into the country.
Speaking to ABC News Breakfast on Monday, Mr McCormack was asked to comment on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' suggestion last week that there should be a "cold, hard discussion" about barring the 40,000 Aussies still stranded overseas except for "compassionate" reasons, after the highly contagious UK strain of COVID-19 leaked out of the state's hotel quarantine system, triggering a snap five-day lockdown.
"(Mr Andrews) suggests that only those with strong compassionate reasons should be allowed back - is there room for that sort of discussion in your view?" host Michael Rowland asked Mr McCormack.
The Deputy PM replied, "Well, there is. But you know, he's at odds obviously with (federal Labor Senator) Kristina Keneally who wants every Australian back tomorrow. And we'd obviously like to get every Australian back as soon as possible."
Deputy PM @M_McCormackMP says there is room for a discussion on drastically lowering the number of Australians allowed back into the country.— News Breakfast (@BreakfastNews) February 14, 2021
It comes after Victorian Premier @DanielAndrewsMP suggested it could be limited to compassionate grounds. pic.twitter.com/rgmKnLLCZQ
He continued, "But there are quarantine restrictions, of course. There are limits on those numbers coming back in. Again, there's only a certain number of places and the Australian Government has helped that by facilitating paid-for flights to get back into the country. Again, this is a large logistical exercise, 450,000 Australians have returned since March 13 last year when the Prime Minister did urge and encourage and indeed implore Australians to return."
Mr McCormack said the Federal Government was working with the Northern Territory to increase capacity at the Howard Springs quarantine facility - currently set at 850 arrivals per fortnight - and insisted that "we are" stepping in to help set up more regional centres.
"The Prime Minister was talking about the potential with the Queensland Government of the Toowoomba facility," he said.
Pressed by Rowland about why the Federal Government was not acting faster, Mr McCormack said health services in those regional areas needed to be up to speed "if indeed that does take place".
"What we don't want to do is then expose regional Australia, where the health services aren't always as good as those in the metropolitan areas, and we want to make sure that we keep Australia as COVID-free as possible," he said.
"We're getting Australians back as soon as we can. We're doing that through the states. We're doing that through, again, the best possible advice listened to by the AHPPC (Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) and others."
Mr Andrews was last week lashed as "despicable" for his suggestion, which also put the Premier at odds with his federal colleagues who have used the plight of stranded Australians overseas to attack Prime Minister Scott Morrison's handling of the repatriation and hotel quarantine process.
Liberal MP Tim Wilson said he was attempting to "(deny) Australians access to their own country".
"It's a despicable plan, a callous and cold-hearted one," he told the ABC on Saturday.
"There are Australians who have been desperate to get back into the country, but have had flights cancelled all over the place. They have a right to come home."
But Mr Andrews clarified on Saturday he was simply advocating for a "genuine discussion" over the best way to contain the UK strain.
"What I have said is that we should have a genuine discussion about how many people are coming back, the circumstances in which they are coming back, and can we make this safe?" he told reporters on Saturday.
"I would think that the Commonwealth Government would surely want to be a partner in that, but I am not looking to handball the thing to somebody else."
Meanwhile, Labor health spokesman Mark Butler said delays for stranded Australians would "be on Scott Morrison's head". He argued Federal Government was constitutionally responsible for quarantine, which was the "the biggest failing in our COVID response right now".
"These things are only happening because of a failing hotel quarantine system with which Australians are fast losing patience," he said on Saturday. "If (Victoria's lockdown) means that Australians take even longer to get back home from overseas, that will be on Scott Morrison's head."
It comes after revelations that more than 1000 international students had been quietly allowed to "jump the queue" and enter Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator Keneally told NCA NewsWire the 40,000 citizens stranded overseas should be Mr Morrison's priority.
"Instead he's letting international students and business investor visa holders jump the queue," she said.
"If Scott Morrison had implemented a national quarantine plan from the beginning of this pandemic, Australia would be in a position to safely welcome international students without their arrival coming at the expense of stranded Australians."
The Australian Border Force said people seeking an exemption to Australia's travel ban needed to prove a "compelling case" and meet exemption categories, which include students in their final two years of study of a medical, dental, nursing or allied health profession university degree.
Those students must also have a confirmed placement at an Australian hospital or medical practice that starts within the next two months.
- with NCA NewsWire
Originally published as Deputy PM open to shutting Aussies out