The blame game
Who is responsible for the government’s India travel sanctions?
Who is responsible for the highly controversial, constitutionally questionable decision to criminalise Australian citizens attempting to return home from India? The government would have us believe that the decision – announced in the early hours of Saturday – was not of its own making. Yesterday, attempts were made to lay the blame at the feet of public health officials, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne insisting the decision had been made “on the basis of the advice of the chief medical officer”. Speaking to ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly clarified that while he had advised on the need to do something about the number of cases coming into hotel quarantine, “no advice was given” about imposing fines or jail terms. (It’s since been revealed that the advice Kelly gave actually warned of the risks of a travel ban, from serious illness to death.) Then came the attempt to blame “the law”, with Liberal senator Jane Hume telling Sky News this morning that the decision to impose penalties was activated under the Biosecurity Act. “No,” she said, when asked directly whether it was a government decision. “That’s a decis— that’s a function of the Biosecurity Act.” “This is not what anybody wants,” she added, as if that late-night invocation of the Act and the press release announcing the sanctions had somehow occurred without the government’s input.
The government is keen to distance itself from the call, and no wonder, with a surprising coalition of public figures coming out firmly against it. Labor, human rights groups, legal experts, business leaders and Indian-Australians were today joined by a number of figures on the right, including the Nationals’ Matt Canavan and News Corp’s Andrew Bolt, in slamming the criminalisation of Australians coming home. You know things are bad when even Bolt is saying it’s racist, and calling out the “fear, ignorance and incompetence” that drove the government to announce the penalties. While some of these groups – including Labor – were in favour of suspending flights last Tuesday, many have now deemed the penalties inhumane, declaring the criminalisation of the act of coming home a bridge too far – something the tough-on-borders government clearly did not anticipate.
The Morrison government has today attempted the complex feat of standing by Friday’s decision, while distancing itself from the making of it. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told 2GB radio this morning that his “hard calls” have helped save 30,000 Australian lives, slamming Labor for “politicising” the flight ban (wonder what he thinks of Canavan’s latest tweet), while on The Today Show, Education Minister Alan Tudge backed the decision to introduce penalties, saying it was done “to ensure that we don’t get COVID outbreaks here in Australia on a very significant scale”. Morrison insisted that the ban was not racist because a travel ban had been placed on China at the start of the pandemic, though has so far failed to address why a ban was never placed on the United States or the United Kingdom at the peak of their outbreaks, when both countries had higher cases per capita than India. Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck, who happened to be before a Senate estimates committee when this morning’s blame game broke out, rejected the idea that this was a “specific sanction in relation to [India]” saying the penalties were simply a result of invoking the Biosecurity Act, while health department secretary Brendan Murphy confirmed that the medical advice to the government did not include specific recommendations on criminalisation, with those sanctions already “built into” the Act.
There’s no doubt the government misread the room on Friday when it decided to declare its right to bring the full force of the law against Australians seeking to come home (though you can see why they might have thought it would go down fine: Australians at home have been shamefully indifferent to Australians being stranded overseas, with a new poll showing only one in three think the government should do more to help them). But rather than admit it went too far and undo the announcement, the government has attempted to shift the blame, gaslighting the nation into thinking the sanctions were put in place “on health advice” and “under the law”. The government may well have felt that it was following health advice here, but it cannot deny the fact that it chose to publicly invoke the Biosecurity Act, to scare Australians in India, many of them non-white, out of attempting to make it home. And it certainly cannot deny the fact that it has failed – for more than a year now – to establish a proper federal quarantine system to get them here.
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Who is responsible for the highly controversial, constitutionally questionable decision to criminalise Australian citizens attempting to return home from India? The government would have us believe that the decision – announced in the early hours of Saturday – was not of its own making. Yesterday, attempts were made to lay the blame at the feet of public health officials, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne insisting the decision had been made “on the basis of the advice of the chief medical officer”. Speaking to ABC’s RN Breakfast...
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