The Morrison government has today backed further away from its India travel ban penalties amid mounting backlash, while nonetheless leaving them in place. It’s an awkward semi-backflip that leaves the government’s position hard to read. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has insisted that it is “highly unlikely” anyone will be prosecuted under the sanctions, claiming that the Biosecurity Act penalties – which the health minister made a point of flagging in his late-night press release – are nothing new, and that no one has yet been prosecuted under them. Many are reasonably asking: why announce them at all? Even as the government downplays the likelihood of sanctions being imposed, it’s playing up its readiness to fight anyone who challenges them. As Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said in Perth this morning, the government intends to defend its policy in the case of any legal challenges – of which there might be a few. Let’s get this straight: the government will be defending the ban, which it insists it has the power to implement, but it won’t be imposing it, despite deliberately invoking it. That clears that up, then.
The PM went on something of a breakfast TV blitz this morning, stopping by both Seven’s Sunrise and Nine’s Today Show (though he still refused to go on the ABC’s News Breakfast) to announce that the chance of the previously announced sanctions being applied was “extremely remote” and “pretty much zero”. Morrison didn’t get a particularly friendly welcome from Today’s Karl Stefanovic, who ripped into him for the “heartless” ban, and referred to a tweeted accusation from former Test cricketer turned commentator Michael Slater: “PM, good morning to you. Do you have blood on your hands?” Stefanovic attempted to address the government’s backflip, but Morrison refused to acknowledge it. “No, Karl,” the PM insisted. “We haven’t had a shift. How you’re reporting it is a shift.” Apparently, Morrison expects people to believe that the penalties were always intended to be toothless.
Labor leaders have been furiously highlighting the government’s move, suggesting that the backdown is a “chest-beating” exercise gone wrong. Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, went on ABC’s RN Breakfast to question why the penalties had been announced at all. “Is the only reason you announced it to get a tough headline that’s now blowing up in your face?” she asked. Labor’s talking points on the issue appeared to be focused on the “not so tough guy” aspect of the penalties, with leader Anthony Albanese calling it a “macho announcement”, and suggesting the government had been too busy making and withdrawing threats to focus on fixing hotel quarantine. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has been as helpful to his former party as ever, calling for them to own up to their mistake. “This is a bad call by the government, but governments make mistakes all the time,” he said. “Let’s not prolong the mistake.” Alas, that is what the government seems determined to do.
The government’s position on its travel ban may have become terribly convoluted, but the majority of public opinion is not, with increasing pressure for Morrison to dump it. The entire lower house crossbench, along with senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, has this afternoon co-signed a letter to the PM, calling on him to undo the ban and boost Australia’s quarantine capacity, while human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC and former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane have both come out against the criminalisation, calling for its reversal. Even members of the Coalition have expressed reservations, some going on the record to declare the ban “extreme” and “heavy-handed”, while others complain privately, concerned about what it will mean for perceptions among the Indian-Australian community. Apparently, pinky-promising not to actually use the penalties is not enough for people, no matter how many times Morrison says it. With the government having backed down to the point of declaring the sanctions functionally useless, it can only be hubris that prevents him from fully overturning them. But one should never underestimate the power of Scott Morrison’s pride.