Topics: COVID-19 travel exemptions, international borders, hotel quarantine
Liam Bartlett: Well, joining us this morning is the Federal Minister, ultimately, in charge of granting these exemptions – Home Affairs Minister, Karen Andrews. Minister Andrews, good morning to you.
Karen Andrews: Good morning to you too and good morning to your listeners.
Liam Bartlett: Minister, is the Premier right? Has your Department been too lax in granting these exemptions?
Karen Andrews: No we have not and let me be clear that when the exemption was granted for that particular individual – and you’ll understand that I can’t go into all the specifics of that case – but, when the exemption was granted for that individual it was absolutely in line with the criteria at the time. Now, since then, there have been some changes – we have tightened that criteria, we tightened it from 8 January, and in respect to India, we have tightened that as of Thursday last week. But, at the time that the exemption was granted for that individual, it was absolutely in line with the criteria at that time.
Liam Bartlett: But, he wasn’t going over there to just go to a wedding, just to eat wedding cake. He was going over there to actually get married, to bring his bride back to Australia.
Karen Andrews: Yes, but let’s be clear that exemptions at that time were granted on the basis that the travel was going to be for three months or more. What we have done since that time is tighten it, in terms of the criteria and the reasons for the travel. And in respect of India, it is now down to only three criteria, which includes the national interest, whether it’s a COVID-response related issue, or whether the individual or individuals have to seek medical treatment that is not available in Australia. So, the criteria is now absolutely tightened down. But, at the time, the criteria was travel for three months or more.
Liam Bartlett: Yes, and he went for four months. Okay. So, are you saying now a wedding would not be, even if you were to get married, it wouldn’t be a valid criteria?
Karen Andrews: A wedding would be very unlikely to be approved.
Liam Bartlett: Well, the Premier is saying that a wedding for him is not a valid reason and you’re agreeing with that now with this new criteria. But, he says even a funeral – so, you wouldn’t even be able allowed to go for a funeral, Minister?
Karen Andrews: Look, the arrangements that are being put in place are there to protect Australians and I can’t and won’t make any apologies for that. It’s very important that we do that. Now, in respect to travel to and from India, the circumstances in which India finds itself now are quite frankly, unprecedented. And we have to take the action to protect Australians on the basis of the information that we have. So, I’m very confident that the action that has been taken – and it was a decision of National Cabinet, of which Premier McGowan is a part – that action that has been taken to further restrict the travel exemptions in respect of India, are absolutely appropriate.
Liam Bartlett: Okay. Now, the Premier keeps calling for your Government to use the Defence facilities for quarantine. Do you intend to do that?
Karen Andrews: Well, let’s be clear, that the arrangements in respect of quarantine were actually agreed at National Cabinet over 12 months ago – so, March last year. So, it’s not new arrangements that have been put in place, and I understand that there are issues in Western Australia at the moment, but, Premier McGowan agreed to those arrangements over a year ago.
Now, in respect of our immigration facilities, our ABF officials have been regularly informing Parliament that our detention facilities don’t meet Federal or State health standards quarantine. And we had Minister Dutton as the Defence Minister, saying very clearly, that our Defence facilities are not fit for purpose either, for quarantine. All of that was taken into consideration at the time that the quarantine arrangements were put in place in March last year. So, Premier McGowan was very much aware of that; all State and Territory first Ministers were aware of that and have been acting accordingly.
Liam Bartlett: So, why has he now been hit over the head, with a touch of the hindsight stick?
Karen Andrews: Well, I honestly can’t answer the thought process for Premier McGowan. He has very clearly been involved in a range of decisions for quite some time and look, and also let me make it clear, I’m actually not interested in the tit-for-tat politics either. There’s a situation that needs to be dealt with, but we should also be clear that these arrangements have been in place for some time. Let’s get on and deal with the situation that we find ourselves in and I would encourage the Western Australian Premier to do exactly that.
Liam Bartlett: Alright. So, to be absolutely clear. There’s no chance in the world that we’ll be using facilities, like the ones we’ve got up at Northam, or Christmas Island, or whatever, in future?
Karen Andrews: In terms of immigration detention facilities, there is no prospect that that is going to happen. We actually have about 1500 individuals that are currently detained at the, moment and many of those have been detained and are detained for very serious crimes, whether it be sexual assault, assault, drugs, et cetera. It is just not appropriate to put incoming returning passengers in such facilities, so that is just not going to happen.
Liam Bartlett: Okay. Minister, indulge me for a second here. I just want to play you a very quick comment made yesterday by the premier at his press conference. He’s accusing your mob of passing the buck when it comes to your responsibility. Just have a quick listen:
Mark McGowan: We’re happy to assist. We’re happy to do our bit. But we’ve been shouldering, and the states have been shouldering all the load in hotels that were never built for this purpose now for 14 months. The simple reason the Commonwealth doesn’t want to do it is because it’s risk, it’s risk, and it’s work, and it’s hard, and they can see what happens, or what potentially happens. So, they want to push it to the States and blame the States if anything ever goes wrong.
[End of excerpt]
Liam Bartlett: There you go. You don’t want to do it because it’s hard work.
Karen Andrews: Yeah. Well, that’s rubbish quite frankly. We have not shied away, as a Government, from doing all of the hard work that was necessary to keep Australians safe and secure through this COVID pandemic. We have never once walked away from that. We have done all that we can to work in cooperation with the states and territories, understanding that there are different responsibilities for the various levels of government. The tit-for-tat politics is not helping Australians, and it really just needs to stop. So let’s get on and do the work that we need to do, and I would encourage Premier McGowan to do exactly that.
Liam Bartlett: Many of our listeners often talk about Howard Springs, the facility up in the Northern Territory just outside Darwin, Minister. And they say, look, why don’t we have more facilities like that? That seems to be working well. Is that true?
Karen Andrews: Well, it appears, certainly, to be working very well at the moment, and we will be increasing the number of returning travellers going into that facility shortly. It’s currently at around 850 a fortnight, it will be going to 2000. So I guess you’d say that we have been pulling our weight in terms of what we can do there. But really, the states and territories do have primary responsibility for the quarantining of returning travellers. And I would encourage them to look at what the options may be for them to make sure that they have appropriate facilities to undertake the task they committed to a year ago.
Liam Bartlett: Well, is there any evidence, have you seen any evidence that suggests other facilities would deliver a superior outcome than hotels?
Karen Andrews: I think you’ve got to go back again to the evidence and the commitments that were made 12 months ago, which was that hotels would be used for quarantine. Now, what we do know is that many of the Defence facilities have things such as shared facilities, shared dorms. You actually can’t provide the quarantine facilities that are needed to deal with the COVID pandemic. So they are clearly not appropriate. Now, Howard Springs definitely has been used and will continue to be used. But the first line response at this point from the states and territories is the hotel quarantine.
Liam Bartlett: But you see, while we’re in lockdown here in Perth at the moment, there will be some of our listeners thinking, hang on a minute, other states appear to be running their hotel quarantine effectively. New South Wales in particular. I mean, and that has a huge load of travellers coming in each and every day. Now, how can New South Wales do it? And yet we struggle?
Karen Andrews: Well, that’s a very good question, because New South Wales does appear to be doing extremely well with a significant number of return travellers coming through there. So maybe it’s time to make the call to Gladys Berejiklian to see what can be learnt by the other Premiers and First Ministers.
Liam Bartlett: And Minister, just finally, back to the very high risk situation with India at the moment. Are there, to your knowledge, any Australian, or many Australian citizens stranded in India? I mean, apart from the Australian cricketers playing in the IPL, have you heard anybody who really is struggling?
Karen Andrews: Look, there would be individuals in India now that are seeking to return home. But I don’t shy away from the fact that the actions that we have taken to reduce the number of incoming return travellers has been necessary. So, yes, it is very unfortunate that there will be individuals and families affected by the actions that have been taken. But they have been taken for very good, strong, sound reasons.
Liam Bartlett: Alright, Minister, thank you very much for joining us this morning.
Karen Andrews: Okay, it’s a pleasure. Take care.
Liam Bartlett: Karen Andrews, the Federal Home Affairs Minister.