Topics: International borders, COVID-19, Foreign Arrangements Scheme, Sri Lankan family, Department of Home Affairs
PATRICIA KARVELAS: National Cabinet has agreed to temporarily reduce the number of incoming flights from India as new coronavirus infections there pass 300,000 a day. The decision was taken after an increase in the number of coronavirus cases at the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory and in hotel quarantine in Western Australia. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the Government will also limit departure exemptions for people travelling to India and any other country deemed high-risk. Karen Andrews is the Minister for Home Affairs and our guest tonight. Karen Andrews, welcome.
KAREN ANDREWS: Hello, Patricia. How are you?
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Good, thank you. What does this decision mean for Australians trying to get home from India at the moment, which we know has been extremely difficult?
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes. And look, and I understand that this will be concerning for many people wishing to travel to India and to return to Australia from India, but it is a decision that has been taken by National Cabinet on the advice of the medical professionals. So there will be a decrease in the number of flights coming into Australia from India, whether they be direct flights or whether they be via either Singapore or Doha. There will be a reduction in those of about 30 per cent. We will also be making sure that we put in place straightaway, and in fact, I’ve already given an instruction to the Australian Border Force to start implementing the arrangements for exemptions so that exemptions will only be granted in the national interest, in relation to a COVID-19 response, or if there is urgent medical treatment required that’s not available in Australia. So those are the only three exemption criteria, and that is already in place now with the Australian Border Force.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So they’re the changes you’ve- so what does it change? At the moment, what kind of exemptions will no longer be available? Because it’s already only under very strict guidelines that you’re allowed to go overseas.
KAREN ANDREWS: Oh, yes, absolutely. And we are restricting those. For example, if people had needed to travel overseas because of a death, they won’t be able to do that now. For general business, they won’t be allowed to do that now. And I understand that these are tough exemption criteria that have been put in place, but it is in our interest here in Australia from the health point of view to make sure that we keep Australians safe.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So the circumstances in which- so if I had a mother dying in India, I couldn’t go and see her?
KAREN ANDREWS: No. The only reason that an exemption could be granted is if it is in the national interest. So those are those things like an economic interest or a security-related matter. If it’s a COVID-19 response related issue that you need to travel for, or if it’s urgent medical treatment that is not available in Australia, those are the only three reasons that an exemption will be granted.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you able to say yet when this decision will come into effect? Are people already booked on flights safe, or should they potentially prepare to have their flight cancelled?
KAREN ANDREWS: I have issued the instructions to the Australian Border Force already. So the process to implement these exemptions is now underway.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you concerned that the requirement for someone to pass a PCR test 72 hours before they land in Australia could leave people stranded in potentially transit countries?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, that’s the advice that we’ve been given by medical professionals as to the appropriate way to deal with this issue. Obviously, there are going to be impacts on individuals, but our priority as a government is to act in the best interests of Australia and Australians.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Right now, India is the only country deemed high risk. Which other countries are going to put on the list? Will Brazil be put on the list?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, the Chief Medical Officer is actually working now to identify other high-COVID-risk countries, and he will be looking at those starting as of now to see whether or not we need to start looking at restricting travel in and out of Australia. If the advice from our medical professionals is that we need to start implementing similar exemption regimes for other nations, we will do that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is this evidence of a lack of faith in hotel quarantine? And are you working on alternatives?
KAREN ANDREWS: I don’t think it’s right to say that this is a lack of confidence in Australian quarantine measures, because they have been demonstrated largely to have been successful, understanding that there have been some issues in Victoria in particular. So I don’t think that it’s a quarantine failure. It is because of the situation in India, the fact that there are a rise in cases and potentially an increase in cases here in Australia if we were not to restrict movements between Australia and India.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just on some breaking news tonight, Minister. China’s Foreign Ministry is urging the Government to immediately revoke the decision to cancel Victoria’s Belt and Road MoU or Beijing will respond firmly and forcefully. What’s your response?
KAREN ANDREWS: I think Australia has taken exactly the right action, and I absolutely support the work that Marise Payne has done, the actions that she has taken. Obviously, there is potential for reactions to any actions that Australia takes. But I think this action is exactly what was needed to be done. And I think the important thing is to note that this is not a legislation, actions that are directed only at one nation. This is an opportunity for Australia to be able to demonstrate very clearly that we are a single nation here and that it is the Federal Government that determines what our foreign policy is going to be.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, moving to another issue, are you prepared to consider using your ministerial discretion to allow the Sri Lankan family from Biloela in detention on Christmas Island to stay in Australia?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, when I became the Minister, one of the first things that I did was request a high-level briefing from my Department so that I could understand the facts of the case, and I did that knowing that it has been well prosecuted through the courts and that at no time has any member of that family been found to be owed protection. So there is a long history to this matter, but I still sought to get a briefing from my Department about the facts to the case. I have said – and it is the actions that I have demonstrated for many, many years – that I will make my decisions based on the evidence and the facts that are before me. Now, I am aware that the family has ongoing matters before the court at this point in time, so it would be very inappropriate for me to comment any further on any of the specifics.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure, but you have the power. You could just do this. Why not settle the issue?
KAREN ANDREWS: I have a range of obligations; first and foremost is to make sure that Australians are safe and secure. And I do understand that many people see –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: … This family doesn’t put us at risk.
KAREN ANDREWS: I do understand that many people see this family in its isolated case, but there are some significant matters that I need to take into account in any decision that I take. Now, one of the risks that we had to deal with very quickly is the perception that a change of minister meant that there would be a change in a number of our policies. So we were taking action immediately to make sure that the people smugglers understood that there was no change to what our policies are…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: … So are you – I’m just going to decode that. I like to do that. Essentially, you’re saying …
KAREN ANDREWS: Yeah. I thought you might.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …yeah, that you need to demonstrate that you’re not a soft touch compared to Peter Dutton.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I know I’m not a soft touch, so I don’t think I have to demonstrate that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But is that what you were saying, that the change of Minister- I mean, Peter Dutton was well known as being a hardliner? Is that what this is about?
KAREN ANDREWS: We were making it very clear to overseas nations and the people who were potentially looking at the possibility that they would be a change in direction because there was a change in Minister, irrespective of who that Minister was. We were making it abundantly clear to them that this was not an opportunity for them to gear up their people-smuggling businesses. And that was exactly the right action to take.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Could you change your mind on this family?
KAREN ANDREWS: What I’ve done is exactly what I promised that I would do, which is look at the facts of the case, but this matter is before the courts at the moment, and there is nothing that I am prepared to say that will prejudice the Government’s interests or the interests of that family. And any speculation about what will happen potentially prejudices either either or both, and I’m not going to do that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, finally, do you support the Home Affairs Department’s efforts to ban sleeveless tops for staff, even in Zoom calls?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I need to understand probably a little bit more about that. Look, I understand the position that’s been taken by Home Affairs. I understand that there were concerns about the lack of consultation. My interest in this is to make sure that Home Affairs is following the agreements that have been put in place with their employees, and if that means that they should have negotiated, then quite frankly, that’s the action they should have taken.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So you think that they should- need to look at this question again?
KAREN ANDREWS: No, I’m saying that the issue is that they should have followed the rules and the guidelines in relation to changes that they need to make in the workplace, and if that means that they didn’t consult properly, they need to review that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. What’s your instinct, though? Do you really think that in the case of women- I mean, I’ve got professional, very professional tops that have my arms out. Really, shouldn’t I be able to wear them in a hot room on Zoom?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I’m aware of the circumstances that affected you in the Gallery, I believe, in terms of –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: … My trailblazer moment, Karen Andrews.
KAREN ANDREWS: Your- yes. And look, it’s imprinted in my memory, Patricia. So I remember that distinctly. Look, I think that there’s a range of clothing that is professional and that we should be in a position where we can determine what is appropriate clothing. And in some instances, clearly, a sleeveless top is inappropriate, but there are other circumstances in which a sleeveless top is okay. I don’t think a singlet is professional, but a different top, depending on the circumstances, may well be.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thanks for your time.
KAREN ANDREWS: Pleasure.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: That’s Karen Andrews. She’s the Minister for Home Affairs.