Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak in support of the motion moved in my name on the notice paper.
The last 18 months or so has been an unprecented series of difficult, stressful and damaging events in the lives of many many Canberrans. Starting with the bushfires, smoke and subsequent hail storm, then quite suddenly transitioning into dealing with a pandemic. I am really proud of how the community has handled these immense challenges, supported each other and those from outside the territory needing help. However, it has not been easy.
The lockdown and general pressure from COVID outbreaks interstate has been high. Border closures and varying restrictions interstate have been effective and successful, but difficult to deal with. This is exacerbated by the number of people who’ve made Canberra their home but grew up interstate or overseas and still have the majority of their family elsewhere.
However, while it has been difficult for everyone, I cannot imagine the stress and anxiety for those Canberrans who have family and friends in countries particularly impacted by the pandemic. From Iran to Indonesia, the USA to the European Union, the United Kingdom to Central and South America.
Madam Speaker, the coronavirus crisis in India, Nepal, Pakistan and other South Asian Countries at the moment, and what is on the way in future weeks makes some of my previous examples look pale. The images coming out of New Dehli, Mumbai, Kathmandu and other areas of the region are horrifying. Hospitals running out of oxygen, running out of beds, sick patients being treated in carparks or in rickshaws, sick patients dying in the street. It is a catastrophe.
The potential outcomes of a poorly managed pandemic response and underfunded public health system are on full display. Madam Speak It is grim beyond imagining.
Canberra, and in particular in my electorate of Yerrabi, is home to a large community of both people who have migrated from India and made Canberra their home and people of Indian heritage who were born in Canberra or elsewhere in Australia.
I have been speaking to several of my constituents who are part of this community in Yerrabi and this is a really difficult time for both the constituents I know personally and the community as a whole. Several of the constituents I know well have lost close family members in the last fortnight. Many members of the community have been spending hours and a lot of money desperately trying to get access to oxygen and medical care for their families in India.
There are few situations I can imagine which would leave a person and community feeling more helpless and desperate. This is a situation that was beyond imagining a year ago. My heart goes out to every single member of the Indian community in Canberra during this time.
While this crisis is impacting members of the Indian community in Australia and their family and friends in India, the Federal Government has moved, not to provide any particular help to Australians in India, but quite the opposite.
From late April, the federal government moved to further restrict flights coming in from India, leading to the cancellation of many flights with seats booked by hundreds of Australians attempting to return.
Since then, the federal government has additionally banned all returns from India. This is without precedent, never has the quarantined return not been available to Australian citizens who can find a path home. I note that they have subsequently backflipped after outcry and that the ban will be lifted on Saturday.
However, I also note that when the situation in the United States got particularly bad with cases in December and January, returns through quarantine stations were not totally halted. When the UK was experiencing extremely high cases over the new year period, including with the appearance of a potentially worrying new strain, there was no blanket halt to returnees.
Why is this policy suddenly being implemented now? Why are the punishments for those who potentially avoid the restriction suddenly imposed? The prime minister claims that no one will end up in prison or being harshly punished under these laws. My question then, is why implement them in the first place? Why advertise those punishments in a press release? There are a lot of questions around the federal government’s policy on returning from India.
The Federal Government is responsible for, and should be organising, quarantine facilities. This is set out in the constitution and, not only that, it makes sense.
Big, purpose built quarantine facilities with high capacities, are the best way to quarantine those returning from overseas. While not purpose built, the design and layout of Howard Springs in the Northern Territory has proven to be an optimal place to quarantine returnees. To date, there have been no instances of the virus escaping this facility like we have seen in almost every capital city in the county through hotel quarantine. The air conditioning isn’t centralised, there is plenty of open air between the residences, it is just a better system.
I note that this facility has been designated as the quarantine site for anyone returning from India since the federal government backflipped on it’s travel ban due to constituent pressure. I also note that since it opened for quarantine purposes, the federal government has given some funding for it’s operation.
However, madam speaker, this pandemic did not start with the outbreak in India in the last couple of months. The federal government has had well over a year to think about this issue and to build additional facilities. They are better equipped to do so than any state or territory due to economies of scale and the size of budgets. They are responsible for it. They have an example set for them in Howard Springs. They’ve even had the community calling for it.
It was revealed just last Friday, through a senate inquiry, that the only reason that the India travel ban was needed, was in fact, because there wasn’t enough space in quarantine facilities for people coming home.
If the federal government had have taken action on this 12 months ago, there wouldn’t be 9,000 Australians stuck in India, there wouldn’t be tens of thousands more stuck in other places with uncertainty when they will be able to come home.
Why haven’t they done it? They are throwing Australian citizens under the bus, leading to financial ruin, exposure to the virus, adverse social outcomes, because they don’t care enough and don’t have the competence to manage it.
As such, I encourage my colleagues in this place to support the motion moved in my name and the associated actions.
Acknowledging the pain and trauma being faced by the Canberran Indian Australian and broader South Asian communities is the least we can do from this place. I would like again to reiterate my condolences to those constituents of mine who have lost family and friends or who have family or friends who are suffering. I have heard heart breaking stories from some constituents personally and I would like to not them particularly.
The letter which this assembly is called on to write will express our view that additional federally funded, quarantine specific facilities are needed. It will express our concern at the insensitive approach with which the federal government has treated the Indian and South Asian communities. It will also iterate the desire for the federal government to affirm the commitment of citizen’s fundamental right to return home to Australia. It is pretty self explanatory.
Finally, I hope that the Government moves quickly to work with the community and it’s leaders to provide measures to help those in need or distress here. Additionally I encourage not only the ACT Government but also interstate and federal colleagues to provides assistance to those on the ground in India, during the worst phase of this pandemic to date.