‘A step too far’: Liberal senator James Paterson speaks out against India travel ban

Influential Coalition parliamentarian says he worries about the precedent set

The influential Liberal senator James Paterson has warned that Australia has crossed an “enormous threshold” by criminalising its citizens returning from India, coming out against the travel ban.

Paterson’s contribution comes before the federal court’s hearing of a challenge against the ban, set to expire on Friday, and puts him in good company with many Coalition backbenchers who have spoken out against the ban.

The health minister, Greg Hunt, formally enacted the ban on 30 April in an attempt to lower the Covid-19 infection rate in Australia’s hotel quarantine system, which was experiencing a spike in cases due to the escalating crisis in India.

In a midnight press release, Hunt trumpeted that the ban was enforceable with fines of up to $66,600 and five years in prison – penalties legislated in 2015 when the Biosecurity Act passed parliament.

The India ban was supported by advice from the chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, which judged it an appropriate restriction, despite warning that in the worst-case scenario it would result in Australians dying in India.

On Sunday evening Paterson, the chair of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, said the medical advice was “not given lightly” and nor was the minister’s decision.

“I hope, however, that it never happens again,” he told Sky News. “I think an enormous threshold has been crossed that I really would’ve preferred wasn’t crossed.

“Criminalising Australians returning to their home country is a step too far. I worry about the precedent that sets about the value of Australian citizenship and Australian passports.

“Like many other things [done by the government] in this crisis it was an extreme measure, like many of the measures state governments have taken to lock people in their homes.

“And I hope we never see them again in peacetime or in any other context.”

There are 9,500 Australians stranded in India due to the ban, the number of vulnerable Australians there has risen to 950 and at least one man has died since the ban was enacted.

When the travel ban expires on Friday, repatriation flights will resume at the rate of one a week for the rest of May, to be supplemented by three assisted commercial flights into New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

Before the ban there were eight repatriation flights scheduled for May, meaning that fewer Australians will return home from India than was planned before the pause.

Gary Newman, a 73-year-old man stuck in Bangalore since March 2020, has brought a federal court challenge against the ban.

On Monday the court will consider the first two arguments: that Hunt had failed to ensure the ban was “no more restrictive or intrusive than is required”; and that the enabling act could not override Australians’ right to come home without clearer words the provisions could exclude citizens.

The case also seeks to argue the ban is disproportionate and Australians have an implied constitutional right to enter Australia, which will be heard at a later date.

Last week Coalition MPs criticised the ban as “extreme” and “heavy-handed”.

Fiona Martin, the Liberal member for Reid, a Sydney electorate with a substantial Indian community, told Guardian Australia the travel ban and related legal penalties were “quite heavy-handed”.

“There are a lot of Australians stuck in India that we should be bringing home as a priority,” Martin said, adding it was her “hope” repatriation flights would begin “as soon as possible”.

The Liberal MP Dave Sharma also raised concerns. “There is little doubt this is an extreme measure and that it is causing significant hardship to the Australian Indian community,” the Sydney MP said.

“It can only be justified on the basis of the unprecedented outbreak in India under way and the significantly heightened risk which this poses. I fully expect these restrictions will only be temporary and that enhanced powers will be used only sparingly and as a last resort.”

The Queensland National senator Matt Canavan told the ABC the decision was “wrong” because “we have an obligation to help Australians”.

Contributor

Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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