The federal government has not ruled out organising rescue flights for Australians stuck overseas, the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, has said.
Speaking on a combative and briefly musical episode of ABC’s Q+A program on Monday, McCormack said the Australian government was “doing everything we can” to help the 25,000 people stuck overseas return home.
Asked by show’s host, Hamish Macdonald, if that included providing more rescue flights, McCormack said: “Nothing is off the table at the moment. We are considering every option.”
The comment was offered in response to a question from Julia Mickler, whose husband, Andreas, received permission in July to leave Australia to see his dying father in Germany. His return flight was cancelled and he has been unable to get another flight. Mickler’s daughter has Batten disease, an incurable degenerative neurological disorder, and requires a high level of care, which Mickler is struggling to provide on her own.
McCormack said Mickler’s story was “heart-wrenching”.
“There are so many thousands of compassionate cases, yours being one of them,” he said. “We’re doing everything that we can to put those vulnerable people at the front of the queue.”
When another panellist, Labor’s immigration spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, pointed out that lobsters and crayfish were flown on chartered flights out of Australia to keep the trade going, McCormack interjected that sheep, meat, fruit and vegetables were also chartered out.
“But what do we do for stranded Australians?” Keneally asked. “It is great for trade. Can’t a government do two things at once?”
The businesswoman and former soprano Tania de Jong, was asked about the international border issue and began singing the chorus of I Am Australian. McCormack, not a trained singer, joined in.
The Australian Medical Association’s president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said the cap on international arrivals of 4,000 people a week was arbitrary.
“The size of the hotel quarantine – that’s arbitrary,” Khorshid said. “I think a little bit of compassion is what it is needed here to look after the lives of Australians, and that also means protecting us here in Australia from the virus.”
He said many Australian jurisdictions were clearly pursuing an elimination strategy, with the next two steps being to “get our economy as normal as possible and hope and pray for a vaccine quickly”.
The Perth-based doctor said borders, both international and domestic, have served to protect people “and can’t be discarded because they are inconvenient”, and added that Western Australia’s premier, Mark McGowan, who broke from national cabinet on the issue of border closures, is “our most popular leader ever”.
For domestic borders to reopen, Khorshid said, state governments would need to “trust in other states’ arrangements, in other states’ contact tracing”.
“If one state does the wrong thing, the rest of the country gets let down,” he said. At the moment, I don’t see that trust there.”
McCormack, asked if other jurisdictions can trust Victoria, said: “We have’t been able to so far.”
He said the international arrivals cap was based off figures provided by the states of how many new arrivals they could manage each week in hotel quarantine. It has been in place since Melbourne stopped accepting international flights in the wake of failures in Victoria’s hotel quarantine scheme.
He attempted to attribute part of the second wave to the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne but was rebutted by Macdonald. Victorian health authorities have said that although six people who attended the rally tested positive for the virus at a later date, there was no evidence of transmission at the rally.
Prof Kim Rubenstein, a legal scholar at Australian National University who brought a copy of the constitution to the panel, said the pandemic “has really amplified some of the structural problems that we have in our constitution”.
She said there was no reference in it to Australian citizenship or citizenship rights. The legal framework for the international border closure is based on the Biosecurity Act, with decision-making powers delegated back to Australian Border Force.
“The policy may not be clear enough or transparent enough for people to be able to follow in a way that is consistent,” she said.