Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP describes the emotional and economic impact travel restrictions are having

25 August, 2020


This is an important grievance debate, because it goes to the heart of what Australia stands for. Are we a free and fair country? Do we have processes that comply with principles of natural justice, freedom of movement and rights of appeal? Do we treat our citizens fairly and equally, or do we have double standards in applying our laws and restrictions? These are questions that many in our community are starting to ask in response to the growing distress around our international travel restrictions. When the pandemic broke and emergency measures were put in place, we were prepared to accept them on the basis that they were urgent and temporary. We believed that our government would surely be looking at more viable long-term options. It's now becoming clear that there is no long-term plan. Thousands of Australian lives are in limbo, and the distress, uncertainty and anxiety are taking their toll.

There is no denying that the swift and decisive action to impose international travel restrictions in March undoubtedly saved lives. Our international borders were closed quickly, with very little notice, and all international arrivals were forced into compulsory hotel quarantine, and I fully supported those emergency measures. But this is not a long-term plan. People with valid visas, some of them having lived here for years, caught unawares overseas at the time of border closures, have been denied entry back into Australia and to their lives. Australian citizens and permanent residents have been unable to return home due to the caps on international flights. And ordinary Australian citizens and permanent residents are unable to leave the country for compassionate reasons or important business or study. We need to understand how distressing these situations are for separated couples and families, for people who have unexpectedly lost their job or people with urgent situations where there is illness or death in the family.

The issue of people with valid visas being denied entry has been well documented, especially for separated couples, who have to prove and justify their relationship, explaining to strangers how they met and the level of commitment they share, only to then be denied travel. Situations have occurred where valid visa-holders are being denied entry. A very prominent one for me in my electorate is the Bathgate family. On March 21, Sue and Brian Bathgate, an elderly couple, headed to Heathrow airport to fly out to Australia to join their daughter, an Australian citizen, and her family living in my electorate. The Bathgates had been granted a sponsored parent visa in November last year, had subsequently packed up their lives in England, sold all their furniture, bought a house in Sydney, and even sent their beloved pet dogs out in advance. At the airport, they couldn't get the second boarding pass from Singapore to Sydney, as they were scheduled to arrive just a few hours after our international borders had been shut. Devastated, they returned to an empty house. Since then, this elderly couple has been sleeping on a borrowed mattress, their lives in limbo, as seven successive applications to the Australian government to be granted a travel exemption and reunite with their family have been denied. They're prepared to pay for quarantine and comply with any other health conditions of travel, but no explanation has been provided to them for their continued refusal.

Then there is the Madsen family of Manly. in 2018, Mr Soren Madsen, his wife and two of their three children migrated to Sydney to establish a Pacific region office for his Danish company. They left their eldest son, Victor, to complete his studies in Europe. Victor, now 19, completed those studies earlier this year and, relying on his approved Australian visa and the fact that he is viewed as a dependent until the age of 23, the family proceeded with plans for him to join them living in Manly. But no, Victor, against logic, has now had his request to travel and rejoin his family in Australia denied three times.

Mrs Nihad Bate has lived in Freshwater for 17 years with her children and grandchildren. Mrs Bate is 77 years old. She has a valid bridging visa while her aged parent visa is being processed. Late last year, Mrs Bate travelled to Jordan to finalise her late husband's estate. While still there, she became stuck there when the country went into lockdown. Her three children and their families are Australian citizens and she has lived here for nearly two decades. In the words of her daughter-in-law, this is the only place she calls home yet that home has closed its doors on her and she's been denied permission to travel back to Australia.

The issue of caps on international flights again is well documented and is one that raises questions of constitutional legal validity. The limit on inbound flights and passenger numbers is creating an ever increasing number of stranded Australians abroad as flights are cancelled or ticket prices inflated, prioritising business and first class seats. This has led to claims of discrimination, unfair treatment, as passengers repeatedly have their flights cancelled or are encouraged to buy more expensive seats. I'm pleased to see the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigate these serious claims of unethical behaviour.

Some criticise these Australians, saying they should have come home sooner. But there are many very good reason why these fellow Australians are only now trying to return home now. For some, when the border closure was announced in March, they had flights booked for April and they thought they would be okay; they were not. Others thought they would finish their studies or their contracts and work and would return to Australia midyear. Some had to travel overseas urgently for medical or family reasons and have only just now lost their jobs and, with no income, need to come back home. There's a growing backlog of stranded Australians and they are experiencing great distress and anxiety.

An example is Catherine Hilton from Manly. Catherine is an Australian citizen. She had to travel to the United Kingdom in early July to be with her dying father. He passed away in mid-July and, after organising the funeral and finalising affairs, she began making arrangements to travel home to Australia. Her return flight has now been cancelled three times at the last minute, only days before her scheduled departure. She's stranded in the UK, she has bills to pay in Australia but, as a sole trader with absolutely no income, in her own words, she's in total dread regarding her future.

Kate and Christopher Smith moved to Dubai for a job but, having been made redundant, they need to come home. They can't afford business class seats, and the next available economy seat is not until early November. Until then, they will be living on limited savings, hoping their flights do not get cancelled. Finally, we have the issue of Australian citizens and permanent residents being unable to leave the country, couples being separated, family members prevented from attending weddings or funerals, students wanting to commence studies, workers wanting to commence new long-term contracts, families needing to be reunited. The emotional, physical and financial stress the government's current policy is having is not right. It's not consistent with a free and democratic country. A major source of concern is that there appears to be inconsistency in the application of this exemption process. There's a feeling that it all depends on whose desk your application lands on as to whether or not you'll get to see your only daughter get married in London, you'll make it to Sydney to say goodbye to a loved one or you'll be reunited with the mother of your children. No reasons are given for refusal, no contact details are provided to discuss your application and there are no avenues of appeal offered. In fact, a strongly worded email is sent by the department advising applicants that any future request for exemption will likely be unsuccessful.

Adding to the resentment is the feeling that there's a double standard at play. While sporting teams and politicians fly in and out, while business moguls and movie stars have freedom of entry and while moves are in play to allow international students priority access, couples remain separated, families are disjointed and Australians are prevented from coming home. Are we honestly creating a situation where, if you're an international student, you have a greater chance of entering Australia than if you have lived here and contributed to our community for nearly 20 years? There are simple solutions, which I have suggested in writing to the government. Expand the definition of immediate family members who are currently permitted to travel to include parents of a citizen or permanent resident where the parents have a valid visa to travel to Australia. Ease the capped numbers on international flights. Enforce mandatory hotel quarantine, but let us also train up a proper workforce to implement that quarantine. This will assist the struggling airline industry and the hospitality industry, and also relieve some of the unemployment we're experiencing.

The reality is that COVID may be with us for a long time yet, and the existing restrictions are not viable long-term solutions. The economic impact on business and tourism is devastating, but, more importantly, the emotional and social impact on our communities will be irreparable. I know many MPs from across the political spectrum agree that the current system is no longer working and is creating unnecessary heartache and distress. I urge the government: please, develop a long-term plan on travel arrangements, communicate that timeline and help the Australian people understand the policy and help manage expectations.