Few readers of my post, Stranded Aussies sacrificed to pandemic politics of paranoia, will be surprised that in the weeks since I published, the crisis has worsened. The Scott Morrison government and the states are holding to their reduced flight caps without a glimmer of a realistic plan on the horizon. So it’s time to give them one. I’ve drafted a plan in the letter in the link below. UPDATE: Founders of the Stranded Aussies Action Network have launched their resources website strandedaussies.com providing tools for everyone affected by our governments’ inertia to unite, Get Informed, Get Loud and Get Heard.
Australia’s political leaders are actively making the situation worse, refusing to take meaningful action. It’s time they put politics aside and worked together to get real solutions happening. The website also has a Get Support page with links to groups and services.
The only way we’ll get action is to let the politicians know that this issue, that’s impacting hundreds of thousands of people in Australia and overseas, will be at the front of our minds when we go to the ballot box. I therefore urge everyone impacted, including friends and family, to contact political representatives and advocate for action.
About the Stranded Aussies Action Network (SAAN)
The network is an informal operation and is made up of anyone who wants to call themselves a member. You don’t have to sign up to anything or toe any particular line, it’s a way to access resources to inform yourself and others and provide ammunition to hit politicians and the media with.
Its resource has been launched at strandedaussies.com founded by Pieter den Heten, Kate and Dave Jeffries, Lucy Morrell, Kym Bramley and me. It will feature a toolbox for everyone to access relevant facts and figures; a practical Information and Advocacy Guide for Stranded Aussies; a copy of my letter (the guide and letter are available below) to download and fire off to politicians; and some other simpler templates for getting the message across.
The website strandedaussies.com is not to be confused with strandedaussies.org. The Stranded Aussies Action Network has no affiliation with that website and will not collect or store any personal information. The organisers of the Stranded Aussies Action Network and I do not endorse the collection of personal information and we recommend that everyone be wary of providing their personal data to anyone other than official authorities who are accountable to the government.
Download and go
See my action letter at the link below or on the SAAN website. It’s long because I wanted to put forward all the relevant figures that reveal government negligence, and spell out what needs to be done. It’s possible that a lot of political representatives are not aware of the facts and numbers. I also hope that it busts through some of the ineffectual political palaver that is being thrown around, playing to a misinformed electorate.
You can write your own letter or use the one I’ve drafted, or the outlines and templates in the Stranded Aussies guide and on the SAAN website. Everyone is welcome to use the letter to write to politicians. My name is not on it. You don’t need my permission. You can add to it, edit it, change it as much as you like. If you don’t agree with parts or think it’s too long, change or cut them. The only thing I don’t endorse is altering the figures. Feel free to delete them, but please don’t alter them — a lot of research went into providing those.
Click the above links to access the documents. To download, click the arrow to the top right of the screen. You don’t need to sign in or sign up for Dropbox.
The Stranded Aussies Guide is a beautiful resource. It’s not my work but the combined efforts of a selfless team from the Facebook groups, Australians Stranded in the U.K. (Covid19) and Australians Stuck Around the World. The document is a work in progress, and may be updated. For now though, there’s plenty in there that’s useful, and some simpler email template options for contacting politicians. [Update: the email address for Scott Morrison at least is not working, but politician’s online contact forms usually have an option to attach documents.]
International students, people with work visas, and the people who’ve been separated from family and partners and are advocating for expanded travel exemptions are also welcome to adapt my letter to your purposes. By all means feel free to share the info with the media or direct them to strandedaussies.com.
The message in brief
Hundreds of thousands of people are impacted by the draconian flight caps. That many people will have a lot of diverse opinions. At first the founders had some discussions on whether to make the network more formal, but it was decided that trying to get a consensus from a very broad range of individuals in a potentially very large cohort could cost valuable time.
In my view there are several points we can all agree on:
- The Stranded Aussies crisis was preventable. It was created and sustained by government negligence.
- Australian quarantine systems are running well and must be urgently expanded. (I say their capacity needs to be and can be tripled.)
- The flight caps are drastically inadequate and the current caps (4,200/week) need to be urgently increased. (I say tripled at least.)
- The Commonwealth and states must put politics aside and work together to urgently expand the inbound infection control program and raise the caps.
- There is no reason why Australia cannot do so. Comparable countries have achieved it and kept their populations safe from coronavirus.
- Political scaremongering has helped the state and federal governments get away with mistreating everyone impacted by the flight caps.
- Pre-coronavirus up to a million Australians were working, studying & operating businesses overseas. Their circumstances change especially in a pandemic.
- April through Dec 2020 150k citizens & PRs returned to Oz.
- There is no queue. Up to 25% of arrivals since the travel ban commenced have been foreign nationals on temporary visas, usually wealthy enough to outbid citizens & PRs for business class seats.
- April through December 2020 Morrison gov issued over 100k travel ban exemptions for citizens’ & PRs to leave for essential reasons. Approx. 15k exit per month on essential travel.
- Instead of expanding quarantine capacity to ensure they could get back, as well as those stranded, plus allow entry to visa holders, quarantine places were drastically cut.
- DFAT discourages stranded Aussies from registering their intention to return if they are not available to travel at a day’s notice. The registered numbers are therefore not indicative of the real numbers.
- Airline Industry bodies estimate 100k citizens & PRs are stranded.
- Some have been stranded since flight cancellations commenced in March.
- Current arrival caps are approx. 18k per month. A sustainable cap is 56k per month to bring Australia to similar capacity as Taiwan & NZ per capita.
- I recommend against group emails to MPs. A lot of MPs filter out group emails and others disregard anything that is not from their electoral constituents. I recommend writing to your local state and federal MPs individually, plus PM Morrison and your state premier and addressing them by their title. If you’d like to take it further, hit up the relevant Ministers, Payne and Dutton. It’s okay to send group emails to Senators.
- Make sure you include your full name and contact details in correspondence with political reps. That means in letters and emails. A lot of their offices filter out correspondence that does not include those details.
- If you’re having trouble working out how to download or use the documents ask for help in the Facebook groups. I’m pretty busy, but you can contact me through this website if you need help using my letter.
- Social media is a great way to network and get the message across, but beware that Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussions. Don’t wear yourselves out trying to convince people there. Twitter is not the real world.
- It’s best not to swear at politicians. Their social media accounts are operated by aides and a lot automatically block people who use swearwords. It won’t get you anywhere. Hammer ’em with facts.
- I’m not up with what’s happening with people looking at class action law suits, but be aware that a class action of this size and type is beyond the capability of anything but large metropolitan law firms. Avoid small firms with no track record in large actions against the government.
- Complaints to the Human Rights Commission are a good thing to do but the most the HRC would be able to do is to make recommendations to the government. Those are not enforceable. Complaining to the UN is also good, however the UN human rights covenants are not legally enforceable in Australia.
- Go as hard as you like, but I recommend keeping your expectations low. I have no faith in our current politicians. It’s possible that they’re stalling until mass vaccinations have rolled out in Australia. I suspect they’ll try to keep stranded Aussies out for as long as they can get away with it. Things could be very distressing for some time, so please support each other. Be kind to each other and reach out for support when you need it.
- Have faith that a lot of people are doing their best to help. So far most of the organisers of the action group are people who’ve made it back to Australia but want to keep helping. You are not alone. It might not feel that way at times, but a lot of people do care about you. Including me!
Bipartisan political inertia – my opinion
Federal repatriation fibs
I strongly recommend reading my letter in the link above where the damning facts are laid out. The last couple of weeks have only confirmed to me that neither the federal or state governments have any genuine intention to assist stranded Aussies to get back. After cutting the caps with the enthusiastic support of all the premiers, the Morrison government made a big song and dance about announcing 20 repatriation flights that were already planned, and spruiking some embellished figures cited by Liberal politicians. It turns out that the repatriation flights are scheduled over months, and will bring back around four thousand passengers, equivalent to just ten percent of the people registered for urgent return. The same number that could have come back over a few days of the previous insufficient caps. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham has falsely claimed the government is footing the bill, however seats are still priced between $2,200 to $9,000 one way for flights of around 200 capacity.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, repatriation flights have only returned about 11,000 stranded Aussies. The feds also claim 440,000 citizens and PRs have returned since 13 March 2020 when the first advisories went out. What they don’t mention is that 290,000 of them returned in the eighteen days between March 13 and when the travel ban took effect on 1 April. Nor do they mention that while 152,000 PRs and citizens managed to claw their way home from April through December, over 100,000 exited for essential reasons.
People who’ve written to federal LNP MPs have had pathetic responses echoing a claim made by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham, that thousands of stranded Aussies have refused offers of repatriation flights. If that’s true, this is why: they’re being offered flights from distant transit points that they cannot possibly get to on time, or seats that will break up their families. They’re also required to get a PCR test at point of departure that can take up to 72 hours to return a result.
What do you do? Leave your kids to be raised by wolves?
Another DFAT whopper is the number of Australians seeking return. DFAT often wipes people from the system and also tells those who are not able to fly at a day’s notice not to register.
The quarantine is a federal responsibility fib
Federal Labor politicians persist with their meaningless claims that quarantine is a federal responsibility. As I wrote in my previous blog, legal experts refute that. The federal government has no health infrastructure and it does not employ frontline health workers, except in the Defence Forces, all of whom are already deployed to the states. Laura Tingle correctly pointed out on the 730 Report that the states agreed to take on the quarantine responsibility. The states have the health staff and infrastructure. The premiers also know that if inbound infection control was left to the Morrison government to organise, we’d all be dead.
That’s not to let Morrison off the hook. His government has been utterly negligent and typically tight-fisted and dishonest. He should have established a federal quarantine commission and a standard national protocol last year. His government should urgently provide resources to the states to help them establish a sustainable regime. If the states were serious about helping resolve the crisis they’d put pressure on him for more resources.
But they’re not. The table below, which is in my letter and includes targets in the two right hand columns for sustainable quarantine capacity, lays out the arrivals figures for the last three months of 2020. If I’d included the figures from April they’d present a similar picture. The worst performers in providing quarantine places were Labor run states, Victoria and Queensland. They are a big part of the problem.
|State of clearance|
% of national)
0.22% of pop.
|Short term |
0.26% of pop.
|NSW (8.16m, 32%)||13,720||16,440||16,410||18,100||21,215|
|Vic. (6.69m, 26%)||20||550||5,330||14,700||17,395|
|Qld (5.17m, 20%)||4,140||5,780||6,200||11,300||13,440|
|SA (1.77m, 7%)||1,810||1,090||1,410||3,600||4,600|
|WA (2.66m, 10%)||3,630||4,490||4,580||5,650||6,920|
|Tas. (0.54m, 2%)||110||40||140||1,130||1,400|
|NT (0.25m, 1%)||1,270||1,240||1,030||565||650|
|ACT (0.43m, 1.7%)||10||150||0||960||1,120|
That’s why you never hear any numbers from the ALP. If they came clean about what’s needed, it would reflect very badly on Andrews and Palaszczuk and the party as a whole. ‘The feds are responsible’ blather gives them cover.
Furthermore, Federal Labor’s attempts to relegate quarantine to the federal government are not practical.
Remote quarantine fibs
The most recent National Cabinet meeting came and went without any political leader budging on hopelessly low caps. No practical solutions were put forward. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland came up with an idea of using mining camps near Toowoomba and Gladstone as quarantine sites. But she never talks about the capacity required or how long they would take to establish. Experts, including the AMA Vice President do not regard them as feasible.
Dr Moy said there were two key impediments to regional quarantine. The first was the difficulty getting qualified staff to relocate to remote areas and work on site. The second was the requirement for high-quality medical services nearby. “Because individuals who have COVID can get sick very, very quickly,” he said.ABC News
“I’ve heard stories about even in South Australia, where they tried to put people in the country here … and they decompensated extremely quickly. So I do understand the wish to move the problem into the country, but it’s not as simple as that.”
In Gladstone there’s concern that the regional hospital struggles at the best of times. Even if facilities in Queensland could hold six or so thousand at a time as required in that state alone, and recruit and train and accommodate all of the staff required, that would also mean sticking international arrivals on buses for up to two hours at a time to transfer them from the nearest airports. All that does is increase the risk of transmission, which defeats the point.
It’s correct to say Jane Halton recommended the establishment of national facilities, but she didn’t have a plan or discuss numbers in her report. She mentioned Howard Springs, but factoring social distancing it’s only able to accommodate 1,700 per month. Queensland alone would need eight of those.
It’s worth reading this article to get the real picture of the state premier’s views alongside expert advice.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also backed a potential collaboration with the Commonwealth this week, saying there was an argument to have a series of large facilities for thousands of people, similar to Howard Springs. He said the facilities could also be used for bushfires and other future emergencies. “We couldn’t build a facility that say housed a couple of thousand people safely with all protocols without the federal government’s help. But there’s an argument I think, to maybe do that.”
Does that sound like it will happen in a hurry?
There’s also a lot of blarney in the calls to establish them in remote areas.
However, Dr Norton also said there was no reason the camps had to be placed in remote locations, where they could overwhelm any local health facilities. He said they could be safely operated in the city, if the right site could be found. “We went though this so often in West Africa with Ebola where the community kept on trying to drive the Ebola treatment centres out into the bush,” he said. “There is no risk to you, as long as we control the boundaries of this health facility, whether it is in this suburb or 400 kilometres away.”Sydney Morning Herald
I’d be ecstatic if a heap of quarantine facilities like Howard Springs could be whipped up safely in the short term, but it’s not going to happen. What we need now is a major expansion of quarantine capacity with the option of monitored home-based quarantine for low risk passengers with suitable premises, as recommended by both Jane Halton and Jennifer Coate. Bear in mind that less than 1% of arrivals test positive to coronavirus.
67. Given the physical limitations of hotels as quarantine facilities (as in, they are not designed as such), a major risk of the hotel model is the daily movement of personnel in and out of the facility and then into the communities in which they live. Even in a best practice model, which has dedicated personnel not moving between facilities, clinical and non-clinical personnel are, of necessity, coming in and out of a facility which, by definition, contains potentially infected people.
68. Minimising the number of people working in such environments, by only having those unable to quarantine safely at home, in the facility, reduces this risk of transmission to the broader community.Jennifer Coate SC, Victorian Hotel Quarantine Inquiry Report, p.111.
In the meantime, I really caution against falling for federal Labor’s line that somehow the federal government can simply pull together large scale facilities in the short term. Readers have very reasonably commented about how confusing the system is — the Commonwealth controls the borders, the states control the health infrastructure. The thing is, both levels of government are exploiting that blurriness to get away with failing to plan for and put a workable system in place. Conveniently, they can bat responsibility to each other when pressed.
What is needed is urgent action from both levels of government working together.
The Queensland lockdown over two quarantine related cases proved to be the overreaction I suspected it was. The UK variant scaremongering was an excuse federal and state governments could leap on to slash the caps. The Queensland quarantine breach came and went with no further community transmission and still Premier Palaszczuk did not relent. The decision to lock stranded Aussies out is not evidence based.
Next was Daniel Andrews’ state sponsored Australian Open Tennis pageant. Victoria rolled out the red carpet to 1,200 tennis pros, their entourages and the media after taking as long as possible to reopen quarantine after the Victorian lockdown. When it did reopen it provided the least quarantine spaces to Australian citizens and PRs of any state, per capita. The tournament will run at a financial loss, and although the corporation claims to have paid for the tennis quarantine, it’s doing so having secured a massive loan of Victorian public money. It appears the Andrews government fears that if it exhibited the same generosity to the state’s residents, someone might bring in the virus while the tennis show is on and ruin their optics.
Andrews also commissioned an inquiry into the hotel quarantine failures in his state and has gone on to ignore some of its key recommendations, including adopting home-based quarantine, but above all that his government prioritise getting people home. No sooner had the tennis pros landed than the premier announced he’d make room for 1,500 migrant workers to come and pick fruit for under-award wages. Now he’s saying that in late February Victoria will lift its quarantine capacity to just about 9,000 per week — roughly half of the recommended short term target, and with no explanation for the continued stalling.
Clearly none of the governments want to deal with coronavirus cases. They’re prepared to endanger and traumatise Australians’ overseas and deprive them of their savings, their livelihoods and their human right to return to their home country to avoid the inconvenience of their duty of care. It makes zero economic sense to bar the return of citizens and PRs too, with Australians sinking vast amounts of money into foreign airlines and foreign economies that could have been brought home with them. Australia is the ONLY country that has actively prevented its people’s return for over ten months.
The other thing to watch out for is victim blaming. Thank you to the reader who provided links to the archived version of the Smart Traveller website. No country on earth can practically or legally order expatriates to leave their homes, jobs or businesses in foreign countries. It’s just not possible to expect people to flee to their home countries at a few days notice when flights are being cancelled wholesale.
Also for the misanthropes who have a thing for siding with mediocre governments instead of their victims, and are convinced that people won’t obey self-isolation orders, that is without foundation, particularly if a monitoring system is put in place. Jennifer Coate SC’s report for the Victorian Hotel Inquiry found that home quarantine could be managed with proper instructions and processes.
43….the evidence of non-compliance with the existing Self-Isolation Directions was not extensive and was set in the context of poor dissemination of information to those who were subject to the Directions…Coate, Hotel Quarantine Inquiry report p.109
They indicated a degree of non-compliance on 23 March 2020, which was observed by
26 March 2020 to be improving as returned travellers gained a better understanding of
the requirements. In his evidence, Mr Ashton said that some people who were, at first, thought to be breaching their Directions, were later found to be self-isolating at a different address.
The importance of the numbers
My letter lays out the numbers in detail, and it’s those that informed the plan I drew up. Governments don’t talk publicly about them because they don’t want you to know them. That’s why I urge you to send them to our political representatives and demand that they knock off the posturing and get something done.
While I urge all of you to write and make the calls to political offices and ask your family and friends to do the same, you may have to lower your expectations. If you get responses, they’re likely to be vague and deflective, and distressing for their callousness. However, at least you’ll be able to say that you did everything you could.