Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Steve Vitt)

Political irony doesn’t get much better than this: Scott Morrison having to interrupt his promotion of a new third-of-a-billion dollar package to invest in systems to protect Australia’s cattle from external biosecurity threats, to put out a firestorm over his criminalisation of Australians returning from India. All of which is the product of his failure to invest in systems to protect Australians themselves from external biosecurity threats.

When even hard-right commentators and the Institute of Public Affairs are attacking you, you know you’ve crossed some hitherto-unknown line of offensiveness — and that’s why Scott Morrison, who hoped to devote yesterday afternoon and this morning to a cattle-slaughtering conference in Rockhampton, suddenly felt the urge to do both major breakfast TV shows today to defend his criminalisation as non-racist.

Let’s tackle that first. India’s current level of active cases, according to Worldometer’s COVID page, is 2481 per 1 million people. The widespread assumption, however, is that due to lack of testing, the actual level of active cases is much higher. Let’s quadruple the number to 10,000 per 1 million. Or even quintuple it to 12,500. How does that place India internationally? Still far lower than the United States, where the level is, despite extensive vaccination and a significant drop since the Trump administration was kicked out, at over 20,000 per million.

See how power works in this country.

News done fearlessly. Join us for just $99.


Some other notable countries are above the Indian level — France (over 13,000); the Netherlands (12,900), Sweden (14,000); Hungary (23,000).

But it is only arrivals from India that prompted Greg Hunt on Saturday to declare in a media release that “failure to comply with an emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015 may incur a civil penalty of 300 penalty units, five years’ imprisonment, or both.”

But in trying to dismiss the questioning of the criminalisation, Morrison told one of his breakfast interlocutors today “the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero”.

So, who is right — Morrison or Hunt? If the chances of it occurring are zero, why did Hunt say it at all? Is anything Hunt says in a media release only provisional until the prime minister corrects it? The whole thing looks like a dog-whistle that exploded in the user’s mouth when he tried to blow it.

It’s unhelpful for Morrison, of course, that’s it’s not merely otherwise profileless brown Australian citizen affected by the criminalisation, but Australian cricket figures, like Michael Slater, who accused Morrison of having blood on his hands.

Not merely did the government create this firestorm about racism all by itself, it is the author of the disastrous situation it now finds itself in insisting that Australians remain in harm’s way in India — many of them people who have been trying to come home for the best part of a year.

It is Morrison’s government that has refused to invest in appropriate COVID-19 quarantine facilities, leaving the heavy lifting of quarantine to state governments, in spite of s.51 of the constitution, which clearly makes quarantine a Commonwealth responsibility.

And it is the Morrison government that has dragged its heels on bringing home stranded Australians, despite the PM’s commitment last September to “get as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas”. More than 36,000 Australians remain stranded overseas three months after that deadline — the most in the UK and India.

As with the vaccine rollout, the extra time the Morrison government has had due to Australia’s ability to contain the virus effectively has been wasted. No quarantine facilities have been built. Tens of thousands of Australians remained stranded despite celebrities, business figures and former and serving Coalition ministers being able to come and go from the country, often without hotel quarantining.

That leaves the government stewing in a poisonous mix of incompetence, complacency and racism, and panicking that it’s been called out on it, even by its allies. It’s announcing more money for beef biosecurity while the lack of biosecurity for returning humans is causing havoc.

Michael Slater makes a fair point. If one of the 9000 stranded Australians in India contract COVID and die or suffer permanent injury as a result of the government’s refusal to bring them home and provide adequate facilities for their arrival, who’s fault is that? Will Morrison accept responsibility for it?

The likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero.

See how power works in this country.

Independence, to us, means everyone’s right to tell the truth beyond just ourselves. If you value independent journalism now is the time to join us. Save $100 when you join us now.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%