The Morrison government is battling a significant backlash within its own ranks over the controversial decision to criminalise returning to Australia from Covid-ravaged India, with Coalition MPs characterising the move 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” that repatriation flights would begin “as soon as possible”.
“It can only be justified on the basis of the unprecedented outbreak in India underway 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 Sydney-based member for Berowra, Julian Leeser, confirmed he had been speaking to community leaders over the weekend and had conveyed their concerns “to a range of ministers”.
The Queensland National senator Matt Canavan told the ABC the decision was “wrong” because “we have an obligation to help Australians”. The Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said: “I am concerned about this decision and most especially regarding the precedent it sets for making it illegal for Australians to return home to Australia.”
While declining to speak on the record, a number of other Coalition MPs also confirmed they had raised concerns with ministers about both the decision to criminalise returning from India and the lack of internal consultation before the move was confirmed on the weekend.
The decision to fine or jail Australians returning from India went to the national security committee of cabinet but, sources say, not to the whole cabinet and not to the government party room.
One member of the government told Guardian Australia the biosecurity powers invoked at the start of the pandemic to manage the public health crisis – the same powers underpinning the controversial India determination – were “an insane level of power for a single minister to wield”.
Another MP characterised the episode as a “disaster”. Yet another said the travel ban meant the Coalition would now have to manage a significant “perception problem with the Indian community”.