The federal government, under pressure to expand and accelerate the return of stranded Australians, has pre-empted national cabinet by announcing the “cap” on these arrivals will be expanded from about 4,000 up to 6,000 a week.
After the announcement Western Australia immediately hit out, saying the national cabinet process was being flouted.
More than 25,000 people are presently registered as having expressed a wish to return, and there have been numerous hardship cases in the media and in representations to MPs offices.
The government says the new weekly caps will be: NSW 2,950 (present cap is 2,450), Queensland 1,000 (500), South Australia 600 (500), and Western 1,025 (525). Victoria, struggling out of its second wave, will not have any arrivals.
This adds up to only 5,575 but the government hopes the other jurisdictions will take some people, although there are not commercial airline services into the ACT, the Northern Territory or Tasmania.
The government wants the higher numbers operating by late this month.
The caps were imposed at the request of states, which were concerned at pressure on their quarantine facilities, in particular when Victoria, where there was a quarantine breakdown triggering the second wave crisis, stopped taking any returnees.
People wanting to come home are not just facing the problem of the cap but the difficulty of securing flights, and at reasonable prices.
Unveiling the higher cap Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who has responsibility for aviation, said he had written to premiers and territory leaders to tell them the caps for international flights based on quarantine levels.
“Not every Australian will be able to come home by Christmas, I accept that. But we want to get as many of those who need to come home, want to come home, paid for a ticket to come home, to be able to do so”, McCormack said.
The federal government says it has constitutional power over quarantine, and so does not need the states’ approval. But it will take the new quotas to Friday’s national cabinet.
Under the existing deal the states make the quarantine arrangements and carry the cost – although they are now charging returnees.
The opposition has called for the government to use RAAF planes to return some people. But the government says there are thousands of unused commercial seats, and the VIP fleet has only very small capacity. It also rejects calls for the use of federal facilities for some of the returnees, saying they are not available or suitable.
Attorney-General Christian Porter, asked on Perth radio whether WA had agreed, said he did not know but “we very much hope they will”.
WA premier Mark McGowan said he had not known about the announcement beforehand and described it as “very directly outside the spirit of the national cabinet”.
“I don’t really like the fact that this has been sprung via a press conference without a discussion with the people actually required to implement it,” McGowan said.
He warned of the risks of putting pressure on hotel quarantine and said using Commonwealth facilities should be looked at.
The federal government says it would consider ADF assistance with more quarantine, noting ADF personnel have been helping WA with hotel quarantine for weeks.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said it was extraordinary the matter was being dealt with through a letter from McCormack and said Scott Morrison should call “his dogs off” and work with the premiers.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said that after a request from the prime minister “I consulted my relevant ministers and the police commissioner, who is in charge of quarantine, and everybody said they could take on that extra load”. Her agreement was on the basis other states agreed.
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also indicated her government was willing to take more people.