Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has defended a move by the federal government requiring Australians who ordinarily reside overseas to apply for an exemption to leave as “levelling” the playing field.
- Last week, the government introduced a new rule requiring expats to apply for an exemption to leave Australia
- Australians who normally live overseas must now convince Border Force of a compelling reason in order to leave
- Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews says people should be able to leave if they can provide the paperwork
Minster Andrews rejected suggestions the rule change was designed to scare off expats from visiting Australia.
“It should be reasonably straightforward for them,” she told 7.30.
“It’s certainly not to scare anyone off. We welcome all Australians home.”
Last week, the federal government quietly removed the automatic exemption allowing expats to leave, meaning citizens now have to convince Border Force of a “compelling reason” to do so and return to their lives overseas.
A transition period will be in place until early September, allowing people to speak with Border Force at the airport before flying out of the country.
“We are asking them to provide proof that they do live overseas. That could be a residency permit, it could be a utility account,” the minister said.
People can apply for the exemption before they travel to Australia.
The rule is the latest in a long line of restrictive measures imposed by the government, which has used extraordinary powers under the Biosecurity Act to prevent movement.
Currently, all Australians have to apply for permission to leave the country. (AAP: Paul Miller
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The federal government said it was aware of people coming and going multiple times, and said the change is necessary because of the shrinking number of hotel quarantine places under national caps.
But when asked by 7.30 how many people had been travelling back and forth multiple times, Ms Andrews wouldn’t say.
“We haven’t captured the data of all people, but we do know that there were a couple of high-profile people that were mentioned in media reporting,” she said.
“I will certainly be collecting that data now.”
Ms Andrews said the change meant Australians overseas are subject to the same rules as those inside the country.
“I’m not making any apology at all for that,” Ms Andrews said.
The closed international border has meant Australians are required to provide compelling reasons to be granted an exemption to leave, in a process that’s been criticised for its lack of transparency.
‘I have no faith in the system at all’
James Turbitt has recently endured the worst weeks of his life at the hands of Australia’s exemption processes.
7.30 spoke with him at his childhood home in Australind, south of Perth, where he’s been sorting out his mum’s house.
James Turbitt says he was denied multiple requests for an exemption to leave hotel quarantine to see his dying mother. (ABC News: Glyn Jones
“It’s hard to see Australia as my home now, after the way things have gone,” he said.
The 35-year-old rushed back from Belgium in June to see his dying mum in Perth.
He could only fly into Melbourne and was denied multiple requests for an exemption to leave hotel quarantine to be with her.
“Basically, they denied me. Western Australia flat out refused to let me in. And Melbourne or Victoria didn’t give me an answer on an exemption,” he said.
He was forced to say goodbye over a screen and endured two weeks alone, inside a hotel room, as his case sparked international outrage.
“I’m not the same person as when I left Belgium. It’s definitely taken a huge mental toll on me,” he said.
With the new rule requiring an exemption to leave Australia, James is hoping to return to his girlfriend and the life he’s built in Belgium as soon as possible.
“I’ve just felt pretty embarrassed to be Australian,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to leaving as soon as I can. I’ll definitely miss my family and my friends, but I don’t want anything to do with this country at the moment.”
James Turbitt says his ordeal has made him feel “embarrassed to be Australian”.(ABC News: Glyn Jones
Despite assurances that exemptions will be granted to those who can prove they live overseas, Mr Turbitt has his doubts about how the new system will play out.
“I have no faith in the system at all. We don’t know how those exemptions are being granted, who is behind the desk that particular day,” Mr Turbitt told 7.30.
“I fear for Australia and the insular direction that it’s heading.
“They’re claiming it’s a loophole but you know, the reality is a lot of Australians are dual citizens or dual residents. So people actually live abroad.”
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Marque Lawyers managing partner Michael Bradley told 7.30 he has been inundated with emails from expats concerned about returning to Australia and being locked in.
The law firm is closely watching to see if there are grounds for a legal challenge based on implied rights to come and go freely.
Mr Bradley also tried to fight the India travel ban earlier this year.
“I think what’s being heard by people is a message from the government [which is] ‘don’t come home,’ which is not nice,” Mr Bradley said.
“These powers [under the Biosecurity Act] are still subject to the law and there are limitations on them. There are steps that the government has to take before it can exercise those powers and they have to be proportionate and necessary.
“We don’t really know what the government is actually trying to achieve here and what they’re going to do in practice.”
‘No public health benefit’
University of Melbourne public health physician and professor Nathan Grills has examined Australia’s quarantine response and told 7.30 the government should consider moving away from a “one size fits all” approach.
This could include taking into account vaccination status and where people are travelling from.
“We need to start sensibly opening up to make the whole system sustainable,” he said.
“We’ve been talking about a traffic light system for a while now. Where people coming from a low-prevalence country would be considered green, they shouldn’t require hotel quarantine at this point.”
Professor Grills said the changes to the exemption requirements indicate a need to look at different ways to manage international arrivals.
“There’s no public health benefit in stopping someone leaving Australia,” he said.
Watch this story on 7.30 tonight on ABC TV and iview.
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