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We Urgently Need A National Quarantine Response To Speed Up The Return Of Our Fellow Stranded Australians

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As we near a year of life under the coronavirus, there are still tens of thousands of desperate Aussies stuck overseas trying to come home.

But they’ve faced soaring airfare costs, repeatedly cancelled flights, and an inability to get a place in quarantine.

We’re letting those Australians down, and we need to do much better.

The Federal Government is responsible for our international borders, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison needs to urgently develop and lead a national approach to quarantine and border controls so we can get as many people home as quickly as we can. 

So far, the states have been left to manage things such as quarantine protocols on their own, which are in fact a federal responsibility.

This means that the requirements in each state are vastly different, which has created confusion and chaos across the country, as we saw with the sudden border closures over the holiday period which are still disrupting life for millions of Australians.

COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. An ad hoc state-based approach is not a long-term solution.

The Federal Government needs to step up and show some leadership. It must respond to recommendations such as those made by former Health Department Secretary Jane Halton about getting national quarantine facilities in place.

Scott Morrison has been briefed three times by Ms Halton on how we could safely operate a national quarantine system to protect Australians from COVID-19.

We need to make sure there's better and more consistent national coordination across the board, and state and federal leaders need to meet more often.

If it was left up to Scott Morrison, the National Cabinet wouldn’t have met for two months over the summer. They finally held a meeting last week after Labor demanded it be brought forward from February.

The Prime Minister called off a National Cabinet meeting while he was campaigning for the coalition in the Queensland state election in October.

Will he call off more National Cabinet meetings if he decides to campaign in the WA state election in March?

How long will stranded Australians have to wait for him to let them come home while he focuses on trying to shore up his own power?

Instead of politicking, we need bipartisan leadership. 

Australia needs the National Cabinet to make consistent well-coordinated decisions, rather than the way it's currently operating – that is, with states and territories making their own rules, and Scott Morrison belatedly announcing what rules they've made. Australians deserve better.

The Prime Minister must get out in front and work with the states regardless of which party is in power, not to criticise and pressure Labor-led states on border controls, but be silent when Coalition-led states do exactly the same thing.

That’s not leadership, it’s just petty politics.

Almost a year on, we still don’t have a consistent position for our national Australian border, and all the while 40,000-plus Australians remain stranded overseas, under colossal stress and at great personal cost.

We need to show more compassion and do better by them. They have a right as citizens to be able to come home.

Citizens should not be refused entry and forced to wait in limbo, sometimes with expiring visas and dwindling funds, while foreign film crews and other workers are permitted entry, taking up scarce quarantine places and punting Australians further down the queue.

That’s not fair. 

In the Northern Territory, the Howard Springs quarantine facility has played a huge role in welcoming stranded Aussies returning from overseas, as well as managing the influx of interstate arrivals.

Darwin is the closest international airport to Asian hub cities, and we've got a fantastic facility run by some of the most professional and dedicated health professionals in the country.

Our systems are rock solid. We’ve not yet had a single case of COVID-19 transmitting to a quarantine worker, unlike in other jurisdictions.

The increase in 850 people via Howard Springs is a start and part of the solution, but we can do more.

Especially now – as the Federal Government cuts overseas arrivals by 1500 a week in the southern states in response to the outbreaks in Queensland, NSW and Victoria – the NT and other states in the north could take in more returning Aussies.

Part of the Federal Government’s role in keeping our nation safe is getting our people back home from overseas during this global upheaval.

And as well as bringing more Aussies home, I’d like to see a more consistent and common-sense approach developed at a national level.

I would support that strongly.

There needs to be a national approach, and it needs to happen now.

Luke Gosling is the Federal Member for Solomon and a former Army Officer.

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