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Michael McCormack has shifted responsibility for repatriating more than 26,000 stranded Australians back on to the states, demanding that leaders jointly increase their arrival caps by 2,000 a week.
The deputy prime minister, whose infrastructure and transport portfolio gives him responsibility for the arrival caps, has written to the states asking them to increase the cap of 4,000 arrivals a week to 6,000.
He said the South Australian premier, Steven Marshall, and New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, were “keen” to take more arrivals.
McCormack said he had written to the premiers and chief ministers “telling them they need to” increase their limits.
McCormack asked NSW, Queensland and WA to take 500 additional arrivals a week, and South Australia to take an extra 360. He encouraged the use of Gold Coast and Cairns as potential ports in addition to Brisbane in Queensland.
Berejiklian said NSW would take an extra 500 arrivals a week, up to 2,950, but only on the condition that Queensland and Western Australia doubled their caps.
She said she had been given an assurance by Scott Morrison on Tuesday that other states “would also take that load, and on that basis I was very pleased to do our bit”.
Marshall said South Australia would increase its cap from 500 to 800 a week, but that only 600 of those would be for international arrivals, with the rest set aside for interstate quarantine.
The Western Australia premier, Mark McGowan, blasted McCormack for publicly announcing the demand, saying it was “very directly outside the spirit of the national cabinet”. The Commonwealth should not “palm it all off” and instead work with the states to increase the number of arrivals, McGowan said.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said she supported federal government aircraft being used to fly stranded Australians home, and said she had previously “mentioned to the deputy prime minister, that I would be more than happy to look at taking more Australians here where we have the capacity to do so”.
A spokesman for Palaszczuk told the Guardian Queensland would need the federal government’s support to take more arrivals into hotel quarantine.
McCormack said the requests were based on best medical advice, hotel quarantine capacity, discussions from the last national cabinet meeting and “common sense”.
Asked if he thought state leaders were taking enough arrivals, McCormack said: “Well, they will be after they get their letters and open them.”
He has also asked the leaders of the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory, where caps are set on a flight-by flight basis, and Tasmania – which doesn’t have an international airport – to take more arrivals.
He said Melbourne would continue to be closed to international passenger flights given Victoria’s Covid-19 cases.
“I want to make sure that more Australians can return home,” McCormack said. “There are some heart-wrenching stories.
“I thank the premiers for their forbearance. I’ve notified them that I want to see those additional 2,000 places and as soon as possible. Hopefully by the end of the month but, if it’s possible to do it sooner, then that would be fantastic.
McCormack said there were up to 30,000 Australians overseas who had registered their wish to return home.
“Not every Australian will be able to come home by Christmas, I accept that,” he said.
Asked about setting up a federal quarantine facility such as the Howard Springs camp in the NT – which the federal opposition and states including WA have called for – McCormack said: “I’m not taking anything off the table.”
McGowan said increasing WA’s caps was not as simple as allowing more returned Australians to quarantine in empty hotel rooms in Perth, as there were “management and quality” issues.
McGowan said “quarantine and customs is a federal responsibility. But we’re obviously picking up the slack”.
“There are commonwealth facilities out there, defence bases, immigration facilities that could be used for two weeks’ quarantine for people returning from overseas. I’d urge the commonwealth to have a look at those facilities,” he said.
The ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, said Canberra could take one flight every 14 to 18 days of about 150 people, but said federal police and the defence force would need to be made available to help enforce quarantine. He said a single hotel would be used for the plan, but the ACT would not allow it until the federal review into hotel quarantine released its report.
Earlier on Wednesday, Anthony Albanese reiterated his call for RAAF VIP planes, including those reserved for the prime minister and governor general, to be used to fly Australians home. He also called for Howard Springs to be reopened.
The caps were introduced in July and are designed to ease pressure on states and territories’ hotel quarantine system.
Premiers and chief ministers request their caps at national cabinet and the limits are enforced by the commonwealth, which governs international borders.
On Tuesday senior members of the government, including the cabinet minister Keith Pitt, said federal quarantine facilities should be considered. The Queensland Liberal National party MP Warren Entsch called for Cairns to become a repatriation hub to help fill empty hotels and employ locals.
Flights have been landing in Australia with fewer than 30 passengers, and as few as four economy passengers, as airlines prioritise more expensive tickets to remain profitable under the cap.
Citizenship law experts have also raised concerns the arrival caps are unconstitutional. The caps are in place until 24 October.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Stranded Australians: Michael McCormack puts onus on states to increase arrival caps by 2,000 a week | Australia news