When Hollywood actor Johnny Depp and his wife Amber Heard came to Australia with their two pet Yorkshire terriers in April 2015, they attracted media attention after their visit to a Gold Coast dog groomer. What the world didn’t know perhaps was that they had violated Australia’s Biosecurity Act because they didn’t have an import permit. The couple later issued an apology in court and arranged for the dogs to be sent out of the country two days later. It was dubbed as “an anti-climactic end to a Hollywood clash with Canberra in an imbroglio dubbed the ‘war on terrier’”.
Australia, being an island, is isolated from the rest of the world. The Biodiversity Act is in place because its biodiversity has been largely protected from a number of diseases that can be found elsewhere.
Cut to the present. Australia’s Biosecurity Act is once again making headlines around the world after the government announced it would invoke the Act to penalise Australian citizens who want to come back home from India, given the country’s surging coronavirus cases.
The temporary pause on returns of Australian citizens with effect from 3 May till 15 May and the unprecedented move of five years’ jail or a fine of up to $66,000 under the Biosecurity Act for Australians attempting to fly home have been called “shocking, bizarre and racist”.
According to Dr Luke Beck, Associate Professor of Constitutional Law and Associate Dean at Monash University’s Faculty of Law, one of the provisions of the Act is empowering the Federal Health Minister to impose rules or requirements that he thinks is necessary to protect public health in Australia from health risks such as the coronavirus.
However, Dr Beck says, what has caused enormous controversy is over the harsh punishments outlined for breaching the rule. “There has been a bit of media and public confusion over that. Some media reports were suggesting that this is a five-year jail term just for Indians, just for this rule. That’s not quite right. The five-year maximum jail term is for breaching any ministerial order under the Act when it was passed in 2015. It had nothing to do specifically with coronavirus or specifically with the Indian flights’ ban.
“Of course, people are not going to get into prison. Maximum penalties are very rarely imposed. And in this case of course, it is impossible to break the rule and commit a crime because airlines are not flying from India to Australia. If somebody from India did manage to get here via other countries within the two-week period, there is absolutely zero chance they will go to jail. Worse-case scenario, they might get a modest fine.”
So, was it a mistake on the part of the government to highlight something that was not real or was this a deliberate attempt to distract public attention from other issues such as the not so successful hotel quarantine program and the slow vaccine roll outs?
On his part, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says it was a practical temporary decision made on health grounds. “The same rules apply to prevent people from going into remote Indigenous communities. They would have faced exactly the same fines and potential arrangements for those sanctions as is being applied here. But the extremes of those sanctions haven’t been applied in those circumstances. It is there to support a policy decision of the Government to stop a third wave in Australia. We can’t be complacent in this country,” Morrison told the media on May 4.
However, Morrison’s statement is being looked at as a very diplomatic description of how things are. The question everyone is asking: what the medical criteria are for the decision on the fines.
“Obviously, there is flight ban that every country has done but the US, for instance, is not threatening their own citizens fines or jails, so how did that decision come about? What is the rationale for this decision?” asks Tim Singh, Darebin councillor.
“In addition, a report I read was that people coming from the US in January were 50 per cent positive than the current number of Indians. So, it looks like a decision being made on non-medical grounds or out of fear factor. It’s an over-reaction. If India is a trigger point, it should have been a trigger point back in December when the US and UK were at their peaks,” says Singh.
Something Pradeep Taneja, Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, seconds. “When Covid was rampaging through Europe, the UK and the US, the situation was as bad as is in India now and they didn’t impose the Biosecurity Act. But when you involve the act, the penalties automatically apply. We heard Scott Morrison say it is highly unlikely that anybody will be jailed or fined. The point is, what was the need particularly when the government had already stopped direct flights from India. Instead of ramping up quarantine facilities, why did the government rush in to imposing or invoking or enforcing the Biosecurity Act now?”
Perhaps that is where the issue of racism has some merits, adds Taneja.
Also, the images coming out of India are confronting to the western world, says Taneja. “It is more of a subconscious racism playing into the minds of the Australian government and also to a lot of Australian public.”
Singh agrees this is the broader issue. “Suddenly we see covid, masses of brown people—it’s all incredible fear. That’s like a culture shock when you walk into India for the first time. These guys who made the decisions don’t have the actual medical evidence.
“This is not refugees coming in, these are citizens who have gone through whatever processes to become citizens. It is bizarre, because there can be another outbreak and suddenly another subset of people aren’t allowed home. So unfortunately, it looks like systemic racism,” says Singh.
In the same vein, Jasvinder Sidhu, Melbourne-based political activist and university lecturer, says, “Similar treatment was not given to those stuck in the UK and the US. So, it’s definitely a racist decision. It is the first time in history that any country has imposed such strict measures on its own citizens. It’s violation of human rights, dignity and also, potentially, against the constitution. With this decision, the federal government has made Indians feel as if they are inferior to those with Anglo backgrounds.”
And there has been criticism from all sides of politics. Interestingly, conservative well-known columnist Andrew Bolt, while slamming the government decision, has said, “What’s more, I fear that more than 600,000 Australians of Indian ancestry will now conclude that they can never be real citizens of this country. That they are outsiders. Not “real” Australians.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has denied the new measures are racist and said the ban was based on advice from Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. Interestingly, Kelly in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has said there was “no advice given” to impose fines and jail terms. “But that’s just how the Biosecurity Act works. If there is a breach of what is seen as a use of the emergency powers, then that’s what transpires.”
Tim Watts, Federal Labor Member of Parliament, notes, “Scott Morrison has failed Indian-Australians when they need him most. He promised to get all Australians who were overseas home by Christmas, but failed to do so. He was told to create federal government quarantine facilities to enable Australians to get home safely, but failed to do so.
“Now, when so many Indian-Australians and the people who care about them are looking to the Australian government in their most desperate moment, Scott Morrison has slammed the door in their face. It’s a national shame that will never be forgotten.”
Currently there are 9,000 Australian citizens in India, with 600 categorised as vulnerable. The response from the government has been viewed by many as inappropriate from humanitarian grounds.
“It sets a precedent that our Australian citizenship isn’t worth much. We live in a virus age, there will be a series of viruses that have emerged from animals across to humans for a while now and this seems to be a pattern. If we set precedents like this, then which country is going to be next, which citizens are going to have their rights revoked. It is a really dangerous precedent and, at the moment, it seems to be based on cultural bias and fear factor,” says Singh.
Other members of the Australian Indian community have also expressed their ire. Manoj Kumar, director of Clean Technology Equipments Pty Ltd, founded the Global Council for Environment and Health (GlobalCEH), says, “The government must apologise. If Australian citizens can’t come to Australia during their difficult situation, where they will go?
We are standing in solidarity with Australian citizens stuck in India and all over world during their difficult times. The Australian government must give justification for the India ban.
Intaj Khan, former councillor Wyndham city, believes the government should take a different measure, say, divert citizens coming from India to another country or have a separate facility for 3-4 weeks. “They should charge money from the people rather than use taxpayers’ money on it. If they are willing to come they can pay for it.”
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Australia’s Biosecurity Act is making headlines around the world after the govt announced it would invoke the Act to penalise Australian citizens who want to come back home from #India, given the country’s surging #coronavirus cases. #TheIndianSunhttps://t.co/oOMorYrGuC
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) May 6, 2021