31 March 2023

DFAT and Morrison cop parliamentary criticism over Aussies trapped overseas during pandemic

| Chris Johnson
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Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison’s public information was not backed up by advice from DFAT. Photo: Screenshot.

A parliamentary committee has sharply criticised the former Coalition government’s handling of the pandemic crisis, especially regarding Australians stranded overseas and trying to return home.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, chaired by Labor MP Julian Hill, this week tabled its report into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s crisis management arrangements during COVID-19.

Its take-home message is that DFAT wasn’t prepared and that former prime minister Scott Morrison appeared to be freewheeling with his public comments.

The report expressed “deep concern” that Mr Morrison’s remarks about the situation were not backed up by DFAT advice at the time.

It also states the government could have “done more” during the height of the pandemic to provide quarantine facilities for displaced Australians trying to get home.

The committee said DFAT’s handling of the situation showed a “lack of preparation” in managing the crisis.

It recommends an audit of the government’s crisis management framework and emphasises that human rights should play a far greater role in responding to any similar crises in the future.

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“During the inquiry, it became evident to the committee the complexities involved in DFAT’s efforts to bring Australians home in the midst of various international and domestic travel restrictions and public health ­requirements,” the report states.

“The committee notes the lack of adequate quarantine ­facilities in Australia was one of the key constraints upon DFAT’s activities in this regard … More could and should have been done by the commonwealth in this space.”

Mr Morrison closed Australia’s borders early in 2020, subsequently saying in September of that year that his government would aim to get all stranded Australians home by Christmas.

“I would hope that those who are looking to come home, that we’d be able to do that within months, and I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas,” he said at the time.

But DFAT had not provided such advice to the prime minister. In fact, it didn’t submit any briefing to the national cabinet meeting where this issue was discussed.

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“DFAT’s evidence that no advice was provided to ministers before these public commitments were made is deeply concerning,” Mr Hill said in his report.

“This led to confusing and misleading public messaging to stranded Australians in 2020 and 2021, and underscores the responsibility of government ministers to ensure they are informed by sensible and evidence-based advice before making public commitments in such sensitive areas.”

The committee also noted a “gap of about four months” from the end of June 2020, when no flights at all were made available for Australians stranded overseas.

Data on the number and identities of Australians trying to return from overseas was not complete, the report found, echoing an earlier investigation by the Australian National Audit Office reaching a similar conclusion.

The committee commended DFAT staff for responding to the crisis, but found “some lack of preparation to manage a full global crisis in which issues erupted rapidly across the world”.

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The most striking theme from this article is that DFAT had not provided advice to the prime minister or submit any briefing to national cabinet where this issue was discussed.

Let us hope that the Australian citizens trapped overseas were not treated as badly and inhumanely as the students and non-citizens trapped and isolated in this country during the Pandemic. Those non-citizens who contribute so much to our country.

Where the hell was Secretary of DFAT Frances Adamson at the time? Frances Adamson has now been rewarded with the Governorship of SA.

Another balls-up from the previous LNP government of which its ministers and sycophantic public servants will not be held accountable!

Just training for the future balls-up of this government

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