Former Labor leader Bill Shorten has appeared to challenge Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s assertion that he told Australian stranded abroad to return home in March.
Speaking on Nine’s Today show on Tuesday morning, Shorten also argued repatriating citizens should be prioritised over returning international students.
His comments come after Prime Minister wrote a letter to Australians stranded abroad last week in which he appeared to blame them for their struggles to return home – insisting he specifically instructed them to come back on 17 March.
Since that date, however, international arrival caps, first introduced in July to regulate the flow of people arriving into government quarantine facilities, have made returning more problematic.
Many have blamed the system for reducing availability and hugely increasing the cost of flights, leaving Aussies effectively stranded.
“We have Australian citizens overseas who were told not to come back in March but for who for various circumstances beyond their control need to get back,” Shorten said.
The confusion comes because the Prime Minister actually said, “If you’re already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means”— leaving many to argue that they weren’t then planning to return.
The majority of international airlines, including Qantas and Virgin Australia, all but halted most commercial international flights by the end of March.
Shorten then claimed the Prime Minister, who has criticised state premiers for closing their borders, was himself playing politics by pointing his attacks only at Labor-held states.
“Mr Morrison doesn’t seem to be very vocal in his criticism of Tasmania and South Australia with Liberal administrations. But when it comes to a state Labor government he and his people seem to have a lot more to say,” said Shorten.
“I would just encourage the Prime Minister to take the high road. We’re all in this together, Victoria’s feeling pretty hard done by. We just want to get it right. We don’t need any more politics.”
Finally, he hit out at the decision to start a pilot program to allow international students to fly into Australia, which will begin in September.
“What we have is a situation where international students are able to come to Australia. I have a bloke in Singapore, all his contracts are finished – an Australian citizen can’t get home but we are taking international students,” said Shorten.
“We have a lot of Aussies stranded abroad. I think we should be prioritising Australian citizens. That’s something Mr Morrison can work on without bagging the state premiers.”
On Friday, Australian Aviation reported that the industry body representing international airlines predicted it would take its members six months to return all Aussies stranded abroad if the current cap system isn’t relaxed.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia said it thinks the actual number wanting to come back is as high as 100,000, and not just the 19,000 who have registered with the government.