Australia’s international border policies including the outbound travel ban and inbound arrival caps will be examined by the Australian National Audit Office.
After first proposing the audit in September, the ANAO quietly activated the inquiry in mid-January and has called for submissions on the management of the Australian border to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The ban on outbound travel, subject to limited exceptions, and international arrivals caps to allow for two weeks of compulsory hotel quarantine, have been among the most controversial aspects of Australia’s Covid response.
The policies have left more than 30,000 Australians stranded overseas, a number that has proven stubbornly hard to shift as more Australians opt to come home and capacity has been slashed to ward off new more infectious coronavirus strains.
Victoria, in the grip of a five-day lockdown, has stopped international flights to Melbourne and the premier, Daniel Andrews, has flagged further restricting arrivals to his state to only a few hundred compassionate cases per week and building a separate quarantine facility near Avalon or Melbourne airports instead of using hotels.
Emirates announced on Monday it had cancelled all international flights into Melbourne until the end of March amid uncertainty about how long Victoria’s international arrivals pause will last.
The ANAO audit will target six federal departments with oversight of the border: agriculture, foreign affairs and trade (Dfat), health, home affairs, infrastructure and transport, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The range of subjects points to a broad audit that could encompass the adequacy of assistance to Australians stranded abroad provided by Dfat, and the overlapping responsibility for biosecurity and human health between the health, home affairs and agriculture departments, explored already in NSW’s Ruby Princess inquiry.
Submissions are open until 27 June with a final report expected to be completed in November. The ANAO has warned that it “does not have a role in commenting on the merits of government policy but focuses on assessing the efficient and effective implementation of government programs”.
Australia’s outbound travel ban is the subject of a federal court challenge and the Australian Human Rights Commission has warned the international arrivals cap may breach international law.
Australian Border Force data, reported by the Australian, shows that more than 253,000 citizens, residents and visa holders have travelled to Australia since the hotel quarantine system was introduced in late March, as well as 73,000 citizens of other countries.
In January Guardian Australia revealed the AHRC is dealing with a record number of complaints, driven in part by 495 cases it has accepted related to Covid-19, many of those from Australians overseas.
Julie Green has been stuck in Uganda since June last year, when a work contract in the country expired. She and her husband have been unable to secure a flight home since, as a result of repeated cancelled flights and the exorbitant ticket prices the arrivals caps have generated.
Green believes the Morrison government should be scrutinised for its handling of the international border closure, and told Guardian Australia the government had shirked its responsibility to manage quarantine and ensure its citizens could return home.
“I feel that Australia’s response to the pandemic has been disproportionate and has violated human rights left, right, and centre. I am appalled that Australia is held up as an exemplar for dealing with the pandemic … no other country in the world has stopped their own citizens returning to their own country,” she said.
Green said the government should establish quarantine facilities so more citizens can return from overseas, and that it should establish a quarantine allocation booking system – which is in place in New Zealand – to ensure a fair process to return home.
“Why has Australia not implemented a system whereby you first book a spot in hotel quarantine and then your flight? It is so obvious and would save so much heartache for people and so much financial devastation. They have had a year to work this out and have done nothing,” Green said.
Green and her husband have been able to book a flight to Melbourne on 19 March, but it is unclear if Victoria’s halt on international arrivals will affect their flight home.
Labor’s shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, told Guardian Australia that Scott Morrison’s decisions on Australia’s border have been designed to “minimise his political risk, and move responsibilities to the states”.
“At the start of the pandemic, Morrison established federal quarantine facilities to help people return home from Wuhan,” she said. “But as soon as he failed to stop the one boat that mattered – the Ruby Princess – he effectively made managing the borders a state responsibility.”
Keneally accused Morrison of failing to create a federal quarantine facility despite the Halton review calling for more capacity.
The Coalition government has boosted capacity at the Howard Springs mining camp in the Northern Territory but not built a dedicated facility.
“If you want to bring a horse into Australia, it goes into a federal quarantining facility,” Keneally said. “But if you’re an Australian that wants to come into Australia, Scott Morrison doesn’t want to know you.”