Labor senator Kristina Keneally will make her own way to Christmas Island to visit a Tamil family who have been held in immigration detention since 2019, after Peter Dutton cancelled the use of a government aircraft for the trip.
Keneally was due to visit Christmas Island on 19 April as part of a parliamentary committee looking at the availability and access to communications infrastructure in Australia’s external territories, and had applied for, and received, permission to visit Priya and Nades Murugappan and their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa. The trip had been planned for some time and the committee was due to depart on Sunday.
But just 22 minutes after receiving permission from the the Australian Border Force, which oversees Australia’s detention centres, to visit the Tamil family from Biloela, Keneally said Dutton, who now controls the government’s special purpose aircraft as part of his new defence portfolio, had revoked use of the government plane.
“Dutton cancelled the trip,” she tweeted.
Keneally said the flights had been approved by Linda Reynolds when she was still defence minister, and said the planes no longer appeared to be available once she made her visit to the family public.
“Peter Dutton did the one thing he could as defence minister and cancelled the committee’s flight on a Government Special Purpose Aircraft,” she said.
“This from the same Minister who didn’t hesitate in spending $36,000 of taxpayers’ money flying himself on the same Government Special Purpose Aircraft from Queensland to Tasmania to announce a highly political “Safer Seats Rorts” grant during the Braddon by-election.”
A government spokesperson told the ABC the planes were being used, or grounded for maintenance.
“It is fundamentally wrong to suggest this was done to stop Kristina Keneally’s visit,” the spokesperson said. “She has been approved to visit the [detention] centre and could fly commercially.”
So she is.
“I am relieved to say that I will still travel to Christmas Island this weekend to meet with the Biloela family, after Peter Dutton yesterday at the last minute cancelled the plane in which I was due to fly for the visit,” she said in a statement on Thursday afternoon.
“I am travelling to Christmas Island on commercial flights, leaving tonight. I thank Virgin Airlines for assisting my office with last-minute booking arrangements. I also thank Australian Border Force for their assistance and prompt approval of my request to visit the family. I am glad I will be able to meet many members of the Christmas Island community during my visit, and of course, I especially look forward to meeting Nades, Priya and their two Australian-born little girls.”
A spokesperson for the ABF said Keneally still had permission to visit the family.
Priya and Nades arrived in Australia seeking protection from Sri Lanka separately, in 2012 and 2013. They settled in the small central Queensland town of Biloela and had two children, Kopika and Tharnicaa.
The girls were born in Australia, but because their parents arrived by sea, they have struggled to receive a protection visa. The home affairs department has repeatedly said the family’s case has been assessed multiple times, but does not meet the criteria for Australia’s protection obligations.
The family were taken from their Biloela home in August 2019 by ABF officials on the grounds Priya and Nades had overstayed their visa. Their deportation was halted by a last-minute federal court injunction and the family have been detained on Christmas Island ever since, as their case works its way through the federal court.
Last month the full bench of the federal court rejected an appeal by the federal government over an earlier ruling by Justice Mark Moshinsky, which found Tharnicaa was denied procedural fairness in making a protection visa application.
Supporters of the family, led by the #HomeToBilo campaign, have called for the new home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, to look at their case with “fresh eyes”. Ministerial discretion is available to be used to grant the family a visa.
Speaking to ABC radio on Thursday morning, Keneally was asked if a future Labor government would do what it has asked the government to do, and release the family from detention.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We’ve been calling for that for years. I don’t know why this is even a question. Of course, this family, as we have said, for years now, this situation can be resolved with the discretion of the minister at a stroke of a pen.
“The minister could make this decision this afternoon. And she should do that. It should not take another year of these little girls lives in detention on Christmas Island, costing millions of taxpayer dollars. This is a situation where we can just bring it to an end today. And the minister should do that.”
The committee as a whole hopes to reschedule its hearings on Christmas Island and Cocos Island to carry out its work at a later date.
The defence website says Australia’s special purpose aircraft consists of two Boeing Business Jets and three Dassault Falcon 7X aircraft, though other defence aircraft can be used depending on circumstances.
The planes are used by the governor general and senior ministers, and one has been booked for Dan Tehan’s European trip to plead Australia’s vaccine case. They can also be used, through an application, for committee and MP work, regardless of party affiliation.