Scott Morrison has defended side-stops on his G7 itinerary exploring his family roots in the United Kingdom, rejecting claims of double standards as Australia’s border remains closed.
Morrison told Sydney radio station 2GB on Monday that the detours in Cornwall – which included a visit to a jail, church and local pubs – were “along the way”, while the finance minister Simon Birmingham has also defended the trip as an act of “soft diplomacy”.
Australia’s international border has been shut since March 2020, with outbound travel strictly limited by a system of exemptions for critical business and compassionate reasons.
Morrison attended the G7 in Cornwall last week. On the trip, he visited a number of pubs including the Jamaica Inn in Bolventor, Three Tuns in St Keverne and the Old Quay House in Hayle.
After the pubs boasted on their social media that they were thrilled to welcome Morrison, controversy flared late last week as Australians complained they were separated from their families and unable to travel to do the same.
In addition to the outbound ban, Australia’s system of strict caps on hotel quarantine has made travel back to Australia increasingly difficult, with about 40,000 Australians still stranded overseas and unable to return home.
On Monday, controversy around the side-stops intensified after local Cornish media reported that Morrison’s trip was structured around investigating his family roots, as he is descended from William Roberts, a Cornish convict.
Queensland Labor senator Nita Green tweeted: “While there’s outbreaks, lock downs and vaccine bungles in Australia, Scott - it’s not a race - Morrison goes on a leisurely frolic through the English countryside to learn more about himself.’’
Morrison’s trip included a visit to Bodmin Jail and the St Keverne parish church, where he reportedly wrote in the visitor book: “Thank you for your very kind welcome to St Keverne. It has been wonderful to return ‘home’ in memory of William Roberts.”
Morrison was pictured with Australia’s high commissioner to the UK, former attorney general George Brandis. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the trip had been planned for weeks.
Asked if the trip constituted a double standard as Britain is regarded as too dangerous for Australians to travel to, Morrison replied: “I wouldn’t describe it like that at all.”
“I mean, we had to land north of London as opposed to landing down there in Cornwall because of the fog,” Morrison told 2GB Radio.
“And we stopped off along the way.
“We had some lunch and stopped off in another location on the way and after the G7 on the way to the airport, we stopped at another place, which just happens to be where my fifth-great-grandfather was from.”
Morrison said the trip was “pretty innocent” and describing it as a side trip to explore his convict family roots was “massively overstating it”.
Birmingham said that “all leaders when they’re overseas engage in soft diplomacy”.
“That’s the nature of building relations with other countries and other communities and the substance of the prime minister’s trip saw a trade agreement signed with the UK, it saw the Nato summit make strong statements in relation to China,” he told ABC News Breakfast.
“It saw agreements for cooperation for hydrogen signed with leaders of Germany and Singapore and saw an agreement with the leader of Japan there.”
Pressed on the point of whether the trip was a personal visit, Birmingham said “that type of engagement is precisely what a soft diplomacy-type exercise is … showing the connection between leaders and other countries and between nations is, indeed, very much [soft diplomacy]”.
Birmingham said there was “plenty of agenda and substance” to the trip, including Morrison’s first in-person meeting with US president Joe Biden, and it was “a crucial opportunity that the prime minister was right to seize and pursue”.
The former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has also been allowed to travel out of Australia twice on an automatic exemption granted for people on government business.
Abbott’s trips included travel to the UK in August, before he was granted a position as a trade envoy for Boris Johnson’s government, and attendance in Rome at a mass delivered by George Pell.
In December 2019, Morrison apologised for taking a family holiday in Hawaii during the height of Australia’s summer bushfires.