Liberal MPs raise concern over cap on Aussies returning home

The Morrison government is facing a backbench push to help thousands of stranded Australians return home, with MPs calling for a review of Australia's strict cap on international arrivals.

At least four Coalition MPs raised the issue of the cap on international arrivals at a Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday morning in Canberra.

The government will review the cap on international arrivals.Credit:Jason South

Several Nationals MPs also used the Coalition's joint party room meeting to voice their concerns about state border closures which have caused havoc for regional communities, the agriculture workforce and access to rural health services.

The first face-to-face meeting of Coalition MPs in nine weeks lasted almost two hours, canvassing many issues stemming from the government's response to the pandemic.

MPs have been fielding concerns from constituents about family members unable to return under the cap of about 4000 arrivals a week.

National cabinet decided to halve the number of arrivals to Australia in July after Victoria stopped taking returned travellers amid its second coronavirus wave.

Airlines are prioritising business and first class passengers to remain profitable, with planes carrying as few as four economy passengers.

The MPs who raised the issue of the cap in Tuesday's party room included Victorian Liberal MP Tim Wilson and NSW MPs Trent Zimmerman and Dave Sharma, according to sources in the room.

Mr Wilson was the first to raise the issue, telling the room all Australians had a right to return to their country there are a lot of people in hardship who had been denied a pathway to return.

Mr Zimmerman endorsed Mr Wilson's comments, raising the issue of people who had time-limited visas, such as provisional marriage visa.

Mr Sharma told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that Australia was an "outwards-facing nation".

"One in three Australians was born overseas. There are usually one million Australians working, studying or travelling overseas at any given time," Mr Sharma said.

"The health risks of these pandemic are serious, and we need to take prudent steps at our borders to defend against this, but we also need to allow Australians to come and go.”

Queensland MP Andrew Laming, who was not in the party room meeting, said there were also economic reasons to look at the issue along with the need for family reunification.

"Increasingly the quarantine process is going to be become the new normal, it will be a part of economic activity and a genuine source of employment that otherwise would not occur," Dr Laming said.

"Brisbane alone has 6.8 million room nights a year, and the Queensland government cannot sustain an argument that 500 per day is their operational maximum."

DFAT last week confirmed 371,000 Australians had returned home since March, with about 27,000 remaining overseas including 18,800 who want to return to Australia.

Fiona Webster, DFAT's acting first assistant secretary of the consular and crisis management division, told the COVID-19 Senate inquiry that about 3000 of the Australians – or 15 per cent – were classed as "vulnerable" for medical and financial reasons.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday said his government had no immediate plans to lift the cap, but it would be reviewed in a fortnight's time.

He said the NSW government was bearing the biggest load of quarantining returning Australians.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has warned that it would be premature to consider lifting the cap on international arrivals because of the high risk nature of hotel quarantine.

Several MPs in recent weeks, including Mr Sharma, independent Zali Steggall, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek have also reported receiving numerous requests for assistance from residents stuck in Australia because of the travel ban.

Since March 25, most Australian citizens and permanent residents have required government permission to travel or move overseas. Temporary visa holders and Australians in exempt categories, such as people who normally live overseas, do not need permission to leave.

Australian Border Force granted permission for 22,640 citizens and permanent residents to depart Australia from March 25 to July 31, out of 91,950 applications in total. Applications can cover more than one person and one person can make multiple applications.

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