Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed away from threats of jail or hefty fines for Australians returning from India in a heated exchange on the Nine network.
Speaking to the Today Show from Rockhampton on Tuesday, Mr Morrison clashed with host Karl Stefanovic, defending the restrictions announced at the weekend – and introduced on Monday.
The PM admitted the threat of jail or fines for returning Aussies returning from India was “highly unlikely”.
Stefanovic accused Mr Morrison of being “incredibly heartless” for threatening to fine “returning Aussies” up to $66,000 or jailing them for five years if they chose to return between now and when the India flight ban is expected to lift on May 15.
“Jailing and fining returning Aussies, I mean, as a sitting prime minister, it is incredibly heartless,” Stefanovic said.
Mr Morrison said the likelihood of those penalties was “pretty much zero”.
“You’re saying no one will go to jail or be fined, is that right?” Stefanovic clarified.
“I think it’s highly unlikely,” Mr Morrison said.
“These powers, at their most extreme end, have not been used for those sorts of sanctions in the entire time we’ve had these biosecurity regulations in place.
“We will be administering it, in perspective, and that’s certainly the understanding the border force and other enforcement agencies have,” he said.
Stefanovic then suggested the Morrison government had had a “shift” in intentions after imposing the revised travel ban and threats of criminal sanctions.
Mr Morrison had earlier told the network the likelihood criminal sanctions would be imposed was “pretty much zero”.
“These arrangements have always been dealt with responsibly and proportionately and that’s what I’m expecting from Border Force officials,” he said.
“I’ve said the likelihood of any sanction, anything like that, is extremely remote, and that’s what it is.”
‘Chest-beating’ government policy: Wong
Labor senator Penny Wong also questioned the tough India policy, asking why was it announced if there was “zero chance” of people being fined or going to jail.
“We have a situation where Australian citizens not only are prevented from coming home, not only are still stranded in India, but we have this chest-beating announcement about putting people in jail, or fining them up to $60,000,” she said.
“Now, this morning the Prime Minister said there’s zero chance of these penalties being imposed. Well, we’ve got a simple question, and I think many Australians do too: well, why did you announce it?.”
PM ‘has blood on his hands’
The clash comes as a former Test cricketer accused the PM of having “blood on his hands” over the jail threat.
Former opener Michael Slater, 51, who is reportedly in the Maldives attempting to return home from a commentary stint in India, was furious at the ban on up to 9000 Australian citizens returning home.
Slater, who played 74 Test matches for Australia in the 1990s, launched the tirade against Mr Morrison on social media on Monday night.
“If our government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home. It’s a disgrace!!,” he tweeted.
“Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this?”
“And those who think this is a money exercise. Well, forget it,” he tweeted a few hours later.
“This is what I do for a living and I have not made a penny having left early. So please stop the abuse and think of the thousands dying in India each day. It’s called empathy. If only our government had some!”
Mr Morrison is on the back foot over Australians stuck in India, after doctors, human rights groups, some within the Coalition and even conservative commentators blasted the ban.
“This is about getting more people home safely, preventing a third wave here in Australia,” he told Today.
PM says jail time, fines at ‘extreme end of scale’
Mr Morrison has committed to review the travel pause, which will remain until at least May 15.
India had more than 300,000 new cases for a 12th straight day on Monday, but medical experts warn the real number could be up to 10 times higher.
Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten said Slater was saying what a lot of people were thinking.
“Mr Morrison should have created special quarantine facilities here. He’s had 16 months. Michael Slater is just telling the truth,” Mr Shorten told Nine.
The government imposed the ban based on advice from chief medical officer Paul Kelly, who has conceded that Australians could die in India during the pause.
There are about 9000 Australians in India who want to return home, with 650 considered vulnerable.
Australia has provided medical and protective equipment to India, with an extra 1000 ventilators announced on Monday.