A ‘relieved’ Senator Kristina Keneally will be on her way to Christmas Island within hours to visit a detained Tamil family, despite her earlier plans being grounded.
The Labor senator will leave on a commercial flight late on Thursday, after getting Australian Border Force approval for her visit to the family from Biloela who are held on the island.
“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,” she said on Thursday.
The Biloela family, including daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa, have spent more than three years in detention.
Community members have campaigned tirelessly for them to be returned to their adopted home in central Queensland.
The family had told the ABC they had been looking forward to meeting opposition home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally in person.
“It’s just unbelievable, shocking that this has been cancelled,” Angela Fredericks, a friend of the Biloela family, said.
“Four wonderful people, our friends, are just being treated as political pawns in a game.
“Their life is very hard in detention and they always appreciate the opportunity to show what their reality is.”
Senator Keneally, who said Labor would allow the family to return to Biloela if the party won the next election, was planning on taking a birthday present from Priya’s friends and a gift for the children.
She said her permission to visit the detention centre was confirmed by the Australian Border Force at 4.50pm on Wednesday.
But 22 minutes later, she received an email saying Mr Dutton had “determined that the special purpose aircraft can no longer be made available” for the trip.
A government spokesperson told the ABC the planes were all either in use – including by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Trade Minister Dan Tehan – or undergoing maintenance.
“The visit to Christmas and Cocos islands had been planed for months by the joint standing committee on the national capital and external territories, of which I am a member,” she said.
Former defence minister Linda Reynolds had approved the use of a federal government special purpose aircraft, given the scarcity of flights to the islands.
Other MPs and senators from both sides of parliament were to join Senator Keneally on the trip, which was also to look at communications infrastructure. They will no longer be going.
“While I can’t do everything that the parliamentary delegation planned to do during this visit, I will do as much as I can, including meeting with the Bioloela family” Senator Keneally said.
She repeated her view that the detained family should be allowed to return home to Biloela.