National Party MP Barnaby Joyce says the Biloela family being held on Christmas Island would be treated differently if they were not Sri Lankan.
The fate of the Murugappan family, who lived for several years in the Queensland town of Biloela, is expected to be settled within days.
The family has been detained for almost three years as it fights deportation to Sri Lanka.
Their plight is back in the spotlight after the youngest daughter, four-year-old, Australian-born Tharnicaa, was evacuated to Perth for medical treatment.
Speaking on the Sunrise morning show Monday, Mr Joyce said the family would be treated differently if Tharnicaa and her sister Kopika had western names.
Mr Joyce said the two girls “didn’t buy their tickets” and had a right to stay in Australia “despite what the allegations might be about their parents or their father”.
“Tharnicaa and Kopika were born in Australia. Maybe if their names were Jane and Sally we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from,” he said.
“Why not send them to Southern Sudan, why not send them to Rwanda to Belarus? They’re also countries they were never born in,” Mr Joyce added.
"I know this is going to leave me offside with other people in my party"
— Sunrise (@sunriseon7) June 13, 2021
Tharnicaa needs months of specialist treatment for pneumonia and sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection, and the West Australian health department has advised the family should be reunited in Perth.
The girls’ parents, Nades and Priya, were employed in Biloela before their detention, and Mr Joyce said regional Australia was in need of migrants to fill unemployment gaps.
The former Nationals leader was one of several Coalition MPs calling for the family to remain in Australia but conceded the intervention would “leave me offside with other people in my party”.
The federal government has spent $6.7 million detaining the family since August 2019 when an 11th-hour court injunction prevented their deportation to Sri Lanka.
Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack said on Monday morning it was his understanding that the family were “being reunited in Perth”, after being separated for several days.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the government was considering its options and would take advice from the chief medical officer at the Department of Home Affairs.
“We have medical experts as part of the Department of Home Affairs and supporting the work of the Australian Border Force,” Mr Morrison said.
“Those issues are always carefully considered in all of these sensitive cases and indeed will be on this occasion.”
Pressure is mounting on the Morrison government to let the family stay in Australia, with politicians from across the spectrum calling for them to be allowed to return to their adopted home of Biloela in central Queensland.
Mr Morrison has signalled his government could finally back away from its hardline stance and allow the family to stay in Australia, at least on a temporary basis.
“There are options that are being considered that are consistent with both health advice and the humanitarian need and the government’s policy,” he said.
However, the Prime Minister said permanent resettlement was out of the question.
“That wouldn’t be government policy for a pathway to permanent settlement – that is not the government’s policy.”
With the decision pending, nine health organisations representing tens of thousands of medical experts across Australia have signed an open letter calling for the family’s release.
Paediatrician Jacqueline Small from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians said the children must be allowed to develop and grow in the community.
“We feel very strongly keeping these children in held detention, particularly offshore detention, represents an extreme and unacceptable risk to the children’s health, development and mental wellbeing,” she told ABC radio.
“Given both children were in held detention from their toddlerhood, the risks are even higher.”
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke could allow the family to stay in Australia by granting a visa not reserved for refugees, such as skilled migrant or work permits.
Priya and Nades Murugappan met after fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war by boat in 2012 and 2013.
Tharnicaa and her older sister Kopika were both born in Australia after the couple established themselves in Biloela.
Their deportation from Australia is being fought in the courts.
Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon rejected the argument that showing the family compassion and exercising discretion would somehow restart the people-smuggling trade.
“I don’t accept that finding a solution – and surely we are smart enough to find a solution for this family – is going to open those floodgates again,” he told Sky News.
“I just don’t believe it.”