The federal Labor home affairs spokeswoman has declared there are “too many cooks in the kitchen” of Australian border policy amid the Ruby Princess fiasco but declined to support the bestowal of increased powers on border authorities.
The cruise ship’s Sydney disembarkation on March 19 after an 11-day voyage to New Zealand is connected to at least 21 coronavirus deaths in Australia and hundreds of cases.
A special commission of inquiry has been established in NSW to determine how the ship’s 2700 passengers were permitted to disembark without adequate health checks, and is running in parallel to a criminal investigation by NSW Police.
The Australian Border Force has repeatedly blamed NSW health authorities for this action.
However Labor home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally again argued on Sunday the ultimate authority for the Ruby Princess’ disembarkation rested with federal authorities.
She said that from March 15, when foreign-flagged cruise ships were banned from Australia, the health of Ruby Princess passengers should have come under the Australian Border Force’s oversight – and refused to accept the role had been delegated to NSW Health.
This was due to “bespoke arrangements” announced at the time by Prime Minister Scott Morrison for foreign-flagged ships with Australians on board.
“It does seem like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, when it comes to our border security,” Ms Keneally said on ABC TV.
“I do think that it does need to be examined, and clearly what the Ruby Princess has exposed is that there are gaping holes in our border security.”
The Ruby Princess on Thursday departed Australian waters after a fortnight-long stint docked at Port Kembla, with more than 200 crew members coming down with COVID-19. A dozen crew members were evacuated to NSW hospitals.
A doctor on board the Ruby Princess, Dr Ilse Von Watzdorf, on Thursday told the NSW special commission of inquiry that the ship’s passengers had been permitted to disembark the ship on March 19 before COVID-19 test results were known.
Some 24 passengers on that day had reported high temperatures.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on Sunday accused Ms Keneally of politicking.
“They’re not doctors and nurses, they don’t have a say about whether people are well or not,” Mr Dutton said of Australian Border Force employees on Sky News.
“We’ve been able to manage responsibly, working very closely with state authorities, who have responsibility in the end here – we’ve been able to help people get well, stabilise the situation on the ships, reduce to zero the threat to our country.”
Mr Dutton said that of the 28 cruise ships in Australian waters on March 15, only one remained and is expected to depart in the coming days.