Biloela family to be released but Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has yet to reveal the terms, writes political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.

THE Biloela Tamil family will finally be released from detention.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke will announce this on Tuesday, but we have yet to learn the terms of that release.

Michelle Grattan

There are several options. These include letting the Murugappan family live in the community while their current legal action continues, allowing them to apply for a non-refugee visa (the parents have been denied refugee status), or simply giving them some sort of other visa now.

The first course would be churlish, bring more criticism on the government, add to its taxpayer-funded legal costs, and risk inviting a new round of controversy at some later point.

The last option would be the simplest, cleanest way to deal with the whole unfortunate saga.

We should be clear about this. The government would not be removing the family from detention this week if the younger child Tharunicaa hadn’t become seriously ill, and had to be transferred from Christmas Island, where they have been since 2019, to a Perth hospital (accompanied by her mother).

To the extent the government is exercising compassion now, it is compassion driven by the bad publicity it is suffering.

The timing is also to pre-empt the parliamentary sitting, starting Tuesday, during which Michael McCormack is acting prime minister until Scott Morrison returns from overseas.

When the pictures of hospitalised Tharunicaa appeared in the media, there was a public outcry. Some Coalition backbenchers, including Trent Zimmerman and Katie Allen, started to speak out publicly to say enough was enough.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce went close to an accusation of racism, suggesting if the girls’ names were “Jane and Sally” and they played in the local netball team “we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from”.

“Why not send them to Southern Sudan, why not send them to Rwanda to Belarus? They’re also countries they were never born in,” Joyce said, arguing they should be enitled to stay in Australia because they were born here.

Joyce’s message had cut-through, although on moral rather than legal grounds – they are not entitled to citizenship because they were born in Australia.

The Nationals Ken O'Dowd, whose electorate of Flynn covers Biloela, has been a long term advocate for the family, who have strong support in the town. He told the ABC he had spoken to Hawke who “wants a favourable outcome”.

Others in government ranks take a tougher line, worrying about the precedent of making an exception, and the message that would be sent.

They raise their binoculars to the horizon. Could that be a people smuggler boat?

Well no. More likely the ocean version of a mirage.

Even before Tharunicaa’s medical evacuation, Hawke had been asked as part of the legal process to review the case and consider whether he should lift the ban on the Murugappans being allowed to seek another sort of visa. O'Dowd said this involved more than 2,000 pages of reading.

The child’s evacuation shortened Hawke’s time frame and, given the public storm, effectively ensured the family had to be let out of detention.

Scott Morrison, questioned in the United Kingdom, had a tone of irritation in his answers, as he said options were being worked through.

Asked whether the family would be settled in Australia, he said, “Well, when we have more to say on that matter, well, settled? Well, that wouldn’t be government policy for a pathway to permanent settlement. That is not the government’s policy.”

Pressed further, he said, “Well, I just said there are options that are being considered that are consistent with both health advice and the humanitarian need and the government’s policy.”

Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack had a bob each way, saying the government didn’t want to do anything to encourage people smugglers; on the other hand, this was a “humanitarian government”, and he personally was a “compassionate person”.

The formal decision about the family rests in the hands of Hawke as minister. We usually hear little about Hawke, and when we do it’s often in his role as a member of Morrison’s inner factional circle and a numbers man. He can be expected to have been working closely with his leader.

Biloela family moved to community detention in Perth

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This article was originally published on The Conversation

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