By: Paul Karp
Scott Morrison has defended a trip to see his family on Father’s Day, arguing he went home to Sydney then returned to Canberra under an essential work exemption.
In an interview with Sky News on Tuesday, the prime minister said he understood people’s “frustration” given many Australians are unable to travel but claimed he had been the victim of “misinformation” about the issue.
Morrison remains a resident of Sydney and his travel to Canberra was covered by the same essential work exemption granted to all parliamentarians.
He told Sky News there was “no requirement to get an exemption to go to Sydney” and he had returned home after parliament finished on Thursday and attended national cabinet on Friday.
“The exemption I require is to come back here to the ACT, and as prime minister of course I need to come back to the ACT to have various meetings. There’s very secure information that I can only receive directly, [and] access to individuals.”
Morrison has been roundly criticised for the trip. Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten accused him of “appalling judgment” and Andrew Barr, the chief minister of the ACT government that gave Morrison the exemption to return to the territory, concluded it was “not a particularly good look”.
With Australia’s two largest states and the national capital in lockdown amid Covid-19 outbreaks, and state border restrictions in place, millions of Australians have been separated from family and friends for extended periods.
Since mid-June, Morrison has spent much of his time in Canberra, including two fortnight stints of home quarantine at the Lodge after the G7 trip and before the August sittings of parliament.
On Monday Morrison attended the women’s summit in parliament and a meeting of the national security committee of federal cabinet, but his office has declined to explain why the latter could not be done by secure link to the commonwealth parliamentary offices in Sydney.
Morrison said that he had gone home like all other members of parliament, and that MPs, ministers and the leader of the opposition “would get similar treatment” if they needed to come back to Canberra. He also said the exemption that applied to parliamentarians applied to all essential workers.
“The suggestion that somehow this was an unusual arrangement for members of parliament and the ministers – that just wouldn’t be true. People are misrepresenting it.”
In a Father’s Day post to Instagram on Sunday, Morrison made no mention of reuniting with his family, instead posting a photo he noted was taken earlier in the year.
“Being a dad is a special gift that we are given in life,” the caption said. “On the day this photo was taken of our family together earlier this year I was reminded of just how precious this gift is.”
Asked about the post, Morrison said it was “very cynical” to suggest he had not been upfront about being in Sydney and labelling the suggestion a “low blow”.
‘Not a particularly good look’
Barr told reporters in Canberra that he can “understand community frustration at what they would perceive the prime minister has done in relation to a trip home over the weekend” but noted people are free to leave the ACT and apply for an exemption to come back in.
The ACT chief minister said Morrison had cited the national security meeting of cabinet and women’s summit in his application for an exemption, and that ACT Health had to “take it on trust from the commonwealth” that the former had to be conducted in Canberra.
Barr said the prime minister’s role was “unique” and the ACT needed a functioning system of exemptions for MPs for it to be the seat of the federal government.
“I’m not the prime minister’s keeper,” Barr said, before venturing a personal opinion that it was “not a particularly good look”.
The ACT chief health officer, Kerryn Coleman, refused to comment on Morrison’s specific case, but she said as a public health official it was not up to her to “judge the essentiality” of work.
Earlier, Shorten told Channel Nine’s Today program that Morrison had shown “appalling judgment” because “you can’t have one rule for Mr Morrison and another for everyone else”.
“I was a bit surprised when I read he had done this. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to see his kids but so does every other Australian.
“I think when your people are doing it tough you’ve got to do it tough too.”
Morrison accused Shorten of a “cheap shot” and criticised the former opposition leader for spending the last three sitting weeks at home in Victoria rather than in Canberra to attend parliament.
Asked to square his actions with criticism of states letting elite sportspeople and their families in while maintaining border bans, Morrison said that unlike those cases his family had “remained in Sydney in lockdown”.
“There has been no special rules or exemptions provided to my family. They’ve remained there and they’ve remained separated from me for quite a long period of time,” the prime minister said.
On Sunday some families gathered at the NSW and Queensland border at Tweed Heads and Coolangatta, reuniting over plastic barricades to be with family members without crossing state lines.
In June Morrison was embroiled in controversy over stops on his G7 itinerary exploring his family roots in the UK, prompting claims of double standards as Australia’s border was closed at the time.
In December 2019 Morrison took a family holiday in Hawaii at the height of Australia’s bushfire crisis without announcing the trip before his departure, for which he apologised.
Kristina Keneally, Labor’s shadow minister for government accountability, on Tuesday accused Morrison of taking a “secret trip to Hawaii, [a] secret visit to ancestors’ graves in the UK [and a] secret trip to Sydney”.
“Mr Morrison is all about himself. If he’d just fixed the vaccines and quarantine – perhaps all of us could have spent Father’s Day with our families.”
Asked if this was a case of “Hawaii 2.0” Barr told reporters “I can understand why people would reach that conclusion”.