Politics Opinion

Accountability missing over unlawful hotel quarantine fees

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The NSW Government has withdrawn millions in unpaid hotel quarantine fees from people's bank accounts (Image by Dan Jensen)

The mainstream media is failing to report on the unlawfulness of the NSW Government's enforcement of mandatory hotel quarantine fees, writes Diane Lee.

IN JULY of this year, the NSW Government started garnishing the bank accounts of people who were forced to quarantine in a hotel during the height of the pandemic, under the state’s public health orders. While this intervention was supposed to be about community safety, hotel quarantine was a police operation — and a public health failure.

Those who have had money taken from their accounts are vulnerable people. They are already traumatised by what the commonwealth and state governments did to them – first with international flight caps and then mandatory hotel quarantine – and are now having money stolen (there is no other word for it) from their bank accounts. At least $3,000 for one person, even more for a couple or family.

In NSW, electing to go to court to challenge the fee is an option; however, Revenue NSW uses its bureaucracy against individuals who do want to have the matter heard in court. Under the State Debt Recovery Act, people simply need to advise the Commissioner in writing that they are choosing the court option. Revenue NSW responds by saying people must complete a form or debt recovery action will be taken, yet no one can advise the provision.

And if the process is questioned, “clients” are told that no further correspondence will be entered into unless it’s to discuss a payment plan. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the NSW Government doesn’t want anyone to challenge the hotel quarantine fee in court.

And there’s a reason for that.

Charging for hotel quarantine – which was free from March-July 2020 – is unlawful. The former Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, told us so (at time stamp 40:15):

Quite some time ago, I looked at the notion of charging people for their hotel quarantine. The legal advice to us is that we can't do that. To make somebody pay for their own detention would be a truly unique arrangement. That's not something we use in any of our custodial facilities and not something that would withstand challenge.

Redacted FOIs have turned up the fact that legal advice was sought — at both a commonwealth and state (Victorian) level between 10 May and 21 June 2020. The then Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers would have received that same legal advice as Daniel Andrews. It seems this legal advice was ignored and the states and territories started charging for hotel quarantine anyway.

Hotel quarantine fees are unlawful because no one in this country pays for their own custody, which Premier Andrews confirmed. Not refugees in offshore processing centres or in Medevac hotel detention. Not criminals detained at His Majesty’s pleasure. Only unfortunate expats stuck outside the country who couldn’t get home because the Australian Government stopped them and those stuck outside their home state by snap border closures.

The fees are unlawful, but they were rolled out regardless, an inconvenient truth that has been overlooked by the legacy media, politicians and bureaucrats — and the general Australian public.

Where is the outrage? There isn’t any because no one cares. Just like Robodebt, hotel quarantine victims are blamed for being on the wrong side of unlawful government policy. It’s our fault for daring to be outside the country (or in another state) when the pandemic was declared. We deserved it.

Never mind that those living overseas were told early on to shelter in place by DFAT. Never mind that our Constitution protects the rights of residents in states from discrimination. Never mind that the political class ignored a ruling from the High Court about Australian citizens freely entering the country.

With no royal commission in sight, the architects of the hotel quarantine fee and other heavy-handed government measures will get off scot-free. The Inquiry into COVID announced on 21 September is a big scoop of nothing from the Albanese Government; limited powers mean that we won’t get the royal commission that Australia deserves and needs.

And in the meantime, because there is no restorative justice and no backlash from the community, the Government is still making us pay.

Just like Robodebt.

Diane Lee lives in Adelaide and studies law.

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Accountability missing over unlawful hotel quarantine fees

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