Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner has rejected multiple requests for private repatriation flights that would bring stranded Australians to Darwin and shifted responsibility federally, despite Australian Border Forces stating it had “escalated” the requests to NT authorities, documents show.
As news broke in Australia on Thursday the Chief Minister had struck a deal with the Prime Minister to allow commercial flights to bring thousands of Aussies home – and to allow them to quarantine in Darwin – Singapore Air Charter pilot Stefan Wood had just received an official letter from Mr Gunner rejecting his offer of private repatriation flights.
Mr Wood had spent months in back and forth correspondence with Australian Border Force pushing to get flights off the ground and stranded Australians home, before he was notified it was the NT Government blocking the request.
“People had been reaching out for help, I could have filled a plane load every day,” he said.
Mr Wood said he applied for multiple flights into Darwin as Australia’s larger cities struggled to manage the influx of Australians returning home.
“My logic was there were no flights coming into Darwin, and there were no capacity issues,” Mr Wood said.
Darwin’s quarantine facility, previously used as an accommodation camp for Inpex workers, had been dusted off at the onset of the pandemic.
It has a capacity of around 3,500 and has served as the gateway for – at last count – more than 3000 people relocating from COVID-19 hotspots.
“Thank you for your various correspondence,” Mr Gunner writes in a letter dated October 14.
“As you know Australian Border Force is responsible for approving flights like the one you are proposing.
“The Northern Territory has no say over international border entries. Other Australian states are accepting international arrivals and I encourage you to consider flying your charter to another capital city.”
“Disgraceful,” Mr Wood said.
“It took me six emails to get this reply, and then I saw Darwin was being opened for commercial flights to bring stranded Australians from Delhi and London.”
Mr Wood said that while the loosening of border restrictions was a win for the thousands of Australians who had been stuck overseas, it was disappointing his requests had not been taken up sooner.
In correspondence with Australian Border Force, Mr Wood was told his requests had been “escalated… through appropriate avenues”.
“I understand your frustrations and I appreciate you may be getting conflicting advice, however, as per my previous emails I have escalated your request through the appropriate avenues,” the letter stated.
“ABF does not manage NT quarantine facilities and therefore we liaise with the NT authorities if there is capacity to facilitate private charter flights.
“We have been advised by the NT COVID-19 EOC managed by NT Police, that there is no capacity within the quarantine capacity to facilitate your flights.
Senator Sam McMahon said she had assurances from Australian Border Forces and the Department of Home Affairs that they were happy to facilitate charter flights into Darwin.
“All Gunner had to do was say ‘yes, we’ll accept flights’,” Ms McMahon said.
The senator said she had “no idea” why the NT Government had refused to facilitate repatriation flights when there was “no reason to believe capacity was an issue”.
“The NTG has to put in a request and be responsible for quarantine, and that is where the process is falling down,” Ms McMahon said.
“[Mr Gunner] has shifted responsibility onto the Federal Government… and has not provided any reason other than to say it is up to border forces.”