Rightwing thinktank launches legal challenge to Australia’s travel ban | Australia news

The rightwing thinktank LibertyWorks has launched a federal court challenge to Australia’s travel ban, arguing that the health minister, Greg Hunt, has no power to stop citizens from leaving the country.

The case is the first major challenge to Australia’s strict external border restrictions, which were introduced in March to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The case will not seek to overturn the cap on the number of arrivals to Australia –which human rights bodies have warned may breach international law.

The national cabinet agreed to a ban on Australians leaving Australia, subject to limited exceptions, in an attempt to limit the number of citizens exposed to coronavirus overseas seeking to return home.

Tens of thousands of exemptions have been approved on grounds including personal business and compassionate reasons, but as of September Border Force had refused 13,300 requests.

LibertyWorks’ case, launched on Thursday and announced on Wednesday, seeks to argue that section 96 of the Biosecurity Act does not give the health minister a blanket power to prevent all Australians leaving Australia

Instead the section only allows the health minister to prevent “an individual” leaving Australia “for a specified period of no more than 28 days”, said LibertyWorks’ president, Andrew Cooper.

Cooper told Guardian Australia “the government shouldn’t be in the position of picking and choosing who is worthy of an exemption”.

“There are tens of thousands of people who wish to go overseas and can’t get an exemption due to the illiberal interpretation of this piece of legislation,” he said.

“There is no argument that someone going overseas impacts the health of remaining Australians in Australia.”

Cooper argued that although Australians travelling overseas may add to the backlog of more than 36,000 who want to return home, that was their “free choice”.

He said state-based limits on the number of people in hotel quarantine were also “pretty draconian”, particularly when people were prepared to quarantine and pay for it, but it was “difficult to see an easy line of sight” on how to challenge the caps.

LibertyWorks has asked for an expedited hearing and hopes the federal court can hear and decide the case early in 2021.

A spokesperson for Hunt said decisions relating to the Biosecurity Act “are made on the basis of medical advice from the chief medical officer in accordance with the Act”.

“Neither the minister nor the department comment on specific matters before the courts.”

All significant litigation against Australian jurisdictions’ coronavirus restrictions has so far proved unsuccessful. The high court has rejected claims that Victoria’s restrictions violate freedom of movement and that Western Australia’s border ban breached the constitution.

LibertyWorks is a rightwing thinktank with links to US conservatives that organises the Australian Conservative Political Action Conference.

It is also engaged in a constitutional challenge to Australia’s foreign influence transparency scheme, arguing that the scheme, which requires agents of foreign influence to declare their affiliation on a public register, breaches the implied freedom of political communication.

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