Supporters of a Tamil asylum-seeker family are hopeful Barnaby Joyce’s return to the deputy prime ministership will put more pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to send them back to the Queensland community of Biloela.
Mr Joyce regained the second most senior political job in the country on Monday after defeating Michael McCormack in a Nationals leadership spill.
It’s provided an injection of hope for the supporters of the Murugappan family, who have been detained by the Australian government for more than three years.
Mr Joyce last week called for Priya and Nades and their two Australian-born daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, to be allowed to go home to the Biloela. He also appeared to accuse the government of racism.
“Tharnicaa and Kopika were born in Australia. Maybe if their names were Jane and Sally we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from,” Mr Joyce told the Seven Network last week.
“Why not send them to Southern Sudan, why not send them to Rwanda to Belarus? They’re also countries they were never born in.”
The family was last week reunited in Perth after five-year-old Tharnicaa was sent there for urgent medical treatment from Christmas Island, where the family had been detained since August 2019.
They have since been told they can stay in community detention in the West Australian capital until their legal fight against deportation is resolved, but are unable to return to Biloela.
The government has repeatedly said granting the family permanent residency would reignite the people-smuggling trade.
Angela Fredericks, of the Home to Bilo supporter group, said she hoped Monday’s Nationals leadership change will heap pressure on Mr Morrison and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to send her friends “home”.
“The new deputy prime minister has long been an outspoken advocate for this family,” Ms Fredericks said in a statement.
“Now Mr Joyce is returned to the leadership, I hope he will continue to advocate for Priya, Nades, and their two Queensland-born girls.”
Ms Fredericks said it was important to move quickly.
“We’re running out of time. Priya and her family have been only given temporary protection here in Perth due to Tharni’s health issues, but just last week Minister Hawke was still threatening to send them to danger in Sri Lanka. Having Mr Joyce back as Deputy Prime Minister might bring the new hope this family desperately needs.”
Ms Fredericks said she personally met with Mr Joyce in Canberra two years ago.
“He has been so supportive of this family for a very long time,” she said in a separate interview with AAP on Monday.
“He has supported us. We are quite encouraged to know that we’ve got somebody who has taken the time to listen in such a great position.”
Another family friend, Bronwyn Dendle, told the ABC from Biloela on Monday supporters of the family are feeling “really hopeful that [Mr Joyce] can have that hard conversation with Mr Morrison and ask him to stop the cruelty”.
Ms Dendle said she intended to reach out to Mr Joyce to continue the conversation and “groundswell of public support for the family”.
A video released by the family’s supporters on Monday showed Kopika and Tharnicaa being pushed in a trolley through a department store in Perth.
“This is my first time going in a trolley,” Tharnicaa said with a smile.
“I like the sparkly shoes,” Kopika added.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese also advocated for the Murugappans’ return to Biloela on Monday, saying Mr Joyce should “make sure it happens”.
“One of the things that he will be in a position to do is to demand that happens,” he told reporters. “One of the issues that we certainly will be holding him to account is all of the comments that he’s made in recent times, including that one.
“That is one which the Biloela community, which I have visited in 2019, clearly supports and it is one which Barnaby Joyce was right when he made those comments.”
A small but growing number of Liberal MPs have also sided with the family, including Katie Allen, Trent Zimmerman, Jason Falinski and Ken O’Dowd.
The Murugapans were living in Biloela before their bridging visas expired and were taken into detention in a night raid in 2018.
Nades and Priya have said they face persecution if they are deported to Sri Lanka.
Both Tamils, they fled their homeland after the country’s civil war and came separately by boat to Australia.