Scott Morrison’s Facebook page is spending $2,000 on ads targeting the Indian community in Australia to explain the travel ban, as a community leader says the hardline policy will cost the government votes.
The ban prevents Australians who have been in India in the previous 14 days from returning to Australia, with threats of fines and jail time if they return. The government says it was enacted in response to the high number of cases of Covid-19 in India but since it was announced, Morrison has been in damage control against accusations the policy is racist.
On Tuesday, the prime minister launched three sponsored videos on Facebook, including subtitles in Hindi and Punjabi, where he talks directly to the camera about the ban.
In the nearly nine-minute-long video, Morrison notes the Indian community in Australia is a “generous and kind community” going through a difficult time.
“I know this is a time of great pain and great fear, as many families in Australia have lost ones in India,” he says in the video. “You know we are witnessing in India an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.”
But he explained the decision to ban returning Australians from India on the basis of medical advice. He said the “temporary” pause would be reconsidered on 15 May, and reviewed every day before then.
One of the videos with no subtitles, which ran for one day and was targeted to reach between 500,000 and 1 million people, cost $800-$900. Two subtitled videos in Hindi and Punjabi, which are still running at the time of publication, are aimed at reaching between 100,000-500,000 and 50,000-100,000 respectively. Those two videos cost $900-$1,100 together, putting the total spend at close to $2,000.
In one Indians in Australia Facebook group with more than 34,000 members, a comment on the video suggested it was damage control for the next federal election.
According to Facebook’s Ad Library, where the information was published, Morrison’s Indian community advertising doesn’t rank in the top 20 of political ad spending in Australia for the past week, with many ads associated with the Tasmanian election appearing ahead, and the Mindaroo Foundation’s Thrive by Five project topping the spending at $50,000 in the past week.
The online advertising push comes as immigration minister Alex Hawke holds a series of roundtable meetings with Indian community leaders in Australia to explain the policy and hear their concerns. He held his sixth meeting on Thursday.
The founder of Turbans 4 Australia, Amar Singh, met Hawke in one of the roundtables and said he was looking for a solid plan from the government on what will happen once the ban is lifted, but left the meeting wanting.
“I couldn’t make anything out of that meeting to that extent,” he said. “For them to announce this ban, there needs to be more information provided to the community here as well as the people stuck in India.”
There are an estimated 9,000 Australians in India waiting to get back to Australia. Singh said people in India are getting only getting very sparse information from the government.
“It certainly has hurt a lot of people and they feel they’ve been disowned by their own country,” he said. “For someone to be stuck there, the financial strain on their family is huge, and they have no fallback.”
Singh said the risk of dying from Covid-19 while in India was also a major risk because of the lack of ICU beds and oxygen available. He said discussion online among the Indian community in Australia was that the travel ban policy would affect votes for the Morrison government at the next election.
“There are people in WhatsApp and Facebook groups saying ‘we are not going to vote Liberal next time’,” he said. “That’s not me, that’s them.”
Singh said his organisation was happy to help the government in whatever capacity they could, including with resources to plan coming out of the ban, or provide language support if needed.
At a press conference on Thursday, when asked what the Australian government was doing to help vulnerable or sick Australians in India, the prime minister said support was available through consular offices, and that, “Australia will be bringing people back home from India soon.”
“Had we not taken the decision that we’ve taken most recently, we would have been putting at risk our ability to do that on a sustainable basis,” he said. “We took this decision in the interests of Australians’ health and safety and national interests, as well as the health and safety of those we want to be able to bring home.”
Guardian Australia has sought comment from Hawke’s office.