Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed away from the threat of jailing Australians who try to return home from Covid-hit India in a tense TV interview on Tuesday morning.
As backlash grows against the federal government's strict India ban, Mr Morrison said penalties of $66,000 fines and five year jail terms were "extremely remote".
Today host Karl Stefanovic described the policy, enacted under the Biosecurity Act as "incredibly heartless".
"It's not getting any better in India. In fact it's getting worse and jailing and fining returning Aussies, I mean, as a sitting prime minister, it's incredibly heartless," he said.
With the government attempting to tone down its rhetoric around fines and jail time, Mr Morrison said the powers were at the extreme end of the scale and were "highly unlikely" to be enforced.
"I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero. This is a measure which ensures that we can keep Australia safe at this time. And we can get more Australians back safely," he said.
Australian cricket legend Michael Slater accused the PM on Monday night of having "blood on his hands" and called the government a "disgrace" for the policy – criticism Mr Morrison batted away as "obviously absurd" during the interview.
Prime minister denies shifting his stance on India
Mr Morrison also rejected the assertion the heavy-handed ban meant the nation's quarantine system wasn't up to scratch 14 months into the pandemic.
"What it means is that what we're seeing in India, even in Covid terms, is unprecedented and so, you know, every system is going to face its stressors and I'm not going to break the system," he said.
"What I'm going to do is take proportionate action to protect the system so I can bring more Australians home and keep Australians safe for the longer term."
As the interview grew tense, the PM denied there had been a shift in the tough language from the government.
“So, we have had a shift. There is no doubt about that. I think most Australians…,” Mr Stefanovic said before being cut off by the prime minister.
"No, Karl we haven't had a shift. How you are reporting it is a shift," he argued.
After announcing the strict measures shortly after midnight on Friday, the government has faced pushback within its own ranks, including a public denouncement by Senator Matt Canavan, as well as strong criticism from Indian community leaders in the country.
Government accused of 'chest beating'
On Tuesday morning, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong labelled the strict penalties a "chest beating" exercise for the government.
Reacting to Mr Morrison's defence on Today, Ms Wong suggested the move had backfired on the government.
"This morning the prime minister said there's zero chance of these penalties being imposed... Well why did you announce it?
"Is the only reason you announced it to get a tough headline, which has now blown up in your face?"
The strict ban is expected to be repealed on May 15. When pressed by media later on Tuesday, Mr Morrison left the door open to repealing the biosecurity measure early.
India recorded more than 300,000 new cases for a 12th straight day on Monday, but medical experts warn the real number could be up to 10 times higher.
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