The Morrison government has avoided the possibility a court might knock down an order by the health minister, Greg Hunt, that all foreign-registered cruise ships leave Australian waters as soon as possible by settling a lawsuit brought by the tour company APT.
During a brief federal court hearing held via video link on Wednesday morning, the counsel for Hunt and other government entities, Jeremy Kirk SC, told the court the two sides had reached an in-principle deal.
If the deal holds, it will leave intact a determination Hunt issued on 27 March under the Biosecurity Act ordering foreign-flagged cruise ships out of Australian waters “as soon as reasonably practicable” owing to the coronavirus crisis.
While most cruise ships have already left the country, a few, including the Covid-19-riddled Ruby Princess, remain in Australia.
The APT-operated cruise ship at the centre of the court case, the Caledonian Sky, which carries some 114 passengers and is registered in the Bahamas, is now moored in Darwin.
Success by APT would have dealt a heavy blow to the government’s strategy in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
Judge Angus Stewart said Australian law recognised the vulnerable position of seafarers and gave them special protection. “The case called for a just and humanitarian settlement,” he said.
He said there were arguments to be made for an exception to Hunt’s orders and instructions to leave the country given by the Australian Border Force commissioner, Michael Outram.
“As a leading member of the international community of nations, Australia, as it is, should be able to find a just and humanitarian resolution for this vessel.”
Stewart adjourned the case until Friday, when it will be heard if settlement talks fall apart.
Kirk said Outram had agreed not to evict the Caledonian Sky from Australian waters until next Tuesday.
APT and Border Force have been contacted for comment.
Cruise ships have been a major factor in spreading Covid-19 through the community, with the Ruby Princess outbreak responsible for about a third of Australia’s cases.
At a hearing last week Stewart said APT’s application “potentially affects all foreign cruise vessels in Australian territory and not only the particular vessel otherwise directly affected by this case”.
Last week Outram said seven offshore-flagged cruise ships remained in Australian waters and he expected four of those to leave by the end of the week.