Kristina Keneally has accused Peter Dutton of cancelling her trip to Christmas Island where she was to visit a Tamil family from Biloela who have been detained in the detention centre since August 2019.
The Labor senator said she had been granted permission by the Australian Border Force at 4.50pm to visit the detention centre next week and she tweeted she was looking forward to meeting Priya, Nades and their children.
But Keneally said just 22 minutes after receiving permission from the ABF on Wednesday, she received an email saying the “defence minister has determined that the special purpose aircraft can no longer be made available for the committee’s travel”.
“Dutton cancelled the trip,” she tweeted underneath the timeline of events.
Guardian Australia understands the secretariat of the parliamentary committee advised committee members that the defence minister’s decision had been triggered by competing government travel requirements.
The defence minister has been contacted for comment.
Keneally had been due to visit the detention centre as part of the joint standing committee on the national capital and external capitals, which was headed to Christmas Island and the Cocos Island to consult with local community groups on the availability and access to communications infrastructure, as an Australian external territory.
A public hearing had been planned for 19 April on Christmas Island. As part of that visit, Keneally had been granted permission by border force, which sits under Dutton’s previous ministry of home affairs, to visit the family while on the trip.
With the cancellation of the special purpose aircraft, the bipartisan committee can no longer make the trip which was also going to see two days of hearings held on Cocos Islands on 20-21 April.
Special purpose flights fall under the responsibility of the defence minister.
Keneally said it seemed like “a vindictive move”.
“The minister may have a perfectly reasonable explanation but he hasn’t provided it,” she told Guardian Australia. “This seems a vindictive move by Peter Dutton to deny not just me but any member or senator who is going to Christmas Island the opportunity to meet with the Biloela family.”
Keneally said the committee’s trip had been planned for months and involved community consultation, community meetings and a local reception.
“Now all of this has been cancelled at the very last minute by Peter Dutton almost within minutes of it being publicly confirmed I had permission to visit the Biloela family.”
Keneally said she did not know whether Dutton had seen the film Muriel’s Wedding, but, citing a key line, she added: “Deidre Chambers - what a coincidence!”
The Tamil family, which has been supported by the #hometobilo campaign since they were taken from their Queensland home and sent into detention, has been lobbying for their release, with supporters asking the new home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, to look at their case “with fresh eyes”.
The family – Priya and Nades Murugappan and their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa – have been involved in a protracted court battle based on Tharnicaa’s right to apply for a protection visa.
Last month the full bench of the federal court rejected an appeal by the federal government over an earlier ruling by justice Mark Moshinsky, which found Tharnicaa was denied procedural fairness in making a protection visa application.
Vigils continue to be held to bring the family home.