The Morrison government is considering citing Covid restrictions as a reason for officials to stay away from the Beijing Winter Olympics, as calls grow for Australia to follow the US in a diplomatic boycott.
Guardian Australia understands while an announcement could be made soon, the government is unlikely to take as strong a position as the Biden administration, which blasted China over “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity”.
The Australian government was still considering the language to be used, with suggestions that it may not be presented as a boycott. Instead, it is weighing up saying officials will not go because Covid restrictions meant they would mostly be confined to their hotel rooms.
The New Zealand government said on Tuesday it would not send diplomatic representatives at a ministerial level to the Winter Olympics, citing “a range of factors but mostly to do with Covid”.
The Australian government has been watching closely the actions of the US when it comes to a diplomatic boycott, and was always considered likely to coordinate any action rather than taking steps on its own. The UK and Canada are considering their positions.
Australia’s minister for sport, Richard Colbeck, said on Tuesday: “A decision on commonwealth representation at the Beijing Winter Olympics is yet to be made.”
The Liberal party senator Eric Abetz, who chairs the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, said it was “essential that Australia follow suit and take a strong stand against the Chinese communist dictatorship’s litany of human rights abuses”.
The Biden administration announced on Monday that it would not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, cited China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses”.
Abetz applauded the White House’s use of the term genocide, adding that “far too often countries are unwilling to call out such horrendous human rights abuses against the Uyghur population”.
But the US decision drew a furious reaction from the Chinese government, which flatly denies crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, and dismissed Washington’s boycott as “posturing and political manipulation”.
At the daily press conference in Beijing on Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said it should be “athletes, instead of politicians clamouring for boycott, that should be in the spotlight”.
The deputy leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud, said the Australian government respected the Biden administration’s move “but we will make our own” decision.
“That’ll be a decision for cabinet as we move forward and obviously national security committee will make those determinations, and I understand that those conversations are happening,” he said.
Asked about the Morrison government confirming it was considering a diplomatic boycott, Zhao said: “In fact, no one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the Olympics to be successfully held by Beijing.”
The independent South Australian senator Rex Patrick also urged the government to announce no Australian ministers, senior officials or diplomats would attend the Games.
“It would be morally wrong for the Australian government to extend any measure of official endorsement to the Chinese communist regime which has committed and continues to commit gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Patrick said.
The Greens also backed the calls for a diplomatic boycott. The party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Janet Rice, said the Australian government “must ensure no government ministers or senior officials attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics”.
She also urged Australian companies “not to sponsor the event until the Chinese government allows access to independent human rights observers”.
Rice said the Greens condemned the Chinese government over “the brutal mass detention, torture and cultural genocide of the Uyghur people, the blatant attacks on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, and the decades long oppression of Tibetans”.
“The absolute bottom line that the international community should be insisting upon is for the Chinese government to immediately allow full and unfettered access for independent international human rights observers to assess the extent of their oppressive practices,” she said.
Labor renewed its earlier calls for the government to work with the opposition to come to an agreed bipartisan position.
“Australia should make their decision in the national interest and preferably, in a bipartisan way,” Labor senator Katy Gallagher said.
China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, said last month a boycott would hurt “the image of Australia as a very sporty nation”, adding: “To politicise a sport is a dumb move.”
Chinese officials deny crimes against humanity against the Uyghur minority in the western Xinjiang region, blaming “anti-China entities” for the allegations.
But the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has complained of a lack of progress in obtaining “meaningful” access to the region so she can investigate the situation.