E&OE - PROOF ONLY
JANE NORMAN, HOST: I’m joined now in Canberra by the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. Senator Wong, thank you for joining us.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good to be with you, Jane.
NORMAN: Just before we get to that modelling, while we are talking about intensive care beds, of course, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is currently receiving intensive care with the coronavirus. This is obviously hugely concerning news.
WONG: Deeply concerning news overnight in relation to Prime Minister Johnson. Obviously we privately expressed to the British High Commissioner here, but also we publicly express our good wishes and our support and solidarity with him, his family and of course the British people. I hope he makes a swift recovery.
NORMAN: We know how serious the case must be for someone to be in intensive care. Doctors say often it’s a case of your life is really in the hands of the gods here. It is a grave situation, isn’t it, Senator Wong?
WONG: I’m not going to speculate. Obviously it is a serious situation when anybody goes into hospital and when anybody goes into ICU. I simply again express on behalf of the Labor Party our best wishes for a full recovery, a swift recovery, and we expressed that solidarity, as I said, certainly to the British High Commissioner here and we express it again publicly. I hope he gets better soon.
NORMAN: Turning to the response here in Australia, as we were just discussing, the modelling has been released, there are caveats around it, of course. It is international data, it doesn’t necessarily project scenarios in Australia. We should be seeing Australian data in the next few weeks. But the fact that we do manage to be flattening the curve, that these responses so far do appear to be working, is this a kind of reason to be pretty optimistic about how this virus may play out here?
WONG: I think it’s a reason to be determined to continue to do what we need to do. Some, you know, over a week ago, when we were seeing the sort of trend we were seeing, a number of us in the Parliament, in the community, were making very clear we couldn’t continue on the path we were on, when we were doubling every few days. Australian’s have come together. We have worked together. We have done the right thing. And we appear to be making sure that curve is flattening, and that data is extremely heartening. But we can’t – we can’t – you know, fall short. We have to keep doing what we have been asked to do. We have to save lives, we have to keep ourselves and our families and all that we love safe, and we have to keep the community safe. As you said, what we can’t have is a situation like we are seeing – the dire images we’re seeing from countries around the globe, from New York City, from Spain and from Italy, just to mention some.
NORMAN: Are you satisfied with the level of restrictions that we have in place at the moment? We have got the tough border measures, the travel bans, we have got social distancing being practiced, we have effectively a partial economic shutdown. Do you think that the kind of figures we’re seeing, the fact that the trend is, you know, favourable at the moment that the existing restrictions should remain in place? We obviously hear from state premiers like Dan Andrews who talk about scaling up to a stage 4. Would that be premature?
WONG: Well, leaders have to make the best decisions they can on the basis of the medical advice, the policy advice with which they have provided with. The point Labor has consistently been making was first we made really clear, as did many other people – the trajectory we were on, we could not stay on. So it is a great thing that Australians have stepped up and ensured that that trajectory has been altered. In terms of going forward, we continue to need to be vigilant, and obviously whether it’s the Prime Minister or Premier Andrews, people need to make the best decisions they can on the data they have. As you pointed out in your introduction, it is a good thing that the modelling has been released, but the modelling is obviously based on international data. We need to continue to look at what is occurring in Australia, including community transmission, which is obviously the area of next concern.
NORMAN: Is there a risk here, Senator Wong, as the leaders do consider what measures may need to be imposed next, that if you push people too far, it might start to work against you? That Australians, while they have been largely adapting pretty well to the fairly draconian measures imposed so far, that tolerance may start to wear out?
WONG: I think we need to continue to demonstrate leadership across the community, whether it is political leaders, Government, the Opposition, community leaders. We need to continue to demonstrate that leadership and continue to explain to Australians, we’re doing this to keep ourselves safe, our families safe and our communities safe, and that’s why we need to keep doing what we’re asked to do, just as we have been.
NORMAN: Right. You are in Canberra this afternoon. Of course, Parliament is sitting tomorrow for one day to pass the Government’s $130 billion job keeper wage subsidy scheme. As I mentioned, Labor has been pushing hard for the eligibility to be expanded to include casuals whose have been with their employer for less than a year. The Government is not budging on that, so when the legislation is debated tomorrow, will Labor be moving amendments to the Bill to sort of, I suppose, put pressure on the Government to change its mind?
WONG: All through this crisis, our focus has been on the national interest. We have sought to be constructive. We have given bipartisan support, but we have also said where we think things can be improved, they should be. You might recall it was Labor that was advocating for a wage subsidy some time ago, and we are pleased that the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, moved from his position, that it wasn’t a practical thing to do, to supporting that and putting that forward. So, that is a good thing. We will certainly be trying to improve the legislation. We’d encourage the Government to improve the legislation in respect of the million Australian who are not assisted by the JobKeeper legislation. But ultimately, as we’ve made clear, we’re not going to stand in the way of this. We want it improved, but we will pass it.
NORMAN: So, tomorrow, I suppose, just working through the kind of mechanics of it, Labor will be putting forward an amendment, if it doesn’t pass, you won’t be standing in the way of the entire Bill passing…
WONG: We’ve made very clear we’re not going to be standing in the way of passing legislation we regard as important. But we’d urge the Government to improve it. We will give them the opportunity to do so in the Parliament.
NORMAN: One area of the Government’s response to this crisis that you have been quite critical of is rescuing stranded Australians from overseas. We know that at any given time there is about 1 million Australians living, travelling abroad. Since the Prime Minister urged people to come home, about 200,000 have. But we still have thousands of Australians that have scattered around the globe. What is it that you want the Government to do to be helping those Australians?
WONG: Well, let’s be very clear. There are Australians stranded in situations which have not safe. And they are stranded with no recourse to commercial options -
NORMAN: Where is that, Senator Wong?
WONG: – They don’t have a way to get home. So, you know, saying to them, ‘Find a commercial option’, there isn’t a commercial option available. What I’m saying is this – the Government should not rule out assisted departures. Yet, that is the Government’s policy. It is saying, ‘our policy precludes assisted departures’ – that is, the Government stepping in to help. All I’m saying is this – in a situation where Australians are in unsafe circumstances, where they cannot get home off their own bat, then it is, we should have a situation where the Government steps in and gives them a helping hand.
NORMAN: We know the Government has been doing what it called ‘facilitated commercial flights’, so Peru, another one is going tomorrow from Nepal. That differs from the Qantas assisted departures from China and Japan we saw back in January and February. Where are the Australians around the world right now who are in danger, who need to be getting a charter flight home?
WONG: Can I just point out in Peru, that flight was, in fact, originally, that flight has been pushed for by the Australians on the ground. And the cost certainly, at least of the first flight, was quite prohibitive for many people. An equivalent flight cost £250 that the United Kingdom organised. Australians were paying $5,000 a seat. We have had hundreds of people contacting my office, people who are in unsafe situations. Obviously, in Peru and other parts of South America we’ve had Australians in India, we’ve also had Australians in Nepal. There’s been some movement there. I just make the point in relation, for example, to some Australians in India who have had enormous difficulty getting commercial option, they have been told by the Government that the Government’s policy is a blanket refusal to engage in assisted departures. All I’m saying is, in circumstances where you have got a global pandemic, in circumstances where there are no commercial options available to people, or they can’t access them because of domestic restrictions, surely we should leave that option on the table to bring Australians home safely.
NORMAN: In the case of India, though, isn’t it the situation that the Government isn’t allowing any flights in our out? So even getting an assisted departure flight with a Qantas or a Virgin would be impossible right now?
WONG: Well, Jane, are you saying… You’re putting the Government’s own case for them, with respect. I’m saying…
NORMAN: I’m putting the reality, though. No country can get…
WONG: What I’m saying is why wouldn’t we try? The Government’s position isn’t we’re trying and we can’t. The Government’s position is we are ruling out assisted departures. I think in the circumstances where Australians are not able to get themselves to safety, it is the wrong thing to do, to rule that out.
NORMAN: Alright, Senator Wong, just one last question. One last topic I wanted to quickly talk about with you. It’s our Pacific neighbours. We know the economic impact of this coronavirus crisis is going to be catastrophic. G20 leaders recently raised the prospect of countries actually failing under the weight of this virus, this crisis. Australia really has a particular responsibility for some of our economic neighbours. Do you have concerns that places like PNG may collapse? In such a situation, what role does Australia have to step in there?
WONG: I am really pleased you raised that. And I hope people continue to raise that because the Pacific is so important to Australia. As Mr Morrison said, the Pacific are our family. Well, family work together in times that are hard. And it’s – it is up to us to step up. We talk about the Pacific step-up for our Pacific neighbours. Well, this is the time we need to step up. We know how difficult it is for developing countries with health systems that already are stretched to deal with this sort of pandemic. It really is time for the Government to step up. Unfortunately, we’ve seen cuts over the years – $11.8 billion – cuts in foreign aid, reduction in health aid to the Pacific. It is time we reversed that. We need to step up and help our neighbours.
NORMAN: What kind of practical ways could Australia step up? What sort of measures would you be calling for?
WONG: Well, I think fundamentally, we need to work with our Pacific neighbours through what they need. What do they need in this time of crisis? Is it more assistance in terms of hospital and ICU or ICU capacity? Is it more in primary healthcare? What sort of preventative measures can we assist with? A lot of these health systems, we are talking health systems which are not going to cope if we see this pandemic take hold in these nations. We already have a lot of poverty and a lot of difficulties in these health systems. We really need to work with them. I’d encourage the Government to do so. And I’d certainly encourage them to turn around the reduction in aid funding we have seen to this region, in terms of health and more broadly.
NORMAN: Alright, Senator Wong. We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you for joining Afternoon Briefing today.
WONG: Good to speak with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.