16 April 2020




ALI CLARKE, HOST: Joining us now Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Good morning.


DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Penny Wong, is the Federal Government doing enough to bring home Australians stranded overseas?

WONG: Look I think the Government has to do more. We have an alarming number of Australians still stranded and at risk. The figures in the media today – finally, the Government has disclosed – we’ve got in excess of 11,000 people stranded. I want to emphasise those are people who want to come home and haven’t been able to, not people who are just overseas. And I think the Government is going to have to dramatically step its efforts up to bring people to safety. We certainly don’t want to look back and say, there was more that we could have done to bring Australian home. That’s why you see other countries acting so quickly and so directly, much more so than Australian Government.

CLARKE: Penny Wong, when we’ve had stories of people who have been stranded, the text line, you know, comes through with well, they were selfish travellers, why should we help them? And why should we be spending our money?

WONG: Well look, there are a lot of people who are stranded overseas through no fault of their own. Who were overseas, who left before the warnings, and then have found themselves in countries where domestic lockdowns and the absence of commercial flights have meant they can’t get out. And they need Government help.

I mean have a look at India, we’ve got tens of thousands of Australians in India. But what we know is we have over six and a half thousand who have registered as trying to leave. We haven’t had one flight arranged by the Australian Government. Not one. And the Australians who have got out, have got out on their own steam, their own privately arranged charter.

Just by contrast, the United Kingdom – they’re up to their second round of flights. They had seven flights last week, that the government facilitated, and this week they have a further 12.

So Australians on the ground there are looking at other countries and saying, well, you know, we’re citizens of Australia and we need help. We can’t get out without help.

BEVAN: So the Government should either be chartering private flights or what, sending in the Air Force?

WONG: Well, I think looking at how we get Government assisted flights, whether that’s working with the private sector or otherwise is what the Government needs to do – for those countries where there aren’t, where there isn’t a commercial option. I mean, it’s not like there’s a Qantas flight that these people can get on. And the reality is, you know, people are in situations where they are at risk, and the delay is increasing that risk.

BEVAN: Is Donald Trump attacking the World Health Organization to divert attention away from his own failings?

WONG: You might be able to work out what’s inside the President’s mind. I wouldn’t try and do that. But I’d make two observations: first, the situation in the US is, is tragic. And, you know, we all hope that the United States can come through this and get on top of the spread of this pandemic. I mean, the images you know, as a country and people who look to America, the images from America are both tragic and really confronting.

In relation to the World Health Organization, I mean my view and Labor’s view is, you know, this is a time when we really need a strong and effective international health organisation. We’ve got a global pandemic, the worst we’ve seen in a century. If there ever was a time we need a strong and effective international organisation focused on the health of the world, it’s now. Whatever problems there are, whatever issues there are, they’re not going to be solved or improved by simply walking away.

CLARKE: Practically, though, if the US and he does follow through on this promise of withdrawing their funding, what would that do on the ground for some, you know, a group like the World Health Organization and who would it be hitting the hardest?

WONG: Well, inevitably, international organisations like the WHO, withdrawals of funding hit the poorest countries hardest. Where the WHO works hardest and is most important to people is, is where the public health systems are not up to scratch because they’re not countries that are sufficiently developed to offer good public health outcomes. So we know, you’ve heard even Scott Morrison – despite people inside his own party being critical of the World Health Organization – say he wouldn’t leave because of the work they do in the Pacific.

Now, I grew up in Malaysia. I remember, the WHO working in Malaysia when I was, was a kid. So the people it most hits, are those who are least able to afford it, and of course, ultimately, that’s a cost to the whole world because if the pandemic continues to spread and spreads even more widely in developing countries, that has a human cost, it also has an enormous economic cost. And we’re already in a situation where this is a huge challenge for the globe.

BEVAN: Should China be reopening its wet markets?

WONG: I think we all can agree that this can’t happen again. And China has to ensure that there are appropriate protections in place, and there is appropriate transparency,

BEVAN: You’re satisfied that they’re there?

WONG: I don’t think there’s sufficient transparency at the moment. I think that we do need China to ensure it demonstrates to the world that the risks that are associated primarily with wildlife being available in some markets are dealt with. There should be a ban on that. I would make the point that, I know that the Federal Government’s been critical of the WHO about this, but I’m not sure that the World Health Organization’s position on these issues was sort of faithfully represented by Scott Morrison. I think the WHO has been pretty clear about its concerns about wet markets and more importantly, its concerns about trading wildlife.

BEVAN: Should politicians be taking a 20% pay cut? Jacinda Ardern is.

CLARKE: As is the Opposition Leader in New South Wales, sorry New Zealand.

WONG: This is always a difficult issue, isn’t it? My view is, the pay has been frozen. That’s what I understand, where from the Finance Minister has written to the remuneration tribunal to make sure pay is frozen.

BEVAN: That’s not the question, didn’t ask you if it’s been frozen. Should it be cut?

WONG: Yeah, I know. If there’s a collective decision that people believe, that the Government believes that there should be reduction, you know, that, that’s not something I’d take issue with. I think it’s very, very difficult for politicians to discuss their own pay and I just would rather this was dealt with by someone independent.

BEVAN:¬†Will you be buying a copy of Malcolm Turnbull’s book?

WONG: Oh dear, I’ve got plenty of other things to read actually, David. How about you? I mean, I thought it was, I had a look at the story today about it. I think there are two things that struck me. I mean, one was obviously he had a very, you know, deep bout of depression and that, that was saddening. Probably, in some ways a good thing that, you know, a leader can talk about it because mental health is something we should talk about more and I think probably at this time particularly. I think the second thing that struck me was it seemed to show a side of Scott Morrison that I’m sure Mr Morrison would prefer the public didn’t see.

BEVAN: Are you going to rush to the back to see if Penny Wong gets a mention?

WONG: I’ve sort of given up on that. You know, like you read a lot of stuff about yourself. Some of it is so far from the truth or is a particular perspective. You just got a let it wash over you, don’t you?

CLARKE: Okay, well, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much. Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

WONG: Thanks very much.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.