SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE

SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

TRANSCRIPT

1 April 2020

ABC RADIO NIGHTLIFE

TOPICS: AUSTRALIANS STRANDED OVERSEAS, CORONAVIRUS

E&OE - PROOF ONLY

PHILIP CLARK, HOST: Also joining us tonight will be Senator Penny Wong, the Opposition’s Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman and she’s been calling on the government to do more to bring Australians back home. Senator, good evening to you and welcome to Nightlife.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: Good evening, good to be with you, Philip.

CLARK: Good to have you with us as well. Let’s begin. We’ll also speak a little later to a travel lawyer who with Cordato Partners and he’ll try and shed some, well some light on what the federal government’s actual obligations are here in relation to stranded Australians. Senator before we turn to you and your observations on what’s going on. Let’s talk to an Australian who is stranded overseas. Sarah Eifermann is an Australian business woman she is from Melbourne and stuck right now in Cusco in Peru and she joins us from Peru, where it’s early in the morning. Sarah, good evening to you. Welcome to Nightlife.

SARAH EIFERMANN: Good morning at 6am here!

CLARK: So, tell me about your circumstances because there was a commercial charter flight that brought nearly 300 Australians home from Peru on Tuesday, but you and about 150 others missed out on that. What happened?

EIFERMANN: That flight was sold out, I believe, originally within probably 12 to 24 hours of it being announced. There’s more of us here than were available to fly on that flight and unfortunately for quite a few people they were unable to afford the cost. So one flight was never going to be enough.

CLARK: Have you been told, whether you might be able to get home and when?

EIFERMANN: No. There’s been no communication really from consular officials in Peru right from the start of this whole saga.

CLARK: And the situation in relation to commercial flights of course is, well, there aren’t any, are there?

EIFERMANN: There aren’t any. I’ve got over six and a half thousand dollars worth of commercial flight credits at the moment that I can’t use because there’s no planes.

CLARK: Tell me about your story. How long have you been in Peru and how did you end up being stuck in Cusco?

EIFERMANN: So I’ve been traveling since the 2nd of February. I did south of South America, Argentina, then I went to Brazil and then I came to Peru on the 4th of March. So there was no coronavirus issues here prior to that. It only landed in the continent in Sao Paolo on the 26th of February and it didn’t land in Peru until the 6th of March.

I was traveling around Peru. Worked my way down from Lima to Paracas and Huacachina where there’s Desert Oasis, and then through Arequipa into Cusco up in the mountains to fulfil a lifelong dream of attending Machu Picchu.

I got here on the 14th. I was supposed to leave for Machu Picchu in the morning of the 16th and on the evening of the 15th we were put into full lockdown quarantine supported by martial law.

CLARK: What ability, did you have at that stage to travel back to Lima or somewhere like that to get out, not much?

EIFERMANN: So the problem before that when we got here was that, you know, you come off a 12 hour bus with no internet and then you get smacked in the face with a lot of information very quickly. Apparently whilst we’ve been on the bus President Trump had changed the regulations about flights from Europe coming into America and it had been followed up in South America.

All the Europeans here were booking flights to leave and get out which meant the airport was fully booked with all of its (inaudible) left right and centre. So even if I had been able to get on a flight I wouldn’t have been able to get out because there were 3000 plus people at the airport the morning of the 16th trying to leave Cusco to leave. That’s about a 25 hour bus ride back to Lima, and I wouldn’t have been able to make it to Lima before the transit lockdown came into place because we’re (inaudible) not able to move around cities, towns and villages. We have to be in our accommodation, and we can’t be transiting, and there’s no cars either.

CLARK: I mean some responding to this have said well hang on the Australian government did give people plenty of notice to come home from basically the end of the first or second week of March. From what you’re saying, though, even with that notice you can’t – ir’s easier to say come home than getting out.

EIFERMANN: A: We couldn’t get out. Secondly, the Smartraveller updates on DFAT didn’t change until after we were in lockdown, for the do not travel advice and the caution with travel was after most of us were already in the country.

CLARK: What’s the lockdown mean for you I mean what’s your ability to actually try to travel at the moment?

EIFERMANN: I’m one of the fortunate ones. We moved into an Airbnb the morning of the lockdown. Sorry, the lockdown came into effect at 1159 on the Monday evening. The morning of the Monday we moved into an Airbnb so that we had a little bit more control over our environment, ability to cook our own meals, because we’ve been in a hostel where we would have to purchase our meals. There was no kitchen. So, I am one of the blessed ones, because we did, we did actually move. We’re able to leave one person at a time wearing face masks to go to the market, or the supermarket or the shops to buy food, or go to the pharmacy, or the bank. They’re the only reasons we’re allowed to actually leave our accommodation. So for the last two weeks I’ve been in full lock-down in this casa trying to entertain ourselves and keep our mental spirits high and ensure that we all get home safely.

CLARK: What do you want the Australian Government to do?

EIFERMANN: Communicate with us.

I think that’s the primary one, the lack of communication is causing a huge amount of stress and anxiety. We’re not receiving much information. We’ve been tuned to Facebook and Twitter. The information on Facebook Twitter is of cold comfort, really.

We need some consistent, effective and clear communication to really help us understand what our situation is and when we might be able to likely leave.

The problem we also have is that locked down here was extended from the 31st of March, until the 12th, which means we now miss all the commercial airliners. So they were still flying, now they’re not and they won’t be once we get out of lockdown. They won’t be flying until early May, so we could still be here for another month.

CLARK: Yep. Okay, stay there with us, Sarah. Sarah Eifermann who is an Australian traveller, a businesswoman stuck in in Peru. She’s in Cusco at the moment and you just heard from her.

Also joining us tonight as I said at the beginning of the night is Senator Penny Wong, who’s the Opposition Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman who’s been quite outspoken about what the government should be doing in situations like this. It’s complicated as I’m sure Senator Wong, I’m sure, would be fully aware. Senator, evening again.

What do you think the Australian Government should be doing here?

WONG: I think that they need to be doing more. But before I get to that can I just firstly say to Sarah, if she’s still on the line or about her.

CLARK: Yeah, she’s here. You can speak to here if you wish.

WONG: I wanted to thank her, actually. She’s done an extraordinary job as one of the key organisers, for want of a better word, of the Australians who have been stranded in Peru and she’s really helped I think a lot of people get access to information, as sparse as that information has been, unfortunately.

But you’ve done a great job so I just wanted to recognise that. I know it’s a very difficult time.

EIFERMANN: Thank you.

WONG: I also wanted to emphasise something Sarah explained with her story which is replicated or is similar to the stories of so many Australians, which is people weren’t able to come home by their own means.

People have to remember how quickly this happened. The advice from Senator Payne that those who want to come home should come soon because you know commercial options will dry up was the 17th of March.

That was immediately followed by a do not travel warning to Australians, and by the announcement from Qantas and Virgin that they were discontinuing their international operations. So in that period of time since the 17th of March, commercial options have rapidly dried up for many Australians.

In addition, Australian such as those in Peru, or elsewhere, have not been able to access whatever commercial options were available because of domestic lockdowns and transit restrictions.

So, we have thousands of people who are overseas, many of whom were trying to comply with the advice the government gave them when they got it, but have not been able to. And that goes to the unprecedented nature of this crisis. Now, I do want to recognise that the Department of Foreign Affairs has been working very hard in this circumstance.

I know that our consular network is overwhelmed, to a great extent, and people are working extremely hard. But the reality is we really do need more from government to keep Australians safe. Every day we delay puts more Australians potentially at risk.

I’m concerned about the cost. Sarah mentioned the flight that the cost for Australians I think was around $5,000 a head. That is a barrier to travel for some people, and it’s substantially more than the tickets that British citizens were asked to pay which I think was 250 pounds.

The reality is countries around the world are acting. Germany has had many flights that the government has organised. The UK is partnering with airlines.

Now, I would say that this: for some time, the Australian government has been dismissing the possibility of assisted departures, that is governments actually chartering or subsidising flights.

They certainly were communicating a reluctance to organise those. I think that has shifted in the last couple of days. I think Minister Payne’s comments have shifted and some of the information from ambassadors and heads of mission, I should say, have shifted.

We still don’t have any details and I’d encourage the government to help Australians get home

CLARK: You’ve had experience in government and at the inter-government level on this, Senator Wong. Peru is a friendly nation. It doesn’t present any particular issues for us far as Australian relations go that I’m that I’m aware of.

What is the difficulty in the Australian Government simply chartering an aeroplane and flying it to Lima, or to Cusco, and picking people up? And I think everyone who would be picked up would be quite happy with some cost recovery on it. From your experience, is that a difficult thing to arrange?

WONG: Well, governments can and have chosen to operate assisted departures, and that is to do precisely the sort of thing that you have just described. The government did it for Australians who were caught in Wuhan after the outbreak.

CLARK: Exactly.

WONG: The government previously has done it, over the years, when we had conflict in Egypt. We had assisted departures there.

Look, I think, Australians do recognise governments can’t fix everything. But Sarah put it very well. She said, we want information. And I would add to that: we need the government to provide support to people who really have no other option of getting home. And we need the assistance provided, whether that is through assisted departures, or by the continuation of Qantas and/or Virgin services to particularly international hubs so that Australians could find their way to those hubs.

CLARK: From your point of view, Sarah where you are, where are most Australians? In Lima or in Cusco?

EIFERMANN: Based on our numbers, that we’ve been compiling because we haven’t had qualification from DFAT, there’s over 90 Australians that are still stuck regionally that cannot transit until they have a flight. So some of them are in the middle of the jungle in the Amazon in far north remote locations that are waiting for transit permits. And the problem is now that the bus lines are no longer working. We’re in rainy season so it’s dangerous to travel. As each day passes, with no communication and opportunity to leave, it’s becoming a much more dangerous situation for those Australians that are stuck regionally. So, how do we get everyone to a hub to then fly out.

CLARK: You may have to accept that this is something the Austrlaian government can’t necessarily fix. I presume you do, don’t you?

EIFERMANN: Every other government has.

CLARK: What do you say to that, Senator Wong? The Australian government, as you acknowledge, can’t fix everything. And a lot of these people are stuck in regional parts of the continent, as Sarah saying. I mean, the Australian Government has no mandate or writ to run around the country collecting people. What do you think their options are, really?

WONG: Well I think you have to prioritise Australians who are in unsafe situations and are stranded. I’ve tried to be constructive as the opposition spokesperson. We recognise we’ve got thousands of Australians offshore and it’s a big task for government. But you can identify those areas where we know there are real challenges.

I think South America generally is one and Peru, clearly, for the reasons Sarah has outlined. There are other parts of the world. There’s been issues in Nepal, Guatemala, the Philippines and of course there are concerns about some Australians in parts of India, that have been raised with my office – and many other locations around the world.

But my point is that in circumstances where we really don’t have any other commercial options, the only option Australians who are stranded, for example in Peru, have is if the government can facilitate something.

Sarah would know more on the ground than I could comment on but what I would observe is that other countries have done this. So we’ve had, Germany, which has had many, many flights from different parts of the world to repatriate its citizens. We’ve got the UK, who have worked, and are working with British Airways to provide services.

The flight from Peru that you discussed earlier, that was ultimately underwritten, but was not organised by the Australian government. It was organised by Australians in Peru, who commenced these arrangements themselves and demonstrated I think a fair bit of get up and go to do that. So I do think the government needs to act.

CLARK: Presumably in relation to a couple of other issues, I mean away from South America for a second. Those Australian passengers on the Greg Mortimer, the cruise ship off the coast of Uruguay, also those of course on the Zaandam off the coast of Panama. This is a dreadful, a dreadful situation. 130 Australians are stuck on that thing which is already absolutely ridden with COVID-19. Some have died already.

What’s going to happen to these Australians if the ship manages to dock, are they going to be able to get back home?

WONG: Yeah, very good question. I’ve been deeply concerned about cruise ships for some time and in fact urged the government to issue a do not travel warning in relation to cruise ships which was, or certainly increase their warning level for travel earlier, in accordance with what other countries had done, which they did. But we have thousands of Australians on cruise ships. There are a number of problems that the government is going to have to address.

The first is: where do they Dock?

The second is: once they dock, how do they get back?

And then the third issue of course is: quarantine.

We saw the problems with a Ruby Princess, which can’t be repeated given how that has been a real public health, frankly a disaster for Australia. That that was not managed. So those are three problems that the government does have to deal with.

You’ve mentioned two ships. There are others, and there are many Australians who are on these ships. We’ve had a lot of communication from them and particularly from families who are deeply concerned.

CLARK: Yep, indeed. Alright Senator Wong I really appreciate your time tonight, and thank you for it, and thanks for coming on the program.

WONG: It’s good to be with you. All the best, Sarah. We hope to see you back in Australia soon.

EIFERMANN: Thank you so much. So do I (laughs).

CLARK: (Laughs) Yes, exactly. Senator Penny Wong joining us there. Also Sarah Eifermann, an Australia traveler stuck in Peru, in Cusco at the moment.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.