15 April 2020




PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I’m joined by Labor Senator Penny Wong, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Leader for the Labor Party in the Senate too. Penny Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: The government has been working to bring thousands of Australians stuck overseas home. What is it you think they could be doing that they not?

WONG: Patricia, the government was late to move and it seemed reluctant to move on bringing Australians home to safety. We are pleased that they have moved and progress has been made. But this isn’t over. We’ve still got Australians around the world who have been caught out because of a lack of commercial options. And we are saying to the Government, you need to keep working to bring these people home to safety because each day, each week that they are stranded overseas obviously increases risks.

KARVELAS: Do you accept that in some countries, getting governments to allow flights in and out isn’t a simple proposition?

WONG: Of course it isn’t. Of course, there is a lot of work involved in this. And I recognise that DFAT, the Foreign Affairs department has done a lot of work. And there has been some progress made, but you’d have to say the Australian Government, despite seeing this coming, really hasn’t, hasn’t acted fast enough.

And if you look at comparable countries around the world, if you look at the United Kingdom, if you look at Germany, if you look at the EU, you look at Canada. Now you can see that, it has taken the Australian Government longer than I think many Australians think it ought have.

KARVELAS: An estimated 16,000 Australians went overseas after they were advised against international travel. Do they need to take some responsibility if they find they can’t get home?

WONG: Well, you know, I think this probably is one of the arguments that some in the Government use to justify their reluctance to move. I’d make the point that there are many people who were caught overseas in the, before the travel ban was put in place, before Senator Payne announced that people should be coming home. And remember how quickly this has moved. So, many people went overseas, were caught by the announcements and the Government saying essentially, you know, if you want to come home, come home now. Commercial options dried up very fast. Countries also imposed domestic restrictions very quickly, which led to groups of Australians around the world who found it impossible to leave. We recently had people return from Peru, some of whom have been subjected to criticism. They were subjected to a domestic lockdown, which meant they weren’t able to access the commercial options which remained.

KARVELAS: Okay, so there are people caught up in those circumstances, no doubt, but there were others who went overseas after it was quite clear that we were in this scenario, should there be a responsibility on those individuals?

WONG: We all have responsibilities, but you know I don’t, I don’t think Australian citizens can be stranded simply because a certain, a small number or a number of people might not have acted as we think people should have. There are a lot of people who haven’t done anything wrong and who are stranded through no fault of their own. And I think blaming people is really not responsible. And the fact is, this has been coming. The government’s finally acted. I don’t think it acted fast enough. It isn’t over and we’ve got to keep working to bring Australian home to safety.

KARVELAS: I spoke to the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham yesterday who said Australians should be holidaying at home in the future, of course, we’ve been asked not to leave home right now but in the future…

WONG: I haven’t been out of my house.

KARVELAS: Yes, exactly. So not right now, don’t go holidaying at home. But he did say, you know, that’s the aim at some point. And booking a cruise sounded like madness after the Australian Financial Review reported that there’s a lot of booking of cruises for next year. Do you agree?

WONG: Look, first…

KARVELAS: Do you think it’s crazy that people would consider booking?

WONG: I have to be honest, I’ve never really wanted to go on a cruise.

KARVELAS: I could think of nothing worse. After everything has happened, why would anyone think that’s a good idea?

WONG: I wasn’t aware of what bookings have been made, or what marketing is being pitched to people. I mean, I think the cruise industry has obviously had a lot of high profile problems associated with it. We’ve seen the Ruby Princess debacle which has led to a national crisis, not just the numbers of people who were allowed by the Government to disembark and who were not tested, not just in New South Wales, but all over the country. And we’ve got part of North West Tasmania, where hospitals are being shut as a consequence, primarily of the vector of people who are infected from that, from that vessel. I think the cruise, cruise industry is a problem. We’ve been asking questions about it for some time. You know, I think we only initiated as a country, travel advice about this after the US. I would have thought we should have done so earlier. But in any event, I’d be saying to Australians, be pretty careful about you know, making bookings for next year, given all the problems we’ve seen.

KARVELAS: You’ve mentioned, you know, the way that we’ve responded of course to the Ruby Princess debacle, and I think it is a debacle, there’s no doubt about it. Some people in the Labor Party are calling for a Royal Commission. I spoke to Ed Husic just yesterday, who made that point. Do you think there needs to be Royal Commission into it?

WONG: Look, I think we certainly at some point, we certainly need to get to the bottom of it. My concern about a Commission would be that we might spend a lot of time in a process without actually getting to the bottom of this much more quickly. I think that the most important thing is to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Let’s remember this, this event occurred well after the Prime Minister had said that cruise ships wouldn’t be allowed to come into the country without people being subjected to the appropriate arrangements and they clearly weren’t. And we’ve seen a pretty unseemly hand-balling of responsibility from the Federal Government to the States. We know it’s the Federal Government’s responsibility to secure our borders. They often tell us that, and it really does need to be resolved.

KARVELAS: The United States has made a decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization. Should countries like Australia step in to that breach?

WONG: Firstly, in relation to the US decision to suspend financial contributions, can I just say this: now more than ever, the world needs a strong, effective and well-resourced WHO, World Health Organization. We’re in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century. We need a strong, effective, well-resourced, international health organisation. Now, whatever room for improvement there is, in relation to that organisation, none of it’s going to happen by countries walking, walking away or asking it to do more with less.

KARVELAS: But should that influence, the Chinese influence on the World Health Organization, be critiqued or perhaps should Australia demand that, you know, it’s funding be tied to reform and better outcomes?

WONG: I think it’s entirely reasonable to call for reforms and better outcomes for international institutions and Australia’s got a proud record of working within institutions to make sure they are improved and contributing to that. I do think the debate around the WHO is a reminder to all countries that if there are perceptions of national influence on international organisations, that ultimately diminishes the standing of those organisations, it diminishes the capacity of those organisations and everybody suffers from that. So we all have a collective interest in, in ensuring international organisations are not perceived as being subjected to national influence in a way that diminishes their standing.

KARVELAS: Australia has been very critical of the World Health Organization’s statement that wet markets, the possible source of this outbreak and the source of other outbreaks, should reopen. What do you think about wet markets?

WONG: First, when it comes to wet markets, we all agree this can’t happen again, and China needs to make sure of that. We need to have appropriate protections in place to make sure these sorts of events don’t happen again. Noting that we still have a lot of work to do to work out how this all happened. I have to say, I’m not sure that what, what the Prime Minister has been saying about the WHO’s position is entirely accurate. I also saw reports that said that the Special Envoy to the WHO on COVID-19 made very clear statements about the real dangers in wet markets, has made very clear statements against the selling of illegal wildlife, for food, and food and safety standards.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.