E&OE - PROOF ONLY
LEON BYNER, HOST: There is a person who’s been getting a lot of communication, as have many other MPs on all sides of the Parliament about this issue. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong – Penny, how’s your health?
PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: Oh, my health’s okay, thank you very much -
BYNER: – That’s good -
WONG: – And I hope yours and your listeners’ as well. Everybody please stay home and stay safe through this very difficult period for the country, and look after each other.
BYNER: Now tell me a little more about these – anything between 10 and 20,000 people; Australians who are trying to get home and they just can’t.
WONG: That’s right. Well we have an unprecedented situation which I think everybody knows. We haven’t seen something like this – on this scale – across the globe. And what we saw is the Australian Government doing the right thing with our support, which is to tell people to come home, also to tell people not to travel and to ban non-Australian citizens from coming back to the country.
Unfortunately though what has happened is a lot of Australians have been caught stranded overseas. I’m not talking about as you described them as expats – people who are living and working – some of them may want to come home, but many of them are in situations where they’ve made a decision, it’s better to stay. But there are a number of people, as you said – the public figure that’s been reported is between 10 and 20,000. We’ve not been able to verify from the Minister precisely how many.
A lot of people have been caught overseas. They tried to do what the government asked, which was to take commercial flights, but of course as you know commercial flights are drying up very, very quickly. Some countries have had lockdowns, so people have not been able to get to airports. And of course Virgin and Qantas are discontinuing all of their services in just a few days.
So we have been calling for the Government to follow the lead of other countries – we’ve called on Scott Morrison to follow the lead of other countries – to organise flights where we are able; where we know there are substantial numbers of Australians who can’t get out.
Now, I’m really pleased and I welcome the Government’s announcement in these last 24 hours that they will have two flights – one from Peru and one from Uruguay. But what we do know is even with that there will be hundreds more left stranded, and as you said, also people will be paying a very large amount, which is a concern if that’s a barrier to travel.
BYNER: Whereabouts a part from Uruguay and Lima? Because there’s got to be a stack of locations where people are trying to leave. What are the major ports that need this service?
WONG: That’s a very good question and something we put to the Government consistently over some time, which is you need to do something between now and when Qantas and Virgin discontinue flights; and you need to have a plan for after that for those areas where we know people have not been able to get out or we’ve had significant numbers.
I can tell you what we are receiving in my office. We have a lot of people in South America and Latin America where, obviously, lockdowns commenced very quickly and people haven’t been able to get to where they need to get to. We’ve had communications from Nepal. We appear to have quite a number of Australians in Nepal who have had difficulty getting commercial flights out. We have had some communications as well from the Philippines, as well as obviously many people from many parts of the world who are finding it hard to get out. People who report they’re doing what the Government asks; booking four flights and having them canceled over 24 hours. That’s why you’ve seen other governments – the United States, Germany, the Israelis the British – arrange flights for their citizens.
We’re behind the eight ball on this. And I think it is up to government to make sure Australians stay safe overseas and at home. I would say also, it is very important if people are coming back that they are properly screened and appropriate quarantine arrangements are put in place.
BYNER: Yes. By the way, we will have people listening today who can communicate with their friends and family members overseas who are stranded. What advice should they give? The one thing that was put to me by (the Department of) Foreign Affairs last night was please make sure you’re registered – we need to know where you are and who you are.
WONG: I think that the first thing people should do is make sure they are looking at – on social media – the advice through Smartraveller from the Department of Foreign Affairs; and they follow that advice, which includes registration, as you say, I think with the embassies.
I would also say we are dealing ourselves with a lot of requests for assistance. People are able to certainly email my office or indeed Minister Payne’s office about additional consular assistance that people are requesting. I do recognise that this is unprecedented and I know that the department is really stretched. I hope that the Minister and the Government will be giving more resources to DFAT because this is an unprecedented number of Australians who are needing assistance offshore.
BYNER: Penny, thank you. That’s Penny Wong the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.