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

25 March 2020

SKY NEWS FIRST EDITION

TOPICS: AUSTRALIANS STRANDED OVERSEAS, CORONAVIRUS

E&OE - PROOF ONLY

LAURA JAYES: Let’s go live to Canberra and now the Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, joins me. Penny Wong thank you for your time. We’re waking up to a very different Australia this morning, a raft of businesses will be closed at midnight tonight, your state has shut its border. Is this the right course of action at this time?

PENNY WONG: We had to do everything we can in this unprecedented crisis. We have to do everything we can. And we should be doing it now not later. So, you know, we support the action the Government’s taking on the advice of experts. And I do want to say this to all of your viewers. We have an opportunity to look after each other, to look after ourselves and our families, and notwithstanding that I thought the Prime Minister’s press conference was as clear as mud, the one thing that he did say that I think is really important, which is this: stay home unless absolutely necessary.

JAYES: What did you think could have been better clarified, do you think there is a few incongruous rules if you like. Weddings can go ahead, but only with five people, but personal training…?

WONG: Weddings, funerals – I mean that isn’t the challenge that it was a 35 minute press conference which read like a catalogue, and I think what people are looking for is leadership, they’re looking for clear information. They’re looking for clear advice, and we’ve had a lot of inconsistent messages, and I don’t think that’s been helpful. Now we do want to be constructive as the opposition at this time, and our constructive suggestion to the government is have clear and consistent information. And we have also said this: Australia has to get off the path we’re on, Laura. The numbers, increasing numbers, the trajectory, the doubling of cases every three days – we have to get off this path and we have to do whatever we can to get off this path. So we continue to urge the government to act clearly, decisively. And let’s not get through this and regret that we didn’t do more.

JAYES: So what are you saying – I know you’re saying that we take advice from the experts, but are you perhaps suggesting that we should go into a full shutdown sooner rather than later because we can flatten the curve – and then the economic recovery on the other side, might also be quicker?

WONG: I agree with – just on the latter issue, I’d agree with Chris Bowen, the most important thing to do for the economy is to make sure we save lives. And to save lives, we have to ensure we work together. We have said as an opposition that we should act urgently. The Government should act urgently. If you have to do it, do it now. And if you need to act, do it decisively and communicate clearly and consistently to Australians. Ultimately governments have to act on the advice of medical experts. What we do know is that the current trajectory is one that we can’t stay on.

JAYES: We thought it was unprecedented to see a “do not travel” advisory for Australians but that is now overnight turned into a travel ban is that prudent?

WONG: Yes it is, it is prudent. Australian citizens who go overseas, obviously have a right of return to Australia. They’re Australian citizens. That is a risk we can’t take at the moment. We know that the majority of the people who have been infected have been travellers, or most of the people being infected have been travellers from overseas, so a ban is prudent. It is unprecedented but we live in unprecedented times.

JAYES: We certainly do. And there are a number of Australians stranded overseas who simply can’t get home. We’ve seen Australians in Peru. I know of one other personal family friend who’s actually stuck in Karachi at the moment there are just simply no flights. Do you know how many Australians are overseas that are desperately trying to get home, and what the government is doing about that?

WONG: Well first I would say this, the Government, Mr Morrison, needs to follow the lead of other countries, and we need to have a plan to help bring Australians home. We need to help those Australians who are stranded with no commercial options, including by subsidized or assisted departure. This is what other countries are doing, and we need to have a plan to do this too. The second thing the government needs to do is have clear information. The lack of information or the inconsistent information is causing greater anxiety. Now I know that DFAT is working hard; I know this is unprecedented. This is an overwhelming demand on people. But the Government really does need to take follow the lead of other countries. We have Australians all over the world, many of them cannot get home because commercial options have dried up. In terms of numbers, I mean that’s just a question for the Government. We know that over a million Australians are overseas, not all of them will want to come home; that includes expatriates.

JAYES: Yeah, Ryan Hamilton was one of those, he used to work for Jason Clare actually, and he is in New York. He has coronavirus and he’s staying put in isolation, in his own apartment there, so he’s just one of many Australians who are choosing to stay put. Before I let you go, Penny Wong, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands, if not near a million people try and get benefits through Centrelink. We’ve seen the lines, we know about the long delays on the phone lines, we know about the website crashing. The Government last night announced there would be a one week waiver of the mutual obligation reporting in order to receive these unemployment benefits. Should that be longer?

WONG: Well first on the website, I’d say to you I think it is unacceptable and Australians believe it’s unacceptable and, more importantly it’s incredibly distressing for people. And, you know, the government really needs to address this urgently. It’s very distressing scenes we’ve seen over the last couple, last day and a half. In terms of mutual obligation. I mean, you have to question whether that’s long enough, and we have a situation where the Social Security system needs to reflect the circumstances we’re in, and needs also to reflect the failure of the Government website, the failure of Centrelink and other processes. So, what my question to the Government is, why not do it for longer? We clearly know that we have to adjust these arrangements to reflect the unprecedented crisis the nation is facing.

JAYES: And you are in good health. I know you are tested for coronavirus and you do not have it, which is very good news I might say, but you did isolate out of an abundance of caution. One of your colleagues, Rex Patrick, didn’t have any symptoms and actually did test positive.

WONG: I know, that’s quite frightening, whereas you know I had some symptoms for tested negative, thankfully. Can I also thank the many people who sent me such kind messages after I announced I was isolating for that period until the test results came back. But yes, very concerning about Rex and you know, I hope he’s okay. I hope he doesn’t develop symptoms.

JAYES: I hope so too. They sound quite brutal. Penny Wong, appreciate your time this morning.

WONG: Good to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.