Doorstop - Adelaide - 27/04/2021

27 April 2021

SUBJECTS: COVID-19 outbreak in India; comments from Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: First, I want to go to the issue of what we are seeing in India. It's a situation which is devastating, and Australia should be doing all we can to assist. Can I say this; Labor stands with the people of India and we also stand with the Indian diaspora, the Indian community here in Australia, many of whom are so deeply worried about friends and family who are in India, and who are so concerned and distressed by the rampant spread of the virus and the terrible toll it is taking across their country.

So, we would urge Mr Morrison to work as closely as we are able with the Indian Government to determine how Australia can best support India through this time of crisis. We do that because India is our friend. We also do that because we know that Australia is most secure if we can combat the virus everywhere – if the virus can be brought under control across the whole region.

I would also make this point; our thoughts are also with the 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents who are stranded in India. This is a very high number. We have increasing numbers of Australians who are vulnerable and in need of assistance and that is likely to grow. It is well past time for Mr Morrison to do what he should do and that is to provide safe, national quarantine. Mr Morrison has refused to provide safe national quarantine. He has handballed this to the states. He's had warning after warning and because of this, he is putting Australians at risk. Australians in India and Australians at home. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: What sort of humanitarian support should we provide to India?

WONG: I would say to the Government we should work closely with the Indian Government to work out how we can best contribute. The numbers are extraordinarily high and we should work with the Indian Government to work out what is the best way for Australia to provide support in circumstances where we are seeing hundreds of thousands of new cases a day.

JOURNALIST: Would Labor support these supposed moves to further restrict flights for those wanting to come home?

WONG: I’d make a couple of points. I have seen reports about the halting of flights. The first proposition is we have always said we should follow the health advice when it comes to border closures. That has always been the case. We should follow the health advice. Secondly, I would make this point; we still don't have a system of safe, national quarantine and that is wrong. We know it is wrong because the Prime Minister has been told it is wrong. He's been told by his own independent advisers who said to him you need a system of national quarantine. He's been told by the AMA who have called for a change to our system of quarantine. As a consequence of not having that system of safe, national quarantine, more people are at risk here in Australia and elsewhere.

JOURNALIST: Do you sympathise with those who are stuck in India who say any further move to restrict flights would be cruel?

WONG: I sympathise with Australians overseas, who are stuck overseas, who have not been able to get home and who frankly have not been supported sufficiently by a government who is prepared to step up and ensure we have safe, national quarantine. That always has been the key to getting Australians home safely and not putting either them or the broader Australian community at risk.

JOURNALIST: When you say "safe national quarantine", could you elaborate on what you mean?

WONG: Sure. There are a few points. I think Mr Morrison has been told at least three times about the risk to the quarantine system. Ms Halton said they should look at a national facility for emergency or surge situations. We know Howard Springs has been on the table for some time. It has come on far later than it should. The Government has refused to step up and look to how it might establish quarantine facilities outside of our national cities. The Government has also failed to ensure there are national standards for hotel quarantine which has also been called for. Time after time Mr Morrison has simply failed to discharge his responsibility when it comes to quarantine. And as a consequence of that, Australians are at risk. Australians are at risk because they are stranded overseas, including in India and the broader Australian community is at risk.

JOURNALIST: If health authorities and not politicians say further restrict flights from India, Labor would back that?

WONG: We have said consistently throughout this pandemic, we will act on the health advice. That is correct.

JOURNALIST: Mike Pezzullo, do you think he’d be a good fit for Defence Department Secretary?

WONG: Well, look, words matter. In national security, in diplomacy, words matter. I’ve said for some time I think that in relation to China, Australians would benefit from the Morrison Government approaching that relationship with less politics and more strategy. I have to say it is really up to the Government to explain how it is beneficial to Australia, how it furthers our national interests having a senior public servant make those remarks.

JOURNALIST: The ‘beating drums of war’ language. Are you concerned about that?

WONG: I think words matter and this is not the sort of language that we generally use when we are trying to be sober and cautious. My view about this is this; when it comes to issues of national security, when it comes to issues of foreign policy, when it comes to issues as sensitive as Taiwan, our language should be sober and it should be cautious.

JOURNALIST: But his words shouldn't preclude him from that position?

WONG: I think it is for the Government to explain how Mr Pezzullo’s words are consistent with government policy and how they further Australia's national interests. I would make the point they do appear to be inconsistent with Mr Dutton himself who said on Insiders, “We are in peace time and we want to stay in peace time”. So, his language is a little more measured. Thanks, everyone.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.