2GB Afternoons with Deborah Knight - 03/09/2020

03 September 2020

DEBORAH KNIGHT, HOST: Now it was revealed this week that the number of Australians who are stranded overseas has risen. It now stands at 23,000 according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Federal Government has made some announcements offering financial support for the Aussies who are deemed vulnerable, who are struggling to make ends meet, there's around 3,000 of those. But Labor says it's not enough. Now the Opposition is moving a motion in Parliament today for the Government to do more for the Aussies who are stranded overseas. Penny Wong is Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. She's also their Foreign Affairs spokesperson and she's on the line for us now. Penny thanks for joining us.


KNIGHT: Now, first up this censure motion that the Senate has voted in against Minister Richard Colbeck - why?

WONG: Well this is a very serious event. A censure of a minister is a very rare motion. It is a motion which is expressing no confidence in a minister.

This is the first time we've moved and had a censure motion that has succeeded in five years, which gives you some sense of how rarely this happens.

We didn't move it lightly but we did it because we wanted the Parliament to send a strong message; Australians don't have confidence in the handling of aged care, neither does the Parliament.

KNIGHT: Well, at the end of the day I mean it is a strong message, absolutely, but it is a symbolic message too because the Prime Minister is standing by his Minister. What's the point of the censure motion?

WONG: Well I think the point of the censure motion is to demonstrate to the Prime Minister - despite his stubbornness - that Parliament does not have confidence in this Minister.

The public does not have confidence in this Minister.

This is a motion that was supported not only by Labor, but by all of the cross bench. So that is every single senator, except for Liberal and National Party senators.

Now, we're pretty different, you know, we have some pretty different views on the crossbench - whether it's One Nation or the Greens, or Jacqui Lambie - there are some very different views.

But the fact that all of us voted together to express no confidence I think is a very important statement and Scott Morrison should do the right thing, take responsibility and remove this Minister and put someone in, who can gain the confidence of residents across this country.

KNIGHT: The Government has a point though, don't they, in saying that the aged care problem that we have seen, it has been at a crisis, it has been concentrated though, largely in the state of Victoria the rest of the country has fared relatively well apart from problems that have emerged in some areas in New South Wales in Sydney, but overall the aged care sector in the middle of this pandemic, has it been handled better than perhaps other countries have handled it, in the middle of this pandemic?

WONG: I don't think that's right and the evidence of the Royal Commission was - not from a Labor person, but from the counsel assisting the Royal Commission - that evidence was serious and it was extremely disturbing; which was the Government didn't have a plan.

This is the truth: it is true that we have a lot of work to do with aged care, it is true that we can do better and historically can do better.

But what we know is this; we know that this Minister has been warned. Mr Morrison has been warned.

They've been warned by audits where you've seen 100 per cent of review audits fail.

They've been warned by the Royal Commission where the Commissioner, the Royal Commission issued an interim report entitled 'Neglect'.

They've been warned by medical experts and health experts.

And even today, you've seen on the front page I think of The Daily Telegraph, the numbers of older Australians who are being assaulted in aged care facilities.

Now, this is not acceptable. And the Prime Minister cannot retain, Mr Morrison cannot retain a Minister who's presided over this after, so many repeated warnings.

KNIGHT: Now we spoke with the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, the Trade and Tourism Minister before the news and on the topic of the international arrivals the many Aussies we initially thought it was 18,000 but DFAT has now reassessed that number, closer to 23,000 Australians who are stranded overseas and want to get home. Now the Minister says that the international arrival caps will be reviewed, depending on the number of cases in Victoria in particular and in other states in New South Wales as well so they are looking at this.

WONG: Well, this is yet another example of this Morrison Government making announcements with no plan.

I mean they imposed these caps weeks ago. Instead of having a plan to work out how people could get home, given the caps, what we have seen is the numbers of stranded Australians rising.

People are unable to get home because there are no fights or the flights that they have, have such limited seating in economy - people cannot afford and are being required to pay for a first class seat.

We know that 23,000 people are trying to get home, a 20 per cent increase in a fortnight. And we know that nearly three and a half thousand are considered vulnerable.

Now, I know you know people have contacted you. Certainly my office and my colleagues' offices have been contacted.

People are vulnerable, people sleeping in cars, they've been overseas and they've been trying to get home. Their fights are cancelled, they haven't been refunded.

We really need a plan to get people home.

I feel a great deal of empathy for the many Australians and their families who are trying to get home. I know how stressful it is for them. I see what they write to me and email me. And we really need to, the Government really needs to do better than simply reviewing the cap.

KNIGHT: They have offered financial support for those people who are considered vulnerable - the 3,000 or so, who as you say are struggling to make ends meet. In terms of what else needs to be done, what's your view?

WONG: Well can I talk about that for a minute, Deb, if that's alright? I mean throwing more debt at the problem doesn't fix it. I mean this announcement of more loans, is really an attempt to get a headline without helping people, without actually helping people.

KNIGHT: What should they be doing to help people?

WONG: They should be helping people actually get flights.

KNIGHT: So charter flights?

WONG: Well the Government can look at all the options that are available to them.

The problem people have is that there are not sufficient flights and not sufficient seats. And that is actually the big barrier for people, because both they can't get on a plane and then they don't have the cash to pay for yet another ticket or yet another ticket, as these fights are cancelled. Or these seats - they're told they can only purchase a first class seat.

You know, we're not even reaching the cap. We're not even reaching the cap of the number of Australians coming home, which says something about the Government's failure to plan for this.

So I'd urge them - you know there are a lot of families, a lot of people out there, a lot of people who are vulnerable - you really need to do something.

KNIGHT: Have some of them ignored the advice, though, that has been there, very loudly broadcast very loudly, letting know Australians who were overseas that they did need to take measures while the flights were available to get home. A lot of them ignored that advice.

WONG: Well, you know, you can't speak for everybody but I’d have to say the overwhelming number of stories and accounts that come to me, are people who really have been trying to do the right thing.

I mean, it is the case, when the Government closed the borders when this first began they told people to come home, you might recall, lots of people were stranded so eventually the Government provided some assistance, but a lot of people were stranded for a long period of time.

Now they've put in place caps which has had an effect on the airlines' behaviour - and the airlines' behaviour has not been good - which has meant we have an additional number of people who are unable to get home.

So I think it's actually working through what an announcement means and making sure there is a plan to bring Australian home. And I don't think that was done.

KNIGHT: Now I want to get your thoughts too on our relationship with China. The Foreign Ministry in China is now labelling Australia as, "infected with fear and paranoia" and I'd argue that that paranoia is warranted considering the treatment by China of Australia and Labor you've been critical of the Government's handling of the relationship. Joel Fitzgibbon - who's a regular on this show - has been saying that the Government should be far more sensitive in their dealings with China. Is that how you really deal with a country like China who frankly is bullying Australia?

WONG: I'd make a few points. The first is I don't accept the Foreign Ministry's language. I don't think it is accurate. And I don't think it is helpful. So I want to make that very clear. The second point I'd make is that Australia always has to, and always will – whoever is in government - assert our interest, our national interests and our values.

KNIGHT: So you're in lockstep with the Government?

WONG: Well, as a principle we have to be clear with all countries including China.

We do want a productive relationship with you and a productive relationship is one in which Australian interests and values are respected.

KNIGHT: So is Joel Fitzgibbon right in saying that we need to be more sensitive?

WONG: I think you always have to think about how you manage difference, and the unfortunate fact is that there are differences, which have become quite clear and clearer over time in terms of our interests, Australia's interests and China's interests.

And so part of our challenge through this period, and ahead, is to work through how we manage those differences in a way that is productive.

KNIGHT: What does that mean, I mean China is not, it's a) not returning the phone calls or contact with the Trade Minister or with the Foreign Minister and that's a fact. And if China is you know coming out saying that we are infected with fear and paranoia, and if the, you know, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Government, the Global Times is saying that we're nervous birds and that we're, you know, gum on the bottom of the shoe of China, I mean, that language is pretty clear. How do we handle that?

WONG: Well the first thing we do is what I've just done. I think we say we do not believe that language is accurate and we do not believe that language is helpful.

KNIGHT: Is that enough?

WONG: Well I don't think we move away from our views.

I mean, there are differences on certain issues. We have differences of views in terms of human rights. We have differences of views in terms of the national security legislation in Hong Kong. We have a different view about the South China Sea.

And neither party of government will step away from those in the face of language, such as the language you've just repeated to me and neither party of government will step away from those positions in the face of suggestions that there is going to be some economic coercion.

KNIGHT: So then when they bring down those trade sanctions, when they punish Australia, when they punish our barley growers, our beef farmers, our wine producers with direct trade sanctions. I mean just being sensitive to the differences. I mean, we've got to surely do more there when we're being hurt?

WONG: Well I'm not pretending, Deb, that this is easy. We have the dilemma of our largest trading partner, having a very clear, a different set of interests and views on issues that we cannot shift on.

And, you know, we have to work through that as a community, and as a Parliament and the government of the day has to work through that.

But what I would say is, and I'd make this clear again publicly, including in response to those comments from the Foreign Ministry; no amount of those behaviours is going to shift either party of government, in terms of asserting Australia's interests.

We will do so clearly. We will do so respectfully. But we will not be shifting on things we regard as central to who we are, and our interests.

KNIGHT: Alright, Penny Wong, we thank you for your time this afternoon.

WONG: Good to speak with you.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.