2GB Drive with Jim Wilson - 17/09/2020

17 September 2020

JIM WILSON, HOST: I spoke yesterday to Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham about efforts to bring Australians stranded overseas during the pandemic back home. We're talking between 20,000 and 25,000 people.

We should also make the point as we did yesterday that around 385,000 people have been able to get home.

Now efforts are now underway to lift the cap of the number of people allowed to come back each week. Currently, it's 4000 a week, but the Federal Government wants to lift that to 6000. But for that to happen, it needs to get the states to lift the number of people they're prepared to take into quarantine. Tomorrow the matter goes before the national cabinet.

Now, Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister. She says lifting the cap by 2000 won't make that much of a difference and the Commonwealth needs to take the lead rather than leaving it to the states. I'm glad to say that Senator Penny Wong is on the line this afternoon, Penny, welcome to the program.


WILSON: If nearly 390,000 people have been able to get home can't we argue the repatriation scheme has been a success?

WONG: A lot of people did what they were asked to do, which is when the Government announced that the borders were closing and then announced caps, people booked flights and tried to get home.

But as you said in your intro - and the number is growing in fact, it's nearly 30,000 according to Michael McCormack - we've got 30,000 Australians overseas, nearly 4,000 of them are classed as vulnerable. And a lot of them are people who just can't get home.

I've had many people contact my office, they've had multiple flight cancellations. They're not getting their tickets refunded. Their visas have run out, they might have lost their job, they haven't got any income. They're desperately trying to get home and they haven't been able to get home.

So we're just saying that Scott Morrison really does have to fix this. He's responsible for borders. He's responsible for quarantine. And we need the feds to work with the state governments to actually make sure we can bring these Australians home, many of whom are in pretty dire sick situations.

WILSON: Haven't some people though, Penny been their own worst enemies? I mean, the Prime Minister issued a warning for people to come home in March. Yet we read today about people who heard that warning, yet booked a ticket's home for July. Surely people need to take some of the responsibility?

WONG: Of course, people need to take responsibility. I think the overwhelming majority have.

And I think if you listened to many of the stories of the people we're talking about now you can completely understand why they chose to stay.

You know, I saw one woman who was a nurse, who was working actually in a British hospital. The pandemic obviously was hitting. She had a contract to finish. She wanted to honour that contract. She booked a flight for when it finished, and obviously the flight was cancelled.

We've seen, I had a gentleman contact my office - thankfully he's back in Australia, a pensioner, he was stuck in France - he ended up sleeping in a car - thankfully home now. He booked multiple flights.

So there are many people who have tried to do the right thing. The fact is that the flights have dried up.

There's been, frankly, price gouging from the airlines and we've called on the Government to you know, talk to the airlines and basically to get them to stop doing it because a lot of people have been, had their economy seats cancelled and been hit with business or first class tickets, which also have been cancelled.

So it's a pretty difficult situation for many people. It really is something the Government should be fixing.

WILSON: Anthony Albanese is calling for the Government's VIP jet fleet to be used. But is that viable when a flight to London would cost $100,000 each way and be able to carry 20 or so people?

WONG: Well, we've got there's a lot of places closer than London and you know, the VIP fleet isn't being used at the moment.

I reckon we just put everything on the table.

Instead of Scott Morrison saying to everybody that borders and quarantines seem to be the state government's responsibility, what we should be doing is saying, okay, we're the Federal Government - I think most of your listeners would believe that Mr Morrison has been in control of the borders, certainly that's what he tells us.

So let's deal with it. What's wrong with putting the VIP planes as something on the table to bring people home? At the moment, we don't have enough flights to get at these Australian home. So we need to work on that.

WILSON: You're pointing the finger at the Federal Government and the Prime Minister, but isn't this an issue for the states? I mean some of them are doing their bit. New South Wales is taking nearly two and a half thousand people a week, while the Labor Government in Queensland is taking just 500. The Labor Government in Western Australia is taking around the same number. I mean, have you spoken to either of them about lifting their numbers?

WONG: No, I haven't spoken to any of the Premiers.

WILSON: Would you like to see them lift their numbers?

WONG: I would like the caps lifted and I'd like quarantine lifted. But I also recognise that all of them have actually said they're prepared to do it.

So we've had the Northern Territory, which is prepared to put more places on the table.

Remember when we had people from the Diamond Princess and also from Wuhan, when the pandemic began, actually the Federal Government organised quarantine in the Northern Territory.

So the Northern Territory has put their willingness on the table to have a couple thousand up there.

We've had Mark McGowan has said he's open to it. I think Premier Palaszczuk's said she's open to it.

So the states are willing to work with the Federal Government. And I think it would be good if the Prime Minister could make sure at the national cabinet, he delivers not just an announcement, like we saw yesterday - that they'd written a letter - but actually a plan to get Australians home.

But can I just go back to where you started, Jim, in your intro? You said, that I had said I wasn't sure it was enough. I think that that is true.

We've heard 30,000 but I notice that the airlines are saying it's probably about 100,000 people overseas. I don't quite understand the difference between what the airlines are just saying and what the Government say.

But even with a couple of thousand more a week that's obviously a pretty big back log.

WILSON: How many more thousand would you like to see come in per week if 6000 is not enough?

WONG: As many as are able to be done in safe quarantine. I mean, we all agree we don't want to have second or third waves.

I know that all the states and territories have worked pretty hard to try and manage the virus. So obviously you've got to have proper quarantine in place. That's the first priority.

But I'm just making the point that at 2000 additional we've got a fair way... Greg Hunt said they'd be home by Christmas. We'll see if that happens. I hope it can happen much earlier.

WILSON: Penny, thank you for your time this afternoon.

WONG: Great to speak with you, Jim.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.