SUBJECTS: COVID-19 outbreak in India; stranded Australians; Port of Darwin; comments from Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo; the Morrison Government’s Defence funding reannouncement; US recognition of Armenian genocide; Andrew Laming.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, welcome.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good afternoon, good to be with you.
KARVELAS: Is Dr Anthony Fauci right when he says the world has failed India?
WONG: He is certainly right to express view that we have to battle COVID
everywhere. We don’t beat this virus unless we beat it everywhere which is why we have expressed not only our compassion for, but our solidarity with the people of India, and have said we will support all and every assistance that the Morrison Government can offer. This is a crisis that affects that country, a friend of Australia’s very deeply. It also affects as your news report demonstrated, so many people of Indian origin who are here in Australia and our thoughts are with them and their friends and family for whom they are very worried.
KARVELAS: You mentioned the level of support that the Morrison Government has provided are you satisfied with the level of support Australia is providing to India?
WONG: We are not in government. It is very difficult for me to assess what we have available, but what I would say is we have a deep interest in a stable region, a prosperous region and a region which succeeds against the virus. And that means we do have an interest in, as well as an ethical obligation, to help India. This is an extraordinarily deep crisis, we see not only in the images, but also in the numbers that have been reported. We really do have to work with all other countries to contain this dreadful wave in India.
I would also make a comment, if I may, about the thousands of Australians who are still stranded there. This really has been an abdication of responsibility from Mr Morrison, he told people that people would be home by Christmas and clearly that has not been the case. We still don’t have a system of safe, national quarantine led by the Commonwealth - which is critical - about which he has been advised. So, we are now in a situation in which - I think, even on your program I’ve mentioned previously - that the longer we waited, the more perilous the situation would become and regrettably that has come to pass. And Australians in India are less safe as a consequence of the Prime Minister's failure to act.
KARVELAS: On that line, has a Federal Government make the right call then, pausing flights to and from India, given the risks of hotel quarantine breaches? Obviously, they think based on medical advice that we need a pause.
WONG: We should always take the medical advice and act upon it, which is what Labor has consistently said as the Opposition, throughout the pandemic. We have listened to the medical advice and we act on it. But the Government should use this three-week period, or this period of pausing and suspension of flights to do two things. One is to establish a safe system of national quarantine. Howard Springs, which has been re-announced, has taken far too long to stand up and the Government was briefed about this and given advice about this last year. The second thing they need to do is ensure hotel quarantine is safe. The Government was advised last year about the need for national standards. We still have people who are working in those hotels who don’t have adequate PPE. They still have people who are not vaccinated. And we still have problems with ventilation as we have seen recently. The Government needs to not dismiss this in the way that Mr Morrison keeps doing so, and actually step up and take responsibility because the safety of Australians overseas and the safety of Australians here, depend on him actually doing his job.
KARVELAS: What kind of support should the Government be offering the 9,000 Australian stranded in India by this decision to pause flights? Over the next couple of weeks what would you like to see them offered?
WONG: The first thing we need to do is establish more safe quarantine, a system of safe quarantine, because all options in terms of repatriating Australians depends on that. We could talk for a long time about the way in which Mr Morrison has really dropped the ball to the detriment of those Australians and their families on quarantine over this last year, failing to act, failing to act on advice and as a consequence we still have people stranded months after the Prime Minister promised he would have people home. Remember, he said they would be home by Christmas.
KARVELAS: So you want the quarantine system basically changed or re-engineered over the next couple of weeks while it has been paused…
WONG: He should act on advice, he should act on advice.
KARVELAS: But how about people already stranded, that won’t benefit them because they can’t come, so what support should they be given while they are stranded in India?
WONG: They should be offered whatever consular assistance we can provide but my point is to bring them to safety, the task remains, as it was months ago, which is to establish sufficient safe, national quarantine to bring people home. That hasn’t happened and as a consequence we have Australians in increasingly risky situations.
KARVELAS: Should that be in the form of financial payments to help them? Many of them, we know, are financially struggling for instance during this time. Is that a pathway the Government should explore?
WONG: The Government should be looking at those at risk and work out what it is it needs to do to provide support for Australians stranded overseas. We have been talking about this for some time. The Government responded initially by providing loans. I know from correspondence provide to my office that that has not worked for many people. I think what is required is sufficient consular support so that people’s needs can be assessed. And we would provide support for that.
KARVELAS: Sorry to interrupt, but instead of loans, payments, one-off payments do you think? Given they can’t come back.
WONG: Look, if I were Foreign Minister, I would look at what was required. And I would be seeking to put in place those supports or add to the supports which are there, if that is needed. And that is what Marise Payne should be doing. But I again come back to this because this is very important. Unless we improve our quarantine system, unless the Federal Government does what it should do and shows leadership on this, we will continue to have Australians stranded in risky situations and what is occurring in India demonstrates that.
KARVELAS: Are you worried some of the rhetoric around people travelling to and from India could result in an increase in racism directed at Indian Australians?
WONG: We have seen through this pandemic, regrettably, a rise in prejudice and discrimination in certain circumstances. And certainly Asian Australians, Australians of Chinese heritage, have reported increased incidence of racist comments, racist abuse and prejudice. We always have to guard against this. Of course I worry that some people in the community might get the wrong message and what people like you and I, people who have leadership roles in our society, and Scott Morrison, need to keep saying, is that the virus knows no race. The virus is not caused by any culture or any ethnic group. The virus is something all of humanity has to battle together and that is how we should approach it.
KARVELAS: Do you think our athletes should be travelling to Japan for the Olympic Games, given Coronavirus infections there appear to be spiking again?
WONG: Those decisions should be made, not only by management but after listening to the advice of the health authorities. I understand that they are intending to travel and they will be provided with the vaccine, and I think if they are travelling that is appropriate. And I assume they will be subjected to the same quarantine arrangements as every other Australian or ever other person entering Australia will on their return.
KARVELAS: That was going to go to my next question. The fact that vaccines don’t necessarily stop transmission, that means that everyone heading to Japan for the games needs to quarantine when they return, right, that is inevitable?
WONG: I would be guided by the health advise on that and the health advice, I assume, would not pick and choose, and would look at what should apply to any Australian or permanent resident returning home.
KARVELAS: Moving to some other issues, the Prime Minister says he is prepared to cancel the lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company if he gets advice to do that. Is it worth the potential backlash from Beijing?
WONG: We always have to act in our national interest but I take the Prime Minister's words here as yet another example of words, not actions. We get a lot of that from Scott Morrison. Let’s remember, he was Treasurer when this lease was established. Secondly, let’s remember when legislation was in Parliament, legislation that Labor pressed for, which enabled the Federal Government to look at critical infrastructure and ensure that ownership or operation of the infrastructure was appropriate for the national interest, we moved amendments calling on Marise Payne, calling on the Government, requiring them to provide a report about the effects of and the security issues around the Port of Darwin. Well, the Government voted against that. It may be that Mr Morrison will act belatedly. It may be that he will finally do the right thing but he's had a number of opportunities to look at this issue more carefully and he has not chosen to do so.
KARVELAS: What do you make of the messaging coming from the Government on China, including the comments by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo and this re-announced $747 million upgrade of Top End defence facilities?
WONG: First, the ADF should have the capability it needs. That is a position we have supported; it is a bipartisan position. I would note, this is a Government that is very good at the photo op, very good at the announcement, but not so good at the delivery. And it is the delivery of capability which will keep Australians safe, just as it is the delivery of the vaccine which will keep Australians safe. We have got an announcement, which is a couple of years after the first announcement was made; more money being spent with a delay on the capability being rolled out. What I would say is the Government should be focusing much less on nice photo opportunities and much more on delivering the capability that our defence force needs.
In terms of some of the rhetoric, I made the point yesterday that words matter; and they do. Our national interest is served by us carefully, soberly and clearly articulating our national interest, articulating those things we care about, those things which matter to Australia not by engaging in rhetoric which, at times, is not careful, which is not sober and which is not cautious.
KARVELAS: Should Australia follow the lead of the US and recognise the killing of Armenians by the Turks during World War I as genocide?
WONG: This was a very important announcement by President Biden over the weekend, and he recognised the actions of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide. It's something the Armenian community around the world have been advocating for, have been seeking for some time. Australia traditionally has taken a different position but I would say this; I think President Biden's announcement does give the opportunity for the Australian Government to engage in some further dialogue with the diaspora, with the Armenian community, with other partners more broadly. This is a time where I believe truth and reconciliation do go hand-in-hand and I would hope the Government will take the opportunity to engage in that dialogue.
KARVELAS: I just want to take you to some more domestic issues if we can. Is it acceptable for Coalition MP Andrew Laming to attribute his newly diagnosed ADHD for the way he has behaved? His online attacks and harassment of constituents, treatment of women – is that something that you think is believable or something that can justify this behaviour?
WONG: I don't think this behaviour from Mr Laming can be justified and he has a long history of it. I’d make this comment about those in Australia who live with ADHD - there are many Australians who live with ADHD, there are many children who are diagnosed with it and parents of those children - I don't think people would say that that diagnosis is an excuse for the sorts of behaviour that you describe that Mr Laming has engaged in, in relation to women. It has been very disappointing that Mr Morrison has taken so long to act in relation to Mr Laming. He obviously only acted when it became a political problem and he still remains a member of the Government's team and a person on whom the Government relies for its majority in the House of Representatives.
KARVELAS: He doesn't appear overly remorseful in an interview I saw he did with Samantha Maiden.
KARVELAS: He doesn't seem to get it, if I can be blunt. Should the Government oust him from the party room?
WONG: Well, Scott Morrison should act and I think you are right. I have not seen – and maybe I haven't seen every interview Andrew Laming has done or everything he has said – but I have not seen, not only contrition or remorse, but insight about the nature of his behaviours towards women and the sort of harassment that has been described. And people ought not have to put up with that sort of behaviour from anybody, least of all somebody who is a member of the Australian Parliament. I would hope Mr Morrison would reflect on it because Mr Laming's behaviours and his failure to face up to them, I think, reflects poorly on the Prime Minister.
KARVELAS: You mention the many Australians living with ADHD. I know people living with ADHD. It is something that more and more of us are becoming aware of, I think, as times change and we hopefully become a better community. Do you worry that when he says what he does, that it is a slur on all those people; that it attributes this kind of behaviour with this particular diagnosis?
WONG: Yes, I do, which is why I said I do not think it is a justification. I'm not an expert in this area. I only know what I know from personal engagement. What I would say is I have not seen people use - parents of children or others who might have this diagnosis – I haven't seen people use the diagnosis as a justification or rationalisation of the sorts of behaviours, what appeared to be a persistent pattern of harassment that has been described publicly.
KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for your time.
WONG: Good to be with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.