ABC AM - 30/03/2020

30 March 2020

SABRA LANE, HOST: Penny Wong, good morning.
LANE: The Government helped negotiate the approvals for a charter flight out of Peru; apparently another 170 people are still stranded there. There are Australians trapped in India. Should there be further government assistance or should these people now just batten down and ride it out?
WONG: I think the first thing we need to have is more urgent direct help from the Government. We know that Qantas and Virgin international services are ending as we speak. We know that there are many, many Australians who need to get out of unsafe situations. Many of them have been trying for weeks. And we need to follow the lead of other countries where we've seen, for example, Germany put in place some 70 charter flights to get their citizens home. We need decisive action from the Morrison Government.
LANE: The Government has warned since March the 9th about getting on cruise ships; it's warned people not to. It's warned all Australians about the need to reconsider their travel on the 13th and ramped that up to an outright ban on March the 18th. Hasn't the Government been clear about the risks of staying overseas?
WONG: Well in relation to the reconsideration of travel, and more importantly, urging people to come home, my office, and I'm sure Marise Payne's office but certainly MPs and senators across the Parliament have been dealing with hundreds of people who are seeking to come home. The great many of them have been doing what the Government asked them to do. That is, they've been overseas, they've heard the advice, they've tried to get home, but they've been prevented from doing so; often through no fault of their own. Either because commercial options have dried up so fast to particular locations, or because there have been lockdowns or travel bans put in place by their host country. That's why you've seen other countries trying to get their citizens out. I recognise this is a huge task for the Government. I recognise how hard the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff are working, but the reality is we have many Australians who need urgent help and we need decisive action by the Government.
LANE: Have you made representations to either the Minister or the Department?
WONG: We've been making representations regularly. I called for more work on this; for a plan to get Australians home over a week ago. We also see costs becoming a barrier. I mean, the Peruvian flight that you were describing; the advice we have from people on the ground is that a similar fight for residents of the United Kingdom costs about 250; Australians are looking to stump up $5,000. Now, these are very large amounts of money for people who are finding it very difficult to get back and we would say to the Government: cost shouldn't be a barrier to travel in these circumstances. I mean, this is an unprecedented set of circumstances.
LANE: Australia's diplomatic presence in some countries is quite thin even at the best of times and sometimes governments are pretty restricted in what they can do. The department and previous ministers - have tried to make that point. What do you say to that argument that there is an inherent risk in traveling and sometimes the government cannot help everyone all the time?
WONG: The Australians that are contacting my office know that governments can't fix everything, and of course governments can't. No one is suggesting that they can, but we can do better. We have really no coherent plan from the Government to urgently help those who are in unsafe circumstances, and that really is required.
One of the options, for example, that the Government flagged some days ago was Qantas continuing to certain hubs. We've had no further information about that. I hope the Government is continuing to do that. I welcome that option because it at least gives Australian travellers, some options.
LANE: Penny Wong, thanks for talking to AM this morning.
WONG: Good to speak with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.