ABC AM with Kim Landers - 23/12/2020

23 December 2020

SUBJECTS: Australians trying to return from the UK; the need for a national border control quarantine system; 39,000 Australians stranded overseas; COVID-19 vaccine; Daru Island.

KIM LANDERS, HOST: Senator Wong, good morning.


LANDERS: As we've just heard it's becoming increasingly dicey for some Aussies to get home but this mutated UK strain is very worrying should Australia be banning anyone returning from the UK?

WONG: Well, the first thing the Government needs to deliver, the first thing Mr Morrison needs to deliver is safe national quarantine. And that's the key to this and we do know the Prime Minister has been warned about the importance of a better border control quarantine system. He's been told by his own expert how he can safely operate a national border control quarantine system to keep Australians safe, but he's passing the buck. He's passing the buck on quarantine to the states just like he did with aged care, and just like he did with the Ruby Princess.

LANDERS: But in the meantime, we've got the quarantine system as it is, but it's still allowing travellers to come back from the UK. Should they be stopped because of this mutated strain?

WONG: Well, we always should follow the health advice. But I would make the point the health advice has been very clear that Australia needs a safe quarantine system. And the reality is we have seen weaknesses in our quarantine system because Scott Morrison has abdicated responsibility. We closed our borders in March, we imposed caps on returned Australians in July. Labor said, the longer we leave it, the greater the risk not only to those Australians stranded overseas but to Australians here, and yet still Scott Morrison is not acting to deliver safe quarantine, and he could.

LANDERS: There are still 39,000 Australians who are trying to get home. We've just heard the experience of one man who's was going to try to transit through Singapore. What can Australia do to try to arrange that safe passage home?

WONG: Well, I think Sean's story - and it was a very distressing interview I thought - you could hear the desperation in his voice and you know he's one of, as you say, nearly 40,000 - 39,000 - Australians who want to come home who can't, and who have been trying to get home. This underlines Mr Morrison's failure to deliver; failure to deliver on his promise that he would get Australians home by Christmas, but more critically failure to deliver on the safe quarantine, which would protect both Australians here, but also enable Australians stranded to come home.

LANDERS: The Federal Government says a vaccine should be ready to roll out in Australia by March, do you think that needs to be sped up?

WONG: We would always respect the approval processes of the Therapeutic Goods authority here in Australia but I think the problem is that Mr Morrison said Australians are at the front of the queue. We certainly don't want, once approval has been given, we don't want to see any delay. And I think his line about being at the front of the queue is just not true. Australians can't afford for Mr Morrison not to deliver on his promise to deliver the vaccine, and he needs to show Australians that he can get it rolled out as soon as it's approved.

LANDERS: On another issue, PNG has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China to build a fishing industrial park on the island of Daru, which is very close to Australia. Our Foreign Minister has raised some concerns about that but PNG says it is acting within its sovereign rights by considering it. Why are you saying the Morrison Government has dropped the ball on that one?

WONG: Firstly, it doesn't appear that Mr Morrison and Senator Payne saw this coming. Secondly, we've got a comprehensive, a massive industrial facility, very close to Australia's waters. We know fish numbers are depleted. The Foreign Minister has said the treaty in place will not allow for Chinese commercial fishing and I think it is legitimate to ask, well, what is it going to be used for? All I'm saying is Mr Morrison has to guarantee that the project on Australia's doorstep doesn't risk Australia's security interests or our fisheries.

LANDERS: Why would we pick a fight with China on this? Isn't it just going to make the relations with China worse?

WONG: Look, I think we should be really clear about what our interests are. And our interests are in ensuring that Australia's and our neighbours' fisheries are secure. And I want Senator Payne to ensure that occurs.

LANDERS: PNG's Fisheries Minister says that the plan hasn't been given in the final approval. Should we not respect that process in PNG?

WONG: I think the issue goes to ensuring that Australia's interests are protected. And those interests do go to our interest in the fisheries, which we share in that region with Papua New Guinea and ensuring that we understand what this massive project is going to be used for.

LANDERS: Senator Wong, thank you very much for joining AM.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.