ABC News Afternoon Briefing - 18/09/2020

18 September 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: Labor's been quite critical of how national cabinet has been functioning but do you acknowledge that there seems to have been some success? It seems to have functioned quite well today with an outcome on overseas arrivals of Australians?

WONG: Well, certainly Scott Morrison has tried to use national cabinet to fob off a lot of responsibility to state governments, including for stranded Australians, when we all know borders and quarantine are the responsibility of the Federal Government - they're his responsibility.

What we have today is an announcement about a staged and small improvement, which will still leave thousands of Australian stranded. That's the reality of today's announcement.

Despite all of the words, what the Government has announced, what Mr Morrison announced just a couple of hours ago, is a situation which won't see Australians home by Christmas, which is what the Government was saying - and of course we want them home much earlier.

KARVELAS: Okay, but does the Prime Minister deserve some credit for getting Queensland and WA to lift their caps on international arrivals? If you listen to them a couple of days ago, they were quite reluctant. Clearly some deal has been done today.

WONG: Well, I don't think that's right. In fact, I think the state premiers and the Northern Territory have been clear they were willing, provided the Government, the Federal Government stepped up to the plate. They were willing to discuss increasing the caps.

We had a number of premiers floating that they were willing to do so. What we've had is a Government that's been pretty focused on having a go at state governments. We've certainly seen that in your home state of Victoria when it comes to the Commonwealth.

Look, what we what we have is a series of staged increases to the cap, which don't even deliver by the middle of next month the 6,000 places Mr Morrison told us a couple of days ago he was going to deliver.

So there's a lot of announcements.

And what the Prime Minister continues to float, and this must be pretty galling if you're sitting overseas and DFAT, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are having to tell you to go and look for a homeless shelter - the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison is continuing to float options he might have - charter flights, the Howard Springs facility which can take a few thousand, 2,000 to 3,000 people which was used after Wuhan and the Diamond Princess. He continues to float they're possibilities, but he's not actually delivering them.

KARVELAS: Okay, but if you look at the way the country works, obviously you need the states and territories on board. You say it's a Federal responsibility…

WONG: It is.

KARVELAS: But in reality it's a cooperative responsibility. People fly into states and there has to be an agreement between the state and territory leaders and the Prime Minister. So don't they at least have a collective responsibility here rather than it being entirely Scott Morrison's fault? I mean it's all of them isn't it?

WONG: Do you reckon - it would be pretty surprising to a few of your viewers, I think after the last few years in Federal politics to be told that Scott Morrison isn't responsible for borders. He was always very keen to tell us how he'd stop the boats.

Well the reality is the Federal Government has responsibility for borders and quarantine and has responsibility to put on the table for the states how they will assist them to enable that.


There are a whole range of things the Federal Government could do. Mr Morrison was prepared to float them today - charter flights, the facility at Howard Springs - but they're not delivering them.

What we're going to have is a very slow increase in the cap which means we won't even get to the 6,000 that the Prime Minister promised a few days ago by the middle of next month.

KARVELAS: You mentioned support. The Prime Minister made it clear that ADF support is entirely being offered there. Clearly given the bungle in hotel quarantining in Victoria which alarmed everyone, cost the country and I can tell you alarmed lots of Victorians, that's a good offer. Do you accept that's the right way to move forward now?

WONG: Look, obviously we have to have safe quarantine.

We have been responding to the many people contacting our offices and of course I think the Government is responding to frankly a lot of bad headlines from people overseas who are trapped.

But certainly from Labor's perspective we have been responding to people who, some are in very dire situations.

We have always understood you have to increase quarantine places. I think we all understand that. But the question is how do we make sure that happens?

KARVELAS: What do you make of the staged process in terms of its safety credentials if you like, as a safety precaution? Going back to the bungle in hotel quarantining, obviously if you have mass numbers coming through, as you say, thousands, there are bigger risks. Do you accept that perhaps it's a smarter safety idea to kind of stagger it?

WONG: Look, I'll be honest with you. I think is an announcement the Government's been dragged to because of the campaign from friends and families of those overseas.

We have only seen movement now. We should have seen - we shouldn't have had to do any of this. When the Government announced, Mr Morrison announced these caps, this was quite foreseeable - just as the risks in aged care were quite foreseeable.

It was quite foreseeable that once you put caps in, people are going to have trouble getting home. You were going to get an effect on the airline, on the market in terms of flights. That's what's happened.

So we have some movement. That is that is a good thing but it is a long way short of where we need to be and it will still thousands of Australians stranded.

KARVELAS: So to be clear, Labor believes in no caps at all?

WONG: No, no, I’ve never said that. I’ve never said that.

We have said you should increase the caps consistent with safe quarantine.

I'm just saying if the Government had actually had a plan when they first announced these caps - when Mr Morrison first stood up and announced these caps - instead of announcing them, leaving people to get into the situation they are, now making another announcement because they are forced to due to the frankly the bad publicity.

We could have avoided all of this if we had had a sensible planning process from the start and some delivery instead of an announcement.

KARVELAS: Let's just talk about this idea of a New Zealand travel bubble. It's back on the agenda. Are there risks in allowing people from areas thought to be virus free to skip the usual 14-day quarantine?

WONG: Look, there are always risks that have to be considered and weighed up.

Governments have to look at the public health advice and have to make judgements about how that is given effect.

I think people are seeking to make those judgements. Certainly that's what Premier Andrews in your state is trying to do and what Premier Palaszczuk is trying to do. That's what all the premiers are trying to do.

So I think we should be considering very carefully the health advice and making good judgements based on that.

Obviously there's, in a world where there is, the world of a pandemic, nothing is entirely risk free. And judgements have to be made about what the most appropriate way forward is. I hope the Government will do that.

KARVELAS: There has been criticism that the hardship program people can access if they can't afford a ticket people is too hard to qualify for. Do you have concerns around this? What kind of changes do you think should have been made?

WONG: This is the loans program?


WONG: This is the program of loans. I mean that was such a slap in the face wasn't it?

A reminder of the, the Morrison Government has tried to fix this politically before and they have sent Marise Payne out, Senator Payne out to make an announcement about more loans.

I have to say if she's getting the same sort of emails I'm getting from people stuck overseas and their families it went down pretty poorly.

These people are already in debt. The problem is you've got what was foreseeable at the start; the caps have meant the airlines aren't fly organise where they are flying they are flying with very few seats, both because of the cap but also financially, frankly.

They're putting people up to business and first class and cancelling economy seats. We have raised these price gouging concerns. We’ve got people who have had multiple cancellations, have not yet been refunded and the Government's response is to say ‘we'll give you a loan’.

I can understand why people felt pretty, pretty bad about that.

KARVELAS: What should they do instead then?

WONG: What we said. They should have had a plan to start with.

KARVELAS: What should that plan look like?

WONG: The plan should be to increase, safely, the caps and quarantine capacity.

They should put the Prime Minister's VIP fleet option on the table - the VIP jets which are not flying.

We should put them on the table as an option to get people home. We should look at charter flights and we should look at the Howard Springs facility. We've been saying this for some time.

KARVELAS: Labor's welcomed the decision to extend telehealth services by another six months. Should it become a permanent feature of the Australian health system?

WONG: Look, first, we do welcome it. Chris Bowen has been calling for that for some time - in fact called for this initially and also called for its continued extension - and I think it's a good thing, certainly been necessary in a pandemic.

I'll leave it to Chris who’s got a very good handle on health policy to put our view about that going forward.

But I do think what the pandemic has demonstrated to us is across a whole range of areas - the provision of public health services included - different ways of us doing business and whether it's you working from home or all the Zoom meetings or telehealth I think we should, we need to think about how it is we integrate some of the best of the practices that have been a response to the pandemic into our future –both our health system but also more broadly how we live and work.

KARVELAS: Just finally, Europe's second wave is now worse than the initial outbreak and coronavirus infections are surging globally. Has the outbreak in Australia been well managed overall in your view?

WONG: Well, we're certainly in a better place than many other countries.

The Opposition, the Labor Opposition, federally took the view very early on that we would be constructive; we would put forward suggestions, we would put forward what we thought was needed for the country but we weren't going play petty politics and I think we have demonstrated that.

We've also got to hold people accountable and I think the aged care - the tragedy in aged care, particularly in Victoria - was an area where the Government has been rightly held accountable.

But it is a reminder - at a time where we see unfortunately some petty partisan politics being played by Mr Morrison and others against, against State Premiers who are doing their very best to make sure this is contained - it's a reminder that there are risks, that second and third waves are possible and that public health advice needs to be acted upon by premiers who are trying to do the right thing

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.