08 September 2020
ALI CLARKE, HOST: Just a little bit of breaking news, too. These rising tensions between Australia and China have seen the last two Australian journalists thrown out of the country.
Bill Birtles and Michael Smith have just touched down in Sydney, as of just moments ago. They were the last two Australian journalists who were in China. They were rushed out of the country.
DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Somebody we can go to immediately for a reaction to that is Penny Wong. She's the South Australian Senator and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Good morning, Penny Wong.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning to you both.
BEVAN: That's disturbing isn't it? Bill Birtles and Mike Smith?
WONG: It is very disturbing.
I'm obviously aware of these reports and will be briefed later today. I would just make the point that it is regrettable that news organisations including the ABC have had to make this decision.
Obviously, it will be much more preferable, given the complexity of the relationship, if China and Australia could have a better understanding of each other and media is a very important part of that.
But the reports are deeply concerning, particularly some of the suggestions about what occurred prior to Mr Birtles leaving and Mr Smith leaving.
CLARKE: Well, to bring everybody up to speed because this story has just broken in the last 10 to 15 minutes. Bill Birtles, it's said, has spent 4 days sheltering in Australia's embassy in Beijing, while Smith took refuge in Australia's Shanghai consulate as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to safely leave the country.
BEVAN: Now, yesterday, we brought you an interview with a South Australian by the name of Tony Cannon. And Tony is a South Australian, but he's originally from Ireland. And they got the terrible news that their daughter was dying back in Ireland, and they needed to get back there quickly. And it was really just a matter of days. Penny Wong was listening to that interview, for those of you who missed it, here's a small portion:
TONY CANNON: I realise that Emirates, the airline are constrained by the number of people that can come into Australia with the caps that are on at the moment. We all know the border closures and the caps and things like that, you know, have certainly kept Australian safe. Nobody will object about that. But, you know, the Government are also saying, I mean, Scott Morrison said that he's given Australians enough time to get back since March before they put these caps on in mid-July. Well, that's all very well, but if you give somebody permission on compassionate grounds - we didn't go on holiday - to travel, it would seem only fair that you would let them, in July, that you would let them back in August.
BEVAN: Now, sadly, Tony's daughter died a couple of days after they got to Ireland, but they were able to spend those last two days with her and their grandchildren and their son in law. Then when they turned to come home, that's when they discovered that there just weren't any, any places for them on a plane. Now we've been told that following an interview that Tony did with a radio station in Ireland, Emirates has agreed there's some good news here, has agreed to offer help and they just got confirmation of a flight out to Sydney this Friday.
Penny Wong you were listening to that interview. Did it occur to you there's got to be a better way?
WONG: Of course, I mean, can I first say to Tony and Bernadette, and all of the Cannon family - there are obviously children, their other children who are here in Adelaide - my deepest sympathies on your loss.
And the last thing people need at a time like this when you're grieving the loss of the daughter is to have these sorts of barriers to return, you know all of this financial and other stress thrown in their way.
Tony did email Mark Butler, who is his local MP. He passed it on to my office yesterday.
I understand that Tony has written to let us know overnight that as a consequence, as you say, of some of the publicity that the airline is now responding.
But as good as it was - and I really appreciate Ali and David, you bringing this to people's attention - we can't actually rely on government being run just because a couple of journos do their job.
I mean, the problem here is we've got thousands of Australians stranded overseas.
Yet another announcement the Government has made without a plan.
And once we put caps on, the obvious problem is that the airlines responded. They started, frankly, price gouging and they need to stop.
People are not finding options to come home. And there are too many Australians who are actually increasingly vulnerable.
We have people who are overseas, who are running out of money, whose visas are expiring, who cannot get a flight home and the Government really needs to deal with it.
BEVAN: What should the Government do?
WONG: I think that's a reasonable question.
I think the first thing I'd say is don't make announcements without thinking through how they might play out.
I think there are three things I really need to do. I think you can look at what you're doing with quarantine. We’re currently not utilising - or we weren't when the Senate was sitting last week, we were asking questions about this - they're currently not utilising the full capacity. So they've got caps on but we weren't actually getting up to the cap. So we should actually look at how do we safely increase quarantine capacity.
Secondly, I think Scott Morrison should be talking to the airlines and putting a stop to price gouging. I mean, I think Tony spoke about this in the interview - the cost of tickets. We have people who have booked economy tickets, who have done the right thing and then at the last minute the tickets cancelled and they can only get a business or first class seat.
And finally, I'd just say, I think the Government should look at what are all the options, you know, how do we repatriate people if there are no flights.
CLARKE: Do you know how many Australians are still stranded, Penny?
WONG: The last figures were 23,000 and what's even more concerning is I think just over three and a half thousand of them are classed by the Government themselves as being vulnerable.
So you have people who like the Cannons, have obviously gone over for compassionate reasons and can't get back. And there's been more than one of those.
Then there are people who are overseas, they either haven't been able to get back because of flight unavailability since the borders were first closed and so now they're running out, people are running out of money, visas are expiring.
There are some people who were overseas, they were in work, they stayed put but now they've lost work and they want to come home.
My office has had many people making representations and I think the Government, it's a bit like the discussion that we had back in March when the borders closed and we were talking about all the thousands of Australians overseas.
We've got the same problem; another announcement without thinking through what the consequences were, and having a plan.
CLARKE: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and Senator for South Australia, Penny Wong, thank you.
WONG: Thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.