ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings with David Bevan - 27/11/2020

27 November 2020

SUBJECTS: Australians stranded overseas.

DAVID BEVAN, HOST: We're hoping to make contact with a guy by the name of Ben. Ben is stuck in the San Francisco Airport. He's an example of what we're discussing here. He was hoping to get on a plane and come to Sydney, but then there was a problem with the plane and it was delayed for a couple of hours, which pushed him into the next day, only to be told: sorry, you can't come into Australia because that would push out the quota for Australians coming into Sydney Airport for that next day. He's saying: but, hang on, I had permission to get in on this day and it wasn't my fault that the plane couldn't fly out. And they're saying: yeah, look, get back to us in a few weeks time. So, this is the terrible frustration that Australians overseas are facing. In a moment I hope we can make contact with Ben Kalman in San Francisco Airport. But, let's begin with Penny Wong. Senator Penny Wong, good morning to you.


BEVAN: What do you say is the situation? How many Australians are still trying to get home?

WONG: The number simply keeps rising, David. It's now almost 37,000, and more worryingly, the number of those who are considered vulnerable – people who are at risk or who are in vulnerable circumstances – has actually doubled. When I last spoke to you I think it was 4,000 Australians and now it is 8,000.

You started this segment by saying what should be done? I think it's pretty simple. Mr Morrison promised to get stranded Australians home by Christmas and it's time he did the work and took responsibility to deliver on it. The reality is, the Commonwealth could boost safe quarantine capacity. Instead of doing that, he's chosen to leave it to the states and to blame the states for the failure to deliver on his own promise. So, I think the Prime Minister should simply do what he told Australians he would do and bring these people home.

BEVAN: And at the same time Mathias Cormann is flying around in a plane at taxpayers' expense trying to get a job.

WONG: I thought the really telling defence that Mr Morrison made of that is he said: well, Mathias had to have a plane otherwise he'd get COVID. I thought well, you know, it's pretty rough isn't it? When you listen to all the stories – you've got Ben's story, hopefully later on, where people got stuck because a plane didn't take off and so they missed their connecting flight; or whether it's the hundreds of people that I've dealt with – and some of which you've spoken to – who've been stranded and hear that there's a plane because we want a former minister not to get COVID, but everybody else has to stay in, potentially, very risky situations and catch commercial flights home.

BEVAN: But is there a conflicting message coming out of the Labor Party federally that you're complaining you're not doing enough to get Australians home? At the state level, the State Opposition Leader, Peter Malinauskas, is calling for the medi-hotel system to be suspended and the indefinite end of all international arrivals.

WONG: Well, what we're saying is the Federal Government should be taking responsibility as they were advised to do. I mean, let's remember the Federal Government got one of their former departmental secretaries, Jane Halton, to do a very detailed report on quarantine some time ago. She made some very clear recommendations, which have not been acted on. She said the feds can run quarantine under federal legislation, they can do it safely and she recommended the Government should stand up a federal quarantine facility for surge capacity. That's the recommendation that has not been acted on by Scott Morrison, instead he's just choosing to blame the states.

I think Peter has done the right thing in making his criticisms of the way in which some of the state quarantine has been run. We've seen some problems there, but instead of simply blaming the states, I think Scott Morrison should take responsibility. He promised to get people home. The Federal Government closed the borders – now, that was the right thing to do – but we do have a responsibility to ensure Australian citizens – who through no fault of their own are stranded overseas – can get home safely and be safely quarantined so the rest of the community can stay safe.

The problem is, early on, what we heard from Scott Morrison was: ah look, you know, they should have come home already; people should have listened to the advice. The reality is, many of them just couldn't get home. You might remember we spoke about Australians in South America who when the borders were shut and flights obviously started to dry up couldn't even leave where they were because there was a domestic lockdown; they couldn't even get to the airport. So, I think this is very concerning. Not only are we not going to get people home by Christmas – which is what the Prime Minister promised – but we risk having Australians stranded overseas for very, very long periods of time and that's simply not responsible.

BEVAN: What facilities, do you think the Federal Government should be opening up if we're not going to be using – if I've understood you correctly – the medi-hotels run by the states? Does the Federal Government have the wherewithal to set up these kinds of facilities to get 37,000 extra people home by Christmas?

WONG: I think the Prime Minister isn't even trying to get people home by Christmas. He's blaming the states and he's now saying: well, actually when I made that promise, it was only about the people who were overseas then – about half of whom have come home.

I'll go back to what I said earlier. The Federal Government should do what was recommended to them, which is to stand up a federal quarantine facility for surge capacity. That was the recommendation in their own report.

BEVAN: But do you know where that would be?

WONG: Well, I'm not in government and I don't have all the information. We made some suggestions early on to stand up Howard Springs as a federal quarantine facility. Jane Halton raised other options. She talked about RAAF Learmonth – that's in her report as well – that there should be further quarantine centres opened up there. But the point is, as much as you and I might discuss this, you're not the Prime Minister and I'm not the Federal Health Minister – and these are things they could do and they're not doing them.

BEVAN: And you think they could be doing it or they've got to find a way of doing it without the states running these medi-hotels? Or would the medi-hotels supplement what a federal system...

WONG: I think the principle is safe quarantine and, of course, the states should do everything they can to ensure that any state quarantine facilities are safe. I think Peter Malinauskas has made very reasonable criticisms of the state quarantine. I understand that the Premier has listened to that and is commissioning a review and that's a good thing. But over and above the need for safe quarantine in state facilities, the point here is the Federal Government – Mr Morrison – has washed his hands of this and he's left it to the states and he can't wash his hands of it because it is a federal responsibility and the feds do have capacity to deal with this and they should. It simply hasn't been a priority.

BEVAN: Now, lots of texts coming in on this. We're talking to Penny Wong, Labor's Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister; Leader of the Labor Party in the Senate. One person says: Penny Wong, look, people chose to live overseas and not in Australia for years – now they want to get back. People who are travelling are the first who should have been brought back, others are settled overseas. So, you're well aware that there's a portion of the audience that's not very sympathetic?

WONG: Sure. Well what I'd say to that texter is this: first, 36,000 people who are stranded is not the entirety of the number of Australians overseas. And there are very many Australians are doing precisely what your caller or your listener is suggesting, which is staying put. People who have settled overseas; they're not on the list to come home. So, those stranded already is only one component or one proportion of the people of the Australians who are overseas. Your listener is right, not everybody overseas needs to or wants to come home. So, these are people who have said: I want to come home. I want to come home, I want to try and get on a flight and please reserve me a place in quarantine. And that's the number that keeps growing as are the number of people who are vulnerable.

I'd also made this point – that people's circumstances change. There was a case that I dealt with of a woman who is a nurse. She was in the United Kingdom, she was working at a public hospital there. She made a very decent decision when the borders were shut that she didn't want to walk away from her contract because it wasn't the right thing to do as a health worker to walk away during a pandemic. Now, her contract has ended, but she can't get home. Now, someone like that – and there are so many others who are stranded overseas, not because they've been irresponsible, not because they are having fun, but because they have been unable to get back to Australia. They've been unable to get on flights; most people.

We had evidence yesterday at the Senate Select Committee where people – I think it was a family in Canada who spent $50,000 on cancelled flights to get them and their children home. So my experience is that Australians are resourceful. They're not asking for everything to be done for them, but people are getting desperate because they are booking flights, which have been cancelled, and cancelled, and cancelled and they simply can't get home.

The story you raised today about Ben, which is a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to LA, to connect to a flight to Sydney – and the United Airlines flight was grounded for three hours so they had to spend the night in San Francisco, which is why he came back late – no fault of their own. But the really sad thing is the Facebook messages that I've read are that they called the Department of Foreign Affairs and were told that they had to speak to the Department of Industry.

BEVAN: That's the voice of Senator Penny Wong. Penny Wong, thank you for you time.

WONG: It's great to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.