ABC Radio Melbourne Mornings with Virginia Trioli - 26/11/2020

26 November 2020

SUBJECTS: Release of Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert; Mathias Cormann’s use of RAAF flight for his OECD campaign; 36,000 Australians stranded overseas.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong is the Labor spokesperson on foreign affairs, Penny Wong good to talk to you. Good morning.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning. Good to be with you, Virginia.

TRIOLI: It's good news. Isn't it?

WONG: Oh, it's wonderful news. I mean, I'm greatly relieved and I cannot imagine how Kylie's family and loved ones and friends feel this morning. It's just fantastic news and I really do pay tribute to her resilience and her family too. And I do, all of us are thankful for the work of the officials who have worked to bring her home.

TRIOLI: Without compromising anything of the situation she's in right now, what, if anything, can you tell us about the behind the scenes moves to get us to this place?

WONG: Well, there was obviously a lot of diplomatic effort and I'm grateful that the Government ensured that senior members of the Opposition were briefed, and we appreciate that. You know, I kept saying publicly this was a case in which we thought it was important that diplomatic efforts be allowed to take their course without too much publicity. And I think that the people who have worked behind the scenes have done a wonderful job and she's en route home and that's a fantastic outcome.

TRIOLI: She's en route home, do you know when she might land, Penny Wong?

WONG: No, I'm not sure how long that will take in terms of you know her actual arrival, but I'm sure her family are looking forward to it very much.

TRIOLI: That really is excellent news. What, if anything, should be the consequence on the relationship between us and Iran as a result of this?

WONG: Look, that's an interesting question. I think probably after the dust has settled on this it's probably something for us people to reflect on. Obviously, we have a great many issues with the Iranian regime. But Australia has always continued to maintain engagement. So, we'll see where the Government wants to take this thereafter. I think at the moment everybody's just extremely happy that this has been achieved and that she's, an Australian, really quite an extraordinary Australian is on her way home.

TRIOLI: Well, as described it's an amazing description from clearly one of her colleagues there, held in the highest possible esteem. It's a tricky thing because, as you say, Australian and Iran notwithstanding, you know, all the drama that's gone on globally, we've managed to maintain that - how should I phrase this - some sort of working relationship between the two countries. You wouldn't want to see that compromised or do you think the time up now for us to reconsider some of that?

WONG: I don't think this is the point at which I would talk about that sort of diplomatic inflection. I mean I think parties of Government of both political persuasions have recognised that whilst we have very deep concerns about the disruptive behaviour of the Iranian regime we also recognise the importance of continuing to engage and I think that's been a consistent position from both parties of government.

TRIOLI: We've been speaking this morning about room on Mathias Cormann's jet to perhaps pick up a few Australians who are stranded overseas. I'm only half joking when I raise that issue, Penny Wong. The broader issue is what we haven't done in relation to getting Australians home, what's your view?

WONG: Look that's a very good question. Some of the saddest emails I get as a politician, as a representative are from both individuals but also family and friends of people who are stuck overseas and I do think there's been an abdication of responsibility by Mr Morrison on this. We have at last count 36,000 Australian stuck overseas, unable to get home, and the great majority of them weren't able to get home through no fault of their own. So, you know early on when Mr Morrison was sort of dismissing it, you know 'they should have come home earlier', the reality was many people couldn't. I think I might have spoken to you, certainly, there was a high-profile example of Australians in South America and they were in domestic lockdown so they couldn't even get to an airport so it's hardly their fault. The Prime Minister, Mr Morrison promised to get people home by Christmas. We've got a Senate Select Committee today where Kristina Keneally and Katy Gallagher will be asking questions about this, to see whether or not that Prime Ministerial promise will be delivered. Will he get all these Australians home by Christmas? I can almost guarantee unless something major happens that won't happen because the numbers have been going the wrong way.

TRIOLI: Is it because of capacity in quarantine here in Australia? Or is it because of a lack of political will?

WONG: The two are probably connected, don't you think? Of course, quarantine capacity, and safe quarantine capacity is critical. And we've seen, I mean I'm talking to you in Melbourne and you know we've had a situation in Adelaide that obviously hasn't resulted in quite the same sort of consequences here but we all know the consequences of quarantine that isn't safe. The Government, the Federal Government does have capacity to step up on quarantine and in fact, a report that they commissioned recommended a greater role for federal government in ensuring there is more safe quarantine capacity in Australia. But there hasn't been the will to do it. The Morrison Government has been very happy to leave it to the states. That's had a couple of consequences. One, obviously there's been some problems. But secondly, we just have more and more people who are joining the vulnerable list of people stranded overseas.

TRIOLI: Yes, not everyone is stranded overseas is in some salubrious position. You know, they're relying on handouts, or support, or the grace of others to actually get by.

WONG: Absolutely. And also the combination of some of the social security rules with being stuck overseas. There are people also who haven't been able to continue to get any assistance at all and are really, really struggling, obviously, and because of the economic shutdown in many nations overseas are without work. So yeah, I do get some very distressed emails, which is one of the reasons why I and Senator Keneally and others in Labor, have been pushing so hard on trying to have a plan to safely get people on.

TRIOLI: If you were a betting woman Penny Wong, following the tough questions that will be asked today at that Senate Committee, do you imagine there will be a change in policy and approach from the Morrison Government, after today?

WONG: He seems to have been really reluctant to move on this, Virginia. And he has only moved when there's been media pressure and political pressure. As I said, I think the attitude has been 'well, they should have got home earlier'. And that's really disappointing. We've had a number of announcements; the first one months ago was, he was telling Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister to bring forward a plan - not sure whatever happened to that. Then he said, you know, 'we'll get them all home by Christmas'. I just, you know, there was an increase supposedly an increase in quarantine capacity that the National Cabinet agreed on so there's been a few announcements when under political pressure but we've seen the numbers continue to rise and by that I mean the people who are overseas but who want to come home, and those who are overseas who are classed as vulnerable, both of those cohorts are increasing. We'll get more information today. But I think that shows us the political will hasn't, I don't think there's been political will. And if there has, it hasn't been translated into action.

TRIOLI: Penny Wong good to talk to you. Thank you.

WONG: Great to speak to you, Virginia.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.