ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly - 08/07/2021

08 July 2021

SUBJECTS: Morrison Government leaving behind local staff and interpreters in Afghanistan; assistance for Indonesia; stranded Australians.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: On the issue of Afghanistan, for the first time in two decades the country is almost virtually free of foreign troops, but the withdrawal, as we've been reporting, has paved the way for a resurgent Taliban. For the hundreds of Afghan interpreters, security guards and other contractors who have supported Australian soldiers, diplomats and aid projects during the war, there's growing fear, they'll be targeted by the Taliban. The Morrison Government is coming under growing pressure to get these people to safety and quickly. Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Do you know how many Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the Australian troops and other Australians remain in Afghanistan, waiting and hoping for their visa application to processed?

WONG: No, I don't know how many are waiting but what I do know is every day for weeks now we have had stories of people who are desperate, desperate for asylum, desperate for support, desperate to get to safety. We have soldiers who served with Afghan interpreters and other individuals, going public and saying to the Government these people need to be given refuge. We look at countries like the United States, which is looking at and planning an airlift of tens of thousands of people including up to 18,000 local staff and their families. We look at countries like the United Kingdom which has fast tracked its approval process, and offered priority relocation regardless of employment status and here we have stories of Marise Payne telling somebody that because they worked for an aid contractor and not directly for the Government, they will not be granted a visa. Well, the Taliban does not care whether they were directly employed or a subcontractor - their lives are at risk regardless - and we should act. We should act immediately and urgently. We have an ethical obligation to respond.

KELLY: The Government says it is acting. You heard the former Defence Minister Linda Reynolds say there that the process is going ahead...

WONG: Process.

KELLY: And DFAT have said publicly 230 Afghan workers and family members have been granted a visa since the Prime Minister announced Australia's troop withdrawal on April the 15th, and about 100 visa applications are under consideration. Is that fast enough? I mean what's the, there is a process that has to be followed.

WONG: Clearly it isn't because as you rightly outlined in your introduction, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated very rapidly. And if you look at what we are seeing, not only from people in Afghanistan who have either been refused or are still waiting, if you listen to those who have served with many of these people here in Australia advocating for them, and if you look at what other countries are doing, demonstrably Australia is not up to the mark.

KELLY: It's obviously difficult working in a country like Afghanistan, remotely, which is what we're doing now - the embassy is all but shut. There are calls for people to be made safe quickly by repatriating them to a third party country while their visas are being processed because as the Minister said, you know, you do need to process people there are important things that people need to be vetted carefully. Should that happen? And could that happen?

WONG: Well, I'd make two points. First, this has been on the cards, the drawdown of troops and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, has been in the planning stages for some time and certainly was something the US indicated some time ago, so this is not news to the Australian Government. So, you wonder why better processes weren't established earlier. Secondly, your point about a third country for processing, that's something the United States has flagged. It’s promised mass evacuations to a third country for processing. That is obviously a sensible way to approach this.

I just find this quite extraordinary. We relied on many local Afghans to assist us whilst we were there. Their lives are at risk. And for us to have this bureaucratic process which is obviously taking much longer than says circumstances demand, and have people denied because they worked for a contractor, really beggars believe. It is not only ethically wrong; I would say it also makes Australia less safe. We rely on people in countries where we are engaged, to work with us. If the message that is received from this, that Australia doesn't help you after you've helped them, that is something that compromises Australia's capacity, when we are in such locations.

KELLY: Senator, on another issue, Indonesia is currently being overwhelmed by a surge of COVID, coronavirus cases - more than 150 children apparently died in the last week, half of them under the age of five. Australia has today announced 2.5 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses will be sent to the country, 700 oxygen units, 1000 ventilators and 40,000 testing kits, which will be welcome, I'm not sure the timeframe on that. Are we doing enough?

WONG: Well, first I want to say that the situation in Indonesia is deeply concerning. I've said for some time our ambition, through COVID, should be to be the partner of choice for Indonesia. It is a country that is so important to our security and to the region's security. And of course, we don't defeat COVID unless we defeat it everywhere. In terms of the assistance the Government has provided, it's something we called for earlier this week and it's the right thing to do. I would make the point; it comes against a certain backdrop. And the backdrop pre-pandemic was that we had cut health assistance to Indonesia by 87.5% - that's what Australia, under this Government had done. I'd also make the point that I think it was 2.5 million does have been sent - that is welcome but it's less than 1% of the Indonesian population. So, we are supportive of the Government's move, it's something we have been calling for, but I again say, I don't believe Indonesia has been sufficiently high on Mr Morrison's agenda.

KELLY: And just finally, on another issue, the Delta variant rampant at the moment. Do you support the plan to cut international arrivals, hotel quarantine numbers? We still have tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas. But you know what's happened in Sydney, does it show we need to lower the risk of outbreaks from hotel quarantine, which was the ask from Labor states.

WONG: What it shows is that Mr Morrison's failure to set up purpose-built quarantine facilities is making Australians less safe here in Australia and continuing to ensure Australians are stranded overseas. These are the stranded Australians Mr Morrison said should be home by Christmas. I've been on this program before with you Fran, and I have pressed, as Labor has, there are two jobs Mr Morrison had - purpose-built quarantine and a vaccine rollout. He's failed on both and the situation that we're in, is a consequence of those failures.

KELLY: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak to you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.