ABC RN Drive - 18/03/2020

18 March 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I'm joined now by Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Senator Penny Wong. Penny Wong, welcome.
KARVELAS: An unprecedented, indefinite level four travel ban is in place for the entire world. As the Prime Minister made clear there, this is the first time in Australian history, and the advice is clear: do not travel. Is this necessary now?
WONG: Yes it is, and we welcome the clear direction that the government has issued that is welcome. As Albo said in his address to the nation we need to make sure that travel advice is updated frequently. So we welcome this clear direction that the government has issued.
You're right Patricia, this is extraordinary. It is unprecedented that we have that advice in place for the whole of the world. It's unprecedented that Australians are told do not travel; the highest level of advice level four that the government gives. But it's necessary in the circumstances that we face and it is a reasonable, sensible response.
KARVELAS: What are your concerns about its implementation or the message that's been sent?
WONG: I think that is a very clear direction. I think people would welcome clearer guidance from the government for the other aspects of the advice. Last night Smartraveller was updated to provide the advice that if Australians were already overseas and wish to return to Australia, that the government was recommending that they do so as soon as possible by commercial means.
Now, I think that has raised a lot of questions. There are questions which have been raised about whom this applies to. Is it only tourists or does it also apply to the very many Australians who live and work overseas? Is this the government wanting them to return home? What is the risk if they don't? If they can't return now, what do they face in the weeks, months or even years to come? It would be a good thing if the government could provide the same clarity of advice that they provided in relation to the ban on travel to their advice telling Australians to come home by commercial means if they wish.
KARVELAS: So your concern is if these Australians don't come home imminently within a tight timeframe that the travel advice may shift and they may be deprived of their right to come back?
WONG: I think the advice in its current terms does raise quite a few questions and you see many of those on social media and certainly they have been put to my office; I assume to Marise Payne's office as well about the nature of that advice. Who is it targeted at and what are its implications? It's obviously a very sobering thing for Australians overseas to be advised, so it would be a good thing if the government could provide more clarity and guidance about the reasons that advice is being given; what the government is asking people to consider as they make that decision? For example, if you're an expat living and working in Singapore or London, what is the advice that the government is giving you; what factors should you taken into account? And similarly if you're a tourist an Australian tourist what are the factors the government is asking you to consider?
I think people need to be informed as best they can. There are difficult decisions that people have to make. It's obviously an unprecedented situation we face. I think it's always best if you take people into your confidence as much as possible if you're in a position of authority and I encourage the government to do that.
KARVELAS: Is it your view that Australians should always have a right to come home; that there shouldn't be a close-off at any point of borders?
WONG: Well people have a constitutional right as Australian citizens always to return. I would understand what the minister is saying - I've only seen a tweet from her; I don't know if any additional statements have been made - is she's going to the obvious disruption in the airline industry, the commercial airline sector, and how much more difficult it may be for people to come home in the period ahead. But for that reason I think it is a good thing if theres a bit more clarity in the advice thats given.
KARVELAS: There are Australians who, of course, are finding it difficult to get flights home. There have been reports of Australians being in places that are finding it very hard to get flights. Should the Australian government be stepping in to assist?
WONG: Certainly this is something governments across the world are trying to manage and trying to deal with. We saw and I don't know all the detail of this but we saw the German government taking steps to ensure that there are flights provided for German citizens to return home.
I will be encouraging the government and Minister Payne particularly, to be looking ahead and considering how the government will deal with this situation as it evolves. Obviously commercial flights remain whilst difficult and patchy they are still available. I would hope that the government is turning its mind to how it deals with a situation where people find it difficult to find passage home.
KARVELAS: Of course there was emergency flights Qantas put on for people to get out of Wuhan. Are you envisaging even a scenario like that at some point?
WONG: These are the sorts of issues the government really needs to turn its mind to; and to understand what government is able to do; what are the constraints on what government is able to do and to communicate them clearly to people so people can make decisions as quickly as they are able.
KARVELAS: There's the other element too now that there's this new advice saying don't go overseas. I mean, when I say it I can't believe the world I'm living in. We've never had this. Should all of the companies associated the airlines and the travel companies give people refunds given our country is saying you shouldn't go overseas? People have paid... people who work very hard and save up very hard for these airline tickets to go overseas.
WONG: Well, there are a lot of sectors which are affected by this and I hope that businesses will do the right thing by their customers and make sure that for the long-term they do do the right thing by people who have, in good faith, bought tickets.
One area where there's also a risk that needs to be managed is of course the cruise ship industry. We have a lot of Australians who like to go on cruises; I think in excess of a million last year. So at any one time we do have thousands of Australians on cruise ships, so that is also another area, both financially but also in terms of health risk, and return to Australia that I hope the government is managing.
KARVELAS: I just want to move on to the big changes that have been announced today beyond that. This indefinite new ban on indoor groups of 100 people or more meeting; there's exemptions for schools, public transport, universities and prisons.
What do you make of those exemptions because, of course, schools have been contentious because children are very close to each other; teenagers are very close to each other in schools. It's very hard to police. We're told that we're socially distancing but at the same time we're putting children very close to each other. Is that a concern for you?
WONG: I think the way in which governments and those in authority need to deal with these sorts of situations is to take the public into their trust; that's the way you ensure the public trust you. How governments need to do that and authorities need to do that is to make sure people are given very clear advice and clear information. I thought it was a good thing today because as you've said Patricia, there's been a lot of concern expressed publicly in the community and on social media and elsewhere about the exemptions associated with schools; about schools not closing. So I thought it was a good thing today that Scott Morrison did make clear the reason for the advice about not closing schools and talked through that. I think that is a good thing.
I think it is also a good thing as my colleague Chris Bowen said earlier today if parents and carers are advised what are the criteria which might lead that advice to change? I think a lot of the fear around schools has been because people have not understood why they were being treated differently to other public gatherings. So I hope that today that information has been provided. I'd encourage the government to keep doing that, so parents and carers can understand the basis of the advice and also the circumstances in which that might lead to a change.
KARVELAS: We are now poised to see the second tranche of the government's stimulus package. It just announced one last week, but things have got so bad it says it needs to do more. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says that they need now to look at a survival package for the economy and says that they need to perhaps guarantee mortgages and guarantee incomes. What sort of things do you think they need to do that they didn't do the first time round?
WONG: Well the first time round I think it's clear and the government would concede wasn't big enough. I think the assessment of this next package of economic support, or stimulus or survival whatever the words you want to use needs to be big enough and fast enough; needs to be comprehensive enough; needs to make sure it recognises the risk that we face to the economy. We obviously face, first and foremost, risk to people's health but there's an economic impact as well. We've got to work with the government to do everything possible to protect Australian lives, Australian jobs, Australian businesses and the community. That's the approach we'll be taking to the stimulus package. Obviously we haven't seen the legislation yet.
Anthony Albanese said today we will work constructively with the government; we will be constructive around this. I think there are some things which really merit being included in this and I do want to emphasise the situation of insecure workers. That is workers in the gig economy, casual workers who face a dreadful decision if they are asked to isolate of either doing the right thing by the community and public health, but not being able to put food on the table for their families. We should not put them in that position.
There is an overriding public health imperative to make sure casuals and those in insecure work are supported to do what we are asking them to do in terms of public health and safety. So I would strongly urge the government to deal with this issue in the legislation that it puts forward to the parliament next week.
KARVELAS: Just briefly, at least a dozen US journalists are going to be deported from China. Are you alarmed by this news?
WONG: I saw reports of this, including reports of what this is ostensibly in response to. Obviously we support freedom of the press wherever that may be, whichever country in the world. We think that transparency and public information across countries who are managing this crisis is important and is part of ensuring that the global response is coherent.
KARVELAS: Just before I let you go, what does social distancing look like for you?
WONG: Well, perhaps not as much when the children get home as it should be. But I've tried to work a fair bit from home; do work online, have teleconferences rather than meetings. Obviously we're not engaging in much domestic travel at all. I had a meeting which was supposed to be in Sydney which we've cancelled. We will be going back to Parliament, but we'll be taking a minimal number of staff. So I think, like all Australians, we're trying to listen to the advice and reflect that in how we work.
KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for coming on.
WONG: Good to speak with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.