PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thank you all for coming and for observing the physical distancing arrangements that are now becoming par for the course. Can I first start by thanking all of the front line staff in our health sector, our medical sector, in our aged care sector who are working and dealing with, either face to face, the consequences of these crises, or are working to ensure it doesnt spread. We appreciate the work that workers in the health sector are doing, we appreciate how stressful this is for people and the country is extraordinarily appreciative of the efforts of our health professionals who do such a great job.
Can I also acknowledge the work of the consular service in Foreign Affairs who are under a lot of pressure and are stretched, and Ill have something more to say about that. I know though that they will be working as hard as they are able with the resources they are given to do whats right for Australians.
We have seen unprecedented travel bans placed on entry into Australia. Weve seen Qantas and Virgin indicating very clearly that they are going to finish international flights at the end of this month. Were also seeing commercial flights around the world being cancelled and we are seeing lockdowns, bans of travel in a range of countries. At this time I want to make this very clear: the Government needs a plan to help bring Australians home. We need a plan to help bring Australians home. We need the Government to work with Qantas, Virgin or any other providers to help people return. The Government needs to speedily process visas for immediate family members of Australian citizens who are rushing to return home.
The Government needs to resource our Foreign Affairs Department. There are extraordinary demands on our consular system. Unprecedented demands. The Government needs to resource the consular service so that it can provide the support to Australians at what is an unprecedented time. As importantly we need timely information. Comprehensive, timely information to Australians. I could go through chapter and verse about the stories we are seeing. We know that there are Australians in countries where they cannot leave. We know there are Australians struggling to get out of countries where commercial flights are being cancelled every day. We know that there are Australians on cruise ships who are being told they must dock in Italy who will have trouble getting home. We know there are Australians on cruise ships who as yet have not been able to dock.
In these unprecedented circumstances, we urge the Government to come forward with a plan to help bring Australians home and we give our assurance as the Opposition to work with them to communicate that, to develop that in a bipartisan manner. Because we all want to ensure we work together to keep Australians safe here, and we all want to ensure we work together to bring Australians home.
Im happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: What are you envisaging?
WONG: We saw Alan Joyce this morning on radio talking about the possibility of Qantas being asked to provide additional flights for Australians. I know that this is a highly complex issue. But there are some hot spots. There are hot spots that the Government can identify. Certainly my office and other MPs and Senators have been contacted by people for example from South America, in Peru, who are in need of assistance to get home. Weve been contacted by people who are in Morocco, as well as families of people who are on cruise ships. So it is possible for the Government to identify known areas of need and to work with Qantas or another provider to try to ensure we have the services in place to help bring Australians home. Particularly given commercial options are not available. For a lot of these people, I saw one woman reported as having had five flights cancelled, so she had done what the Government asked, she had got on commercial flights and those flights had been cancelled over the hours and days since.
JOURNALIST: The government is saying take a commercial flight home, is it time for us to look at Government flights?
WONG: Thats what Im saying: the Government should be working with Qantas to find ways to bring Australians home. If that means supporting Qantas, Virgin or another provider through subsidy or other arrangement to ensure we can deliver services to areas where we know Australians otherwise wont be able to get home, the Government should be looking at that. And again I say that we offer bipartisan support to helping with that and communicating that to the Australian people and to Australians abroad. Remember we have over a million Australians overseas. Not all of them will want to come home, but there are many who are trying to do what the Prime Minister asked, and they should be helped.
JOURNALIST: Do you envisage that Qantas might have to fly for longer than the airline has initially indicated, at the end of the month, given how many Australians are out there?
WONG: Well this is a question that really the Government needs to address. We have just over a week before Qantas has indicated it will discontinue its commercial international services, suspend them, and what we should be doing is utilising this next week as best we can. If there are arrangements that need to be put in place on an as needs basis thereafter, I think the Government should be looking at that. I understand why the Government is encouraging people to fly commercial. That is what Governments will often say. But these are circumstances where those avenues are not open to so many Australians, through no fault of their own, they havent taken risks, they havent done the wrong thing. Theyve just been caught overseas or on a cruise ship at a time where the commercial options for returning to Australia are drying up. Thats why we need a plan to help bring them home.
JOURNALIST: Just to be clear Senator, youre not saying that these flights should be free or anything, people would pay their own way?
WONG: These are decisions have to make. In the Government I was a part of we didnt charge for previous circumstances where people have been coming home in a crisis in Egypt. We didnt charge for that, and the Government didnt charge for Wuhan. What Anthony Albanese has said, and hes right, is that whatever charge there is ought not be exorbitant and ought not be a barrier for travel for vulnerable Australians.
JOURNALIST: If you fly a million people home for free that could be a lot of money.
WONG: My point is if the Government has to make those decisions, and as I said, Ben, not everybody is wanting to come home. I think what we should identify is what Id describe as hot spots, what Id describe as areas of need where we know people are wanting to come home but there isnt a commercial alternative for them.
JOURNALIST: Donald Trump has been saying repeatedly, calling the virus the China virus. Whats your response to that? The virus did originate in China, I guess. Whats your feedback to Donald Trump?
WONG: Theres no race to any virus. Viruses dont have an ethnicity and were all in this. Were all in this together and thats the way Australians should, and are, approaching this.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of COAGs decision to cancel NAPLAN?
WONG: I just saw that breaking earlier this morning. My view about that is governments have to make the decisions that are responsible and appropriate given the circumstances which we face and governments have done that. If thats whats required, just as weve thought the travel bans and travel restrictions were required. These are times when governments have to make a whole range of difficult decisions.
JOURNALIST: And what do you think should happen to people who are in Australia on working visas that are about to expire?
WONG: This is an issue I know my colleagues Kristina Keneally and Chris Bowen have been working on. Theres an issue which is a public health issue which is ensuring they have the capacity to self-isolate if required and health services as required, and theres also the very practical issue of what happens when visas expire if they are also unable to get home. Just as the Government needs to develop a plan for Australians who are offshore seeking to come home, I think this is another cohort who are going to be affected by the current situation that the Government needs to turn its mind to.
JOURNALIST: For those who are stuck on cruise ships, Ive spoken to Minister Paynes office and they said its up to the cruise line to organise transport home for these people. Do you think that that is a necessary response or should the Government be doing more to help these people, most of them are heading towards Italy which is known as the epicentre for this virus?
WONG: Thats right, I referenced that I think in one of my earlier remarks that one of the cruise ships that has been in the media, at this stage is reported to be docking in Venice. It is going to be very difficult for any commercial flights for the Australians - I think there are some 250 Australians on that ship, very difficult for them to get out of Italy without some assistance. So I would encourage the Government to work with the cruise line sector and the operators of that particular vessel to ensure there are arrangements made. This is what I mean, we are in unprecedented times and governments are having to deal with a lot of unprecedented issues, and this is one of them. We havent had a situation before where weve had cruise liners unable to dock, or docking where there are no flights for repatriation and so I think Government should be helping to support arrangements or enable arrangements for people to return home.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.