Doorstop - Parliament House, Canberra - 17/03/2021

17 March 2021

SUBJECTS: COVID-19 outbreak in PNG; Nicolle Flint; former staff member.

JOURNALIST: How concerning is the COVID situation in PNG? Do we need to do more than sending supplies of AstraZeneca and PPE?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: This is a deeply serious, deeply concerning situation which has ramifications not only for Papua New Guinea, but also for Australia. Greg Hunt is right to describe it as a clear and present danger. It is a clear and present danger not only to the people of Papua New Guinea, but also to Australia. We all know this is a porous border. We all know how close we are to PNG. And we've seen this highly risky situation unfolding for some time now. I would say the Government's response hasn't reflected that clear and present danger. It has been uncertain. It has been tardy. And I would urge the Government to act promptly and swiftly to provide PNG with the support, with the vaccines, the personal protective equipment that are required.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that we should have acted earlier?

WONG: Yes, I do.

JOURNALIST: Given this is kind of getting out of control now...

WONG: Yes, I do. The point I've made for some time is that our safety, our security depends on the safety and security and stability of our neighbours and our region. That's why we do need to work with our neighbours on the rollout of the vaccine and on public health infrastructure, as well as economic recovery, because our own national security, as well as that of our neighbours and friends including Papua New Guinea are intertwined.

JOURNALIST: You’ve mentioned vaccines and PPE. What else, what else would you like to see?

WONG: Well, we know PNG has a lot of challenges in public health infrastructure so whatever Australia is able to do to contain this outbreak for the people of PNG and to lessen the risk also of this generating a greater outbreak in northern Australia we should do.

JOURNALIST: The Government has spoken about vaccine supply in Australia being an issue. Would you think that we should be prioritising our supplies at this point to PNG, even temporarily?

WONG: My colleague Chris Bowen previously in the role, and Mark Butler, have both made the point raising concerns about the Government's approach to vaccine supply and the number of agreements that the Government entered into which was not in accordance with world's best practice.

What I would say is this; we know that if the outbreak in Papua New Guinea is not contained, that there are risks, not only to the people of Papua New Guinea, but to the people of Australia. And our approach to vaccine supply should reflect that.

JOURNALIST: I guess on that point, would then I guess at this stage, right now would Papua New Guinea's need to be higher than ours in Australia?

WONG: I think we should contain, work to contain the outbreak in Papua New Guinea, as a matter of national urgency.

JOURNALIST: We have some 1 million doses, locally produced doses, due to be ready in a matter of days. Would you like to see the Government redirect that?

WONG: Ultimately the Government has to make these decisions, I'm simply saying this; we have the Health Minister of Australia saying there is a clear and present danger, it is a clear and present danger not only to the people of Papua New Guinea but to Australia and our approach to vaccines should reflect that.

JOURNALIST: Penny Wong, Nicolle Flint told parliament last night that senior Labor women would have known that she was subjected to harassment and bullying by GetUp, unions and groups during the 2019 campaign. Were you, did you play a hand in that? Did you know about it?

WONG: I want to make a few comments about Ms Flint. I want to say first, every woman has a right to be safe. Every woman. Nicolle Flint has a right to be safe. You have a right to be safe. All of us have a right to be safe. Brittany Higgins had a right to be safe. We all have a right to be safe.

What Ms Flint reports as having happened to her is utterly unacceptable. It is unacceptable. It is also unfair of her to seek to tie me and Tanya Plibersek to it.

Now, I would say to Ms Flint, I agree with you. Let's work together to make this a better place for women, let's use our positions, which have a certain degree of privilege, to make things better not just for ourselves but for all women in this workplace. So I've spoken to Tanya Plibersek, and I've said, I'd make this offer to Nicolle Flint; if she genuinely wants to sit down with Tanya and I to talk about how we can work together to make this a better place for women, a safer place for women and how we can make workplaces across Australia safer for women, I'd be very happy to do so.

JOURNALIST: You're saying that you're in that privileged position, why have you not called out that behaviour?

WONG: I haven't been asked about it and I'm now responding. I have always, whenever I'm asked, regardless of who the person is, about these sorts of behaviours, I would say they're unacceptable and that women have a right to be safe.

JOURNALIST: Were you aware of that kind of behaviour at the time?

WONG: I remember some public reports about, that were in the media during the campaign. I wasn't aware of the full gamut of what Ms Flint is reporting, until after the election and I think she made a submission to the...

JOURNALIST: And you didn't play a hand in that?

WONG: Of course not. I mean, can I just say it is deeply unfair to make that accusation. Do you honestly believe that I would be part of a campaign of that kind of targeting and harassment of a woman, after all my years in public life, and the positions I have taken?

So I'd say to Ms Flint, rather than making these sorts of accusations in public, and through Twitter, let's have a discussion about how we can work, use our positions which do carry some privilege, to improve the situation for all women, not just ourselves, but for all women.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to her broader point that Labor, more generally, allowed an environment like that, an environment of hate, as she described it, to flourish against her?

WONG: I'm not quite sure how to respond to that. What I can say is that the sorts of behaviours she described are not acceptable, end of story.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask, what can you tell us about why one of your senior staffers left your office?

WONG: Well, that matter has been reported. In dealing with that, I sought to deal with it in the way the complainant wished us to do so. She has requested privacy and I would ask the media to reflect on that. I'm not going to make any further comment out of respect for her wishes. Thank you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.