FIVEaa Mornings with Leon Byner - 28/08/2020

28 August 2020

LEON BYNER, HOST: One of the subjects that you call me about a lot is that you've got friends, loved ones, relatives who are overseas. Some maybe have been working, some went on a holiday, but a lot of them were there for compassionate reasons and they're stranded. There are literally thousands of these people.

So, let's talk to somebody who's across the detail and see where we're going with these repatriation flights. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Penny Wong – Penny good to talk to you. Where are we at with these repatriation flights?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good to speak with you too Leon, and thank you for continuing to press on this issue. Well, the government still doesn't have a plan and the great sadness is we've had these caps announced for health reasons, but we've got nearly 20,000 Australians who want to get home – 3,000 of them have been classed as vulnerable.

I've had, for example, a pensioner who is stranded in France. He's sleeping in his car, he's bought flights but they've been cancelled; he can't get a refund. This is the consequence of what happens when governments make announcements without having a plan to deliver it.

Now, with the pressure from people like yourself and others and families of people who are stranded overseas we finally have the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, saying last week that he's going to get the Defence Minister, the Home Affairs Minister and the Foreign Minister to come up with a plan. As yet, we haven't seen anything so we're just going to have to keep pressing the Government to work out how...

BYNER: Well, correct me if I'm wrong here Senator, but didn't we reduce significantly the number of repatriation flights we were allowing in only a while ago?

WONG: That's right. So the Government put caps on entry into Australia because they wanted to maintain the safety of the quarantine system. That's reasonable, but if you're going to do that you also have to have a plan to work out how you deal with the many Australians who are stuck overseas through no fault of their own. And they clearly haven't had that.

You might recall I came on your show some time ago when we were pressing the government for more repatriation flights and more flight options after the borders were closed and here we go again, it's the same thing. You make an announcement – they don't think about how they're going to actually deliver it and deal with it until people start jumping up and down. Really, they should be thinking about these things ahead of time.

BYNER: What do you think Morrison ought to do?

WONG: I think we should have a plan to deal with vulnerable Australians overseas. We should have a plan to manage people coming home. We shouldn't have officials doing what they're doing, which is to tell people – go start fundraising, or raid your super. I mean, it's extraordinary.

The other thing we should do is actually be fair. The number of people who've contacted my office after we found out that a wealthy entrepreneur gets an exemption to go overseas and come back to get his luxury yacht from Europe, but other people are still waiting. I'll tell you one thing the Government should do is just implement this fairly.

BYNER: Yeah, well, we'll keep the pressure on this because the other thing that concerns me is that it's been widely reported – and you would know this – that when people are booking airline tickets, they're basically told: well you'll have to spend several thousand more to upgrade yourself otherwise you might lose your seat.

WONG: That's right and the airlines are clearly responding to the caps by bumping people out of economy and making them pay business or even, dreadfully, first class fares. What the Government should be doing is also pressuring the airlines.

I know Catherine King – our aviation spokesperson – has written to the ACCC to try and get them to do something about it. But really, the guy who's second in charge in the country, Michael McCormack, has got this portfolio. I don't know why he's not sitting down with the airlines and saying: hey listen, this is not okay. You can't keep making people pay more and cancelling airlines. And the other thing they should be doing is refunding people. There's so many stories coming through my office of people who've actually done the right thing – they've bought tickets, their flights have been cancelled, but they're not refunded so they can't get another one.

BYNER: Well, let me tell you, we're on that case with not only the ACCC Chair, Rod Sims, but Dini Soulio at Business and Consumer Affairs. You would be amazed, well maybe you wouldn't be, if I told you how many calls we get on this.

WONG: I bet.

BYNER: I want to ask you about the Colbeck incident yesterday, where in the Senate you were talking very importantly about the aged care issue and how we've certainly got some ground to make up to even be doing a job that's reasonable. He just got up and walked out.

WONG: And the background to this is this tragic backdrop, which is 373 deaths to date in aged care. We've got 1,000 active cases. We've got vulnerable older Australians and a minister who hasn't done his job. The Senate summoned him to give a statement. You know, we're a parliamentary system, ministers are accountable to the public through the parliament. He made his statement and then he walked out. And I thought it really showed the arrogance that this government seems to have around this. You might recall the Royal Commission into Aged Care actually commented that the Commonwealth attitude had been one of arrogance and hubris. They're their words not mine. They were warned, they didn't act and the consequence has been tragic.

BYNER: I'd like your response on this story that's broken this morning. It was written by my colleague in Breakfast, David Penberthy, who says that and I'll quote: a South Australian Liberal MLC has had close and frequent contact with a Beijing-backed organisation that denies any persecution of China's Uighur ethnic minority and that security experts have linked to the Chinese Communist Party's international propaganda arm, which is United Front Work Department. Now, the Premier – as we understand it – wanted this particular person president of the upper house. What do you think about this?

WONG: I think two things. The first is that we should be very clear in our position on human rights. We should be upfront and open and clear about our view about the oppression of the Uighurs – I have, Federal Labor has and it is important that we are not diverted from that simply because there are others who wish to not speak about it.

I do accept people engage with different people in the community, but I would urge the Premier and the MLC to be transparent with Australians about that engagement, but also, and most importantly, ensure that we don't change our position. We should be consistent and clear in our view about human rights.

BYNER: Would you think that it's still a wise decision to appoint or recommend such a person to be president of the upper house of SA when clearly the agenda here is also Belt and Road, which as you know, the Federal Government have dealt with yesterday using external powers in the Constitution?

WONG: Well, and Premier Marshall and the MLC should be transparent about her engagements and her views; and be transparent and clear about what their position is on these human rights issues.

This was the problem when we had the Gladys Liu incident in the Federal Parliament. The Member for Chisholm who, similarly, had a range of questions raised about her engagement with a number of organisations which were associated with the United Front. We said she should make a statement to the Parliament; she should be transparent. They ran a protection racket for her and accused the Labor Party, including me, of being racist.

I think the way we should deal with these issues is transparency, being clear about what our position is and being upfront with the Parliament and the community about these engagements.

BYNER: Penny, thanks for coming on this morning. That's the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Penny Wong, on a range of issues.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.