2GB Afternoons with Deborah Knight
Deborah Knight: We know that the coronavirus is still dominating the headlines and the situation with it; it's changing every day. There are now growing concerns about developments overseas, specifically in Italy. And the northern parts of Italy, including the major cities of Milan and Venice, which are usually teeming with tourists. They're now in lockdown. So, 16 million plus people are stuck. Overnight, Italy overtook South Korea with the highest number of confirmed cases of coronavirus outside of China. More than 7300 people have the virus and more than 360 people have died, and the numbers of people being impacted in Italy have increased quite dramatically. It's raising serious questions about what it means for Aussies in the region, because there's plenty of them there, and whether the government will actually move to evacuate them as they did for those in Hubei province in China, the epicentre of all of this.
Well, Foreign Minister Marise Payne is on the line for us now. Minister, hello to you.
Marise Payne: Good afternoon Deborah.
Deborah Knight: Now, last week we saw the Government introduce these travel bans for people from South Korea, on top of China and Iran. Will we now see travel bans imposed for visitors from Italy?
Marise Payne: Well Deborah, of course, last week we did make announcements in relation to Italy, which included enhanced health screening measures for travellers who are returning from the area and there are other countries who have done similarly. But most importantly, at this point in time, we understand that Australians are able to depart these areas of northern Italy, if that is where they find themselves. So, we have amended our travel advice to reconsider your need to travel to those certain areas, some of which you outlined in your earlier remarks. But that does include Milan and Venice. I can't emphasise enough how important it is for people to go to our Smartraveller travel advice and to go through that quite logically to make sure that they are considering all of the implications for their travel, because it also has implications for transit in this context. So, very important to do that.
Deborah Knight: So how does that work? If northern Italy is in lockdown, how are they then able to leave?
Marise Payne: Well, the Italian government has announced in its declaration yesterday that you are able to depart those areas in accordance with your individual needs, but you may be subject to screening and health measures as determined by the local authorities. So for example, potentially using personal protective equipment such as masks and so on. But you are able to do that. We are in constant communication with the Italian authorities through my consular team and we will update our travel advice regularly in response to that.
Deborah Knight: And with Italy now having more cases of coronavirus than South Korea, do you expect that a travel ban will be extended?
Marise Payne: We will keep that under consideration obviously, and you’re right in suggesting there’s a significant number of Australians who do travel through that part of the world. We will keep that under consideration as we are constantly doing right across a number of the key tourism regions. We have obviously taken decisions in relation to countries as you've observed in your earlier remarks, and we will keep doing that.
Deborah Knight: And in China itself, in Wuhan, we know that there are still around 355 Australians in that Hubei province, including 22 children. Many of them weren't able to go on those earlier evacuation flights, they're desperate to come home. Will we be seeing more flights? Will you be moving to get them out, to bring them home?
Marise Payne: Deborah, we have no plans for further flights from Hubei province at this stage. It is still in transport lockdown by Chinese authorities in relation to containing the spread of the virus, and that is something which we had to work very hard through to ensure that we were able to take over 500 Australians out with Qantas’ support in previous weeks. We do understand that this is a very, very difficult time for families who may have children with extended family members, mostly grandparents, in Wuhan and further afield in Hubei province. It's a very large area. But at this point in time, given the restrictions and given the difficulties of obtaining agreement from Chinese authorities about having non-Australian citizens and non-permanent residents also given permission to travel, there is no plan for a further flight.
Deborah Knight: And we have heard too that with the coronavirus spreading that the travel bans have been imposed, there's been talk that they will at some point become ineffective because of the spread of coronavirus. Has it reached that point?
Marise Payne: Deborah, we take that advice from our health authorities. So we've worked very closely, as you know, with Professor Brendan Murphy and all of the chief medical officers from the states and territories who make up that advice group to government. We've made our decisions based on their views and their perspectives and what they are also learning from international colleagues. We will continue to operate on that basis. In addition to the advice that is already on our Smartraveller website, we also add appropriate health advice where that is possible. If there are to be further travel restrictions imposed in terms of other countries, we will predicate that based on the information we receive from them.
Deborah Knight: Alright. Now apart from coronavirus, today is a very important day in the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Six years, almost, after the downing of that flight, four suspects will now face trial in the Netherlands, including three Russians. We've had the Russian Ambassador make some pretty extraordinary claims in an interview with Nine News, saying that the AFP falsified evidence. What's your response?
Marise Payne: Well, Deborah, the first thing I would say is that the court is always the proper place for a body of evidence to be examined and tested and that is exactly what is about to occur in the Netherlands, starting this week. But, frankly, we have seen, over the past almost six years, a campaign of disinformation employed by representatives of the Russian Government, and the Ambassador's statements are a continuation of that and I'm very disappointed to hear that. We absolutely welcome-
Deborah Knight: [Interrupts] It's more than disappointing though, isn't it? It's an absolute insult to the Australians, the families of the 38 Australians killed on board.
Marise Payne: Well, for all 298 victims of MH17, and yes, including the 38 people who called Australia home. We think that prosecuting these crimes in an open and independent court is going to send a very powerful message that the perpetrators will face justice, and it's a significant step towards that justice and accountability. We've been very, very focused on making sure that the victims’ families, those Australian families, have meaningful access to the proceedings and we're providing financial support to them to travel to the Netherlands, if they wish to, to observe the proceedings and participate in the trials; I understand it's actually possible. And I think this is really important for them to be able to address the court or give a victim impact statement. We work closely in that context. We're also providing some support to the Netherlands Government to help support the internationalisation of the trials. That is going to ensure that the court proceedings are live streamed, that they 're translated, and that Australian families’ legal rights are given effect and supported.
So, all of our undertakings here are focused on ensuring that we get justice; that we have accountability; that we support the families as much as we possibly can; and as you say, absolutely reject this campaign of disinformation which has been waged for some years now.
Deborah Knight: So you agree, it is an insult to the victims.
Marise Payne: Of course it is.
Deborah Knight: And it's appalling to see. But in terms of the justice that you're talking about, those facing trial, they're being tried in absentia, and a lot of people are asking A) what's the point of that, and B) does the UN really have the ability to actually prosecute those responsible for this?
Marise Payne: Well, I think the point of this is exactly what I said about pursuing justice and accountability. This is an open and independent court. It sends a message that perpetrators will face the legal authorities that they should. We know that-
Deborah Knight: [Interrupts] But will they be facing the legal authorities in absentia?
Marise Payne: We know that at least one of the suspects is entering a defence, which is being assisted by a Russian law firm and a Dutch law firm. I understand that in the Netherlands, there are often trials without the presence of a defendant and they do reinforce the rule of law. They do send a powerful message that these crimes are absolutely outrageous crimes and they do allow the truth to be heard. I think that is a very important aspect.
Deborah Knight: And will those responsible be prosecuted? Be punished?
Marise Payne: Well, that is the intent of the court process, but there is a long way to go. The estimate of the length of a trial of this nature is over 12 months.
Deborah Knight: Well, let's hope that there is some justice, as you say, for the many lives lost and the many Australian lives lost. It's not good enough if there isn't justice as a result of all of this process.
Marise Payne: Indeed. And we absolutely are supporting the joint investigation team, which has also called, just in November, for witnesses with further evidence as the investigation continues. The team remains interested to hear from those people who may have information about the downing of the plane, particularly those in the separatist leadership in the Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and their links to Russia.
So, this is an ongoing process, Deborah. We have not let this rest. We are strong supporters of the joint investigation team and we intend to continue to pursue this to an outcome of justice.
Deborah Knight: Alright. We thank you for your time today.
Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Deborah.
Deborah Knight: Foreign Minister Marise Payne there.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555