Interview with David Speers, ABC Insiders

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: World Health Organization and China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
19 April 2020

David Speers:

Marise Payne, welcome to the program. What questions would you like China to answer?

Marise Payne:

Good morning David, and good morning to the team. I think the key to going forward in the context of these issues is transparency. Transparency from China most certainly, transparency from all of the key countries across the world who will be part of any review that takes place. I think it’s fundamental that we identify, we determine an independent review mechanism to examine the development of this epidemic, its development into a pandemic, the crisis that is occurring internationally.

It is important, though, I think, to bear in mind the point at which we find ourselves. Yes, we are dealing with the challenge here in Australia. Yes, this challenge in Europe is significant, in the United States and what we’ve already seen in China. But there are parts of the world where that wave is yet to be ridden. And I think it's very important to make sure that we’re not ignoring that as we determine what the next steps are.

David Speers:

Yeah, I want to come to that, but just sticking with China for a moment. When you say there’s a need for transparency, again, what would you like to know from China?

Marise Payne:

Well, we need to know the sorts of details that an independent review would identify for us about the genesis of the virus, about the approaches to dealing with it, and addressing it, about the openness with which information was shared, about interaction with the World Health Organization, interaction with other international leaders. All of those sorts of things will need to be on the table.

David Speers:

Who should conduct this independent review that you're talking about?

Marise Payne:

Well, as I say, there will need to be an agreed determined mechanism by which to do that. We’ve been able to do those sorts of things in the past for key independent reviews, often on egregious human rights issues, for example. And I think that there will be a path through, but it will need parties, countries to come to the table with a willingness to be transparent and to engage in that process, and also ensure that we have a review mechanism in which the international community can have faith.

David Speers:

Could it be the World Health Organisation, or do you agree they’re too beholden to China?

Marise Payne:

Well, I don't think that it is so much about whether they are or are not beholden to China. And we share some of the concerns that the United States have identified in relation to the World Health Organization. That is certainly correct. I think it is about an independent mechanism, and I’m not sure that you can have the health organisation, which has been responsible for disseminating much of the international communications material, and doing much of the early engagement and investigative work, also as the review mechanism. That strikes me as somewhat poacher and gamekeeper.

David Speers:

So it can’t be the World Health Organization, in other words, to do this review?

Marise Payne:

Well, no, as I’ve said, that strikes me as a bit poacher and gamekeeper.

David Speers:

Do you think it did originate, this virus, from the wet market in Wuhan?

Marise Payne:

I think it’s clear that the virus originated in Wuhan, and most likely in the wet market. And we have expressed our concerns about the opening up of wildlife wet markets in that context. We would be very, very careful to ensure that all health precautions could be taken. As they operate currently, I think it’s dubious as to whether that is possible, so that has to be an ongoing question.

David Speers:

Your Chinese counterpart Wang Yi spoke to you, I think it was January 30. This was of course some weeks into the virus in Wuhan. Is it true that he said to you: The epidemic is generally preventable, controllable and curable?

Marise Payne:

Well, I’m not usually in the business of going through private conversations with counterparts, but I understand part of that was, of course, posted. That is, broadly, part of that conversation. And in January, on January 30 or thereabouts, I think the world had a very different view about the trajectory of the virus in many ways...

David Speers:

[Interrupts] But if he’s telling you that it’s curable and preventable, do you think that’s what he really thought at the time?

Marise Payne:

Well, I don’t think that I can speak for what he really thought at the time. Certainly, I believe that he was making a genuine statement to me at the time. But these are, of course, concerns that have grown significantly since that point in time, as we have seen. The extraordinary waves of the coronavirus, its impact on countries across the European Union, in the United States and inevitably further afield.

David Speers:

The acting British Prime Minister says: There cannot be a business-as-usual with China after this pandemic. Your colleague, the Home Affairs Minister also says: There will be a reset in the way the world interacts with China. Do you agree?

Marise Payne:

I think that relationships all around the world will change, and I do think that relationships between China and its partners, Australia and China, will be changed in some ways. What is really important is, in my view, in our view, how the world comes together now to cooperate, to rebuild, is absolutely key to this. So, putting aside...

David Speers:

[Interrupts] But how will the relationship between Australia and China change?

Marise Payne:

Well, I think you’d need a crystal ball, wouldn’t you now, to say exactly how that will transpire. And while we are considering those implications every single day, both in the context of the Government, in my own department, and in our other relationships. This is very much an unfolding situation...

David Speers:

[Interrupts] What are your thoughts right now? I mean, will there be less trust in China from your part?

Marise Payne:

We would be very clear that we believe transparency is essential. We have a relationship with China which is well founded. It has, underpinning it, a comprehensive strategic partnership with five key pillars. But all of these things will need to be reviewed, will need to be considered in the light of changes in the world economy, in the light of changes in international health security, and so many other things. And that is the work that we are doing at the moment.

David Speers:

Okay. Let me ask you directly, Minister, has your trust in China been eroded?

Marise Payne:

Well, my trust in China is predicated in the long-term relationship. My concern about these issues, though, is at a very high point. My concern is around transparency and ensuring that we are able to engage openly, and I heard what Greg said earlier, but openly and clearly in a review process so that we can get to the bottom of this. The international community wants the same thing.

David Speers:

I appreciate that, but I’m just asking right now, from where you sit right now, has your trust in China been eroded?

Marise Payne:

Well, we are working closely with our partners in China, in the United States, in a range of other nations. You mentioned Dominic Raab earlier, and I was in touch with him overnight, around all of these issues. We need to be able to come to the table with an open mind, but most importantly with eyes wide open as to Australia’s national interests, and that is always the way we will start these engagements.

David Speers:

Okay, but do you trust China?

Marise Payne:

I trust China in terms of the work that we need to do together. The issues around the coronavirus are issues for independent review, and I think that it is important that we do that. In fact, Australia will absolutely insist on that.

David Speers:

Can you tell me, about a week ago, an Australian air force plane, it was one of our big C-17s, was given clearance to fly a load of humanitarian supplies to Vanuatu after a cyclone there. It flew all the way there but couldn’t land because apparently a Chinese plane was on the runway and wouldn’t move or wasn’t told to move. The Australian plane flew all the way back, couldn’t deliver the supplies. What went on?

Marise Payne:

That was, I think on the 12th of April. The supplies were delivered on the 13th of April. And we are providing strong support to those countries in the Pacific that were impacted by Tropical Cyclone Harold. Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Tonga in particular. There was an A-320 on the tarmac on the Sunday which had been unloading stores delivered from China, as I understand it. The unloading took a very long period of time and the plane was still on the tarmac, unexpectedly for Australia, on the Sunday. The Vanuatu system had provided the assistance we needed to take off from Amberley and to arrive at a particular time. But as it occurred, the A-320 was still there. In negotiations, or discussions, not negotiations, between air traffic control authorities and the Royal Australian Air Force it was determined it was not as safe as it should be to land, so we decided to make the delivery on the Monday.

David Speers:

There is a concern here that it looked a little bit like a deliberate attempt to stop Australia being able to deliver aid in Vanuatu. Is that right?

Marise Payne:

It’s absolutely regrettable that we were delayed in delivering those humanitarian supplies. There is no question of that.

David Speers:

Was it deliberate on China’s part?

Marise Payne:

We have raised our concerns with officials both in Vanuatu and in appropriate places with the Chinese Government. I don’t know whether it was deliberate or not, David. I wasn’t there. But what is most important is that countries like Australia and New Zealand working together, and others in the region, are able to support our Pacific neighbours in the way that is so important now.

David Speers:

A couple of other things. Donald Trump has, of course, suspended US funding to the World Health Organization for between 60 and 90 days. Normally, the US accounts for about 15% of World Health Organization funding. Do you know what impact that will actually have on their operations during this pandemic?

Marise Payne:

I understand that the World Health Organization itself is examining that question now. And I said earlier in our discussion that Australia shares some of the concerns of the United States in relation to the operation of the World Health Organization. They’re concerns we’ve expressed before, frankly. But importantly, for us, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, in the Pacific itself and in South-East Asia, we do some extremely valuable work with the World Health Organization. They rolled out in early February a regional impact process for the coronavirus pandemic in the Pacific, which both Australia and New Zealand have funded. Their multilateral impact in the Pacific is very significant. Equally so in Indonesia.

So while, as I said, we do share some of those concerns, we will not be taking the same approach in relation to Australia's funding of the World Health Organization. But that said, if I can go back to the question that you asked earlier in relation to a review of the coronavirus epidemic. The what, the how, the who, the why. The World Health Organization and its functions in that regard will be integral to the transparency of that review.

David Speers:

And can I turn to the Australians who have been unable to return home from different parts of the world? Some have been repatriated on specially arranged flights in the last couple of weeks, many are still stuck. Can you give us a figure there? Is it still around 11,000 Australians trying to get home?

Marise Payne:

We’ve seen about 300,000 Australians return since the 13th of March, and in that cohort, a very significant number from what was over 50 cruise ships and almost 6,500 Australians. And then a large number as well on flights. There are probably about 11,000 people whose names are recorded with posts around the world. It doesn't mean that all of the people wish to return to Australia and many of them are long-term residents of the countries in which they’re located.

This morning, three flights from the Philippines returned to Australia into Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. That was a mammoth effort. That required 12 sweeper flights from around the Philippines bringing people from places like Cebu, Davao, and other parts of Mindanao indeed, to Manila to be able to board those flights through a very, very stressful, high pressure lockdown environment. I’m very glad to see that. But there is more to do.

David Speers:

What about India? This seems to be the biggest difficulty right now. There are more than 6,000 Australians who have registered with the High Commission there, they want to come home. The British government’s organised something like 17 charter flights out of India. Why can’t we?

Marise Payne:

There’s been a number of flights which have left from India supported by the High Commission in India. As you know, it is also in lockdown. The different states have different rules. We are processing people to be able to travel across those areas. We are also very focused on making sure that every single Australian who needs an application to leave India has that facilitated by the High Commission. We are in discussions with a number of other airlines for the coming week to endeavour to identify further flights. But they are challenging times. That is work which the High Commission is very focused on there, in Argentina, in South Africa...

David Speers:

[Interrupts] Is a charter flight just too expensive? Is that the problem?

Marise Payne:

No, it’s not about expense. We’re working closely with Qantas and with Virgin on a number of those flights. We are using multiple mechanisms to return Australians to Australia. As you know, we have been saying for over a month now, a month and a half if I’m not mistaken, or thereabouts, that Australians should take every opportunity to return to Australia. Many have done so, as I said. We  have over 300,000 Australians returning since the 13th of March. There are still commercial flights from a number of other locations. We still encourage Australians to take those flights now, and we are using every means at our disposal to support Australians who are in some of the most difficult places to return.

David Speers:

All right. Final one before I let you go. Malcolm Turnbull and his publisher are pretty fired up that pirated electronic copies of his book have been circulating this weekend far and wide. Have you received a copy?

Marise Payne:

I understand that. I have not been responsible for disseminating any, David, and I would...

David Speers:

[Interrupts] But you’ve received one?

Marise Payne:

I’ve received and deleted and I would encourage anyone who has received, to do the same thing.

David Speers:

Did it come from the Prime Minister’s Office? This is the suggestion from the publisher.

Marise Payne:

Absolutely not.

David Speers:

Who did it come from?

Marise Payne:

David, I’ve received and deleted. That’s the most important thing.

David Speers:

You won’t tell us who it came from.

Marise Payne:

Received and deleted.

David Speers:

I’ll take that as no answer. I think we will. Foreign Minister Marise Payne, thank you for joining us.

Marise Payne:

Thank you David.

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