Interview with Deborah Knight, Afternoons, 2GB

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australians returning from overseas; UK-Australia trade deal; remarks by the Chinese Ambassador.

Deborah Knight: Around 160 Aussies are about to land in Darwin before heading to Howard Springs for quarantine. It's the first of eight specially chartered Qantas flight and this one left London. There'll also be flights from South Africa and from India. It's great news for the Aussies who have been stranded overseas, a lot of them since March. But there are still around 32,000 who are desperate to come home. Foreign Minister Marise Payne is on the line for us now. Minister, thanks so much for joining us.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Deb.

Deborah Knight: It must be such a relief for these Aussies. They're almost on home soil.

Marise Payne: Yes, in fact, they should have almost landed. About 1:30 Australian Eastern Daylight Time, we expect the plane to touch down. And we are absolutely aware that it's a very difficult time for families and extended families. COVID-19 has had the most extraordinary impact around the world. But this is an important flight, and as you say, it is part of a process, a longer process with further flights to come.

Deborah Knight: And who's on this flight? I understand there are a number of babies and they're termed vulnerable Australians. Who are they?

Marise Payne: It is a very many and varied group, Deb, and it is people who made the decision when the flight was made available in the UK to join the flight. We've managed to fill the plane of just over 170 or so passengers. We've made over 1300 individual phone calls, sent over 740 emails. And our focus is on people who find themselves in a vulnerable position at the moment because they have been unable to get flights. That might be in relation to their financial situation or equally their work situation, perhaps visa issues, perhaps illness or family circumstances here. So, a many and varied flight. I heard a grandmother in Darwin talking about seeing her one-year-old grandson today. It's obviously very important for them, for example.

Deborah Knight: Yeah, it's going to be wonderful when they are eventually reunited when they get out of quarantine. It is the first of eight chartered flights. But can you help me out here? Maths is not my strong point. But if there are around 160 people on each flight, that's around 1280 people, but you and the PM say that you're trying to get around 4000 vulnerable Australians home. Those numbers don't really add up.

Marise Payne: We are. So we’re obviously doing this through a process of the facilitated chartered flights that we're talking about today, also working with commercial airlines to ensure that people who are in that vulnerable grouping are able to obtain some of those commercial seats which are still coming to Australia. And I do thank those airlines that have continued to fly through these difficult times and to fly here. That comes in a number of ways: one, helping where we are able to do the booking process, but obviously, also our hardship assistance, where people are unable to afford flights at this point in time, and we can provide some loans and support to ensure they’re able to make those bookings where they need to be.

Deborah Knight: And when will the next flight be? Because I know that a lot of them on this flight waiting to arrive in the next half hour, as you say, they had to scramble to get there.

Marise Payne: Well, the next flight is actually a flight from New Delhi, which is arriving in Darwin next week. And the flights are scheduled to complement, if you like, the quarantine period. So, Howard Springs can take approximately 500 people every fortnight. And then there is the extra space, additional space under the caps, which we have received through the states and territories agreeing to change some of those numbers in October. So there is a large number of people. We absolutely appreciate that. At the same time, I have to say, over 398,000 Australians have returned from overseas since we did recommend in March that people both reconsider the need to travel overseas and to return home as soon as possible.

Deborah Knight: Should we expect those caps to be lifted again? It is on the agenda for National Cabinet today.

Marise Payne: Well, I will let National Cabinet make those considerations based on their own circumstances. We would welcome any increase in that process and I know the airlines would also. It does help us in a number of places to use those commercial flights. And I do thank the states and territories, particularly New South Wales, who has been carrying the lion's share of this for many, many, many months.

Deborah Knight: And just a couple of other quick things. I know that things aren’t back to normal yet, but when they do get back to normal, under this UK-Australia trade deal, there could be some changes to visas allowing us to live and work in Britain for longer and vice versa. What are we expecting there?

Marise Payne: I have seen those stories. We are very focused on this being a trade deal. That's the first thing. It's about improving market access and boosting our export opportunities, whether it's for our farmers or our businesses or our investors. We do have very strong existing people-to-people links, obviously, with the UK, but there's opportunities for more flexibility around work rights, around the movement of people, particularly young people. We're open to exploring those. I understand those issues have been raised in negotiations. We're also ambitious to increase mutual recognition of qualifications and standards. That will make it much easier for skilled professionals to work in both the UK and Australia respectively, and that's also part of that process.

Deborah Knight: Yeah. And just quickly too, the Chinese Ambassador has taken great offence to Senator Eric Abetz, comparing him with Hitler's chief propaganda man, Joseph Goebbels. Are we going to be expecting more tit-for-tat in the trade war that's going on with China and Australia?

Marise Payne: Well, I've seen the report on that submission to the Foreign Relations Bill inquiry. I think comparisons of that nature, frankly, rarely contribute very much to any discussion, and this would be no exception. We are working constructively with our counterparts in China to make sure we address those concerns that are being raised in relation to trade issues, whether it is wine or beef at this stage, or barley. That is a case-by-case process, and making very sure that we are supporting Australian producers as best and as much as we can and making those arguments.

Deborah Knight: Alright. Foreign Minister, we thank you for your time, as always. Thanks again.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Deb, and thanks for letting me know it's World Champagne Day.

Deborah Knight: It is indeed. Cheers to that. You’re allowed some bubbly this afternoon or maybe this evening.

Marise Payne: I'm still in quarantine …

Deborah Knight: [Laughs] Oh, well, pop a bottle, Minister. Pop a bottle, at least a small glass. Enjoy your weekend. Thank you so much for joining us. Foreign Minister there, Marise Payne.

Media enquiries