Interview with Jim Wilson
Jim Wilson: As COVID cases continue to break records in India, Australia has finally clamped down. Until 15 May, all flights from India will be stopped. This also includes repatriation flights. The stories I’m hearing this afternoon out of India and in recent days are absolutely shocking. Mass cremations, hospitals overrun, no oxygen supplies. It's horrific. It's a tsunami of COVID, as Australia's High Commissioner to India, Barry O'Farrell, described it. So as cases grow and we see more returned travellers from India testing positive in hotel quarantine, it was time the Government stepped up and kept those here in Australia safe. There was a media conference a short time ago with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, who’s had a very busy afternoon, and the Foreign Minister joins me live on the line. Minister, welcome back to Drive.
Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Jim.
Jim Wilson: We know you've got a very, very busy afternoon. There's been plenty happening. How worried are you right now about the situation in India?
Marise Payne: Well, Jim, our thoughts are definitely with our very close friends and partners in India. This is an extremely difficult situation. We are seeing cases continue to increase and at the same time, deaths continue to increase. We know there are significant shortages in key PPE and in medical equipment, and as you said, in oxygen supply. So we want to make sure that we are looking after the safety and security of Australians, and at the same time providing some support, as far as we can, to India in their response at this critical time.
Jim Wilson: Minister, should have we made this decision days ago?
Marise Payne: Jim, we make our decisions based on the health and medical advice that we received. There was, as the Prime Minister has indicated, a discussion at the National Security Committee of Cabinet in relation to this matter. The request for support from India was received by us on the 25th of April. So just two days ago. And in that process, we have to take all of these things into account. I think we are working in a timely way with the states and territories in consultation, as the Prime Minister has, through the National Cabinet, and we saw that, of course, at the end of last week as well. So we prioritise absolutely the safety and security of Australians.
Jim Wilson: So no commercial flights or repatriation flights until May 15. Could that be extended if the virus isn’t under control by then?
Marise Payne: We've indicated that this is a temporary pause on these direct passenger flights, and we will consider that again close to the 15th of May. That is the approach that we have taken through the pandemic in terms of taking in the information as it comes from the countries with whom we are dealing. We'll do the same in this case. I hope very much that there is every opportunity for India to address what is obviously, as I said, a very, very critical point in the pandemic. And it is a very difficult situation. I also want to acknowledge the many Indian-Australians and Australian-Indians who, of course, have family in India and will be watching with great concern as to the circumstances. Our thoughts are with them as well.
Jim Wilson: What help are we giving Australian citizens who are currently in India?
Marise Payne: Well, we have been in touch regularly with our Australian citizens in India and our four India network posts: that’s our High Commission in New Delhi, our consulates in Mumbai, in Kolkata and Chennai. They are all staffed by Australian diplomats who are continuing to provide that consular assistance to Australians in India, including that support that we are able to provide through our extended financial assistance program, which has been in place for many months now. We are also going to redouble all of our efforts to maintain contact with Australian citizens in India. We want to make sure that they are informed about these travel settings, about any changes to those and the assistance programs. And that has been part of the work that the High Commission and the consulates have been undertaking. It has been a very intense period right through 2020, of course, for those teams. I want to thank them for the work that they are doing to support Australians. But this recent surge in the pandemic is testing that once again.
Jim Wilson: A question from a listener on the text line. Terry, she says: hi, Jim, could you please ask the Foreign Minister if flights means all flights, including private jets and private charters? Also, someone can come to Australia if they are a permanent resident, as the caller who have the Indian husband stated, or do they have to be an Australian citizen? That's from Terry. What's your response to Terry's question, Minister?
Marise Payne: Well, in the process of arranging our facilitated commercial flights, we have had a number of family groups come from many places, but including India, where there are a variety of circumstances to citizenship. So Australian citizens themselves, some families will have permanent residents within them. Some families may have Indian citizens within them, for example, and those families have been returning as a family unit in the process of our facilitated commercial flights. So, yes, permanent residents have been able to return with their families. On direct passenger flights between India and Australia, they are under temporary pause until the 15th of May, and that would apply in relation to all flights. And then in future flights, we, of course, as the Prime Minister announced, are going to put in place a number of requirements, including a negative PCR test and a negative rapid antigen test prior to those flights uplifting passengers.
Jim Wilson: So private jets and private charters are impacted by this decision this afternoon?
Marise Payne: That would be my understanding, yes.
Jim Wilson: Yeah, okay. Some of our best cricketers are stuck in India. They want a charter flight to bring them home at the end of the tournament. If the Government hasn't opened our borders to India by then, there won't be any special exemptions, will there, for any charter flights for our cricketers?
Marise Payne: Well, the same rules will apply to all travelling back into Australia from India as apply to the broader population. I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to speculate on what may happen in weeks or months, as you have said, in relation to the IPL players. But we will work closely with Cricket Australia and with individuals to ensure that we’re aware of their circumstances. They are, like everybody, Australians in India and of course entitled to consular advice and assistance.
Jim Wilson: Have you spoken to your foreign minister counterpart in India?
Marise Payne: We’ve been in touch in recent days by message primarily. He is of course extremely focused on the response. And we do actually engage very regularly either by text or by phone. We spoke together on a panel just ten days ago to the very important Raisina Dialogue, which unfortunately had to go virtual because of the impact of this pandemic surge. But Dr Jaishankar is a valued colleague and a very good friend, and we’ve certainly wished him all the best. I also spoke today to our High Commissioner, Barry O’Farrell, as well in terms of working through these response issues with him.
Jim Wilson: Is the Indian Government- what was their reaction to the decision made and the announcement made this afternoon?
Marise Payne: I think, Jim, they are understanding that these are measures that governments like Australia need to put in place at this point in time. They are also very grateful for our indication of support, particularly in relation to the rapid deployment of non-invasive ventilators, of the work that we are doing to secure oxygen concentrators and also a very significant package of personal protective equipment. We know how hard frontline professionals are working in India at the moment, and I think any additional personal protective equipment is going to be gratefully received. And that was certainly the message that I got back from Dr Jaishankar.
Jim Wilson: What makes the outbreak, Minister, in India, different to the outbreaks we saw in the US, the UK and Brazil earlier this year? We didn't reduce flights then but we have now with India.
Marise Payne: I think the Prime Minister responded to that question today in our media conference, particularly in terms of the impact that returning flights from India were having on the number of positive cases in quarantine that we were seeing, the load that that was placing on Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, also on systems in a number of the states and territories. And in the context of that, in the process of ensuring the safety and security of Australians remains our highest priority, we have decided on this temporary pause. It is a temporary pause and we will continue to review it because we very much appreciate the closeness of the relationship with India and we want to work with them to ensure that we're able to resume the movement as soon as it is appropriate to do so.
Jim Wilson: Just two other matters before I let you go. One of the nation's most powerful national security leaders, Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo, has declared, quote, the drums of war are beating and Australia must be prepared to send off yet again our warriors to fight. What was your reaction to these comments?
Marise Payne: Well, I think the Prime Minister also responded to that in our media conference earlier today. Our focus, frankly, is on the avoidance of conflict. Our objective is to ensure that we are pursuing a stable and a secure and a prosperous and an open Indo-Pacific. At the same time. I must say that we expect all of our diplomatic, intelligence, security and defence senior leadership to ensure that in keeping Australians safe, they are preparing for all scenarios, including the worst. And we have to be very clear eyed about that. But at the same time, as I said, we would always want to be ensuring that we are avoiding conflict in everything that we do.
Jim Wilson: But Defence Minister Peter Dutton warned on Sunday that a war with China over Taiwan could not be discounted. He said Australians needed to be realistic about China's increasing militarisation across the region. How worried should we be, Minister, about a war with China?
Marise Payne: I think we've been very realistic about measures that have been taken in our region that do raise concerns that don't contribute to the peace and stability of the region. That in the past has included the concerns we've raised about the militarisation of features in the South China Sea, for example. Importantly, in relation to Taiwan, we work to shape the existing strategic environment in directions that do advance those interests. And having stable and constructive Cross-Strait relations is absolutely key to that. We would hope that any resolution of those differences should be done in a peaceful way in accordance with the will of people on both sides and frankly, without resorting to threats or coercion. That is something which we have consistently said, Jim, and which we would work closely with colleagues in the region to achieve, including our allies and partners.
Jim Wilson: Finally, Myanmar, I've got an email from Yan he writes, Jim, I was born in Myanmar and I've lived here in Australia for 21 years. I still have family in Myanmar. Military thugs are killing civilians almost every day. The people in Myanmar really need help to get rid of military thugs. Minister, what's your response to that email?
Marise Payne: Well, I feel very much Yan and for Yan’s family. It is a very difficult time for people from Myanmar to see this happening to their country, given the positive signs we had seen on the trajectory towards democratic institutions and democratic processes. This is a significant setback. And we've consistently called for the military regime to exercise restraint and to refrain from violence, and condemned the continued and horrific use of force against civilians in Myanmar, including women and children. What we saw on the weekend though, on the 24th of April particularly, was five points of consensus reached by ASEAN leaders on the situation in Myanmar and we strongly support and urge the implementation of those. They include the immediate cessation of violence. They include the commencement of constructive dialogue amongst all the parties, a special envoy of the ASEAN chair who is able to facilitate mediation and dialogue. Also, for those most vulnerable, the provision of humanitarian assistance through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and particularly a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy and a delegation to meet with all the parties. That would be a number of important steps, including opening up communication, including making very clear the views of ASEAN members who were sitting around that table and many of the supporters of ASEAN who know that it is central to the view of the Indo-Pacific that we have and to the view of an open and secure and stable region.
Jim Wilson: Minister, as always, thank you for your time. I know it's been a very busy afternoon. You are a good friend of this programme and we appreciate you on what is a very significant afternoon as far as those direct flights and that announcement between India and Australia. Thank you for your time.
Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Jim.
Jim Wilson: Good on you. That’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.