Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-US alliance; Australian who died in India of COVID-19; repatriation flights from India to Australia; opening of international borders.
18 May 2021

Jim Wilson: Well, it’s been a busy time for our Foreign Minister Marise Payne. She’s just returned from a series of high level meetings in the UK and Europe, as well as a visit to Afghanistan. Now, she’s quarantining back home but the work never ends with debate around regarding the reopening of our international borders raging. News has broken today that a 47-year-old Sydney father of two has died in hospital in India after contracting COVID-19. So, there’s a lot on the Foreign Minister’s plate right now. She’s a very good friend of this program, and we welcome her back to Drive.

Minister, welcome back.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon Jim.

Jim Wilson: So, the last time we spoke you were in Geneva. You’ve just arrived home. So firstly, where are you quarantining?

Marise Payne: I have an exemption from the New South Wales health system as I have had previously. So, quarantining at home to enable me to continue to do the work that I do to participate in Cabinet meetings and to do the work that requires these secure arrangements that for the Foreign Minister are certainly necessary.

Jim Wilson: In your trip to the UK and also to Europe, and also Afghanistan, what was your big takeaway from the trip?

Marise Payne: Jim, I think the most important thing that I have seen over the past few weeks is absolutely the value and the priority of our international cooperation. Whether it is in traditional alliances – and certainly the Australia-United States alliance was strongly reinforced during my visit to Washington last week – or in newer agreements or undertakings: groupings like the G7 Plus with a number of outreach partners that included Australia, South Korea, South Africa, India, and indeed ASEAN current Chair, Brunei.

Those relationships have been strongly maintained during a difficult period of COVID-19 throughout 2020. But being able to meet in person, have the opportunity to be with the Foreign Secretary in the United Kingdom, with the Foreign Minister of South Africa in that same conversation, with Foreign Ministers from Germany and France and so many other groupings – it does change the conversation when you can have it in person. And although it comes with its challenges, and that includes travelling in a COVID-safe way, that includes the requirements for quarantine back here in Australia, I do think my exchanges have reinforced the value of that interest and engagement.

Jim Wilson: Let’s talk about the crisis in India. A Sydney father of two has died in hospital over there after contracting the virus. There are still more than 9000 registered Australians wanting to come home, yet we’ve only got another two repatriation flights. Will that be ramped up, Minister, as we move forward?

Marise Payne: Jim, I first want to express my very sincere condolences for the death of an Australian man in India. And we are providing consular assistance to his family. I’ve seen those reports as well and many, many tributes that have poured on for Mr Kant. It is tragic and my heart goes out to his family. It is such a very difficult time in India.

We have established a system so that we can resume flights. And we’ve been very careful and very rigorous in doing that, and I want to thank everyone involved in that process. My own department, other agencies, particularly Qantas and officials on the ground in India. We will continue to increase those flights as it is safe to do so. It’s a very difficult environment to operate in, but we’re working very hard to assist those Australians who wish to return to Australia.

The challenges that we’ve seen in the last week on that first return flight, I’m sure they won’t be isolated. But we will continue to deal with those and be very careful and very mindful of the medical advice in all of this.

Jim Wilson: So, have you got a timeline, Minister, as far as extra repatriation flights from India back to Australia?

Marise Payne: We will work that through with Qantas and with the availability of quarantine accommodation as well. As you know, we have been working with the states and territories, particularly with the Northern Territory in relation to Howard Springs so that we are able to resume these flights. But we will be engaging in outreach from our posts in India. And our staff are working exceptionally hard there to support those Australians, outreach from those and through the Qantas process and through our own consular people here in Australia.

Jim Wilson: I've been very critical- a lot of our listeners have been critical about the fact that our cricketers who are playing in the Indian Premier League have now returned home. They’ve been allowed in above and beyond the quarantine caps for other returning Australians. Do you understand that many people find it hard to stomach our cricketers who went to India to make a quick buck being given special hotel quarantine spots while thousands of Australians, including 900 who are vulnerable still in India, struggle to secure their own hotel quarantine reservation?

Marise Payne: Jim, as I understand it, the cricketers who have made their arrangements to return are, of course, required to quarantine for two weeks. But the quarantine arrangements, which have been made directly with the New South Wales State Government with Cricket Australia, is above the caps that currently apply. So, the New South Wales State Government, which has done, frankly, an exceptional job in the number of people it has taken through quarantine in more than the last year, has agreed to that, but only so that they do not take the place of others.

I understand that this is contentious and I understand it is a difficult issue. But we insisted that the return of those flights be above the caps. We will have two flights coming into Darwin from India more broadly, one on 23 May and one on 31 May. So that gives you an indication of the next flights which are available.

Jim Wilson: If we lift the caps though for cricketers who aren’t even playing for their country, playing in the Indian Premier League, if we can lift the caps for the cricketers then surely we can lift the caps for other Australians, in particular vulnerable Australians returning from the sub-continent.

Marise Payne: Well, we have New South Wales at the moment taking more than 3000 arrivals a week. I think that is a significant contribution and other states and territories are making their contributions as well. But ultimately, these are decisions that are being made through the National Cabinet process and those states and territories are advising through National Cabinet what availability and capacity they believe they have. The Commonwealth, we have worked with the Northern Territory to increase the National Resilience Centre at Howard Springs from 850 people to 2000 people a month starting this month. So that is, again, an extension of that process. So we can enable more Australians to return.

Jim Wilson: Okay. Speaking of borders, they’re set to remain closed until the middle of next year. Now, fortress Australia, we're being called, the PM's slammed those suggesting we need to open our borders sooner including those calls from the Virgin Chief Executive, that he’s labelled insensitive for saying some people may die. But said it would be way smaller than the flu, this is what the Virgin CEO said. What did you make of the Virgin Australia's CEO's comments?

Marise Payne: Well Jim, they’re not words that I would have used. I think the Government has been working very hard to ensure Australians are aware that we will focus on reopening borders when it is safe to do so. And we do have some way to go in that. There are still uncertainties ahead. And I heard your words as I joined the programme in relation to the challenges that many, many countries globally are still facing. And in fact, I saw the Director-General of the WHO, the World Health Organisation, refer today to the fact that as countries which have had an opportunity to pursue the vaccination process, countries which have had, in Australia's case, a relatively positive experience in terms of infections here, notwithstanding the many challenges faced by families that the rest of the world is not seeing it quite the same way right now. And as we talk about India, as we talk about other countries in that region, including countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, as we deal with the challenges closer to us. And I know Fiji is dealing with its own issues at the moment. That reminds us all that the pandemic has not gone anywhere.

Jim Wilson: The New South Wales Premier says 80 per cent of the adult population in New South Wales would need to be vaccinated before she considers opening up to international travel. She set a target, should the Federal Government do the same?

Marise Payne: Well we will work based on the medical advice and we will make our decisions in the best health and economic interests of all Australians. Importantly, we are doing everything we can to ensure Australia doesn't experience a third wave and to roll out our vaccination programme. I have had very many conversations in the last few weeks, both in the context of the G7 Plus meeting in London, in my many meetings in Geneva with a whole range of multilateral agencies, and again in the United States about the importance of supporting not only our own domestic vaccination programmes, but also the work we can do through the COVAX facility and bilaterally we start with other countries. Australia is doing that in our region, in Timor Leste, in Fiji, in Papua New Guinea, and that will continue to expand in coming weeks as we grow the capacity of our domestic production. They are really important contributions but most importantly, we have to be guided by the medical advice. We have to make those decisions in the best health and economic interests of all Australians.

Jim Wilson: Just before I let you go, the situation in Israel and Gaza is tragic and we're seeing horrific pictures out of the Middle East. We know there are Australians in the region caught up in the conflict, what support is the Australian Government giving them and what's your message to those who might have family over there?

Marise Payne: Well Jim to be very clear, we have issued a travel update on that just recently to alert Australians in relation to the difficulties currently being experienced. And they are very, very serious. We've made statements on this, including at the UN Security Council meeting on the 16th of  May, calling on all leaders to take immediate steps to halt the violence, to exercise restraint, but also noting that Israel unquestionably has a right to defend itself and its people in accordance with international law. Equally, we wish to see people in the Palestinian territories able to live peacefully as well. So we have strongly called for refraining from these violent and provocative acts or acts that increase the tensions. For Australians, our Australian Embassy - and I spoke with Paul Griffiths, our Ambassador, just recently, is closely monitoring those developments. We can provide consular assistance to Australians affected by the conflict in Israel but we don’t have representation in Gaza. That does limit our ability to provide consular assistance to people there. In that context, we’ve attempted to contact all known Australians in Gaza to confirm their safety and so far we’ve not received any requests for consular assistance, and our emergency centre has received a very small number of calls about the violence itself. So the Smartraveller travel advice says Australians should remain alert, they should monitor media and they should follow the advice of the local authorities through the national emergency portal.

Jim Wilson: Minister, as always thank you for your time this afternoon.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much Jim.

Jim Wilson: Good on you. That’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Marise Payne.

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