Interview with Jo Laverty and Adam Steer, ABC Darwin Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Howard Springs quarantine facility; Australians returning from overseas; Seasonal fruit pickers; US election.

Jo Laverty: So, at 11:55am, the first of eight planes are going to touch down in Darwin, and 174 passengers are going to have that door open up, and then they’re going to be knocked by the humidity and the heat of the tropical Darwin build-up. Marise Payne is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and joins us this morning. Good morning, Ms Payne.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Jo.

Jo Laverty: So, how do you feel, a few hours away from this plane landing and having this repatriation take place?

Marise Payne: I’m very pleased that this plane will be able to land in Darwin, and that we’re actually having it land on the first day that the Northern Territory Government said Howard Springs would be ready, so that is very good timing, and very important for those families – and I was also listening to Fran – very important for those families who are looking forward to seeing their loved ones return. We have a number of other flights planned. They are part of this process, and they will also come through the Howard Springs quarantine facility.

Jo Laverty: And they are like ninjas, Minister, like I said before, in terms of getting them off the plane and then onto those buses into Howard Springs. It’s a very well-oiled machine, isn’t it?

Marise Payne: That’s a good thing. I’m very pleased to hear you describe them like that, Jo. I think so would my colleagues be, because it is about managing the health and the wellbeing of all Australians – those who are returning of course but, also, Australians who’ve been here, part of the process of protecting ourselves. So, managing quarantine for larger numbers of people is complex, and I think that’s a good description you’ve used there.

Jo Laverty: Oh, believe me, I tried to be able to see my daughter in person in the flesh, but there was no way. They had it down pat. Now, you’ve prioritised getting vulnerable people home first. How do you prioritise? How do you mark them as vulnerable and who’s first?

Marise Payne: That’s part of the process that my department goes through, according to information that Australians provide at the time that they contact DFAT, or contact missions abroad when they’re seeking assistance. Sometimes it will be hardship related to not being able to support themselves financially, given their inability to return to Australia; it might be about expiring visas; could be about a family situation or a complicated medical situation. And that has meant that, through the process of just loading this plane, we have been through numerous calls and emails – in fact, over 1300 individual calls to make sure that those who were asked to travel were able to travel. We’ve also been asking people, as Fran said, to make sure that they’re taking COVID tests, PCR tests, which are being facilitated through Qantas. So if people test positive, then they’re not able to travel at this time. It’s a long, drawn-out process, but it’s an important one to protect both those passengers and also Australians here.

Jo Laverty: And what about these amazing arm bands that we’re hearing about, some of the passengers coming off with?

Marise Payne: The arm bands are news to me. I’ll seek some more information…

Jo Laverty: [Talks over] Oh, they sound incredible. So, they’re- I don’t know enough about them myself, Minister, but they’re an arm band that you can wear, they’re worn in some other countries already, and they can detect the second you start coming down with the coronavirus, because it measures your temperature and it measures your blood pressure, and a bunch of other things. So, some of the passengers will be wearing that. So, everyone’s going to be Googling this in a minute, Minister.

Marise Payne: [Laughter] Including me.

Jo Laverty: Yeah. Four of the eight flights are coming from India – why is that?

Marise Payne: Well, a number of flights - so from London, from India, from Johannesburg at this stage. India has been a difficult challenge for many Australians, because there have not been any commercial flights leaving India since March, whilst there have been commercial flights leaving the UK, and there continue to be. None since March from India – a number of facilitated flights and repatriation flights from the Indian Government. So, there is a cohort of Australians there, a number of whom have been dealing with some vulnerabilities, like the ones that we've discussed. And we will have the first flight from New Delhi arriving next week. That is the very, very positive thing in relation to Howard Springs. It does enable us to bring about 500 people a fortnight, on a rolling fortnightly basis through the quarantine process, over and above the caps which continue to exist.

Jo Laverty: Can we talk about the money for a moment? There are- we heard yesterday on ABC News, there are some people who are paying extreme amounts of money to be able to be on these flights – over 10 grand. Just how much is it costing people to come back?

Marise Payne: The flights, in this context, these facilitated flights, are being charged as a one-way economy fare, and that is $2150 from London, and $1500 from New Delhi before tax. They are subject to change in terms of any additional costs, for example, for COVID-19 related medical screening. The commercial costs, which I think are those that you referred to are, of course, set by the airlines. And I think, by and large, they reflect the fact that the airlines are flying international airliners around the world with very small cohorts of passengers. It's obviously a very difficult process. The international aviation sector is completely smashed by COVID-19, and I understand the challenges it's presented for Australians. We have instituted a financial hardship assistance scheme, and we are supporting Australians who do need help to, perhaps, obtain seats that are still in that commercial context, with loans for a period so that they can do that where necessary.

Adam Steer: It’s 8:45 on ABC Radio Darwin. Adam Steer, Jo Laverty with you. Marise Payne is the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs. Once the eight planes have landed in this first sortie, will there be more flights to come to Darwin?

Marise Payne: Adam, we will identify the need that exists to continue any flights, and that’s a matter the Government will review regularly as these flights take place. As I said I think to Jo, to load a flight of 174 or 175 passengers out of London this morning has taken 1300 phone calls, 740 emails, I believe. It is a very focussed and labour intensive process, and that's what our consular team is very good at. In India, we are doing the same thing. We'll do the same thing for the next flights out of London. So, it's a matter of working through the processes and determining what's going to be required.

Adam Steer: The Darwin Howard Springs facility has been stood up here. How much is the Federal Government paying the Northern Territory Government for using the facility?

Marise Payne: The Federal Government has a contract arrangement with the Northern Territory Government, and that means that the Territory Government is working to provide the health resources, security, the services, including catering. I don’t have the financial details of the contracts in front of me. It’s not negotiated by DFAT, of course, it’s negotiated through Home Affairs and with the health agencies. But it’s one which is enabling us to do this between the Northern Territory Government and the Commonwealth, and we are very grateful for the provision of that facility.

Adam Steer: Minister, this isn’t the first international flight to land in Darwin recently. A month ago, a plane load of seasonal fruit pickers from Vanuatu landed in Darwin to meet the needs of the Top End mango season. Despite that, more pickers were needed. But a second plane load of workers have not been able to get permission to come, complete their quarantine and get on the farms in time to do all the work that they could have been doing. Why’s it so hard to get people from a country without COVID, to work in a territory that also doesn’t have COVID?

Marise Payne: Adam, I'm thrilled that we have been able to start this process. You should have a look at the social media of the Vanuatu High Commissioner in Australia as he took photos of the Ni-Vanuatu leaving their quarantine period after they had arrived. My understanding is there has been a second flight and that we have now got two sets of workers here. The first was 162. I think the second was a similar number of workers. And we have plans for further flights to arrive in Queensland and into New South Wales in the coming [indistinct].

Adam Steer: [Interrupts] Yeah, that second flight of workers, we understand they're still in quarantine, so they haven't got to the farms yet in the peak of the mango season. Why couldn’t we just get them to quarantine on the farms, like the industry would like?

Marise Payne: Well, they’ll be on the farms literally next week. And I do think that the management of quarantine is something which is worked between the state and territory health authorities and, of course, the Commonwealth, through the agreed processes. Quarantine is very complex. We know what happens when we see poor management of quarantine. Australia has been dealing with that in recent months. So we’ll work closely with the Territory to manage that quarantine process. There is huge enthusiasm in the Pacific for workers to come to Australia. Every country in the Pacific that is part of our scheme has signed up again. The states and territories have all agreed. So, it is an ongoing process and I look forward to seeing many more arrive.

Jo Laverty: Marise Payne is our Foreign Minister. This is ABC Radio Darwin. You’re with Adam Steer and Jo Laverty. And while we're still talking about people who come to the Territory from overseas, Darwin is a multicultural town and many Territorians have expressed concerns about something that was announced in the budget a few weeks ago, and that is the increased language requirements for people wanting to become Australian citizens. Why has your Government decided to make it harder to become an Australian citizen with that language requirement?

Marise Payne: Jo, I think this is a matter which the Government has considered very carefully. One thing that we do know is that it is much, much more difficult for people to become part of Australian society, to have the resilience and the security that comes with being part of Australian society, without language skills. It is a stepped process that will encourage people and require people to work very hard on their language skills. But it really is life-changing for people's capacity to participate in society, particularly in a country like Australia, which, as you say, has huge cultural diversity but is still overwhelmingly a monolingual country, a very English-speaking country. So, the Cabinet and the Government considered very carefully these steps. The Minister will closely supervise the implementation of that process. But it is about making sure that people are able to participate to the fullest extent and have the resilience that comes with the ability to engage. I particularly appreciate the diversity of Australia. I've been working in a very multicultural part of this country - Western Sydney - for over two decades. And I know how important it is, particularly for women who are often terribly isolated by a lack of English language.

Jo Laverty: As our audience has pointed out, the rules doesn't mean that there’ll be more English in Australia. Here's Graham from Leanyer.

No, I don't have that grab for you. Essentially saying that whilst we are a predominantly English speaking country, as you pointed out, Minister, English isn't necessarily an official language. We don't actually have an official language, do we?

Marise Payne: No, I don't believe we do have an official legislated language as such. But the Government is taking a very practical approach to this. I understand there have been issues raised. I'm not sure what your caller was saying, but I understand there have been issues raised. But it is something that is important for people's engagement in society, for removing isolation, for enhancing their safety, for enhancing their ability to access services. I see this all the time. I see it in terms of women's safety as well, the ability to know where to go when you are feeling threatened. I saw it as Minister for Human Services, which deals with Australians right across the cultural spectrum of this country, making sure that we're able to provide services and that people know where to access them. English is a very important part of that.

Jo Laverty: Now, just finally, there is an election happening in the US in slightly under two weeks. I'm so interested in what kind of preparation you as Minister for Foreign Affairs undertakes ahead of an election like this, where at the moment polls are suggesting that there is going to be a change of government. What kind of preparations – do you have like two folders that you unveil one, if Trump wins, you unveil the other if Biden wins?

Adam Steer: Choose the blue folder, not the green folder.

Marise Payne: It's a very good question, Jo, because as a nation, obviously, the fundamentals of the Australia-US alliance are very deep and very broad. So, effectively, the resident of the – and I've always said this – the resident of the Lodge and the resident of the White House, doesn't change those fundamentals of over a century of relationship. But what we do make sure we do through our posts in the United States from Washington and around our consulates, is that we engage right across the political spectrum and the social and cultural spectrum in the United States, that we are always in touch with the leaders, the thought-leaders across the political parties. That's very important. But most importantly, at the end of this process, no matter who is elected in the United States, the soundness of the Australia-US alliance will remain and will only grow in the coming years.

Jo Laverty: Good to speak with you this morning. Thank you for your time.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Jo. Thanks very much, Adam.

Jo Laverty: Bye. Have a great weekend. That's Marise Payne, our Foreign Minister here in Australia.

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