Interview with Luke Grant, 2GB Drive

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: Singapore transit restrictions, Tropical Cyclone Yasa relief
23 December 2020

Luke Grant: There was a story you'd be aware of, I suspect, about what happens now? People heading back to Australia wanting to come here from, let's say, the United Kingdom, generally have to fly via places like Singapore. Well here's a problem – Singapore won't allow the planes from the UK to land. It's not just people that might be sitting in a plane waiting to take off again, or only in the airport. It's not on. So, you can't come to Australia via Singapore, lots of flights come that way, and that's an issue. I thought we'd have a chat to Senator Payne, the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne about that, and one or two other matters. I'm delighted to say that the Senator is on the line – so close to Christmas, thank you so much for your time, and compliments of the season to you.

Marise Payne: And the same to you, Luke, thank you very much. I wish you and all of your listeners a very Merry Christmas after what's been a very difficult year.

Luke Grant: Indeed. I know the Labor party's been out and about saying, you know, we've got to get so many more Australians back, and of course if it was easy I'd assume you would've done that by now. And you've been limited – to some extent – in how many arrivals each capital city will take. But I think you've gone over and above the original list. But does this closure of UK flights into Singapore, that must really now make it near impossible for so many people?

Marise Payne: Well it will have an impact on flights Luke, and I'm very conscious of the further difficulties that this presents for a number of Australians, those particularly who want to come to come out of the United Kingdom. And this is a reaction by Government in Singapore and Hong Kong, in response to that new COVID-19 strain in the United Kingdom. So what we are very focused on is trying to ensure there's no loss of air travel capacity for returning Australians. So, our global diplomatic network is helping to rebook alternative flights with those Australians who are contacting us. That will include the commercial flights that will continue, and also some of our Australian government facilitated flights, and to try to help negotiate alternative arrangements for transiting passengers. So we're talking to airlines, talking to the governments in both cities and Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, who are the two principle airlines affected at this stage, are contacting existing passengers about these arrangements. It is very difficult, though. COVID-19 is obviously very complex; we see that in Australia as we speak. And so we have to adapt to the circumstances as they emerge.

Luke Grant: But, you are restricted, are you not, by the degree to which each state premier or territory chief minister will allow people to land in their jurisdictions. I mean, if they, for example, say, as they did in Victoria, and rightly, the time you've got to support what Dan Andrews did, it made complete sense. You know, we won't - we can't have people arriving from overseas right now. Whilst it appears that in some sections of the commentary, that's a reflection on you. In fact, is it completely out of your hands, isn't it?

Marise Payne: Well, the caps are arranged through the states and territories, Luke, based on what they believe to be their capacity to manage in the context of the quarantine arrangements that have been made. And hotel quarantine, whilst it is not perfect, is certainly one of the things that has assisted Australia very much, along with a very strong health response in managing the transmission of COVID-19 here. But since these issues became even more pressing, given changes in Europe and the UK since September, when the Prime Minister spoke about this, we've had 53,700 Australians return, over 20,000 of those passengers were registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And on our list, that includes over 4200 vulnerable Australians. So it is a big number, and since this whole process began to be the international issue that it is, since March of this year, more than 430,000 Australians, have returned from overseas since those first reconsider your need to travel directions were provided by the Government. But, it is difficult. We are working closely with the states and territories, and in Sydney alone, New South Wales has taken more than 50 per cent of all of the returning travellers, since that time. It's been a huge undertaking.

Luke Grant: And that's a very good point, isn't it, that returning travellers, whether we like it or not, are likely? Perhaps not likely, but there is some chance they'll bring COVID-19 back with them and we've seen that, so whilst we'd love to bring everyone home, I guess there has to be some moderation, doesn't there? I mean, if you just lobbed 40,000 people into the country, who've been in areas where there's high infection rates, whilst we wouldn't imagine it would necessarily go awry, the risk is much greater, surely?

Marise Payne:It's absolutely true that this is not a risk-free exercise. And we are supporting Australians to return in a safe a manner as we can whilst we are also protecting Australians here. And that entails also, as I said, working with the states and territories. We are very pleased that Victoria has been able to bring Melbourne Airport back online and bring its quarantine system back online. That is helping us with numbers as well. But in terms of flights that have been facilitated through this process, I think we've had, in total, 81 facilitated flights land this year, the last as recently as earlier this week. They're coming from a number of places but predominantly Britain and India at the moment. And a large number of those, of course, are being accommodated in the Howard Springs quarantine facility. And that is also helping us increase the numbers returned.

Luke Grant: Just quickly, before we get off this, the idea of repatriation flights. That the Government might just go right, we'll bite the bullet here. We'll get planes in the air and bring back a bunch of people at one time, hopefully before Christmas, although that's obviously gone. But are you working to that? Is that a sensible solution?

Marise Payne: That is exactly the 80 plus flights that I just referred to.

Luke Grant: [Interrupts] Right, okay.

Marise Payne: They are facilitated by Government; they have Australian passengers who have been wanting to return on them. And they are coming, largely at this point in time, into Darwin for accommodation, for quarantine purposes in Howard Springs. But where we have been able to facilitate others - one came recently, for example, from South Africa into Perth. Many of those who are in South Africa wanted to return to Western Australia. The Queensland Government has received a number recently. One went into Tasmania about two weeks ago. One has come into Canberra. So it's a painstaking process. And to produce a complement of passengers on those planes, and the planes are not full because of the caps, has taken literally tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mail contacts over these recent months to fill those seats. And that's because people's circumstances change or they're not immediately contactable. But it's a huge consular task. And I must say, I'm very, very grateful to the men and women of the consular effort in my Department, not just here in Australia, but also at our posts around the world. You can imagine in London at the moment, there is a great deal of concern about the restrictions through Singapore and Hong Kong. So those staff are working night and day to support Australians.

Luke Grant: Yeah, I imagine that is very difficult. Last time we spoke; it was as Tropical Cyclone Yasa had happened in Fiji. And how have we gone supporting the Fijians? I think for a long time, we've wanted to encourage the Government to look after our nearby neighbours. Have we stepped up to the plate here?

Marise Payne: We certainly have. And I must say, my thoughts are with the many communities in Fiji who've been impacted by Tropical Cyclone Yasa. It was a category five cyclone and it bore down right across the north of Fiji on Thursday last week. So we have certainly provided some initial humanitarian relief into Fiji, that includes building materials, tents, medical supplies, solar lighting, hygiene kits, education supplies to enable children to get back to school, and also some support for international and local charitable organisations and the Fiji Red Cross so that they are able to work with affected communities. Those supplies have been delivered in two very familiar aircraft. Royal Australian Air Force C17 Globemasters have gone in to do that. But in addition to that, we have been able to deploy two of the Air Force P8 Poseidons on aerial assessments. So they have been helping with an early picture of the damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Yasa in very remote locations. And so we provide that imagery to the emergency management teams in the Fijian Government. They would not be able to do those sorts of assessments without Australian support. It's really practical. It's really important support. And then ultimately this week, we have made a decision to deploy HMAS Adelaide to Fiji. She will set sail tomorrow. That will provide immediate assistance to thousands of Fijians, particularly those in the remote islands where homes, schools and key infrastructure has either been destroyed or very, very damaged. And if you think about it, we've asked the women and men of the ADF to get up again, to get onto HMAS Adelaide and to head to Fiji on Christmas Eve. And, Luke, frankly, I can't thank them enough.

Luke Grant: Yeah, gee, good on you. You're right that that is a hell of an ask. When these requests or these projects are undertaken, I'm assuming someone within the Fijian Government speaks to you, Minister, or do you actually- is it the other way round where you say: we've got A-B-C-D-E down to probably Z times two available. What can we help you with? How does that actually come about?

Marise Payne: It's a bit of both, Luke. In the Australian Government, we establish an interdepartmental Emergency Response Committee that comprises my Department, Department of Defence, Department of Home Affairs, perhaps Health in some circumstances. They work on what Australia might be able to provide. And we work closely with our counterparts in Fiji in this instance. So through our post in Suva, but also through the Fijian Government. I'm in contact with counterparts there. The Prime Minister - I know has been in touch with Prime Minister Bainimarama. And that's one of the reasons that we know that particularly, for example, education facilities in the north of Fiji, the schools, the colleges, the classrooms have been very severely damaged. And they are very, very keen to be able to have those repaired as soon as possible to get kids back at the beginning of the school term next year. So given the disruption that COVID has caused to education in so many places this year, I know that's a huge priority for them. So it's very much a partnership between our two countries. We have also protocols in place for providing this assistance in a COVID-safe way. And I have to say, unfortunately, we've had too much practice this year. We got to practice COVID-safe protocols in relation to Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu earlier in the year. But we have a good system in place. And the Fijian Health officials are very grateful for that.

Luke Grant: I'm sure they are. Senator, again, great to talk to you. Appreciate your time. Merry Christmas to you and yours. And hopefully, we'll talk again in the New Year.

Marise Payne: Same to you, Luke. Merry Christmas to all of you there at 2GB and to all of your listeners. Thank you.

Luke Grant: Thank you so much. You too. That's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women Senator Marise Payne.

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