Interview with Michael Rowland - ABC News Breakfast

Subjects: Coronavirus on board cruise ships; Australians overseas; Ruby Princess.
03 April 2020

Michael Rowland: We can bring in now the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, from Penrith in New South Wales. Minister, a very good morning to you.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Michael.

Michael Rowland: What is the latest information you have about what will happen to the Australian passengers on board those two ships about to dock in Florida, once they get off?

Marise Payne: Well, I'm very relieved that we have heard news that the Zaandam and the Rotterdam will actually be able to dock in Fort Lauderdale and the passengers will be able to disembark. That will be done with a very timely evacuation flight to the west coast of the United States, and then from there, back to Australia. So, with all things going according to plan, and at the moment in the world that's an optimistic observation, but with all things going according to plan, those passengers should be able to be back in Australia, and, of course, spend 14 days here in quarantine, but in a very short period of time, within 24-48 hours, I would hope, which is great news for them and for their families. We are very grateful to the cruise line — which has been working very hard to achieve an outcome, very grateful to the US authorities, and also our consular team — our diplomatic team on the ground in the United States.

Michael Rowland: Okay. We're just bringing some more live pictures up, Minister, of those ships. Do we know the state of health of the Australians on board the ships?

Marise Payne: Michael, my understanding is that the Australians are overwhelmingly well. There have obviously been four very tragic deaths on the Zaandam itself. There was actually a transfer, ship to ship, off the Panama Canal earlier last week. It was a very complex operation to ensure a number of passengers were transferred from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam. Bearing in mind, that a lot of these passengers are much older people, who are travelling on cruise ships. That is a very complex process, but it was achieved without incident. And again, I thank the cruise line for that. And hopefully the well Australian passengers will be able to return to Australia very soon.

Michael Rowland: That is great news, indeed. So, good news for those passengers on those cruise liners, not so much good news for the many, many Australians, Minister, still stranded overseas. We heard from Greg French and Frances Latham on our show a bit earlier — they are stuck in Peru, the embassy there is closed and they've gone as far as accusing the Australian Government of abandoning them. What do you say in response?

Marise Payne: Well I think actually on the ground, our representatives, our embassies and consulates have been trying very, very hard to make contact with as many people as we can. In remote and in isolated areas, that's not always clear-cut, to be absolutely honest, and Peru certainly meets that definition. But we have a number of Australians in Lima, a number of Australians in Cusco, and about 100 other Australians still in isolated areas around Peru. We are endeavouring to consolidate that group of Australians for future flights that the Australian Government supports. Of course, we were able to welcome one flight back this week, organised by Chimu Adventures and supported by the Australian Government, of people who had been in Peru for some time. It is also really important to bear in mind that a number of countries — and Peru is a good example — have extremely strict border restrictions and internal travel and movement restrictions in place. We, as representatives in those countries, our diplomatic representatives, are all required to comply with those. So, every movement, every engagement, requires special permissions. Getting that flight out of Peru earlier this week had to be organised directly with the Peruvian Government for landing at a military airport. So, it's not always straightforward. And I do encourage Australians who are overseas to stay very much in touch with our Smartraveller alerts and information, to email and to contact our embassies where they can. And we will do everything that we can to support them in turn.

Michael Rowland: The Government’s coming under lots of pressure from some travellers overseas, demanding the Australian Government, taxpayers foot the bill — the airfares. You went as far as yesterday, Minister, as saying that approach was both wrong and irresponsible. Why is that?

Marise Payne: Well, Michael, we have been very clear in our travel advice for some extended period of time now that Australians overseas should take a number of steps to look after themselves. That concluded with ‘Australians should return home’, and ‘Australians should not travel overseas’. That has been in place now for over two weeks, if I recall correctly. And in that context, we have encouraged Australians to take commercial options where they can. We have an enormous set of obligations and responsibilities here — to Australians at home and, of course, to Australians overseas. And the Government encourages those overseas who have been able to, and still have the opportunity to travel by commercial means, to do so. It's fair to say that there are Australians in a number of places where there are still commercial options, who have not yet returned. And I would absolutely encourage them to take those options and to return to Australia, to make sure that they minimise the risk of contracting coronavirus in some of those places. That they minimise the risk of having to rely on health systems which are not comparable to Australia's. They are much safer here, frankly.

Michael Rowland: I want to finish by talking about the continuing and, indeed, escalating debacle that is the Ruby Princess cruise ship. Seven former passengers have now died. Lots of blame shifting, lots of finger-pointing. Your Cabinet colleague Peter Dutton yesterday accused the ship's operator, or various ships' operators, of lying to authorities about the state of health of passengers. What is your understanding about just who was to blame for allowing all those passengers off the Ruby Princess?

Marise Payne: Well Michael, those matters are obviously matters which will be reviewed in due course I presume. The most important thing, though, is that we are supporting those crew members who are still on the Ruby Princess, with appropriate health support. And I understand that the Australian Border Force, in consultation with the New South Wales Government is in the process of doing that. The cruise lines, most importantly, need to cooperate with the Australian Government, as you would expect in these extraordinary circumstances.

Michael Rowland: [Interrupts] Are they cooperating though?

Marise Payne: None of this is normal.

Michael Rowland: Yeah. But are they cooperating?

Marise Payne: I believe that they are, Michael, in terms of the work that is being done by Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force, I would say the most important thing is that we are all pulling together here. That is the exultation I think the Prime Minister has made to Australians, and in fact, internationally, including in the G20 leaders' meeting. And I would absolutely reinforce that. We need to be finding solutions, not just talking about problems, and that is what we are trying to do as a Government.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, thank you so much for joining us on News Breakfast this morning.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much.

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