Interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australians affected by the White Island eruption in New Zealand.
10 December 2019

Patricia Karvelas: For more on the Australians affected by this tragedy I’m joined now by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: What’s the latest information you can give us about the number of Australians affected by this disaster?

Marise Payne: Well, we can confirm that we have 13 Australians currently in hospital in New Zealand across five different hospitals, and that leave 11 Australians tragically unaccounted for. And this afternoon, we have grave fears that three Australians are among the five that New Zealand have confirmed as having died.

Patricia Karvelas: What kind of consular assistance is Australia providing to those caught up in this?

Marise Payne: As well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials who are already on the ground in New Zealand, those from Wellington and from our Consulate-General in Auckland, we are also sending a total of five additional officers to New Zealand today. Some will go to Auckland and some will go to Christchurch, and they will arrive this evening. So that is to ensure that we have contact possible for all those who are in hospital at the moment across the five sites. Our High Commission, Patricia Forsythe, is herself at the Tauranga Hospital today. She’s been able to speak with friends of one of the affected Australians and to make contact with them. So it’s an important part of the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in crisis events, tragedies such as this. And I do want to thank and acknowledge those staff who are fulfilling those roles.

Patricia Karvelas: Police have announced in New Zealand that they’re going to launch a criminal investigation over the White Island deaths. What’s your reaction to that?

Marise Payne: I have heard that news this afternoon and I do think that is a matter for New Zealand authorities. It’s not something on which I’m able to provide a comment. I have heard the reports, as I said.

Patricia Karvelas: We’re hearing that a number of those who survived the eruption have been seriously injured. Does New Zealand have the capacity to treat everyone? There are reports of very full hospitals dealing with these burns.

Marise Payne: Yes. We have, of course, as I said, 13 people in hospital and burns do appear to be the main injury received. The process that is being undertaken in New Zealand is that those victims are being stabilised, and then when it's possible, transferred to the larger burns units in both Auckland and Christchurch. But I do know that New Zealand has indicated that its burns units are at capacity. So we have officials from our Commonwealth agencies discussing options to address that with their counterparts in New Zealand, and we of course stand ready to respond to any formal request.

Australia, given our experience, has a high level of burns expertise and capacity, and if it's a matter of additional medical resources that is something that we could of course help with. If it is, in the alternative, a question of whether patients would be transferred from New Zealand to Australia then there is a capability we have. But I would absolutely remind that that would be a medical judgement, and medical decision, as to whether it is safe to move people and we would absolutely take the advice of medical professionals.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so it is possible that you can airlift injured people to Australia for treatment, but you're basing that on the medical advice – that you are open to doing it.

Marise Payne: Absolutely. Absolutely and-

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Because we do have experience after the Bali bombings, of course, doing this kind of work.

Marise Payne: We do. As I said, a high level of burns expertise and capacity through very unfortunate circumstances ourselves.

Patricia Karvelas: Authorities have ruled out finding anyone left alive on the island, which means this is now sadly a recovery operation. Is there any sense of how quickly that might happen?

Marise Payne: Well, we do know that it is still not regarded as safe to endeavour to go back to White Island at this point. But the New Zealand authorities have been clear, as you say, they do not believe, unfortunately, that there are any survivors remaining on the island. So, indeed, this is a recovery operation. Our priority, of course, is on treating those who are in hospital and injured. And we will work with the New Zealand authorities, as they advise, when it is safe to return to the island.

Patricia Karvelas: But we are now dealing, Marise Payne, with a very significant number of Australians who are likely to have died in this tragedy.

Marise Payne: Tragically, yes we are. It is very, very difficult to contemplate a tragedy of this size. We have 11 unaccounted for, and very grave fears.

Patricia Karvelas: What repatriation arrangements are being made in that context, then?

Marise Payne: I think it's too early to begin that discussion. There are significant issues around identifying victims, and this is a very complex process in a tragedy, an event as serious as this. We have a disaster victim identification team made up of both Australian Federal Police and New South Wales Police which is also being deployed to New Zealand today. The New Zealand Government obviously will provide updates on the recovery operation. But given the nature of the tragedy, recovering and identifying victims has the potential to be quite a lengthy and complicated process. There are very strict international protocols about identification which must be followed, and they do take time. There are cases in which coronial processes may also be required. Again, this is an area in which both Australia and New Zealand have experience, given some of the disasters that we have helped to address in our region.

Patricia Karvelas: Experts say there's a 50 per cent chance of another eruption. Do you have any advice about how long it could take to stabilise?

Marise Payne: I don't, and I would leave that, as you say, up to those experts. These are obviously very difficult circumstances and they will provide advice to the New Zealand Government in their own time and in their own way, and we will receive that advice if and when it's appropriate.

Patricia Karvelas: I'm joined tonight by the Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne. 0418-226-576 is the text line here on RN Drive. Active volcanoes are apparently becoming more popular as tourist destinations. Does the Government offer any advice to travellers on this?

Marise Payne: Our travel advice on particular aspects of travel is different for numerous locations around the world. We do constantly advise Australians travelling to check Smartraveller advice to make sure they're aware of local conditions, make sure they're aware of local laws. And that would go for New Zealand or any other part of our region or further afield. But Australians are, as we know, enthusiastic travellers, often intrepid travellers, but most importantly ensuring that you know where you are and what you are doing and are accessing our Smartraveller advice, is our strong suggestion to Australians.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for joining us.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne.

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