Interview with Sally Sara, Radio National

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: COVID pandemic; international arrival caps; Afghanistan; Shokrollah Jebeli; Sean Turnell; Cheng Lei; Julia Banks.

Sally Sara: Well, the current lockdown in Sydney resulted from a COVID leak from the hotel quarantine system on the transporting of crew. There are thousands of Australians overseas who are still trying to get home, but they now face an even longer wait with international arrival caps cut in half. The Foreign Minister Marise Payne joins me now. Minister, welcome to RN Breakfast.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Sally.

Sally Sara: National Cabinet will meet today to discuss a pilot to allow overseas arrivals to quarantine at home. How advanced are those plans and when could it be rolled out?

Marise Payne: Sally, this is, as you say, a pilot phase and it’s looking at alternative options including home quarantine for returning fully vaccinated travellers. One of the things that the work done so far tells us is that a vaccinated person quarantining for seven days is stronger than an unvaccinated quarantining for 14 days. So, both South Australia and New South Wales have indicated their readiness to participate in this small-scale trial and we will start that in the coming period when the medical advice enables us to do so and the processes are put in place.

Sally Sara: The cap for weekly arrivals has been halved while there are some issues with hotel quarantine leakage at the moment. How long will that reduction in the allocation of Australians coming home – how long will that be in place, do you think?

Marise Payne: Well, the first reduction is in place from 14 July to 31 August and, Sally, I’m very, very aware, particularly given the extraordinary amount of work my department has been doing with Australians endeavouring to return, that this does create an additional layer of difficulty, so we are working very closely with our consular teams both here in Australian and at posts right around the world. We’re increasing the number of facilitated flights and we’ll continue to do that.

Sally Sara: I was looking on the Australian Government Tenders website yesterday and the tender for vaccine passports on phones is now up and open for companies. That’s to be completed by the end of December. What could vaccine passports mean for Australians who are looking to leave and/or return to the country?

Marise Payne: I think this is best described as a work in progress. It is something which the international community is also taking up, including the international regulatory authorities like ICAO and the airline organisations like IATA as to what that needs to look like. Australia wants to make sure we are fully engaged in that process and a number of colleagues are looking at that now.

Sally Sara: Some of the Australians who are stranded in India say that the DFAT-organised flights have been chaotic and disorganised. What’s the schedule for government-chartered evacuation flights?

Marise Payne: Well, I think so far we’ve returned over 50 flights from India, and we schedule those as availability at Howard Springs enables us to do so. There are five flights in the coming program, and we will continue to do that. And we are working very, very closely with those on the ground to ensure that we are fully booking those flights. So far that has not been an issue, of course, but we continue to do that. It is very, very difficult, of course, at times to move around certain countries. India has been one of those in the past. But I want to thank all of those Australians who are working with us to enable those flights to be booked and to travel. I want to thank our consular staff as well, who are really doing a great deal of work on this.

Sally Sara: Minister, let’s take a look at Afghanistan. We’ve heard in the last 24 hours from the former Prime Minister John Howard. He says Australia has a moral obligation to bring those who worked with Australians back to Australia. Do you agree with his assessment? Do we have that obligation?

Marise Payne: Absolutely we do and I have said that in the past. We do have this separate category of Special Humanitarian visas. They are open only to Afghans and indeed Iraqis who have an especially close relationship with the Australian Government and those applications from certified locally engaged staff are given the highest processing priority within our humanitarian program, but we do still have to ensure, as I know Australians expect, that those applicants meet our rigorous health, character and national security requirements and that is what we are doing.

Sally Sara: We spoke earlier in the program to a man who worked as a contractor to an AusAID project. He has been in hiding and hasn’t seen his family for more than two years. He says 15 of his colleagues have been killed by the Taliban and he fears that he’ll be next —

“When you guys were in need, when there was no‑one to help you, I was there. I worked with you shoulder to shoulder but now your mission has been done, you leave us behind.”

Sally Sara: Why have workers like this been denied visas to Australia?

Marise Payne: Sally, I can’t talk about individual cases. There are both privacy and security reasons for that. But I can absolutely assure you and Australians that we are not going to leave behind anyone who worked for us and who is properly eligible and checked to come here. There’s a number of criteria which, of course, are part of the visa application process, but these particular applications are being given highest priority and as long as they meet all of those requirements, of course, they are able to come here. We have granted 230 of these visas in the past month and indeed 1,400 Afghans have been welcomed under this visa since it was established some years ago. It’s a very important process and one that we are very, very focused on.

Sally Sara: For this particular man that we spoke to, we’ve got a copy of the letter, certificate of employment from CADG International that he was working for, and it says he was a contractor by a Central Asia Development Group for the AusAID program in Afghanistan. Just because people were subcontracting, does that make them any safer in Afghanistan?

Marise Payne: I don’t think the safety of people in Afghanistan is guided by that at all, no. That’s not really the point of the issues that we have at hand. If they are eligible under the visa programs, whether it is the Humanitarian and Protection visas stream or this Special Humanitarian visa stream, if they meet eligibility requirements – and I do think Australians expect us to make these checks and to go through these processes for the individuals and, of course, for their families. It’s not just about an individual. If they meet all of those, then we work through this as a priority to ensure that they are able to come here. That’s why we have been able to grant 230 visas in the past month.

Sally Sara: Do you concede that the process has been too slow?

Marise Payne: Sally, I acknowledge that the process is one which goes through those clear questions that we have to satisfy proof of identity, the accuracy of the claim of employment, the credibility of claims of significant harm as a direct result of their employment in Australia’s mission and, of course, the security, the intelligence or the counter-intelligence information available and advice from both the Department of Defence to the Defence Minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to me. So, for those individuals, some of whom, of course, I have met, some of whom I have engaged with over the last years in the roles I have held, we will work with them and we want to make sure that we are able to bring them here safely and securely for them and for Australia.

Sally Sara: But just to clarify, those who worked for other organisations that were contracted to Australia, so people may have worked for an aid group that had a contract with AusAID, but these people were not directly contracted by Defence or the embassy or AusAID themselves – for that particular group, there will not be visas for those people. They do not qualify; is that what you’re saying?

Marise Payne: No, that’s not what I’m saying, because we do have two approaches available for those who make applications. There is the special humanitarian visas for those who worked in the closest relationships with the Australian Government and the sorts of locally engaged staff who were within our embassy teams or supporting the ADF historically; and then, of course, people are able to apply under the Humanitarian and Protection visa stream. It’s open to all Afghans who feel at risk from the Taliban. And we have in the last five years from about 2015 resettled here over 6,500 Afghans under that stream. So, it is absolutely a focus for us, and we are working across Foreign Affairs and Defence and with the Minister for immigration to make sure that we are prioritising these people and bringing those people here who are able to come and who are eligible to come.

Sally Sara: How many commercial flights are day are there out of Kabul at the moment?

Marise Payne: I’m not sure there are still commercial flights out of Kabul, but where there not commercial flights, we work with the International Organisation for Migration to make travel arrangements for those who are coming here.

Sally Sara: Would Australia consider sending a charter or a military aircraft into somewhere like Tarin Kowt or Kandahar Airfield?

Marise Payne: We would deal with each of these cases on their own merits, Sally, and, of course, with a view to the security and the safety of doing that. Where those opportunities are available for commercial flights we work with the IOM, the International Organisation for Migration, to book those but certainly what requirements are there are ones that government is always examining.

Sally Sara: How do you get an accurate picture of what is going on in Afghanistan when we no longer have a diplomatic or military presence there and we don’t have influence or control there?

Marise Payne: Well, we work closely with counterparts. We work closely with the United States, with the United Kingdom and, of course, with the NATO civilian presence as well. In May I met with both representatives of all three of those particular organisations, the US on the ground, the UK on the ground and the senior NATO civilian representative, to ensure that we have those connections. They are ones which we have always held in the past and which we continue to work with now.

Sally Sara: Minister, onto a separate issue, we spoke earlier with the son of 83‑year‑old Shokrollah Jebeli who’s a dual Australian–Iranian citizen who’s been detained in Iran for 18 months. The family is begging for your help to bring him home. What is Australia doing to try and secure his release and safety?

Marise Payne: Sally, this is a very difficult case and I absolutely understand the distress that Mr Jebeli’s detention is causing to his family and certainly share their concerns, particularly about his health. Mr Jebeli – and I am again restricted in what I can say in terms of the privacy aspects, but Mr Jebeli is a dual citizen and Iran, like many other countries, does not recognise dual nationalities. They emphatically assert his only citizenship is Iranian and at this point in time they’re declining to allow us to offer consular assistance to him. So, we have been continually making repeated representations to Iranian authorities and to press for that consular access and certainly to ensure he receives the medical attention that he requires. We are seeking to obtain direct access to him as a matter of urgency, but it is challenging and it is an experience that we and other countries continue to have with Iran, which makes it very difficult to support Mr Jebeli in this case.

Sally Sara: Minister, another case, Sean Turnell, he’s another Australian in detention, he was arrested in Myanmar five months ago. Can you give us an update? What’s his condition and what stage are efforts to get him out of detention in Myanmar?

Marise Payne: Our Ambassador in Yangon spoke to Mr Turnell by telephone on 5 July, Sally, and he has also been able to have contact with his family, which is important. We regard Mr Turnell’s detention as a case of arbitrary detention and have been consistently calling for his immediate release and return to Australia. We give him all possible consular support and have been advocating at the highest level for his immediate release, including with ASEAN counterparts. I spoke to both my Cambodian Foreign Minister counterpart and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on matters concerning Myanmar this week. He has most recently had a hearing in the last week as well and we do, as I said, definitely regard this as a case of arbitrary detention and seek his release and return to Australia.

Sally Sara: An Australian woman a former TV presenter Cheng Lei has been detained for some time in China. Are you having any success in getting access there?

Marise Payne: Sally, we have been able to make consular visits to Ms Cheng Lei in accordance with our bilateral consular agreement with China. Again, we are very concerned about the circumstances of her detention, and we have seen no evidence or information that has been provided to Australia that would indicate any reasons for her detention. Her circumstances are also very, very difficult and this is an issue which we are very focused on through our embassy in Beijing and indeed here in Australia through the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.

Sally Sara: Minister, your former colleague Julia Banks made some very strong comments this week about her treatment as a female politician and particularly her interactions with the Prime Minister. Do you share her views?

Marise Payne: Well, the Prime Minister has very clearly rejected the interpretation that Ms Banks has set out in some of her comments this week and said that where he was able to reach out to help Ms Banks, he indeed did that. The environment of that particular period of time is one I’ve certainly acknowledged as a very, very difficult and traumatic environment for many involved in the political process on my side of the Parliament. What we have been able to do this year in the face of real very concerning issues in our Parliament is address some of those including in our workplace measures, work being done by Stephanie Foster, the Deputy Secretary of PMC, particularly the review being undertaken by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, and I know that they will go to addressing a number of concerns in relation to the parliamentary workplace.

Sally Sara: Marise Payne, thank you for joining us on RN Breakfast.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Sally.

Sally Sara: That’s the Foreign Minister Marise Payne joining us there.

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