Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC Radio Melbourne Mornings

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subject: Australians travelling home.
20 March 2020

Virginia Trioli: But what’s the Australian Government doing to get Aussies home, who want to come home? Marise Payne is the Australian Foreign Minister and joins you now.

Minister, good to talk to you again. Good morning.

Marise Payne: Good morning Virginia.

Virginia Trioli: What exactly can you do?

Marise Payne: Virginia, it depends very much on the situation. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians around the world at any one time and that has not changed in the first few months of 2020, including more than, I think, 5500 Australians on over 30 cruise vessels at the moment. So this is a very challenging situation for them and for their families. I absolutely understand that. And of course also for governments. So we are working with governments in countries right around the world and we are constrained in a number of places by the rules and the restrictions that those countries have put in place. Sometimes, that means that our posts have to close, as offices as such, but it doesn't mean the diplomats stop working. Sometimes it means, that as you say, multiple airlines, not just our own airlines, but international airlines are cancelling flights.

So, we are pushing out information as fast as we can through our social media outlets. We have consular emergency numbers that people in Australia and internationally are able to call. We are emailing regularly those who approach us and contact us to make sure there's as much information out there as we can. Literally, my Consular Emergency Centre has been staffed 24 hours a day for weeks and weeks now and I really - if I may take two seconds to absolutely acknowledge the work that those consular staff are doing 24 hours a day. And then over and above that, we are working with the airlines, both domestically here, particularly Qantas, to ensure that where there are flights, that we can prioritise those Australians who are in a position that they desperately wish to get home and trying to do that, and then talking to other airlines about where flights are possible.

Virginia Trioli: So talk to us in detail about that because we know that Qantas, they haven't- Qantas hasn't yet stopped international flights but will at the end of this month. How many airlines are you able to deal with, and are you saying the Federal Government will pay for them to come home? How does the finance of it work?

Marise Payne: Well, usually people pay commercial airfares to return home, as they would in a normal circumstance, to the extent-

Virginia Trioli: [Interrupts] But let's say that flight has been cancelled, for whatever reason, they're not getting a refund. Does the Australian Government step in?

Marise Payne: So every circumstance is different, Virginia, and I wouldn't like to give a one size fits all answer here because I don't think it's actually possible to do so. And we are dealing with multiple, multiple different situations around the world, literally from North Africa, to South America, to Europe, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. So, every circumstance is different but we try to assist Australians wherever we can and encourage them, of course, in the first instance to talk to their airlines and their travel companies. I know it takes a long time. There is time spent on hold. But these are extraordinary times and it is necessary for us to all be pulling together. That is what the Government is trying to do in supporting Australians.

None of it is a magic solution that works instantly. It does take time and negotiations. So in countries which are in effective lockdown, there are extensive negotiations to try to work out how we can get planes in and out, whose planes they might be and how that process works.

Virginia Trioli: I've got a question here on actually phoning in but I'll just put it for him. Jackson, who's an immigration lawyer, is asking it's his understanding that temporary residents are not able to return, only permanent residents. Is that correct?

Marise Payne: Australian citizens and permanent residents and dependents of those two categories.

Virginia Trioli: So temporary residents can't return?

Marise Payne: That's my understanding, correct.

Virginia Trioli: Where are they going to go?

Marise Payne: Well, they are residents elsewhere as well. But every single circumstance is challenging at the moment. As the Prime Minister said yesterday or the day before, I think it was, this is something of a circumstance which requires all of us to change our behaviours in a number of ways. We have already dealt with the temporary resident question, for example, in relation to mainland China, much, much earlier in this crisis, where we were very clear that those who were able to come back to Australia were citizens and permanent residents.

Virginia Trioli: Well that's going to be really hard because we have a number of temporary residents here who come and go. I've got another- I'll go…

Marise Payne: Of course we do.

Virginia Trioli: …to [indistinct] in just a moment. You're potentially, with that decision, dividing families. There'll be some-

Marise Payne: [Interrupts] It is-

Virginia Trioli: And just- sorry. Just to finish my observation here before I let you answer, if that's okay. We know- it's just a reality of modern life that people may be called or maybe on a temporary visa, but they've been here and coming and going for some time and have connections here.

Marise Payne: It is very, very difficult. Absolutely no question of that.

Virginia Trioli: Could you not extend it to them?

Marise Payne: Well, once you start that process, Virginia, it's often difficult to work out where it stops. And obviously, in the ministerial discussions that we have been having since the decisions we made in relation to mainland China, we have been completely consistent about this. It is extraordinarily difficult times. I recognise that. The Government recognises that. And my department, for example, is dealing with families that are literally on either side of the world and trying to reunite as well, just the sort of circumstance you've raised. But we have to take the approach which we think best protects the health and safety of all Australians. That is our absolute priority. And that has led us to a decision to ensure that those who return to Australia now are Australian citizens and permanent residents and dependents of those.

Virginia Trioli: So in some respect, does it mean that your team and people who work for the Foreign Ministry and also in our consulates around the world, that you're going to turn into some sort of a de facto travel agency, organising the return travel of Australians?

Marise Payne: By and large, many Australians are in the process of organising their own return travel but where there are circumstances which are extreme – and there are a couple at the moment where borders have been closed very, very quickly with no notice and domestic laws have shut down cities and communities as well. Where we are working with commercial providers, we are working with the Australians who are stuck in some of those locations. And working, as I said, with our own airlines, particularly Qantas, to see where flights are able to continue. Where there is the need, the demand of Australians who are present there to support their return to Australia. It is a 24 hour a day task.

Virginia Trioli: Well, it is. And as you mentioned earlier, we have- you have a situation in some countries where our embassies and our consulates have been closed down. Is that right? How are those employees there still managing to do what they need to do for Aussies, in that particular country?

Marise Payne: So there are a number of countries, where offices have been closed and staff have been told to stay at home, to self-isolate. That is the case in multiple locations that I can think of right now. And we are working through phones, through e-mails, through text, through social media to communicate as much as we possibly can and through our emergency consular line here in Australia. Before we finish this conversation, I'd be very grateful for the opportunity to put those numbers on the record.

Virginia Trioli: Yes please do.

Marise Payne: And they are- those the diplomats don't stop working, their teams don't stop working. And of course, in a number of locations, Virginia, the local restrictions will mean that locally engaged staff - so, civilians from the cities in which our embassies and consulates are located, they are absolutely restricted from going to work. So, there's a large number of those cases and then we have to try to identify work at home options. It is a multi-layered approach and multi-layered challenge.

Virginia Trioli: I want to get back to the cruise ships and also the phone numbers in just a moment. But, we have been- we've had direct stories being told to us over the last couple of days, Marise Payne, who is with you at the moment on Mornings, the Australian Foreign Minister, about people waiting hours on those lines, not being able to get through at all. Or in some cases, unfortunately, getting a rather unhelpful response when they can finally get through. That's not the standard of service that Australians in this crisis time should expect, is it?

Marise Payne: Well if you're talking about the DFAT consular line-

Virginia Trioli: [Interrupts] I am, overseas-

Marise Payne: We are taking thousands and thousands of phone calls. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians in multiple locations and we are working as hard as we can to take those calls. I would encourage Australians to use multiple points of access where they are able to, to use social media for information, to use email, to use text. And of course, as I've said, to use the consular lines. All of those need to be approached or used as opportunities to make contact. We are in no way slacking off here, Virginia, I absolutely assure you of that. There are literally, as I said, thousands of phone calls every day and all night given time zones to try to support Australians.

Virginia Trioli: Tell me about the cruise ships, because you have huge difficulties with cruise liners even being able to dock in certain countries and you might have multiple nationalities on board a particular ship. How do you get those 5500 Australians back home and docking?

Marise Payne: Well, we do have, as you say, multiple vessels - over 35 I think - and - as you said, over 5500 Australians. So, we are, literally government by government, working bilaterally, to try to arrange docking opportunities for those vessels which currently do not have a destination or a place to dock. All of them had a destination but some of them have changed obviously.

Virginia Trioli: So are they are they just aimlessly sailing the seas trying to find somewhere to dock?

Marise Payne: Well they are. The cruise lines are negotiating country by country, in terms of identifying docking points and that has become a diminishing number of countries which are able to accept cruise vessels. And once we saw the experience of the Diamond Princess in Japan, we can understand why that might be the case in a number of countries, who are concerned about protecting their own population from the spread of coronavirus. That said however, our priority is making sure that we work bilaterally and - off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen locations right now where we are literally working government to government to try to arrange - most particularly from our posts in those countries, to try to arrange a docking opportunity and then transport for Australians back to Australia.

Virginia Trioli: Well, that’s the challenge. You might get them offloaded somewhere, but then they've got to get back to Australia from wherever that somewhere is.

Marise Payne: [Talks over] That’s correct.

Virginia Trioli: Do we know if those cruise ships have enough water and food and everything on board that they need for an indeterminate period of time now at sea?

Marise Payne: Well the cruise lines themselves have a whole range of contingencies that they pull into action in circumstances such as these. Overwhelmingly, I'm sure they'd prefer not to have to be using them but they are. So, as I recall in the case of the Diamond Princess, she was able to leave Yokohama Harbour, go out to sea to make fresh water, dispose of waste and come back for example. So, there are ways to ensure that they have those supplies. And in terms of food and other provisions, the cruise companies who are working equally hard, at this point in time. The cruise companies are responsible for making sure that supplies are adequate and to the best of my knowledge, that is the case.

Virginia Trioli: Tell me about the phone numbers, the lines, that people can call, and are these lines people call in Australia or from outside Australia?

Marise Payne: One of each.

Virginia Trioli: Go ahead.

Marise Payne: So the line for Australia is 1300 555 153. And for those who are outside Australia, the line is +61 626 133 05.

Virginia Trioli: And what does that line from, outside Australia, where does it take you to?

Marise Payne: It takes it takes you to the same Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade consular offices and the emergency lines as the 1300 number.

Virginia Trioli: Do you have enough staff to get you through this?

Marise Payne: Yes, we do. And we have staff in posts around the world who are also supporting Australians. We have a fully manned, consular office here in Australia. We’ve drawn staff in from the states and territories to augment that. And they are all working their absolute hardest to support Australians around the world.

Virginia Trioli: Good to talk to you Minister, thanks for taking time for us.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much Virginia.

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