RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST
FRIDAY, 16 OCTOBER 2020
SUBJECTS: Repatriation of stranded Australians; Virgin Australia.
HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: Catherine King is the opposition transport spokeswoman. Good morning to you.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Good morning Hamish.
MACDONALD: On the plans to bring Australians home and put them into quarantine in Howard Springs. Do you welcome that decision?
KING: Well, Labor has been calling for the government to do something about the 30,000 Australians stranded overseas for a couple of months now. And we’ve had, you know, the government hinting that it’s going to do something. So we’re very pleased to see that it’s finally taken some action. But it’s incredibly frustrating, you know, the amount of emails, even just myself in my constituency and across the country that we’re getting and the stories we’re hearing about people stranded overseas are just horrific, frankly, and the government’s taken a very long time to act on this. But even now, it’s still a very small amount. If you think about Howard Springs capacity of 1000, and we’ve got 30,000 across UK, India and other places. It’s going to take a very long time to come home and I doubt very much they’ll be home by Christmas at that rate.
MACDONALD: How else should the Commonwealth be doing it, though, given that they need the states and territories to take part in providing the quarantine facilities?
KING: Well, I think the first thing is that the government, you know, basically abandoned its responsibility for quarantine and has left it up to the states and territories to do it on its own. We called a couple of months ago now and said one of the things that the government could be doing is actually provide some resources to the states and territories in places across the country to increase quarantine capacity. It decided it wasn’t going to do that, it’s left that again up to the states and territories. It’s opening the Howard Springs facility, which is again something we called for and said there are other facilities that government could open, it should do that.
MACDONALD: I just want to be specific about now. You’re asserting that the Howard Springs program is not enough to get these people back quickly.
KING: Absolutely not.
MACDONALD: Well, what’s the alternative scenario? Are you talking about Christmas Island, are you talking about other large facilities where these people could be brought back to? What do you envisage as a solution that the Commonwealth Government is not initiating?
KING: Well, I think the first thing is actually supporting and funding repatriation flights. We’ve heard the problem that people have had with flights being cancelled, being asked to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get business class or first class seats and preference being given to those on the very few flights that are available home. So the first thing the government should have done is actually looking at repatriation flights, using our own capacity or sponsoring Qantas or other airlines to provide repatriation flights home.
MACDONALD: With respect, you’ve got to have somewhere to put these people.
KING: Of course.
MACDONALD: You can’t just bring 30,000 people back here without somewhere to put them.
KING: Exactly, which is again why months ago, we said there is capacity within Howard Springs, there are other facilities that the government has access to that it could use, which it used at the start of this crisis. I’d have to say, it did use some of those facilities at the start. It seemed very reluctant to do that again, but then also providing some resources to the states. We do have hotels that are empty and available for quarantine, we’ve got some up in Queensland in Cairns, for example, where the Prime Minister was yesterday, the states can’t do this alone and the government needs to resource them to do that. That’s been part of the problem.
MACDONALD: So you’re saying that the reason Annastacia Palaszczuk turned down the request from the federal government to put people in Cairns is that the federal government wasn’t offering their resources to staff those facilities. Is that what you’re alleging?
KING: I’m certainly saying that it would help if the federal government had stepped up and accepted responsibility for quarantine, which is, after all, its responsibility in the Australian constitution, and actually had a proper plan with the states and territories, including quarantine capacity, to try and get those people home. Frankly, the government’s done very little in response to this group of people. It’s only been after substantial calls from people’s families here in Australia and the media are now taking up the cause of those people that the government’s doing anything at all. I have no doubt had there not been any noise made about this issue, the government would have done absolutely nothing.
MACDONALD: I’m just trying to stand up some facts here, though, around where the problem actually arises in this sort of decision sequence. Are you saying that the states to your knowledge have actually said to the Commonwealth, we would do this if you provide the resources?
KING: I haven’t had those discussions with the states, but certainly there is indication that there is increased quarantine capacity in some states and there is availability of hotel quarantine in some states. However, they don’t have the resources to take the numbers that we’ve got here, some 30,000 Australians without some coordination and some resourcing from the Commonwealth
MACDONALD: What Commonwealth resourcing are you talking about? The military, sending them into Cairns to facilitate this.
KING: Well again, that is a plan that the government needs to discuss. But as I said, it’s now come to the party and said it’s going to open Howard Springs, which is a good thing. But you know, it’s going to be too little too late to get these 30,000 Australians home by Christmas, which is what the government’s promised.
MACDONALD: On Virgin. Obviously, we’ve heard the news that the CEO Paul Scurrah is being replaced by the former Jetstar boss, Jayne Hrdlicka. Is it your view that Bain Capital has gone back on its word in terms of maintaining a full-service airline, maintaining certain routes and also certain levels of staffing?
KING: Well, I think let’s go back to the start of this. I think it’s really important in Australia that we do have the two full-service airlines underpinned by budget carriers. That’s really important to our market to have that sort of mixed capacity in aviation. Virgin went into administration, the government took the decision that it would rather have a market led solution and market led solutions lead to, unfortunately, I suspect what we’re about to see which is a very stripped back Virgin. I think it is fair to say, you know, the unions are very clear about what the undertakings they were given from Bain. They believe they’ve been lied to. I think there’s some stories in the Australian Fin Review, that are pretty damning today as well. I think if Brian Capital has misled people about what its intentions were, then I think that’s a pretty poor start.
MACDONALD: Some of those intentions were stated publicly. Do you believe Bain has been dishonest?
KING: Look, I haven’t spoken directly to them. But I do think that they have now damaged the relationship very strongly with the unions. And I also think this is a market led solution that the Morrison Government wanted and I suspect we’re about to see a very stripped back airline and some substantial job losses, and that would be incredibly disappointing. This is an airline that is getting substantial amounts of money in JobKeeper payments and route subsidisation payments from the government. The Morrison Government wanted this outcome, this is a market led solution, I think it now should seek some guarantees from Bain Capital that there aren’t going to be substantial job losses at Virgin and some guarantees around how this airline is going to operate. Because it is in Australia’s interest that we do have those two full-service airlines, good competition in the market, particularly at that that business seat end, and if we don’t have that, then I think it’s going to be quite a rocky road in the aviation sector for quite some time.
MACDONALD: Okay, Catherine King, thank you very much.
KING: Really good to talk to you Hamish.