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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12377

Mrs IRWIN (3:23 PM) —My question is to the Attorney-General, representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Will the Attorney please update the House on developments in Thailand? How has the government been assisting Australians stranded in Thailand?

Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) —I thank the honourable member for her question. With some forbearance from members and on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs could I update the House on circumstances. Many members would be aware that on 2 December, yesterday, the Constitutional Court of Thailand ruled that the ruling People’s Power Party be dissolved and its executive members banned from politics for a period of five years. Two other governing coalition parties have also been dissolved and that ruling effectively means that the former Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, and his government no longer hold office, and I understand the former Prime Minister has now stood down from office. At this stage it is not clear how and when the new government will be formed. The Australian government hopes that all groups in Thailand will adhere to the constitutional and peaceful processes in order to return to peaceful, stable and democratic government.

Recent political confrontation resulting in the forced closure of two Bangkok airports over the last week has obviously been a setback for Thailand. We are aware of statements by the People’s Alliance for Democracy that they will abandon their protests at the airport today, 3 December, and again reports have suggested that that is occurring. The government calls on those demonstrators to adhere to their undertakings to end their occupation of the airports and to allow foreign tourists to return to their homes. There are still conflicting reports about the timing of any resumption of flights; that will obviously depend on the ability of the Thai airport authorities to recertify airport facilities.

Today the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade upgraded its travel advice for Thailand following the ruling of significance by the Constitutional Court. It will now be that: ‘Australians are strongly advised to reconsider their need to travel to Thailand due to the very uncertain political situation, ongoing disruption to flights and severe congestion at the airports.’ The government understand the frustration being felt by hundreds of Australians who are stranded in Bangkok and we are continuing with efforts to assist Australians to depart the country. Indeed, we understand also the anxiety of many at home, including parents whose children are on the schoolies vacation in Thailand.

The government, as the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government indicated earlier, has spoken with Qantas and Jetstar, which have, to their very great credit, confirmed that they will be operating extra flights out of Phuket in response to the airport closures at Bangkok. Qantas has announced a third special flight from Phuket to Singapore, which will be tomorrow morning. Jetstar has also redirected its scheduled Melbourne-Bangkok flight to Phuket again for tomorrow. Thai Airways has also scheduled additional flights from Phuket to Perth, departing today and Friday, 5 December, and I understand there may be flights also departing from the military airport. Passengers should most certainly contact their airline directly for any further details on these flights.

In answer to the last part of the question, I would like to acknowledge officers who, for the past 72 hours, have assisted over 1,500 Australians to depart the country. We are also assisting with bus transportation for Australian travellers from Bangkok to Phuket to meet Qantas’s specially scheduled flights. Consular officials are also travelling with the buses to assist in Phuket and Singapore, where passengers will transit. Consular officials are deployed at Thailand’s international airports that are still operating—Phuket, Chang Mai and U-Tapao—to assist Australians in difficulty and the ambassador has made direct representations to try to speed up that process. The Australian embassy has also established a call centre and has spoken to nearly 4,000 Australians, and the ambassador and other embassy staff have briefed nearly 800 Australians at 20 hotels.

The government expects that there will be continuing political uncertainty in Thailand in the short term and we will continue to work to assist those Australians who are stranded in Bangkok to depart that country. Australians in Thailand and indeed in Australia who need consular assistance or advice can contact the Australian embassy on +6623446300 or the 24-hour consular emergency centre, which is +61262613305. I thank members.