ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas - 29/07/2021

29 July 2021

SUBJECTS: Sydney lockdown; Scott Morrison’s failures on vaccine and quarantine; rapid antigen testing; JobKeeper, DPP denies Karen Andrews claims on Higgins investigation; stage three tax cuts; visas for local Afghan staff.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I'm joined now by the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong – who’s also the leader of the Senate for the Labor Party. She joins me now from Adelaide. Welcome.

PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good to be with you, Patricia. Hope you're well.

KARVELAS: 239 new cases in Sydney today. Thousands of additional police will be deployed to eight LGAs in south-west Sydney. The New South Wales Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller, has confirmed he has made a formal request to the Federal Government for Australian Defence Force assistance. But I know that assistance was offered a while ago. Has New South Wales waited too long for some of this?

WONG: First, I want to say to anyone who is watching or listening from New South Wales, that we're with you. I know how difficult this lockdown is. I know how stressful it is for people, for their families and we want to express across the country our support for you and empathy with you at this time. It is a pretty challenging time. And those figures that you outline are pretty frightening for people. In terms of Commonwealth support, obviously if New South Wales needs support, the Commonwealth should provide all the support it is able to. I do think in terms of your question - has New South Wales waited too long - I heard part of your earlier interview, that's certainly been part of the discussion. I would say I do think it was concerning that Mr Morrison seemed to play a lot of politics around lockdowns. Very critical of Daniel Andrews for locking down. Very positive towards Premier Berejiklian for refusing to lockdown for a long period. And I hope that that sort of political game playing didn't play into the decisions that the New South Wales Government made. But right now, I think our focus needs to be on supporting that community in what is a pretty challenging time.

KARVELAS: It's an interesting point you make because you're right the Prime Minister was vocal in his support for Gladys Berejiklian initially holding back from going into lockdown and was lauding that approach of not going into lockdown. Are you suggesting that he played a part in kind of egging New South Wales on to try and take a different approach?

WONG: I think his public commentary - and I think you and I discussed it on your program previously - he was very critical of Victoria. And I do think these decisions have to be made not with any politics in mind, not with any preconceived view, but the best decision that leaders can make on the basis of public health advice. Obviously that advice is contested in the community. The person you just had on, the professor, obviously had a different view to the decisions that were taken earlier. Whatever the decisions, though, I think we're in a situation where we're in a really challenging place. Our largest city in the position it's in and as many Australians as there are in lockdown and what I would say is that is a direct consequence of Mr Morrison's failures on both vaccines and quarantine.

KARVELAS: There seems to be a consensus now that going in hard and locking down when you first see an outbreak, particularly obviously with the Delta strain, is the best approach. So much so that the Prime Minister backed in this approach this week. Are you pleased that he's backed in this approach?

WONG: Am I pleased? I would be more pleased if Mr Morrison had done the two jobs that really as Prime Minister he should have done which is to make sure we had an effective vaccine rollout. He has demonstrably failed on that. And stumped up on quarantine – also demonstrably failed on that. That's not just a political point, Patricia. The lockdown we are in is a direct consequence of these failures. I do think - and I've sat in the Senate listening to Liberal Senators attacking Daniel Andrews, attacking the Victorian government for locking down - and I thought at the time and I still think playing politics with these public health issues is not leadership.

KARVELAS: OK, now there are strategies that could be used to try and get more people tested and try and get people tested at workplaces. One of the issues is around rapid antigen testing. Do you think it should be used more widely and the Federal Government should play a bigger role there?

WONG: I've seen some of the debate on this online and on your show and on other programs. Look, it may have a very important role to play. Ultimately these are decisions - I would listen, if I were in government, if I were the Health Minister - I'd listen to the advice of the experts. I know there's debate about how accurate some of these rapid testing regimes are but I assume with the right protocols they would play a role in our testing regime. And I think we have very good public health experts and I hope that the Federal Government would be looking for good advice on this. How could we deploy this appropriately in a way that actually improved the resilience of our society, our community and our economy to this pandemic.

KARVELAS: I asked you about the New South Wales Government's slowness, if you want to call it that. I know that's even debatable, but in kind of reaching the steps it's gone to with this lockdown. Clearly the Premier has constantly pointed to the vaccine rollout for being one of the issues but even if we were on track with a vaccine rollout we wouldn't have avoided this lockdown, would we have? Ultimately, who is responsible? Is it her or Scott Morrison – she’s running the joint – is it not her and the decision she's made?

WONG: I don't think there's any doubt that if we had been on track, on the track we should have been for rolling out the vaccine, that we would have fewer Australians at risk and we would be in a far better position to manage the sort of variants we're seeing. I don't think that's disputed. So, yes, I do point the finger, as do many Australians, at Mr Morrison, for failing to do his job. It's an odd combination of both arrogance and incompetence that seems to have led him to this point where he doesn’t think he has to be accountable.

KARVELAS: You think he's more responsible for what’s happening in NSW than the Premier?

WONG: I think he is responsible for the failure to roll out the vaccines in a timely manner. Yes, I do. And I think he as Prime Minister is ultimately responsible for the failures on quarantine. And both of those failures have contributed to the position we are in. Now, it is true that there's been a lot of debate about whether or not New South Wales should have done this lockdown earlier. I think there's some pretty, some people I would listen to who would say that that is the case. I'm making a different point, though. I'm making a point about the two jobs Mr Morrison had that he's failed.

KARVELAS: The Federal Government has now stepped in with these increased payments for people in lockdown. Do you think the levels of support are about right now? Obviously going back to that JobKeeper level?

WONG: I think Jim Chalmers and Anthony and others in the economic team, along with Jim, have been saying for some time we need to get to JobKeeper or something approaching that, something akin to that. I think it's disappointing that it's taken as long as it has for the Federal Government to step up. And certainly, an entitlement-based scheme from what I've seen in terms of the feedback from community would be something people would prefer.

KARVELAS: Just on some other issues while you’re with me. The DPP has revealed that police were given rape allegation advice in June. That kind of contradicts claims by the police commissioner and the Home Affairs Minister that the case is with the public prosecutor. What do you make of what's going on here?

WONG: It doesn't ‘kind of’ contradict what Karen Andrews said, does it, Patricia? It directly contradicts what she said.

KARVELAS: Kind of. I say kind of a lot.

WONG: I wasn't correcting you, Patricia, I was making a point. Look, you know what I think? What we will remember, apart from Ms Higgins' courage, what we will remember when we look back at this period is the extent to which Mr Morrison and his ministers were prepared to try and spin and obfuscate in order to avoid responsibility about what they knew, when, and what they did. And when I saw that story which has only recently broken, that you've asked about, I thought, ‘Here we go again’. It's exactly the same pattern. We have got a Minister who is saying one thing and we find out from the Director of Public Prosecutions that what she has said is not true. Well, I think the Australian people and certainly Ms Higgins deserve better than that.

KARVELAS: This week it's been revealed that Labor has dumped some of its signature policies that you took to the last election, capital gains tax policy, policy on negative gearing and you will be supporting the stage 3 tax cuts which go to the highest income earners. Many people have written into my various shows saying that Labor has lost its spine and its principle. What do you say to critics who say that Labor has lost its principles on these issues?

WONG: Look, I think many of the people making those criticisms share the same values that I hold, which is we want a more fair Australia. We want a more just Australia. And they are concerned about how it is that we achieve that and obviously they're focused on those policies. What I would say to them is, you're right, we should have a fairer Australia. That's what I want as well. But there is more than one way to achieve that. Our view was, given where we were in terms of the pandemic, given where we were in terms of the tax cuts already being in law – so let’s be clear about that - that our focus ought be on some of the matters that we have been very focused on which is secure work, how do you ensure that you have more jobs here in this country, better jobs, more secure jobs, how do you ensure more affordable childcare, how do you ensure we have an economy where there is cheaper, cleaner energy, and a focus on renewable energy jobs in Australia. So, my…

KARVELAS: It was ultimately because you were fearful of a scare campaign, right?

WONG: No, no. Well, they're your words. They’re not mine. I think we are fighting an election this year or next year. We’re not fighting an election in 2019. Those are tax cuts which have been legislated. And our judgement was that it was more important to focus on many of the things that as we come through this pandemic will become even more important. And I think insecure work, climate change, affordable housing and hence our big focus on social housing in Anthony's budget reply, those amongst other things are things we'll be focusing on.

KARVELAS: Just finally, there have been growing appeals for protection visas for Afghan interpreters who assisted our forces. The Prime Minister said last week Australia was considering repatriation flights. Is that good enough?

WONG: “Considering”. If I hear the words ‘considering’ or ‘due process’ or ‘we're making this a priority’ from this Government on this issue, I think I'm going to react quite badly. We have a situation where people who have helped us, who we know are in danger, are not being processed sufficiently quickly. And that is something the veterans’ community have raised and are deeply concerned about. They understand the ethical imperative. I don't understand - other countries, the United States, the United Kingdom have understood the imperative - and our government keeps talking.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, we're out of time but thank you so much for joining me.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.