SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s failures on the vaccine rollout; visas for local staff in Afghanistan; Nick Xenophon.
DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Let's welcome to the studio Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Leader of the Labor Party in the Senate. Good morning to you.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning David, morning everyone.
BEVAN: Thank you for coming into the studio.
WONG: It's good to be here.
BEVAN: Now Simon Birmingham, who is the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Federal Finance Minister couldn't make it in because Simon Birmingham, are you getting your second jab?
SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Good morning David, Penny and listeners. I am sitting in my car just outside of the Wayville clinic, and yes, I have just had the second jab. A big thanks to all the staff there, indeed to all the health and distribution and other workers across the country making it happen. And it was a seamless exercise from booking on the online system when I became eligible through to turning up this morning for a 9am appointment and all done, dusted and on the phone to you by 9:30.
BEVAN: Well if it's so easy, it makes us all wonder why the vaccination rates are so incredibly low in this country. And isn't that evidence the narrative has got away from you Simon Birmingham, and you need to get it back but you won't be able to get back control of the narrative over this pandemic until the vaccination target has been revealed, which will allow us not to have lockdowns?
BIRMINGHAM: Well David, we do need to make sure that those vaccination numbers continue to grow and each week they are growing more steeply than the week before. We've now seen over 10 million doses of vaccine administered across Australia. We had another 1 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrive overnight, in the country. And we're scheduled to get one million per week of the Pfizer vaccine, in addition to our supply of AstraZeneca, through until the end of August and that's up from what was around 350,000 per week earlier. That's got us to the point where 75% of all Australians over 70 have had at least their first jab and they're getting through the process of having their second and 35% now of all Australians over 16 have started the process. Look I'd urge anyone who is eligible at present, over the age of 40 to go online, if they haven't, to make the appointment that they can, and to put themselves in the queue for the first spot that that is available for them so that we keep those rates climbing as we have seen.
BEVAN: But the Premiers have to keep us safe because the Prime Minister has failed to deliver a vaccine.
BIRMINGHAM: David, that's a fairly simplistic assessment there and, indeed, there are some concerning examples around the rest of the world in countries that had higher rates of COVID and were able to secure doses of vaccine earlier in part because of their higher rates of COVID. It's worth acknowledging the fact that Australia is actually issuing more doses per 100,000 people than New Zealand. We're doing more than Taiwan. We're not far off the mark of Japan or South Korea. We're all countries who had successfully suppressed COVID. And in a sense the price we've paid in successfully suppressing COVID is that we haven't been prioritised by some of the companies for vaccine distribution like some of those parts of Europe and North America who hadn't successfully suppressed COVID. And those parts of the world, even where the vaccine rates are higher, you're seeing case numbers climb and, in some cases, disappointingly hospital rates climb as well at present.
BEVAN: Penny Wong?
WONG: Well David, I don't think the Government has lost control of the narrative, I think they've botched the vaccine rollout. And they botched it from the beginning by putting too many eggs in the AstraZeneca basket and not doing enough deals. And, you know, we've got a Prime Minister who simply refuses to take responsibility. It's just like the bushfires, you know, he doesn't hold a hose. We've got about one in 10 Australians vaccinated, we've got one in five aged care workers fully vaccinated. I mean that's an extraordinary figure, it's what I saw just before I came on, and if that's correct, that's extraordinary. And the reality is, there were two jobs that Scott Morrison had: quarantine and the vaccine rollout and he's botched both of them. This is a race, despite what he says, and we're losing.
BEVAN: And it looks like you are gaining traction in the polls, Penny Wong. But you've been here before, haven't you, when all you could see was victory in front of you, and yet you lost. Are you confident that this will carry you to an election victory?
WONG: No, look, there's only one poll that matters and it is the one on election day. What I do think is happening is people are increasingly frustrated by Mr Morrison's refusal to take responsibility and by the fact that they can see that the rollout of the vaccines is being botched. I mean, Simon can use as many words to you as he likes. He can talk about how seamless it was. But the reality is this Government didn't do enough deals when they needed to. They put too many eggs in one basket. The rollout has been really badly handled and now we are at a situation where we are the worst performing country in the OECD when it comes to rates of vaccination and that has a direct consequence to people's health and to lockdowns.
BEVAN: And yet we are outperforming practically every other country in the world in terms of the economy. We have outperformed the rest of the world in terms of keeping the population safe.
WONG: You asked I think the right question of Simon Birmingham; you said why are the Premiers having to keep us safe when the Prime Minister hasn't got the vaccine sorted. I mean, that's what's happened. We've had, the Australian people and state governments have done the heavy lifting. Mr Morrison has sat there saying "this isn't a race," you know, "I don't hold a hose, mate".
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham?
BIRMINGHAM: Well David, it's easy to throw barbs, it's easy to ignore the fact that AstraZeneca, which has been the most successfully used vaccine across the UK, but we've followed strict health advice here, and that's meant we've had to limit the distribution of it. The reason we backed AstraZeneca was because we could make it here in Australia, we can make close to a million doses a week of it here in Australia. But unfortunately the health advice changed along the way. Now, in hindsight, would we have done things differently, we would have tried to. But equally let's remember as I said, other countries who've had similar success to Australia in suppressing COVID, other places in the world like New Zealand, like Taiwan, like Japan, like South Korea are either at a similar level of vaccination to us or behind us, because the companies manufacturing elsewhere in the world have prioritised the places they manufacture that also had lives being lost on a daily basis. Now, if AZ had gone to plan, we would have been one of the few places in the world to have both suppressed COVID and had an early vaccine rollout, going along well because we had that manufacturing capability in Australia.
WONG: So why did he say it wasn't a race?
BIRMINGHAM: Now we're investing in bringing the new technology to Australia. We're investing in bringing the new technology to Australia. But that takes time and in the meantime, what we've done is scale up the imports - now a million doses of the Pfizer a week.
WONG: Well, a couple of things. First having mRNA manufactured here is an announcement I think you made was it nine months ago? I'm not sure there's been any progress. But I think most people would like to understand why the Prime Minister has spent so much time telling everyone it wasn't a race?
BIRMINGHAM: Penny, that was given in the context of questions about whether we were going to rush the health approvals through the TGA processes and I think what we wanted to do...
WONG: I don't think that's right, Simon. I don't think that's right.
BIRMINGHAM: And what was always important for Australians was to give them confidence, give them confidence that we actually put all of these drugs through the same type of checks and tests, as, as we do any other drug we expect Australian to take.
BEVAN: How are you going to change what Paul Kelly in the Australian writes on the weekend as the Australian mindset, which seems to be addicted to lockdowns. Simon Birmingham, you've got to convince people that at some point, every time that there's a case of the Delta variant, we don't rush to a lockdown. Because we can't continue like this forever. How do you get us to a place where we just don't respond with a lockdown?
BIRMINGHAM: You're right David, we can't continue like this forever. But we will work with the Australian people the same way we and the states have done all along, which is with the health advice. And that's why we've got the Doherty Institute doing work to take to National Cabinet about the different phases of unlocking and what we need to see in terms of vaccination rates to step through those phases of reopening. We will see towards the end of this year, all Australians having had the opportunity to get vaccinated, and I hope all Australians take that opportunity up and that we do get huge take up rates that will enable us to shift through those different stages as quickly as we can.
BEVAN: At that point do we do a Boris Johnson, do we just say, ok everybody, go for it?
BIRMINGHAM: That's exactly where I was going, David. It's not to say at that stage, we just throw everything wide open. That's why we're getting that work done by the Doherty Institute, it's why we'll be looking carefully at what's happening in the UK, what has happened in the Netherlands for example where they also largely threw things open and now they've been winding things back again. So, we are going to have to work step by step through the best health advice as to what the vaccines do protect against, what they don't protect against. I mean we do know they have huge effectiveness in terms of reducing the rate of serious illness and sickness, but we also need to be mindful that at present, they're only approved to be administered to those over 16, and that we're seeing, we're seeing in some cases the Delta variant, applying to children, a little more in terms of the contagion rate, maybe not so much in terms of sickness rate. They're the things to take into account.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, a listener wants to know, are you getting AstraZeneca or Pfizer?
BIRMINGHAM: Well, I got Pfizer because as I said I booked as soon as I was eligible as somebody between 40 and 50. And that's what I was eligible to get at the time.
BEVAN: Okay, so you're getting Pfizer. Penny Wong, have you had yours yet?
WONG: Yeah, I have my first AstraZeneca and then they change the advice on me about 8 days later. So, I'm waiting to see what the advice about the second dose is.
BEVAN: Ok, let's move on to another topic, Afghanistan. After 20 years, after all that blood and treasure that's been lost. Are we leaving behind our allies? And I'm talking about people who actively supported us. Penny Wong, you're a former Foreign Affairs Minister, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister now, you're likely, if you if you win the next election, you're likely to take that portfolio again. Are we leaving behind friends and allies? Are we betraying them?
WONG: Well, our effort to help those Afghans who helped us is certainly less than comparable nations. We've got the US airlifting people to a third country so they can be processed in safety. We've had the UK and Germany provide much more support to people who helped us and therefore whose lives are at risk, because obviously the Taliban have made very clear that those who assisted allies in Afghanistan have a target on them. Now, I am very disappointed with the effort, or the way in which the Government has approached this. I understand we have to make sure the national security concerns are dealt with, but we are so clearly behind what comparable nations are doing. And can I tell you the thing that I've really noted; the number of people, veterans who have contacted me, who are very, very distressed and upset about this. Because of course many of them worked with local Afghan interpreters or people on aid projects and so forth. And they want them looked after.
BEVAN: I appreciate this is a difficult issue but the people that have been helping us, they would have had security clearances, so the work would be done, we'd know these are people you can trust, otherwise we wouldn't have been working with them, surely?
WONG: You'd assume there'd be some sort of baseline. But I just think this is about our reputation, it's about keeping us safe. Because when we go to these theatres, we want to be able to say to people, if you help us, we'll help you.
BEVAN: We've been here before, haven't we? Simon Birmingham, are we doing everything to look after the people who helped us?
BIRMINGHAM: Well David, I think we are doing all that we can. We have a special visa category available for Afghans and previously Iraqis who had had close relationships with the Australian Government. We've granted in the past three months over 300 visas to Afghans who were in those circumstances, to be able to get them to Australia. And around 1500 such visas in fact since back in December 2012 has been granted in those special categories. So, the work certainly is there. You're right, some of them will have certain security screening already done. But it is also a fact that some applications have been rejected for some who are deemed to pose a security risk. And so, it's necessary to at least run the ruler over and undertake those checks but certainly hundreds just in the last few months of those visa have been issued to Afghans.
BEVAN: Rex Patrick, South Australian Senator, believes that it's a disgrace that we're not looking after the Afghans who support our troops. Are you confident that Australia has behaved in an honourable way, Simon Birmingham?
BIRMINGHAM: David. I mean, there clearly was the significant report handed down earlier this year that identified some acts of behaviour that were unacceptable and...
BEVAN: No, I don't mean in terms of the war crimes. I mean, in terms of looking after people who looked after us?
BIRMINGHAM: Well David, I think we are continuing to work to beave very much in honourable way, trying to look after and help those who’ve helped us. That's what those special visa categories are about and why they are being issued and that assistance being provided.
WONG: The reality is it's incredibly slow, and the effort is nothing like comparable countries and, you know like so much with this Government, people aren't taking responsibility and there's a lot of words to explain why things are happening but not much action on the ground. I just think we should do the right thing, we should be honourable and we should also remember as I said before there are many veterans who serve with these people for whom it is extremely distressing to consider that they might be left behind.
BEVAN: Just before you leave us, Nick Xenophon has flagged he might return to federal politics. Penny Wong, would you welcome Nick Xenophon coming back? We've missed him, haven't we?
WONG: Well, I think you certainly have - the media enjoy him. Nick's a very good politician, you know, he's a very effective politician, he knows how to get a headline and he's certainly somebody who comes on your show a fair bit. I mean if he wants to run it's up to him.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, would you welcome Nick Xenophon back?
BIRMINGHAM: I always like a bit of competition, David, but look it's up to Nick. I always got along well with Nick. It's a free democracy so it's entirely, entirely his call, but I thought he was pretty emphatic when he exited stage left after the state election.
BEVAN: Well apparently, this hinges on whether or not the Federal Government supports his client in the ugg boot dispute in the United States. Because he's saying, it's now going up to one of the appellate courts and the Federal Government needs to intervene on behalf of this Australian business that manufactures ugg boots in this trademark dispute, and if you do it, it's much more likely to go before the appellate court. Is the Federal Government giving any consideration to helping out the ugg boot manufacturer?
BIRMINGHAM: The short answer to that David is yes. I don't have a detailed answer that I can give you in terms, in terms of the nature of assessment around that assistance. It's a very “Nick” type of case as I think we'd all agree. I know that there was a response from Karen Andrews at the time that they were looking at options to intervene. Or sorry the Industry Minister at least that they were looking at options to intervene or to provide some form of assistance but the status on that, I haven't looked into in the last few weeks.
BEVAN: If this keeps Nick Xenophon out of federal politics it'd be money well spent, wouldn't it?
BIRMINGHAM: I assure you that won't be a factor in the decision.
BEVAN: Really? I would pay the money! If I was the Federal Government, Labor or Liberal Coalition or Labor. I would pay the money!
WONG: The Government should look at what it can do, it should definitely look at what it can do because ugg boots - I want to make sure, my kids should be able to call their ugg boots, ugg boots. Don't you reckon?
BEVAN: And sell them in the United States.
WONG: And sell them in the US.
BEVAN: Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, thanks for coming in.
WONG: Good to be here.
BEVAN: And Senator Simon Birmingham, Leader of the Government in the Senate and federal Finance Minister thanks for your time.
BIRMINGHAM: Thank you both. Cheers.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.