Doorstop - Adelaide - 27/08/2021

27 August 2021




SUBJECTS: Kabul airport attack; Australia’s worst days in the COVID-19 pandemic; Scott Morrison’s responsibility for the third wave; teenage vaccinations.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: The Labor party condemns, in the strongest terms possible, the attack at Kabul’s airport. This was a despicable act, an evil act, an act which has left dead or injured civilians who were seeking a better life and those who were brave enough to go to help them. We grieve with our American allies. I today rang the US Chargé here in Australia and I expressed to him privately what I now express publicly on behalf of the Opposition which is, our deepest condolences to the family and friends of those brave Americans who have been lost.

We also thank the United States. Without the United States, working with Australians - and of course also with the United Kingdom - the evacuation of Australian citizens, permanent residents and those who have been granted visas or were seeking them, would not have occurred. We acknowledge publicly the strong support, from across every part of our community, and across our parliament, and our thanks to the United States for their work in this operation, and for their support in the evacuation to safety of Australians. We are greatly relieved that our personnel from the ADF, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and other departments are safe. We thank the Government for providing the briefing they provided today, to the Opposition Leader and senior Shadow Ministers.

This is a deeply sad time for all who have worked for a better Afghanistan. We do remain gravely concerned for Australian citizens and visa holders who remain in Afghanistan. And I again echo the request from the Foreign Minister to follow the travel advice and to ensure if you are in Afghanistan to register with DFAT. Labor will continue to seek updates from the Morrison Government as to what this means for the operation going forward. I'm happy to take questions on this and then my colleague Mr Butler will respond in relation to National Cabinet and the various announcements the Prime Minister made this morning.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any information about Australians or Australian visa holders who may have been caught up in the blast? And are you concerned there may be more?

WONG: I understand, from what the Government has said, that Australian personnel are safe and we are relieved about that. As yet, the Government is still working through, gaining the information as to the status of Australian citizens, permanent residents and visa holders and applicants. I'm not in a position to update you on that until the Government does.

JOURNALIST: What have you said to the Government about the operation and whether or not it should resume?

WONG: The decision to conclude the operation is a decision that the Government has made on the basis of the circumstances on the ground. The circumstances on the ground are demonstrably extremely difficult and extremely risky. And so it is, I think, a legitimate decision for Government of the day to make decisions as to the safety of Australian personnel.

JOURNALIST: What's your position on engaging with the Taliban? Do you think we should?

WONG: Obviously the United States, both under President Trump but also more recently in relation to the withdrawal of US forces, has been engaged with the Taliban. I think we know that Australia, the United States, allies and partners are going to have to work together to deal with an Afghanistan, which whatever the shape of the government, is going to have, and if not be led by certainly substantially led by the Taliban. Obviously, there are implications for global security and regional security that we will have to work through with our allies and partners.

JOURNALIST: What about dealing with them to work on the threat of ISIS now?

WONG: Well, I think that goes to the point I made. I'm not going to get into that commentary today, but as I think you are referencing, the despicable attack today has been claimed by ISK. I'm sure that governments around the world will consider the implications for regional and global security - not only of a Taliban-led government but of the consequences of today's attacks.

JOURNALIST: The Government says it's moved into post-evacuation phase. What do you think this means?

WONG: Well, I think it means that the Government has made a decision to move to a phase where it looks to assisting any Australians, PRs and visa applicants or holders through the international bodies such as the IOM and the UNHCR.

JOURNALIST: The South Australian Premier said today that more people would be arriving here to South Australia from Afghanistan. Do you have any information about how that would take place?

WONG: I understand from what has been said publicly, and also from information provided that the states and territories have been working with the Federal Government on how to place those individuals who have arrived from Afghanistan in recent days. So I assume that is part of this process. And I think that is a good thing. And I acknowledge the work of the states and territories on that front.

JOURNALIST: Senator, should we ask the US to bring out Australian citizens?

WONG: We've just had US personnel who have died seeking to secure passage for people. And these are highly difficult circumstances. I would anticipate that our Government is working very closely with the United States now, and has been, in order to enable the evacuation of Australian citizens, PRs and visa holders. I would note, however, that the Foreign Minister yesterday made clear that the advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs was to not travel to the airport.

JOURNALIST: And did Australia act too late? Did the Government act too late when looking at what was (inaudible)?

WONG: I have spoken about this for some time. Our position on this has been consistent and clear. But I don't think today is a day that I wish to reflect on this.

JOURNALIST: Senator, the Government said the slow nature of visa processing has been due to a security risk. Is this a real concern? Or is the Government, has it just been dragging its feet?

WONG: Well, I'm not sure whose comments you're referencing on that front but there have been a great many visas, as I understand the public communication, there has been a great many visas granted in recent days.

JOURNALIST: Minister Dutton has made comments to that effect on ABC radio.

WONG: Previously, yes. We would also always expect that national security concerns were addressed when considering visas.

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Alongside the shocking tragedy in Afghanistan over the past 24 hours, today has also been another shocking day in the fight against COVID. In New South Wales, we've seen another record number of new infections. The three highest number of cases in the entire 18-month-long pandemic have been the last three days. The seven highest have been the last seven days. Very worryingly, the hospitalisation numbers are up 10 per cent over the last 24 hours. They're up 30 per cent in just the last four days. Now it appears that one in every 10 people who are testing positive for COVID are ending up in hospital - which is starting to overwhelm the public hospital system in New South Wales. And tragically, people are dying every day and our condolences go out to the families and the loved ones of the two men who've also lost their lives to COVID over the past 24 hours.

This third wave is fast becoming an unmitigated disaster that is getting worse by the day. It's a disaster that's been caused principally by Scott Morrison's failures on vaccines and quarantine. Labor welcomes the long-awaited advice from the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation - ATAGI - to proceed with immunisation of 12 to 15-year-olds in Australia. Australian parents are asking why we are so far behind the rest of the world on this question - on immunising our 12 to 15-year-olds. The US and Canada started immunising their 12 to 15-year-olds more than three months ago - back in May. The Europeans, Israel started in June. In Canada 60 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, with two doses of the COVID vaccine. The figure here in Australia right now is 0 per cent. Scott Martin must count 12 to 15-year-olds as part of the national plan, as we progress through additional phases of that plan. Australian parents deserve a clear commitment from Scott Morrison about how many of our high school students will be vaccinated as we progress to the future stages. Australian parents desperately want their kids to be able to get back to school but they don't want them coming home with COVID.

JOURNALIST: But how could the Prime Minister act ahead of the ATAGI advice?

BUTLER: The question is the delay in seeing these things move through the authoritative process here in Australia. As I said, authorisation was given to these vaccines back in May in Canada and in the US, and those countries moved immediately to start vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, which is why Canada sees 12 to 15-year-olds, 60 per cent of them, fully vaccinated already. Our children, our teenagers, are the frontline in this disastrous third wave, accounting for as many as 40 per cent of all new cases. Yet, in Australia, they are entirely unprotected.

JOURNALIST: But the blame then lies with ATAGI because the Government has authorised it as soon as ATAGI has approved it?

BUTLER: The question also has been one of supply. I've seen no action on the part of the Government to start to recognise that 12 to 15-year-olds are an important frontline in this third wave and see the processes to authorise vaccines expedited and ensure that supply is there so that parents can be confident that as we move to the next phases of the national plan, their children are going to be protected.

JOURNALIST: What are we going to do about the fact that, you know, there are many older people still not vaccinated as we expand the roll out to younger people?

BUTLER: Obviously vulnerable groups need to be a focus of the Government's attention. Remember that Scott Morrison promised that older Australians would be fully vaccinated before the onset of winter. Winter finishes next week and still, as many as 40 per cent or more of Australians aged over 70 are still not fully vaccinated. Indigenous Australians were also supposed to be fully vaccinated before the onset of winter. We are seeing an emerging public health emergency in western and far western New South Wales, because of the appallingly low rates of vaccination of indigenous communities in that area.

JOURNALIST: Should people aged 12 and up be included in the 70 to 80 per cent vaccination target?

BUTLER: Labor has been very clear about this; once 12 to 15-year-olds become eligible for vaccines, they should be counted as part of the national plan. And if Scott Morrison continues to refuse to do that, which has been his position so far, then at the very least, Australian parents deserve a clear commitment from him about how many high school students, how many of our teenagers, will be fully vaccinated as we move to the next phases of the national plan.

JOURNALIST: So that means obviously, things will be opened up at a slower pace then, because the ratios and the data will change, right?

BUTLER: That depends on how quickly Scott Morrison can deliver on his commitment to vaccinate our teenagers. That really is a matter in Scott Morrison's hands. We've started behind the eight ball, as I said, because so many other countries started vaccinating their teenagers as early as May and June. But Scott Morrison needs to get a move on with this. They are the frontline of this disastrous third wave - a third wave for which he is more responsible than any other individual person. He now needs to deliver some confidence, deliver some safety, to Australia's teenagers and some confidence to their parents.

JOURNALIST: Do you think Australians and business owners at this stage should be preparing for that 70-80 per cent vaccination rate to include that age group, if they've making financial commitments?

BUTLER: Sorry, I didn't hear that question.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that businesses in Australia should be preparing for that 12 and up to be included in an age group? It could impact obviously financial commitments they make.

BUTLER: I'm not really sure what financial commitments you might be talking about, but 12 to 15-year-olds are now recognised as part of the eligible population for our vaccine strategy. That has been a long-awaited position for many parents. So now Scott Morrison needs to deliver the commitments to parents but also the confidence to business that the vaccine strategy is going to be delivered safely, so that as we move through this national plan, we do so safely, not recklessly.

JOURNALIST: But do you think we should prepare for the prospect that we may not open, rather than December, that it will be after Christmas, in January or February, if this was included?

BUTLER: These matters are in Scott Morrison's hands. What Australian parents want is some confidence that as we move through these next phases of the national plan, which we all want to do sooner, rather than later, we're going to do so safely, and we're going to do so having protected, as far as possible, our teenagers.

JOURNALIST: If there's clinical trials underway on children younger than 12, what should the Government's thinking be about the need to vaccinate people even younger than this?

BUTLER: Obviously, everyone's keenly watching the clinical trials that are underway in America, particularly from Pfizer, on under-12s. We understand that that clinical trial data will be submitted to the FDA in the US as early as our spring, so September or October. And potentially, then there might be some authorisation before the end of the year. Probably then we'll see European authorities move to consider that question. And then you would expect other countries like Australia. This could move quite quickly.

What we're concerned about is that, yet again, we'll end up seeing Australia so far behind the rest of the world. If this data proves to be something that authorities in North America and Europe and ultimately Australia can have some confidence in and can authorise, then we're concerned that yet again, Scott Morrison will be too slow to access the vaccines to ensure that we can protect that cohort as well. So we do have a question about whether the Government is negotiating with Pfizer for an advance purchase agreement, which Joe Biden did on behalf of American children and their parents some months ago. Our concern is based on our experience so far, that has seen Scott Morrison put Australian so far behind the rest of the world.

JOURNALIST: South Australia's Chief Health Officer said today that she was excited about the time in which children aged six months and above will be able to get the jab and she urged parents to basically be ready for this moment. Do you echo that?

BUTLER: Again, I'd just reinforce the point; children and teenagers have become the front line in this third wave, not just here in Australia, but we see this all around the world. The highly infectious nature of the Delta variant is impacting our children and teenagers in a way that previous variants and the virus simply didn't. So parents do want to have some confidence that when it's been demonstrated that a vaccine for under 12-year-olds is safe and effective, that Australian parents will have access to that in a timely way because we haven't had that experience so far under Scott Morrison's leadership. Thanks everyone.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.