Doorstop - Parliament House, Canberra - 26/08/2020

26 August 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks for coming out this afternoon, Penny Wong and I have some statements to make about today's announcements and some other matters. I'll just deal with a couple of issues and then of course, Penny will add and we'll take your questions. We welcome the Government's investment of $80 million in the international COVAX initiative. This is an initiative to invest in the nine, at this point, most likely vaccine options to ensure access for less developed countries, for countries which otherwise wouldn't be able to get access to the vaccine. This is a very important, very important global initiative. The $80 million figure is commensurate of what you would expect for a country like Australia. This is welcome.

We are disappointed the Government is taking it from the aid budget yet again. This amounts to another cut in the aid budget in effect by re-prioritising issues and Penny of course will talk about that in more detail. What the COVAX initiative effectively does is spread the risk, ensuring that we're investing in more than one vaccine. What the COVAX initiative is doing for the world is what the Australian Government should be doing for Australia. It's not what's happening for Australia. A week ago today, we saw the typical Government spin. Typical Government focused on an announcement with the Prime Minister appearing on every morning TV and radio show announcing that we apparently had a deal with AstraZeneca. We didn't have the deal a week ago. We don't have a deal today. A week later, there is still no signed deal for Australia to have access to any vaccine, no advance supply agreement. Around the world the United States has six such agreements, the United Kingdom has five, Japan has three, Indonesia has one, South Korea has several. Brazil has one, Mexico has one, Argentina has one, the European Union I think has four. Australia has zero still today a week after the announcement.

Last week, the Prime Minister said we'd manufacture the vaccine here in Australia. He said investors if the AstraZeneca vaccine proves successful, we will manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under our own steam. Yesterday, the Chief Financial Officer of CSL made it clear that that is not the case. It is not yet guaranteed. He said, 'the AstraZeneca vaccine is a different vaccine, we still need to understand the complexity to manufacture and can we actually do that.. and it may well be though that the vaccine is ultimately coming from another source ie. not manufactured in Australia'. This is just typical spin. Last week's announcement was ‘Scotty from Marketing’ not ‘Scotty from Manufacturing’. It was the typical Morrison Government emphasis on announcement not on substance.

The other matter I'll just deal with briefly before handing over to Penny is that the Government has announced an agreement with Tasmania to provide paid pandemic leave. This is an agreement which should apply across the country. Every Australian, not just every Tasmanian should have access to paid pandemic leave. But this is not just a matter of fairness. It's a matter of public health. If you have pandemic leave, you are less likely to feel tempted to go to work when you shouldn't, when you are potentially infectious. Now we understand, we read reports that South Australia has tried to strike a deal with the Commonwealth for paid pandemic leave, but it's been rejected by the Commonwealth. That's not good enough. South Australians should have the same rights as Tasmanians. This pandemic crosses borders, and every Australian should have access to paid pandemic leave. And that is the responsibility of Scott Morrison and the Federal Government. In so many areas, Scott Morrison refuses to accept responsibility, whether it's aged care, whether it's vaccines, whatever it is. He claims to have achieved more than he has really achieved, or that it's not his job. Well paid pandemic leave is his job and paid pandemic leave should be available, arranged by the Commonwealth for every single Australian.

PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I just want to make a couple of comments about the source of the funding for the COVAX initiative that Chris has responded to, which is the foreign aid budget. This is short sighted and it is disappointing. Let's recall this is a budget which has had nearly $12 billion cut from under the Coalition. So Marise Payne should tell us which child poverty program, which health program, which food initiative, is going to be cut to fund this.

But I’d make a further point. And that is these sorts of decisions have strategic consequences. When you rob Peter to pay Paul you create a leadership vacuum in our region. And that leadership vacuum is filled by others. If we want to be a partner of choice in our region, which makes Australia more secure, which contributes to Australia’s stability, then we have to stop creating a leadership vacuum by cutting the foreign aid budget and robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We are happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that the country that is going to fill that gap is going to be China in the Pacific?

WONG: I think it's self-evident and demonstrated that China is seeking to exercise a stronger leadership role in our region.

What we can focus on is what we do. And what we should do is be a partner of choice.

And that means not creating that vacuum in our region for others to fill.

JOURNALIST: It does seem like this decision was only made because China gave priority access, or offered priority access to a number of countries in South East Asia. What's your view about that? Are we just being reactive in terms of China? Should we be more proactive?

WONG: Well, I'll leave it to Chris to comment on the sort of vaccine elements of that.

I'd just make this point; the Government themselves says we want to be a partner of choice in the region.

The Government themselves say that Australian security, our regional stability demands that we are active in our region and, and we forge stronger alliances and stronger alignment with other nations.

You don't do that when you create this vacuum. It’s short sighted and it’s disappointing.

JOURNALIST: Is our strategic relationship strong when our Ministers can't secure meetings with their counterparts or even a returned phone call?

WONG: We can focus on what we can do.

And we should also focus on not just one bilateral, or two bilateral relationships. We should be focusing on a whole range of relationships with other countries in the region.

I've made the point previously we are not the only country that is looking to manage our relationship with China at a time when China is asserting its interests.

We're not the only ones. There are others who also are seeking to manage a newly assertive China.

We want a region that respects sovereignty, that respects our values and our interests.

And we should work with allied nations and aligned nations to do that. And you don't do that when you keep shifting, robbing Peter to pay Paul with your foreign aid budget.

JOURNALIST: Senator, you've said we need to focus on what we need to do in terms of China and Australia but how much is it China's actions, when they’re just refusing to pick up the phone?

WONG: We support the Government when they say, you know, we're willing to engage in constructive discussions. And we will do so on the basis of our interests and our values.

I'd make this point - and I know that the Deputy Head of Mission is speaking today - we do want a productive relationship with China and a productive relationship with China is one in which Australian interests and Australian values are respected.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the relationship with China is unnecessarily tense?

WONG: I think that invites commentary. We certainly want a productive relationship, as I said, that reflects our values and our interests and we support the Government in their efforts in terms of the various trade issues which are on the table. We’ve been very clear about that.

JOURNALIST: Just one for you Mr Bowen, on the AstraZeneca vaccine. We saw this week that religious leaders came out with concerns about the ethics of where that vaccine has been sourced from. Your electorate of McMahon has quite a high religious population. Is that something that concerns you, if we see religious communities not taking up a vaccine?

BOWEN: I think we should have a respectful conversation based around the facts.

The fact is that this vaccine has been developed, so far, from a stem cell line which originates from a procedure in the very early 1970s. That's when the procedure was undertaken, that long ago - not recently.

And that stem cell line has been reproduced many, many times over many decades and has been a factor, an important factor in the development of the rubella vaccine, the chickenpox vaccine, the rabies vaccine.

And without those vaccines many, many, many more people would have died, without the rubella vaccine in particular, which leads to many, many congenital conditions if it gets into pregnant women, for example, and leads to very tragic, tragic outcomes. So that has to be considered.

I respect the rights of all individuals to reach their own judgment based on ethics, when it comes to a vaccine.

And I even heard the Anglican Archbishop say when he was asked if he would take the vaccine, he said ‘I'd need to consider my position’. Fair enough. He's not taking a firm position either way.

And my understanding of the teachings of several religions is that if there's no alternative available, then it is acceptable.

I think the broader point that the Labor party has been making is that it would be better if we had more than one vaccine that we were investing in, to provide maximum opportunities for Australians and indeed potentially some choices.

That would be better for a range of reasons.

We want to see as many Australians as possible get vaccinated when the vaccine is available and safe and been through all the processes, and that will require risk management and investment in more than one vaccine and indeed, as I said, the COVACS initiative invests in nine, at this stage, possible options.

JOURNALIST: Just on the issue of aged care, should Richard Colbeck be staying in that portfolio?

WONG: I sit in the Senate everyday with Richard Colbeck and I've watched him this week and I wouldn't trust the care of my parents to him, and I suspect a lot of Australians would feel the same way.

What we've seen from him and from Scott Morrison is continued refusal to take responsibility, when the facts are they were warned, and they failed to act.

And there have been tragic consequences for so many Australian families as a result.

JOURNALIST: Are you saying that he should be sacked then or?

WONG: I have a motion before the Senate today, which I ask the crossbench to support, which is demanding that he come down on Thursday and explain himself.

And then the Senate can make a decision as to what it will do then. And I'd say to the crossbench, this is a Minister, who hasn't done his job.

JOURNALIST: What could the Senate do? What powers do you have?

WONG: Let's see. I've got to get the numbers first, Karen. So why don't we make sure we can, as long as people are engaged in protecting Richard Colebeck we'll see what the Senate can do.

JOURNALIST: What are the possibilities?

WONG: I will certainly be outlining them to the Senate, if and when we are able to get a majority for those.

Thank you.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.