Sky News AM Agenda with Laura Jayes - 08/07/2021

08 July 2021

SUBJECTS: Vaccine supply; Morrison Government leaving behind local staff and interpreters in Afghanistan.

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Joining me live now is Penny Wong, she's the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and joins me from Adelaide. Thanks so much for your time. Look, we wanted to talk to you this morning because the faults in the vaccine supply are now really well known. We've aired them a lot on this program and so has Labor. Supply is at the heart of it all. We can't get vaccines out of Europe and can't get vaccines out of the US. I guess more broadly, what does it say about Australia's place in the world at the moment?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning, Laura. Good to be with you. Look, you've hit the nail on the head. The core of the problem is vaccine supply, and the fundamental problem we face as a country is that Mr Morrison has failed his two jobs; which is to secure and deliver a vaccine rollout and also to ensure he delivers safe quarantine. Those two things are critical for Australia's health, Australia's safety and also the broader economy. We are in a situation, which as your previous guest – in a rare moment of disarming honesty a little while ago – said we're at the back of the queue. We're at the back of the queue for vaccines because Mr Morrison decided it wasn't a race, and Australians are paying the price.

JAYES: We did hear that moment of honesty, as you put it, Penny Wong, from Simon Birmingham saying we are at the back of the queue because there's other countries doing it much tougher than Australia at the moment, but pretty hard to take for a lot of businesses in Sydney at the moment, a lot of people who feel isolated.

WONG: Absolutely and you know, my heart goes out to everyone in Sydney. It's a long period, not as long as we've seen, but certainly for a lot of businesses it's a real economic blow, and you know, it's a tough time. And I think that what we've seen really from Gladys Berejiklian, in your opening statement, she has been very clear; this is a consequence of the failures of the vaccine rollout. That's what we are experiencing. And I don't know whether you've heard from Mr Morrison, but I think most Australians haven't heard from Mr Morrison for a while. He's not out there explaining what he's doing about vaccine supply or vaccine rollout. We seem to have gone, Laura, from 'I don't hold a hose, mate' to I'm under the doona, to borrow from one of his previous phrases.

JAYES: We keep on hearing, as well, how well Australia has done in suppressing the virus and how good it is to be Australian which again I think is pretty hard to take for some Australians. But we find ourselves in this situation now, as a country with a slow vaccine rollout and there's a lot of political blame games going on between the states and the federal government – what can Australia do from here on in, and I speak to you as the Shadow Foreign Minister because we've asked the question about what leverage we have with our Alliance with the United States. Could we lean on that Administration, not to get extra vaccines, or not get our fair share, or to be greedy, but just get an advance now that we could pay back into the COVAX facility in just a couple of months.

WONG: Well look, I think they're reasonable questions for the Government to be answering. Obviously – and I know you want to talk about going ahead – we're in this situation because the Government didn't secure enough deals, which is what Labor said at the time, and put too many eggs in the AstraZeneca basket and that's why we are where we are. Since then we know that we have a vaccine supply problem. Now, the whole world is seeking vaccine rollout. We need to ensure we confront the virus everywhere because we don't defeat it anywhere, if we don't defeat it everywhere. But I think it is a reasonable question to ask of Scott Morrison, have you reached out? Have you reached out to our friends and allies in the US and Europe to try and secure supply for Australia? I saw in the media, in the last couple of days, Israel and South Korea have entered an arrangement for about 700,000 Pfizer doses that Israel has provided to South Korea and that will be repaid back down the track by South Korea. Did we look at that option? I don't get a sense and I think Australians don't get a sense of Mr Morrison being really forward leaning and active and seeking to secure alternative supplies. We get a lot of PR announcements, meanwhile, we're seeing cases in Sydney, we're seeing unfortunately, people hospitalised and we're seeing continued lockdowns, which is obviously having continued economic, as well as social effects.

JAYES: That Israel example is a really good one because South Korea has been in a very similar situation to Australia. It's been quite successful in suppressing the virus early on; slow vaccination rate in that country. So, from your perspective, would Labor support the Government leaning on the US Alliance more? Leaning on those global partners that we have leant on and reciprocated that in years gone by? Would you do that if you were in government now?

WONG: I wouldn't use the phrase ‘leaning on’ and I don't think that the issue is with our relationship with the US. I think the issue is with Mr Morrison's mismanagement of the rollout. But if your question is would we support the Government reaching out to friends and allies to try and secure more supplies, of course we would, of course we would. And it is important for Australia to look at all options for more supplies. As we see, we're a long way behind. You pointed out, I think, a very good similarity between us and South Korea in terms of their suppression rates and now having to get their vaccination rates higher. We're still a long way behind in terms of global vaccination rates and I think the problem is that Mr Morrison, simply, he didn't hold a hose. It wasn't a race. It wasn't something he gave priority to. He put a lot of eggs in the AstraZeneca basket and now we have Australia's largest city locked down.

JAYES: We have used these commercial routes. We have talked about these commercial deals that have been done with Pfizer, for example, but it doesn't seem like we've really pressed the diplomatic ones. Is that what you're advocating for with my leading questions this morning?

WONG: I know you are. I'm not in government, I don't know what the options are. What I'd say to you is the Government should be coming on to your program and saying to the media, and to the Australian people this is what we're doing to secure supplies. I think everyone's pretty tired of good photo ops or, you know Mr Morrison going on television and telling young people they can get AstraZeneca, or going on television and saying here's my plan and then disappearing. I think people want to know when will we get the supplies we need to vaccinate people under 60 of Pfizer. That's what people want to know. And they are increasingly demanding that information as they see more variants around the globe and unfortunately more variants here in Australia. On top of that I think people do want to see safe quarantine. We have thousands of Australians who are stranded. We have a quarantine system which is not fit for purpose, which is responsible for some 26 leakages out of quarantine which have had huge economic consequences. So, you have a situation where the Government, Mr Morrison is still saying well quarantine is not my responsibility. Well, what is?

JAYES: Let me ask you a final question on Afghanistan because this is something that hasn't probably had the attention it deserves because of what we're dealing with with COVID at the moment. Australia was in Afghanistan for 20 years. We had much support from the local Afghans there as interpreters and working with or for the Australian Government. A lot of those Afghans have not been given visas. Do you accept that there's a bit of a grey area here, and that we have done all we can?

WONG: Thank you for asking that question, Laura, because it is something that we should give more attention to because this goes to who we are as a country, it goes to our reputation, it goes to our moral obligation, and also goes to making sure people in the future are prepared to help us. You talked about a grey area, well there's no grey area as far as the Taliban are concerned. They don't care if the person who has helped Australia has helped them as a direct employee or as an employee of a contractor. So, when Marise Payne uses that distinction to deny people assistance, I just think that is ethically wrong and it is also wrong from a national security perspective. We want to be able to go to these theatres around the world and to ask locals for support knowing that our reputation is that we help those who help us. We are well behind where the US is. We are well behind where the United Kingdom is, and we should be doing more. It's something not only the Afghans are saying, but many returned soldiers who served with them.

JAYES: Would you ask the Government to review some of these applications?

WONG: More than review, I think Marise Payne has the power to ensure she enables eligibility for people who need safety. I have been raising this for some time. I keep being told 'oh this has been done, urgently'. Meanwhile, we see story after story of someone who's helped Australia, who we're not helping, and whose life is at risk. I just don't think that's acceptable.

JAYES: Penny Wong, thanks so much for your time.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.