SUBJECT/S: Victorian lockdown; Lockdowns; Fit for purpose quarantine; Vaccination rollout; Aged Care; Scott Morrison; Tax cuts; China
DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Richard Marles, welcome to the program. Can I start with this question: Why do you think Victorians have been locked down far more than anyone else in Australia?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, David, good morning. And the answer to that is there was an outbreak last year which was very extensive, and when you listen to Josh’s comments then, I mean, ultimately all those stats are borne out by what occurred last year. But as the panel discussion has said today, the circumstances of this outbreak are really different to last year, I mean, totally different-
SPEERS: But they’re not that different to what is happening in some other states, are they? I mean, New South Wales has had cases pop up, they had the Delta variant pop up there as well, but it hasn’t locked down all of Sydney or indeed all of the state?
MARLES: But we’ve seen lockdowns in every state and territory- well on every mainland state – over the last six months, and in that sense, what’s happened in Melbourne is consistent with that over the last six months. But I think the point to make, David, is last year we saw a significant lockdown in Victoria over a number of months which was a failure of hotel quarantine in Melbourne. This outbreak has been-
SPEERS: And contact tracing, to be fair, and contact tracing at the time?
MARLES: Sure, but it begins with a failure of hotel quarantine. We’ve seen that occur with a failure in hotel quarantine in Adelaide leading to this outbreak. The lockdowns that we’ve seen across Australia in the last six months have all had at their origin a failure in hotel quarantine. That’s the issue, and that’s the Federal Government’s job. I mean, all roads lead back to a failure in managing quarantine in this country. Hotel quarantine which was meant to be a stop-gap measure, these are facilities which are not fit for purpose, where you have a single ventilation system in one building which is leading to people contracting the disease in those hotels and leading to the outbreaks that we have then experienced. That’s the issue and that’s the issue that is facing Victoria now and that is fundamentally a failure of Scott Morrison and his government.
SPEERS: Okay. If hotels are not fit for purpose, as you’ve just said, should we still be using them at all?
MARLES: Well, they are a stop-gap, and so we’ve got to use what we’ve got. But last October the Federal Government’s own hand-picked adviser Jane Halton, recommended that the Government engage in building fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities – that’s last October. It was only last week that we’ve seen an MOU with the Victorian Government about building such a facility here in Victoria. Had that been acted on last year, that facility would be up and running now.
SPEERS: Sure. I don’t think Jane Halton said stop using hotels all together, though. If you are saying they’re stop-gap, are you saying that they are temporary, we should stop using them at some point?
MARLES: Well, it is not a binary question, but the-
SPEERS: it is a simple question. Should we stop using hotels?
MARLES: – the point you can make is this; Every person who comes back to this country, David, who does their quarantine in a fit-for-purpose facility makes our country safer. It is as simple as that. So where that leads you to is, we should be having fit-for-purpose facilities doing the bulk of the work. Now right now, we’ve got only one fit-for-purpose facility in the country and that is Howard Springs and not surprisingly, there hasn’t been a breakout from Howard Springs. There have been 21, perhaps 22 breakouts from hotel quarantine in the course of basically the last year, that is almost one every two weeks. I mean, that speaks for itself. We need to have a system of fit-for-purpose facilities around the country. They should have been getting onto this last October when they were given advice to do it, when they should have been accepting their responsibility as the level of Government responsible for quarantine. Instead, what we see is them play catch-up footy one again, and dealing with it now. And, I think one of the issues, David, which has really come through in the discussion you’ve had this morning, is that this is a government which is highly reactive. This is a government whose instinct is to sit still and drift until a political problem jumps up and punches it on the nose. And as a result, it’s not getting ahead of events, events are leading it, and constantly it’s playing catch-up footy. With the vaccine, with quarantine, with providing support, that’s the issue.
SPEERS: Just to be clear about what needs to happen, though, I think we need to acknowledge the scale of this. The new facility that is going to be built in Melbourne will have a maximum capacity of 500. New South Wales is taking 3,000 a week through its hotel quarantine – that’s just New South Wales. So, are you saying we need that scale of purpose-built facilities to replace hotel quarantine?
MARLES: Well, I think we need a much bigger scale than we’ve got now, so that it can do the bulk of the work. And when it comes to the question of cost, you only need to look at the enormous costs associated with locking down a capital city, which right now is Melbourne, but has been other capital cities around the country over the last six months. And the Government’s own budget is predicting that there will be such a lockdown in a capital city in this country every month- like, that’s what they are predicting. Okay, well if that is what they are predicting and the costs associated with that, right there is the argument for why we should be making the expense right now as a Commonwealth Government and obviously working with the states, to get a system of fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities up and running as quickly as possible, and they should have started last October when they were given the advice to do it.
SPEERS: Alright, just to be clear on this: given the cost of lockdowns is enormous, it is worth spending whatever it takes to make sure we have quarantine- purpose-built quarantine – that can take the bulk of returned travellers. Still use hotels for some, but the bulk going into these facilities?
MARLES: I think that’s right. And in terms of the question of costs, that’s absolutely right.
SPEERS: Whatever it takes.
MARLES: Anyone can see that. Well, given the cost that is being incurred by businesses, by people who don’t have work, the mental health costs that you have been alluding to particularly, I think, in Victoria, given the circumstances of last year, of course that’s what should happen. But it requires this Government to get out ahead of events. It requires them to stop being a government of drift, and to stop simply responding to the politics of the moment, but to actually see what needs to be done and act and stop playing catch-up footy.
SPEERS: How many of us need to be vaccinated to avoid having to lockdown?
MARLES: Well, I don’t know the answer to that question. But you’ve got a story on the front page of the Herald Sun where, you know, a Victorian Minister is asserting it’s 70 per cent.
SPEERS: Is that about right?
MARLES: I mean, this is a number- well, this is a number which is being debated around the world, but it is going to be something like that. It is way above what we’ve got now. But the real point is that it is about getting to a number of vaccinations in Australia, a percentage of vaccinations in Australia which gets us to the other side of COVID-19.
SPEERS: And around about 70 per cent, you reckon is about right?
MARLES: Well, I’m not the expert, so in a sense-
SPEERS: You can have a view.
MARLES: Giving you a precise number from me is not the most relevant answer, other than to say; it is somewhere like that. But the real point is this: Vaccination is how we get to the other side of this, David.
SPEERS: Indeed, but it is around about-
MARLES: It is a race against the virus.
SPEERS: If it is around about 70 per cent, I mean, no country is yet at 70 per cent vaccination. So, can you really blame this lockdown on the Morrison Government’s failures on the vaccination rollout? I mean, no-one is at that 70 per cent mark?
MARLES: Well, we are focusing on hotel quarantine as the source of this specific lockdown, but when it comes to the question of vaccination, whatever is the mark, what is absolutely clear, we are a long way behind the rest of the world in terms of being vaccinated.
SPEERS: No-one is at 70 per cent.
MARLES: We are ranked something like 113th in the world. And so, wherever is the level and however big that challenge is, we are lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of getting there. And is it any wonder? Because this is a government whose first instinct when it comes to the question of the vaccination is to go out there and say, “we have got plenty of time. This is not a race.” There was complacency last year about placing Australia in the various queues of the vaccine rollouts- vaccine projects – around the world, again playing catch-up footy. It is not until this year that we order the required number of doses of Pfizer, it is not until this year that we get in the queue at all for Moderna. There was no attempt last year to get us into a position of being able to manufacture mRNA vaccines here in Australia. What there was, was complacency. It is only now that they are trying to play that catch-up footy and as a result we are languishing behind the rest of the world in terms of the speed of our vaccine rollout.
SPEERS: Let’s talk about that. Aged care is clearly a big concern when it comes to the vaccine rollout. Should aged-care workers and disability care workers be required, mandated, to have a vaccine?
MARLES: Well, I think it is an important question, and we welcome the fact that National Cabinet is seeking advice on that.
SPEERS: What’s your view?
MARLES: Well again, I’m not an expert, but I think it makes sense to me, but I would like to see the advice. And so, I think the right question is to be getting that advice, and we welcome the Government doing that. But let’s also be clear: we are talking a long way down the track. What would be actually nice now is to get some vaccinations into the arms of those who are working in aged care right now. I mean, as best as the Government can estimate, it is a small minority of aged-care workers who on this day have actually been vaccinated in circumstances where the Government promised that they would have all aged-care workers and all aged-care residents vaccinated by Easter. Right now we have got a minority. So the question of whether or not it is mandatory, that’s fine, it is one we should look at it, it is actually a few steps down the track. Let’s get the injection into a whole lot of people’s arms where we can. But this Government has patently failed to do that.
SPEERS: One of the concerns of the AHPPC, which has recommended against mandatory vaccines at this stage for aged care workers, is that it is going to drive those who don’t want a vaccine out of what is already in large part low-paid work, and we can’t afford to lose any more workers in aged care in particular. Do you share that concern?
MARLES: Oh, I think it is a valid concern. And it is why this needs to be looked at properly. And you are absolutely right in making the observation we can’t afford to lose any more workers in this industry. But let’s get back to basics. This Government has failed in terms of getting even the start of the vaccine rollout properly going in relation to aged-care workers. They said they would have 13 pop-up facilities for aged-care workers around the country – they said they would have that in May, right now they have got three, none of them in Victoria. They said they would get a company out there to specifically vaccinate aged-care workers, the tender is still out for tender and hasn’t closed yet. Again, completely playing catch-up footy in circumstances where they said this would be done by Easter. And I think, for all of us who have loved ones in aged care, there is a sense of palpable anger about this question, about the fact that you’ve still got, or coming into this lockdown, you still had people working between more than one facility- you know that beggars belief. And when I listen to the Prime Minister’s kind of jingoism about the fact that he is not scared of the virus, well let me tell you I think for those of us with aged care – with loved ones in aged care – I’m terrified, to be honest, about what this virus means in that context and that means we need action.
SPEERS: Richard Marles, let me turn to the debate about whether Labor is doing enough to cut through and present an alternative ahead of the election. Have you worked out yet a couple of basics, whether you want to tax more or less than the Coalition?
MARLES: There are questions that we are going to be working through in relation to tax. Now, you know, I’ve said our instinct in respect of tax has been we don’t want to get in the way of a tax cut, and that’s reflected in the decisions that we’ve made during this term of Parliament, but if that is a question in relation to stage three, we’ve also made the point there that that is a legislated tax cut which will have effect in 2024. I mean, if we’ve learnt anything in the course of the last 12 months, it is that there is a very unpredictable world out there, and we will make our decision very clear. We haven’t made it yet. We will make our decision very clear-
SPEERS: Sure, but when you say you don’t want to stand in the way of a tax cut, does that include those higher-income earners who have a little tax cut legislated for them?
MARLES: What we have said in relation to stage three, is that we were uncomfortable from the start about the extent into the future that these tax cuts were being legislated because-
SPEERS: Sure, but do you want to stand in the way-
MARLES: – (inaudible) prediction about the future. No, well, the answer which we’ve been really clear on consistently is that we will make that decision in good and proper time, before the next election- the term of government which will actually deal – see that tax cut come into play, and we will make our decision before the next election. We’ve not made that decision yet.
SPEERS: And a final one. Another big-picture question, the relationship with China. Anthony Albanese has been having a go at the Government over its approach. What would Labor do differently?
MARLES: Well, we get the diplomacy right, is the most obvious answer to that question.
SPEERS: What does that mean?
MARLES: This is the first- well, this is the first government since Whitlam recognised the PRC in the early 1970s, where there is not a relationship of substance between any single member of the Morrison Government, and a senior member of the Chinese Government. This is our largest trading partner and one-
SPEERS: Is that the Morrison Government’s fault or the fault of Xi Jinping?
MARLES: Well, we have to take responsibility for our own relationships. Japan manages to have relationships with the Chinese Government in circumstances where its set of issues with China are a lot more complex than ours. I mean, they have got all of our issues at a much higher volume. They have got territorial disputes, they have got a whole history with China but they can still manage getting a relationship with China in practice.
SPEERS: Okay. So what does getting the diplomacy right mean, in practice? Would you be more accommodating of-
MARLES: Let me be really clear: The fact that there is not a single relationship of substance between a member of this government and a member of the Chinese Government is inept, it is patently inept.
SPEERS: How would you get that relationship?
MARLES: Well, you do the diplomacy right.
SPEERS: What does that mean, though? Sorry, with respect, what does that mean?
MARLES: Well, you do it in the way that Alexander Downer did it. You do it in the way that-
SPEERS: That was a very different time. Before Xi Jinping’s China.
MARLES: Sure. And during the Cold War, at the height of the Cold War, when tensions are far more difficult than what is going on between China and Australia now, you have relationships of substance between the US and Soviet Governments, it can be done. I mean, you make the effort to reach out and you do the diplomacy right. Right now, we’re not seeing any of that take place and the fact that the Government cannot point to that relationship of substance, so there is no ballast when we need to say the difficult things that we do need to say. And let’s be clear, on the South China Sea, it is a matter of enormous national interest to Australia. Most of our trade goes through the South China Sea, it is critically important that Australia stands up there and speaks for our national interests and has the courage to do that when it differs from Chinese action, which it certainly does in relation to the South China Sea. I have been very robust on that and I have faced criticism from this government’s Foreign Minister at the time for doing that. But you do the diplomacy right, you manage relationships, and this government has demonstrated that it can’t.
SPEERS: Richard Marles, thanks very much for joining us.