SUBJECT/S: Labor’s Candidate for Higgins; vaccine rollout

JOSH BURNS, MEMBER FOR MACNAMARA: Well, we are here at the Prahran Town Hall and it’s a really important day. Much of the country is either back in lockdown – New South Wales is going through a really difficult period. We are not through this pandemic, and we need to focus our attention on getting as many Australians vaccinated as possible. The people who work in this building are Star Health, they’ve been turning up each and every day to get people vaccinated, to get Australians vaccinated, to get them protected. And that’s why it’s so important we’re here today to reinforce that message. But we’re also here with a great person, someone who has dedicated their lives to helping Australians, to help save lives, and to help work in Australia’s outstanding medical profession, Dr. Michelle Ananda-Rajah. We’re also here with the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, Richard Marles. And I’m going to hand over to Richard to say a few words.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thank you, Josh. And it’s a great pleasure to be here with Josh Burns, Labor’s fantastic representative as the Member for Macnamara. And it’s also my enormous pleasure today, to be here to announce that Dr. Michelle Ananda-Rajah will be Labor’s Candidate in the electorate of Higgins. Michelle was educated at Sydney University. She lives in Melbourne’s east and she is now a consultant physician in infectious diseases and general medicine at the Alfred. Michelle’s candidacy in this electorate is very significant, because for the last few months, indeed, more than a year, we’ve at events like this talked often about, the need to be listening to the medical advice, we need to be listening to the experts. Well, Michelle Ananda-Rajah is one of them. Michelle has decided to stand up and be counted in this election, because of her increasing deep concern about the handling of the Morrison Government of this pandemic. It is remarkable that given all the advantages Australia had in 2020, living on an island with an effective border with a small number of entry points into the country with a low level of the disease here in Australia that we should now find ourselves on this day, at the very bottom of the OECD table, in terms of vaccine rollout. In the midst of Scott Morrison’s self-congratulation, all that he has exhibited is complacency and incompetence. And that is why he and his government have been getting the pandemic wrong at every turn. Last year, they failed to place Australia in the appropriate number of queues in the various vaccine projects around the world, so that we don’t have the supply on this day that we need to in order to get the country properly vaccinated in the timely manner that we should. He was slow to come to what was obviously the way in which we should logistically get people vaccinated through mass vaccination centres, such as the one we’re at today. And he was very late in coming to that. And the messaging from this government, in relation to the vaccine rollout has been poor and confusing at every step. Why? Because Scott Morrison said that getting Australia vaccinated was not a race. And it is a race against the virus, which Michelle absolutely understands. So, Michelle’s been looking at this with deep concern, with great anxiety. But rather than sitting back, she is decided to stand up and be counted. And we’re just so thrilled that she has decided to be counted amongst our number. And she will bring enormous capacity and capability to the federal Labor team, not just in respect of issues around the pandemic, but she will give the people of Higgins the voice they need on the issues they care about such as meaningful action on climate change. Michelle will give the people of Higgins the voice they want on what has been the biggest discussion on gender relations in our country, in my lifetime. And this comes at a really significant moment in our country’s history given the extraordinary nature of the pandemic because the next election is going to shape our country for decades to come. COVID-19 has revealed real problems in Australia’s economy, productivity is going through the floor, wages are flat lining. And that is because we are, as a country falling down the technological ladder as a country, it’s why we have a skills crisis right now. And this election is an opportunity to reimagine Australia, in a way that we have not had since the end of the Second World War. And Labor is absolutely desperate to give the Australian people that vision and to give them the choice at the next election which they so desperately crave. And here in Higgins, that choice is Dr. Michelle Ananda-Rajah.

BURNS: Here, here!

DR MICHELLE ANANDA-RAJAH, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR HIGGINS: Thank you, Richard, for that kind introduction. Hello, everyone. I’m Dr. Michelle Ananda-Rajah. And as Richard said, I’m a consultant physician in infectious diseases. I’ve worked in the public hospital sector for 25 years, and also a little bit in the private sector. (Inaudible) My research interests include artificial intelligence, clinical leadership. And with respect to my research, it has been nominated for a research prize. And I’m absolutely chuffed about that. Prior to this event, I guess, I was in the process of setting up a company in order to take that forward. But I just want to give you a little bit of background on the lead up to all of this. When the pandemic hit, my colleagues came to me, worried about dying on the job. And this really compelled me to do something about it. So, I sent an open letter to Greg Hunt, it garnered over 3,500 signatures from healthcare professionals all around the country. And the most powerful thing about this was the stories that came through we published. One of the key themes was a sense that people like me, nurses, doctors, allied health professionals paramedics felt that they had been abandoned and betrayed. They asked for fit-tested respirators, they asked for acknowledgement that COVID was airborne, they wanted consultation in respect of their work and safety- nothing radical. I went on to found Healthcare Workers Australia, a site and I created content for that site. And amongst the things I did was, I spoke to people from other industries, particularly an occupational hygienist, who looks after a workforce of 35,000 (Inaudible).  And I came away thinking that I actually would be safer blasting rocks under the ground than working at that time, in a public hospital. I campaigned tirelessly, with media, for my research for fit tested respirators, for reform of the national infection control body, and for recognition that COVID is out there, that it is airborne, as well as transparent reporting of healthcare workers infections. And I achieved every one of those outcomes – every one of those outcomes. I became involved in the vaccine debate because I was becoming increasingly concerned at the limited options that Australia had taken in respect of the strategy. And this was feeding into a real sense of denial for people. They felt that they had been robbed of their choice and their autonomy. And personal choice and autonomy are absolutely embedded in modern medicine for us, as doctors. We advocate for our patients, and we respect personal choice and autonomy. And finally, one of the most fun things I ever did was, I gave a speech to a girls’ school, Firbank Grammar in Brighton- that was back in March. And I remember saying to the girls when they asked questions, that I believe that women should walk the corridors of power. And I said it for the girls, I never said it for me. And so here we, I have decided I’m prepared to leave a successful career, in order to do something about the direction of this country. Once upon a time, I would have said that we are in a three-way race between the virus, variants and vaccination. Today, I would say that we are in a three-way race between variance, vaccination and the ineptitude of Morrison-Joyce Government. What I’ve seen over the last 18 months has shocked and alarmed me. I’ve seen a government that has instead of alleviating the uncertainties of this pandemic, have actually amplified them to people. A government that worryingly has oscillated between two emotional states; hubris and panic- hubris and panic. And what is worse about all of this, it’s been their attitude. Their attitude really has been very dismissive, almost boastful. I want to do something about this. And the reason I’m running is that I’m concerned about the direction of this country, under the Morrison-Joyce Government. I don’t believe that we are heading in the right direction. I don’t believe that this government is fit for purpose and capable of navigating us through the turbulence ahead. And so I will be bringing my leadership skills, my energy, my intellect, my humanity to the job, and most importantly, my scientific expertise in order to help guide this nation through the years ahead, and most importantly, to rebuild our future. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

ANANDA-RAJAH: Thank you for the question. The health advice is absolutely unequivocal. And I’ve always followed the health advice, right. As you know that health advice has chopped and changed during this pandemic, which has generated some confusion. But the reason I follow the health advice is that it is the single source of truth, combined and compiled by medical experts who are held independent of the government. Okay, so their only agenda is the health and well-being of the Australian people. And that’s why I follow that advice. The most recent advice is unequivocal, that if you are living, particularly in an area with uncontrolled community transmission of delta, such as Greater Sydney, you must accept any vaccination that is available to you, whether that be AstraZeneca or Pfizer. It will save your life, it will keep you out of hospital, it will keep you out of intensive care, and it will keep you off a ventilator.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

ANANDA-RAJAH: So, I was relieved because I could see that they had taken the evidence that was accumulating into account with respect to the safety signal. And I was also happy to see that it propelled also the government to purchase more Pfizer, in order to give more Pfizer to the younger age groups. And I think that’s a very positive outcome. And it’s entirely consistent with health advice throughout.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

ANANDA-RAJAH: So, the current health advice is actually pretty broad when you interpret it. It means that you know, you can if you are in a younger age group below the age of 60, you can certainly opt for the AstraZeneca vaccine. And that is particularly important in areas of high community transmission such as the uncontrolled outbreak that is currently in Sydney. So I would urge Australians particularly who are living in Greater Sydney to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, it is going to save your life and it will keep you out of hospital, keep you off a ventilator, keep you out of intensive care. This is the most important message right now. And I’m speaking directly to the communities of colour in Western Sydney, in the multicultural heartland.

MARLES: Can I just personally just say a couple of things. Today we’ve learned that there are nine cases in Brisbane and that is a situation which is obviously evidenced by the lockdown that has occurred in southeast Queensland. First of all, our thoughts are with everyone who is experiencing that lockdown. It’s a very unsettling and troubling period. It’s a reminder that we will be living in the land of the lockdown, so long as we have a vaccine rate which is at a pathetically low number of 14 per cent in Australia today. That is Scott Morrison’s failure and that is why we are living in the land of the lockdown, which is being experienced by people in Brisbane, obviously people in New South Wales. In relation to AstraZeneca, in relation to what you’ve just heard from Michelle is a completely considered view about needing to take the medical advice when it comes to AstraZeneca- acknowledging that AstraZeneca has a critical role to play in vaccinating Australia. If you want to look at those who have undermined public confidence in AstraZeneca, it is this government which makes their current little attack absolutely pathetic. It was Scott Morrison, who holds a press conference in the dead of the night in a panicked way, which sends ripples of fear around the country in relation to AstraZeneca. It was his government who back in May said, if you’ve got a problem with AstraZeneca, you can wait until the end of the year. They basically got up and said exactly that. Confidence in AstraZeneca in this country has been undermined by Scott Morrison and his government. That is what has happened. AstraZeneca has a critically important role to play in vaccinating the country.

JOURNALIST: You’ve covered some things already, directly but what is Labor’s position on AstraZeneca?

MARLES: Absolutely. AstraZeneca has a critical role to play in vaccinating Australia, in getting us to the other side of COVID-19. And what you’ve just heard from Michelle now is absolutely right. AstraZeneca is a vaccine that if you take, it will help save your life, given the potential exposure to COVID-19, which is the alternative. AstraZeneca is a deeply important part of the pathway to get beyond COVID-19. And we have been utterly clear on this, and the government’s attacks have frankly been pathetic.

JOURNALIST: And do you support your candidate’s view that a rollout with AstraZeneca is a population (Inaudible) experiments?

MARLES: Michelle – I’ll pass on to Michelle – but Michelle has done nothing other than articulate what is the medical advice, which is being offered in relation to AstraZeneca. And she said that that’s advice that people should follow, and they clearly should. I mean, what are we doing if we’re not listening to the medical advice? But Michelle has been unequivocal about the fact that AstraZeneca has a critical role to play in getting this country vaccinated and on the other side of COVID-19.

ANANDA-RAJAH: Look, thank you for the question. I’ve even written about this in The Australian, in an op ed, where I clearly stated that AstraZeneca and Pfizer were saving lives and prevented, you know, up to 90 per cent of hospitalizations. So, it is on the record. What I’ve been observing has really, you know, amused me, because it’s clearly you know, just taking bits and pieces out of various news clips and whatever, and splicing it together. And it’s not, there’s no integrity to any of that material that is circulating. I would strongly urge the public to actually go to my op ed to see where I stand on these things.

JOURNALIST: One more question, for Richard sorry. What is the party’s stance on whether AstraZeneca should be opened up to everyone given the threat posed by COVID?

MARLES: Well, our stance is that people should be listening to medical advice, in relation to the role that AstraZeneca has to play- whatever the role is that that medical advice provides is the role that should be playing. But what’s clear is that AstraZeneca has a critical role in playing and getting Australia to the other side of COVID-19. It’s a really important vaccine. I, myself, had my second jab this week, Josh had his first jab of AstraZeneca yesterday. We understand that it is a critical part of the journey to the other side of COVID-19. And Labor is utterly supportive of that, and we have been completely clear in respect of that, which stands in stark contrast to Scott Morrison and his government, which have done nothing but give inconsistent messages around AstraZeneca and undermine public confidence.


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