SUBJECTS: Parliamentary sitting; Virtual Parliament; Katy Gallagher; Access to vaccines for children; National Plan; National Cabinet; Small Business; Afghanistan.

LEON DELANEY, HOST: There’s been significant fractures emerging in the National Cabinet. And a lot of it’s to do with this national roadmap to reopen the economy after lockdown, and the targets for vaccination that have been set, according to that modelling prepared by the Doherty Institute. The problem is that some people feel that the modelling doesn’t reflect the reality of the current outbreaks. And of course, there are plenty of medical experts who have expressed concern about the fact that the targets have been based on percentages of the population age 16 and above. And the question is now being asked, what about all those unvaccinated children? And in particular in relation to the greater impact that is evident with the Delta variant than with previous variants of the virus. To discuss this and many other matters as well, the Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition Richard Marles, Good afternoon.


DELANEY: Pretty well, thanks for joining us today. First of all, of course, the current sitting of Parliament is something that Andrew Barr here in the ACT did not want to occur. By all reports, the atmosphere in the parliament is a little unusual to say the least. How are things?

MARLES: Well, I think the atmosphere is different to what it’s probably ever been before. So I have to confess that I’m really – I’m speaking to you from Geelong-

DELANEY: Ahh, so you’re zooming into the parliament?

MARLES: I am, which is a facility that we’ve had for about a year now, which I’ve used in respect of a couple of weeks. And it’s certainly not the same as being there. But it’s useful. I mean, it does allow us to make speeches in Parliament, even though we’re not there. It also gives us something of an insight, and obviously, I’m speaking to a lot of people who are in parliament all through the day, and I think the atmosphere is very different. I mean- parliament is a wonderful building, I’m obviously biased. And you know, I feel like it is the most important building in the country. And pre-COVID it would be a place which would have thousands of people in it right now. And obviously, people from the community visiting tourists, school kids, people wanting to speak to Members of Parliament, organisations having their meetings, and it’s really, actually very exciting and full of life. Obviously, none of that is happening right now- there’s not – well there’s a fraction of the MPs who are normally there, a fraction of their offices. There are no visitors to the building. So, you know, it really is very different to the experience that we normally have.

DELANEY: Does that have an impact on the ability to properly debate and properly investigate contentious legislation? Or does that help to let some things slip through that maybe should have been given greater scrutiny?

MARLES: Look Leon, I think that’s a really good question, and it’s one we’ve thought a lot about. I think the honest answer to that is the ideal situation is for us all to be there, physically. It does allow a lot more discussion, and not just in the chamber. I mean, the chamber is kind of where the debate comes to its climax, but there’s a whole lot of discussion that happens in and around all of what’s put before the chamber. And while that conversation is still happening by telephone, by zoom meetings, and the like, it’s not the same as being able to kind of organically talk to people in the corridors to really work things through in more detail. But we live in the times that we live, and it’s better that we’re doing this than not at all. It does enable us to move through the important business of the nation. And, you know, we like everyone around the country are having to deal with this very difficult circumstance. And we’re not alone in that, other businesses, other organisations are dealing with things in a way which isn’t perfect, but they’re still dealing with it and, I think, you know, we’re the same.

DELANEY: Now, your colleague, our Senator Katy Gallagher, has been personally affected by COVID-19, with her teenage daughter, contracting the disease. Now, this highlights the challenge that faces all of Australia now, because our children are not vaccinated. In fact, the vast majority of them. There’s a small handful of the 12 to 15, who are considered to be vulnerable – they’ve been given access to the vaccine. But that’s not true for any other children. And there’s increasing numbers of medical experts who are suggesting that this could be a weakness in our plan to reopen. What does Labor think about that?

MARLES: Well, firstly, in relation to Katy, I was actually in contact with Katy during the day, and you’re right, it brings it home personally, to have somebody who you work closely with to be experiencing this. And her spirits are high, as are her daughters and her family, but this is a really trying experience for her. And you can just imagine how it is to try and manage the presence of the virus in your own home to be protecting those around you. And she makes the point that she and her husband are fully vaccinated, but her- as you say – her daughter and her son are not because they’re not eligible to be, and that presents a whole lot of challenges. I think at the sort of level of how we deal with this as a society, it’s – it is a genuine question. The Prime Minister often talks about the percentage of the eligible population who have been vaccinated – when he says that, what he’s saying is those who are over 16. But it’s not as though the virus checks people’s birth certificates before they get infected. I mean, people – a large number of kids, relative to what happened under previous variants – are being infected by the Delta variant. And so there is no doubt that kids form part of this story, form part of the transmission and definitely form part of the sickness and the illness. And tragically, we’ve seen – we’ve now seen children die from COVID around the world. So it needs to form part of the national plan going forward.

DELANEY: So is the national plan as it currently stands, the right one, or does it need some fine tuning?

MARLES: Well, we support the national plan, let me be really clear about that, because the Prime Minister is seeking to put a whole lot of smoke around this. Labor supports the national plan. There is some updated modelling, which I understand is being undertaken around it and it’s appropriate that that occur. There are questions, as we just discussed in relation to kids that we need to be thinking through. There are a number of restrictions that are described in the plan, which are part of the plan right now, even when we get to 70 or 80 per cent levels of vaccination. And I think the Prime Minister really needed to be honest about what those restrictions look like, how they will operate in terms of isolation, in terms of quarantine. I mean, all of that forms part of the way in which the plan was constructed. So, I think the Prime Minister needs to be much more transparent and much more honest about the way in which the plan will operate, even when we get to a point of 70 or 80 per cent vaccinated. But here’s the thing, we desperately want to get past lockdown. Labor wants to see the country on the other side of this, we don’t want to be living in the land of the lockdown, and the fact that we are is really because of the Prime Minister’s failure in respect of rolling out vaccination rates properly and dealing with fit for purpose quarantine in this country. We need to make sure that as we get past this, and we do open up, we are doing so in a manner that is safe. Now, Doherty is a fantastic organization, they’ve done some excellent work here. It is absolutely – it is a plan that we support. It’s important that the Prime Minister get all the state leaders, you know, on the same page in respect of the detail as we move forward. But this is the roadmap out.

DELANEY: Yes, now obviously, the Doherty Institute modelling is based on some assumptions that some people seem to be conveniently ignoring. And those assumptions include that there will be ongoing restrictions of some kind, including caps on numbers at venues, social distancing requirements, and targeted lockdowns in localized areas, and maybe possibly border closures where necessary as a last resort. But now we’re hearing this rhetoric where if a State Premier decides to close a border, they can’t expect to receive any further financial support from the Commonwealth Government. This could be a problem.

MARLES: Well, this is why I think the Prime Minister needs to be honest about the plan. And you’re right in describing what the plan actually says. Now, he’s saying that the government fully supports the plan. Fine. We take him at his word. But then he needs to be completely upfront about what the plan contains in terms of those restrictions. And he needs to be working with the State Premiers, actually providing leadership from the federal government so that he gets all the jurisdictions, all the states and territories on the same page in relation to how we now move forward in respect of this plan. That’s, I mean, that’s been his task all along, a task again, which I think he has patently failed really since the beginning of COVID. This is a Prime Minister who has really written his job very small in terms of the role of the Commonwealth government, in leading the Federation through all of this. But come the National Cabinet meeting this Friday, it is critically important that the Prime Minister is getting all the State Premiers and Chief Ministers on the same page in respect of the national plan as we move forward.

DELANEY: Indeed. Now, you put out a media release today, particularly focusing on the plight facing small businesses. Obviously small businesses really have been feeling the crunch from the pandemic restrictions, haven’t they? What can and should be done to help them survive?

MARLES: Well, small business is on the front line of this, they’re really the ones who have borne the brunt of it. There are 30,000 small businesses in the ACT, 2.4 million small businesses around the country- they’re the engine room of the economy, collectively, they’re the biggest employer. But a whole lot of small businesses, and particularly in the ACT, have found that the business models that they have been operating with, with great success over many decades, suddenly, have had a line put through them by COVID-19. I mean, you think about tourism and the visitor economy, which is a big part of the local economy in Canberra, it’s a tourist destination, obviously none of that is happening right now with COVID-19 in play. And last year, the JobKeeper was a really important measure in terms of allowing those businesses to have a sense of predictability about how they would get to the other side of this. Now, when that came to an end in March of this year, there was nothing put in place to deal with the situation of when an outbreak occurred. And it’s not as though this was unforeseeable, the government back then was imagining that there would be major outbreaks in capital cities around the country in an ongoing way. They should have at that moment put in place a package which would have been  – which would have given predictability to small businesses, and given them a sense of what support would be available, in the event that what has arisen or has come to pass. That didn’t occur. And so as a result, there’s been this sort of piecemeal support provided to businesses and obviously any support is welcome. But what there hasn’t been is any sense of predictability about what businesses- small businesses can expect to help them get through to the other side.

DELANEY: Now, obviously, you said that people were forecasting further outbreaks of COVID-19. But what some people may have failed to predict is the changes that we would see in the new variant of the disease, the Delta variant. And also there are some now ringing alarm bells about further changes with future variants that may present new challenges beyond the ones we face now. It’s difficult to make those predictions, but we certainly need to do the best we can to be prepared for those eventualities, don’t we?

MARLES: Indeed. And no one is expecting anyone to be perfect in the way in which they go about this. But this is a government which has had absolutely no vision or visibility at all. I mean, they have actually stubbornly refused to think about the various contingencies that might arise. I mean, we were seeing new variants of COVID at the end of last year, that was the case. And so, this is not a new situation. When JobKeeper came to an end, at the end of March of this year, the government was busy preparing for its budget, and in those budget papers, there were predictions about or assumptions built into the budget about capital cities going into forms of lockdowns every month- that’s what’s in the budget papers. They were being prepared at the end of March. You would – so the notion of different variants, the notion that there would be outbreaks, the notion that businesses would therefore face difficulty and would need support, all of that was there. And yet, what we got at the end of March, when JobKeeper was brought to an end was absolutely nothing, I mean, zero. And so what we’ve seen is the government developing its support for this situation on the run, and essentially making the claim that none of this was foreseeable. I just don’t accept that. I think the government could have done a much better job. Governments around – other governments around the world have done a better job in trying to actually see what they are facing, what the country is about to go through, and what needs to be done. And really, Leon, you can write this story right back to this time last year, when the government was basically sitting back, feeling that they had done the job, and were basically on their hands when they should have been putting us at the front of the various queues of the vaccine projects around the world. And their failure to do that is why it’s only now that we’re starting to see the kind of supplies of the vaccine such as Pfizer becoming available to the Australian public. They have failed in their handling of this in a comprehensive way. And it is because of Scott Morrison’s failure that right now, most of the country is living in the land of the lockdown.

DELANEY: Now, finally, also this week, you’ve given an address to the House of Representatives in relation to Afghanistan, attempting to answer the question so many people have been asking in the last few days. What was it all for? You’ve attempted to provide an answer to that?

MARLES: Yeah. Look, I think for veterans of Afghanistan, I actually suspect veterans of Vietnam as well, I think they are understandably in a desperate search for meaning about what it was all for. I do genuinely believe that Afghanistan has been changed for the better. I do think it will be much harder for Afghanistan to be a base for international terrorism in the future. And that was the reason that the international community went into Afghanistan, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States. That’s why we went there, as actually an active duty to the Alliance. But we should never forget that Australians died on that day, almost 20 years ago, as they did a year later in the Bali bombings. And there were people who perpetrated those bombings in Bali that received their training in terrorist camps in Afghanistan. So that’s why we went. And I do think it’s going to be more difficult for Afghanistan to return to that situation, to harbour international terrorism going forward than it was before this mission. But I think the other point I’d make is that, in a larger sense, the role that has been played by our servicemen and women, actually has changed us. It forms part of Australia’s history. They, in the service that they’ve given, have demonstrated what the very best of Australia looks like. We’ve seen four VCs won in the conflict, we’ve seen extraordinary bravery, and extraordinary selflessness. And you can’t engage in that kind of service, and that kind of sacrifice, without making a difference to Afghanistan, but without making a difference to us, and to our history. And it honours us all, and really, it is now a source of pride forever. And I think for that we should be thanking all of those veterans.

DELANEY: There have been calls for the Australian government to provide an allocation of 20,000 additional humanitarian visas, additional to the normal intake for people coming out of Afghanistan. Should we?

MARLES: Well, the current humanitarian intake over the last couple of years hasn’t been full by virtue of COVID. So, there is capacity already in the system. I mean, Labor’s view has been for a long time that the humanitarian program as a whole should be bigger than it is. This is a moment where we need to be showing our compassion and our generosity. I think we need to be looking at what kind of humanitarian crisis unfolds as a result of this through how many people are displaced. But right now is a moment for the nation to be compassionate. And there is capacity within the humanitarian program that has not been used, which is there to be used. But Labor has, for a long time been saying that the humanitarian program should be bigger than it is.

DELANEY: Thanks very much for your time today.

MARLES: It’s a pleasure, Leon. Thanks for having me.

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