SUBJECTS: Labor’s $300 vaccine incentive proposal; vaccine rollout; The release of the Doherty Institute modelling; Release of Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Richard Marles is the Deputy Labor Leader, he’s also released a new book focusing on Australia’s policy in the Pacific. And he joins us tonight. Welcome.


KARVELAS: Good. We’re going to get to your book shortly. But let’s talk about this idea, the Prime Minister has dismissed the idea of this $300 payment for everyone who gets vaccinated as a thought with no bubble. So why do you want it to be a blanket approach? The point that Jane Halton just made to me was that people like me and her and she’s right, I’m fully vaccinated, why would you give someone like me 300 bucks? Wouldn’t you want to focus it on those hesitant people?

MARLES: Well, this is a proposition in a context where we’re lagging behind the world in terms of our vaccine rates. And I think we need to be looking at every avenue possible to increase those rates, and this does have the benefit for those- who may have got vaccinated anyways- this does have the benefit of having a stimulatory effect in the economy in circumstances where, you know, the lockdown in Sydney and elsewhere in the country, is going to see some pretty difficult economic times in the months to come. But we’re really out there trying to look at every way possible to get that vaccination rate up. And rather than dismissing this immediately out of hand, I think it’d be good if the Prime Minister actually have a look at this, and come up with his own plan for actually getting us vaccinated quickly, because that’s the situation that we need to address.

KARVELAS: Sure, but this is your plan. So I’m going to scrutinize your plan that you’ve suggested. Why would you spend money on people who are already going to get vaccinated? You still haven’t really addressed that, it seems wasteful.

MARLES: Well, this is an encouragement to people to get vaccinated-

KARVELAS: Why not target it to those who are hesitant and not everyone?

MARLES: Well, because there has been, in a sense, unfair for those who have already gone off and got vaccinated, and for them, it does give rise to a stimulatory effect in the economy, which is the second benefit of this. So, it’s about making sure that it’s fair across the board. It’s a simple proposition, that people who are vaccinated by the first of December would get this payment. And it doesn’t discriminate against those who have done the right thing already. And, I think that’s the point of it. And it is a moment in time where we actually do need to be getting some money into the economy. But what matters here is that, we’re trying to be constructive in coming up with ways in which we can improve the vaccine rate, in circumstances where we are languishing at the very bottom of the OECD, at a rate of 15 per cent-

KARVELAS: But isn’t the problem with supply, rather than the willingness to get vaccinated?

MARLES: I think it’s across the board. Yes, supply is a major issue, and we’ve been making that point as well. You know, the government did fail in properly placing Australia in the various queues of the vaccine programs around the world this time last year, which has meant that not until the beginning of this year that we were ordering the quantities of Pfizer that we need, and we weren’t even ordering any of Moderna until this year. And so, supply is absolutely an issue. But supply will come on in the next month or two and in that context, we think that this would be an encouragement to get this job done quickly. And that’s what we need to see happen in Australia.

KARVELAS: Senior MPs have labelled it insulting, suggesting high income earners would benefit. That issue is an issue, isn’t it? It’s not means tested, it means that, you know, millionaires get 300 bucks for getting a jab.

MARLES: Look, ultimately, we need to get people vaccinated and get them vaccinated quickly. And, and at the same time, putting money out into the economy given the downturn that we are inevitably going to see with the lockdowns that we’ve seen across the country will have a stimulatory effect. We can go into a complicated means tested program but this is about getting a job done really quickly. And to the extent that we then see money flowing to the economy, that’s a good thing as well. I mean ultimately, we are in a real problem- we’re in a real bind here. We’ve got something like 15 per cent of the population vaccinated- that is a pathetically low number- we need to get that up. And this is an idea which would help. And it would mean that when supply comes on, in the quantities that we need to see in the next month or two, we would be ready to go and get people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

KARVELAS: The Doherty Institute’s modelling released today suggests the vaccination campaign focus shifts towards young adults, who are the main spreaders of the virus. Do you think that needs to happen now?

MARLES: Well, I think we want to take our time and have a look at the Doherty modelling, but we certainly welcome it being released. It’s an important document. And I think it’s exactly the kind of conversation that we need to have in terms of looking at both the groups that are most vulnerable, but also in terms of young people, as the Doherty report goes to, the groups which may see the greatest contribution to the spread of the virus, I think we absolutely need to be looking at that. Of course, you know, the obvious point to make is that we really should have seen this kind of work done months and months ago, so that we’re not in the situation that we’re in now, needing to pick and choose between particular groups in, in our society. When Scott Morrison said we were going to be at the front of the queue, well, if we’d been at the front of the queue, right now, we’d be talking about the vast bulk of Australia already having been vaccinated. The fact that we are needing to think about who comes first in August of 2021, given that the virus has been around now for coming up for two years, that says everything about the failure of Scott Morrison to get this vaccination right.

KARVELAS: Just moving to your book, before I let you go. In your book, Tides that Bind: Australia and the Pacific, you call on the government to provide greater access to our economy and services, citing the potential for the Pacific to become the least developed part of the world. How should Australia improve its engagement in the Pacific?

MARLES: Well, I think the first thing is that we need to act with intent. But the Pacific is a critically important part of our worldview, or at least it should be. It is how, in many ways the rest of the world looks to Australia, or sees Australia- it is a large part of our global calling card. I think we are judged rightly- by good or by ill- in terms of how we perform in the Pacific, and we need to understand that- about how we are positioned in the world. And it’s really important that in focusing on the Pacific, we’re doing it in a way which focuses on the development and the welfare of the people of the Pacific themselves. The Pacific as a region of the world performed the worst against the Millennium Development Goals, of any other region in the world. And that’s, you know, that ought to be a matter of grave concern for us, that ought to be the clarion call to action for assistance in the Pacific. Now, there are lots of ways in which we can do it, and there are obviously lots of ways in which we are already doing it. But one of those is that having the economy the size that ours is, with a highly functional government and government system proximate to the Pacific, lends a whole lot of opportunities to work with the Pacific to improve their development. And in terms of access to the economy, the Seasonal Workers Programme is a really good example of a measure that was introduced under the Rudd-Gillard Government, which has had a huge benefit to the people in the Pacific and obviously had a significant benefit to farmers in Australia as well. And I think it’s an example of a kind of creative step that we can take to better assist those in the Pacific.

KARVELAS: Conversations about Australia’s relationship with the Pacific have increasingly turned to concern about Chinese investment. And you say Australia should focus on improving its relationship rather than criticizing countries for accepting desperately needed help. Does this focus risk Australia’s relationship with its closest neighbours?

MARLES: Well, the point I’m really making there is that, I acknowledge that the Pacific is very much a place that is strategic contest, and we obviously have massive strategic interests in the Pacific. But I think those are best advanced by focusing our relationship on the Pacific countries themselves and on their welfare. And I think if we turn up in the Pacific, telling them who they can and can’t be friends with, we’re not going to get very far. We don’t get exclusive rights to our relationships- to relationships with the Pacific. They will have relationships with whichever countries they choose. What we need to be doing is to be sincerely focused on their benefit, on their issues, on their welfare, and on their development. And it is when we’re doing that, and really focused on that, that becoming the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific, is what will happen. And I think from there, the strategic issues start to take care of themselves.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us tonight.

MARLES: It’s a pleasure, PK.


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