SUBJECTS: Sitting Calendar; 2022 Election; Omicron; The Prime Minister’s character.
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me now as the Deputy Labor Leader, Richard Marles. We’ve seen the sitting calendar for next year- before we get to Omicron and debate around that. What do you make of this? It looks like- I mean, it’s very clear it’s either a March election or a May election off the back of a budget scheduled for the 29th of March?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, I think we knew that, by virtue of the fact that we haven’t had an election this year. I mean, they were really the only two windows left. I just heard Andrew speak before, I can’t remember a Budget occurring in March before, I think it’s the only time it’s happened since I’ve been in the Parliament since 2007. But the real admission in this is just how, firstly, the government has no agenda. And secondly, how concerned they are about their own divisions that they are not wanting to gather people in their own party room in Canberra. And so, you’ve got seven sitting days before the Budget. I mean, normally, to put it in context, we would expect to have five sitting weeks in seven, over the course of February and March. Right now, this schedule has a sitting for seven days, has the Senate sitting for five days. I mean, this is an extraordinary admission of failure on the government’s part about governing this country.
GILBERT: So you’re arguing that the lack of sitting in March, that vacant spot is simply to avoid scrutiny?
MARLES: I don’t think there could be any doubt about the fact that it’s both to avoid scrutiny, and to avoid their own disunity, which we’ve seen on display since the beginning of last week. I mean, this is a government that doesn’t want its people getting together for all the conversations that they might then have. This is a government who doesn’t like the scrutiny of Parliament. This is a government that’s running away. And this sitting calendar is the government running up the white flag on trying to govern this country.
GILBERT: Are you prepared for another fake period of the fake campaign? Because that’s what it will be, that March window, if the Prime Minister doesn’t call an election for March, does have that Budget and carry on, as we’re saying. That’s basically another campaigning period. Surely?
MARLES: The way I would describe it, Kieran is I think, in Opposition you live in the world of contingencies. We’ve been preparing for a December election, as soon as that date passed we got our heads in the space of March. If that date passes, we’ll be ready for May. I mean, at the end of the day, we’ve got to be ready for whenever the government’s going to call it, and we are.
GILBERT: And is the Labor Party going to flesh out a bit more of its vision as well? Because at the moment, that’s the one risk, isn’t it? That you’ve been focusing on their weaknesses, but the criticism is or the critique is that you haven’t got enough of a plan yourself?
MARLES: Well, I actually think we’ve been putting a lot of policy on the table over the last couple of years, more so than I think that we are given credit for. But we will be making our positions on all the issues which face the Australian people, well and truly before they are required to vote. There’ll be no doubt about that.
GILBERT: On Omicron, the Labor Party focusing on the lack of purpose built quarantine facilities. Do we still need them? As we’re going to be living with COVID-19. And this virus, the latest variant we hope- I was talking to Professor Bennett from Deakin University earlier, she’s saying the early signs are that it might be mild symptoms. Obviously, we have to wait a few weeks before being definitive on that. We hope that’s the case. But is it a situation where you build those facilities and they become white elephants?
MARLES: Well I think, well firstly on Omicron, let’s hope that’s where it’s at, but we’re in early days yet. So we just need to be cautious about our predictions there. But equally, I think we need to be calm in our response to this. The fundamental point, I think for the Australian people is they’ve done such a great job in getting vaccinated that we stand in good stead. But if we come out of COVID-19, if we come out of this pandemic without having purpose built quarantine facilities for whatever we might face in the future, then as a nation we will have missed an enormous play here. I mean, it’s not just about COVID, although there could well be further variants in the future. But I think it is about whatever we might face going forward. And the lesson that we have to learn from this pandemic is the need to have facilities of this kind. Can I make one other short point in relation to Omicron? Because I think it goes to our region; we’re going to see new variants where there are unvaccinated populations or populations which have lesser vaccination rates.
GILBERT: Yep, yep.
MARLES: That’s what we’ve seen in southern Africa where the vaccination rates are low. I mean, in its broadest sense, obviously, this is a message that we need to be getting the whole world vaccinated but in our own region, you know, we’ve got populations near us that are largely unvaccinated; Papua New Guinea is an example of that. I mean, it’s a country of seven-eight million people-
GILBERT: But one of the challenges there has been massive hesitancy, massive hesitancy.
MARLES: But I think what we need to learn from what we’ve seen here is that our national interest and the safety of Australians is connected with their fortunes as well.
MARLES: And we really need to be doing everything we can to see that population become vaccinated- but right now it is largely unvaccinated.
GILBERT: Yeah, it certainly is, I think it’s single figures that it-
MARLES: The percentage of those who are vaccinated is single figures.
GILBERT: Do you accept though- if we bring the discussion even closer to home- Australians, particularly people from your home state of Victoria are over lockdowns, that we cannot be going down that track anymore?
MARLES: I think we have done the hard yards, it has to be said over the last couple of years. And certainly Victorians particularly, but I think everyone who has experienced lockdowns across the country are looking forward to a Christmas this year where hopefully there is a greater sense of normality and a sense of, I think hope and certainty, I guess, going into next year that we are moving to a more normal situation. So, there’s no question about all of that. And that’s why we need to be responding to this in a – in a sober and calm way. But it also means that vaccination is a key part of this story. Australians have done a great job in getting vaccinated. The boosters is going to be an important part of this story going forward. Quarantine facilities are still very much a part of this story, in terms of making sure that we have our national resilience in place. And it’s really important that they’re put in place.
GILBERT: On the integrity issue; Labor trying to push that again today, as it has done over recent weeks. In terms of the Prime Minister and his position ahead of the election campaign, it’s clear that you’re trying to make this a referendum about Scott Morrison, aren’t you?
MARLES: Well I think that the Prime Minister is the person that people look to, to lead us through the pandemic, through difficult times, into a reconstructed Australia with whatever that involves in terms of the development of our economy-
GILBERT: You’re not trying to have the people, the Australian people vote for you. You’re trying to have them vote them out. That is the aim, isn’t it?
MARLES: No, I don’t accept that. And we will be putting forward as I say, and have been putting forward a very comprehensive agenda about what we will do if we are fortunate enough to win the next election. But sure, we’re going to make the Prime Minister’s character an issue in this election. I mean, this is a Prime Minister, who feels completely at liberty to contradict himself, when he’s made statements on the record, on camera that people can go on to YouTube and look at. And if he’s so willing to disown his own words and take his own words with such lack of seriousness, well, then why would he expect, and why should Australians expect to take anything he says now with any seriousness, and that is a point that we’ll continue to make.
GILBERT: Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles, appreciate your time. Thanks.
MARLES: Thanks, Kieran.