SUBJECTS: Vaccine rollout; Australia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Joining me live now is Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles for more on this. Thanks for your time. What did you make of the comments from Greg Hunt, the Health Minister and more comments this morning, warning about high case numbers if borders do reopen from Scott Morrison?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, there’s a confusion it seems to me around what the end of COVID strategy looks like. And so you get differing messages from the government about how it sees the pathway out- the role that vaccines are going to play. And I think that’s the issue right now. I mean, one thing is really clear; vaccinating the country is ultimately the key to getting back to normality. But at some point, we do need to re-engage with the world. And if we find that the world is really engaging without Australia, then there’s real risk of Australia being left behind. And we need to hear from the government given what’s now played out in relation to AstraZeneca and it not being administered to people under the age of 50, what it’s plan is to make sure that we are vaccinated in a timely way so that Australia can participate in a post COVID world.
CONNELL: In terms of incentive for Australian voters, do we need to hear, for example, on borders, if the country can reach this level of vaccination, the borders are open? Something that simple?
MARLES: Yeah, I think that’s right, Tom. I think we need to- well I actually think we need to have some targets. Meaningful, realistic targets, not the kind of heroic comments that we’ve heard from the Prime Minister, which he says from time to time in order to get himself through a press conference, and where he holds out the idea that four million of us will be vaccinated in March- I mean, that wasn’t going to happen. Or the idea that Australia would be vaccinated by October- again, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. But I think we do need to have some realistic targets going forward about when do they imagine the vaccination is going to occur. But as you rightly say, some milestones which then relate to when we can expect some normality in terms of the way in which we engage with the world. And I think what we saw with the Prime Minister, you know, talking about home quarantine which seems to be at odds with what we see with the Health Minister talking about the fact that vaccines themselves mightn’t give rise to an opening of the border, is an essential confusion about exactly what the role is of vaccines in terms of us getting back to normality, and what the pathway to normality looks like. And, you know, business, the Australian public are crying out for some leadership and some plain and clear, honest speaking from the Prime Minister and his government about what this strategy will look like.
CONNELL: And where do the states come in on this? Presumably, they would need to agree to people coming overseas into their well, jurisdictions, I suppose for now, until that’s tested at the High Court again, perhaps. So, again, should they be a part of this? And should they be a bit more forward looking, willing to have some risk if their citizens are vaccinated, take on that risk, again, of taking people from overseas?
MARLES: Well, the government, the federal government needs to bring the states along with it in terms of the path it takes and the strategy it articulates. But what we have seen in the last 12 months, is a complete vacating of the space in so many ways by this Prime Minister and actually leaving it up to the states to run Australia. And what the federal government needs to do is actually play its role as our national government. And start making national decisions-
CONNELL: There’s going to be two National Cabinets-
MARLES: And start taking national leadership.
CONNELL: For example. Let me just be more specific, though. If there’s, you know, a target from the federal government on borders; let’s get to 85 per cent, then we’ll open the borders. We’d have to have the states willing to do the same thing, right? Put a number on it, give your citizens incentive and certainty. That applies to them as well, surely?
MARLES: The federal government needs to engage in the kind of cooperative federalism, that was stock in trade, that has been the bread and butter of Prime Ministers and governments up until this moment in time. And that involves an assertion of federal power, you know, an acknowledgement that the feds are the national tier of government with power when they speak. But bringing the states along in a cooperative strategy, which is agreed across the board-
CONNELL: Should the states put a number on in too?
MARLES: But the feds needs to be making the call. They need to be bringing along the states with them and they need to be asserting their place and their power in this situation. What we’ve seen in fact, from the outset-
CONNELL: The federal government makes the call and the states just have to agree to it. Is that what you are saying?
MARLES: I’m saying that any leader worth their salt, can engage in cooperation and work out a cooperative process where you get everyone on the same page. And that’s the job of the Prime Minister, to get everyone on the same page. And that is a job in which this Prime Minister has patently failed over the last 12 months. And that is basically because he has vacated the field.
CONNELL: Let me go to you on supply as well; so the shadow Health Minister Mark Butler has said this week, Australia needs an mRNA vaccine capability. What’s Labor saying here? Is this your policy now to build that capability in some way?
MARLES: Well, we’re certainly putting the question on the table about how the government plans to get a supply of mRNA. And the fact that, you know, we don’t have that manufacturing capability in Australia right now. I mean, last year, the government failed to appropriately hedge its bets, to spread risk in terms of the way in which it placed Australia in the queues of the various vaccine projects, as they were then. We’re not in the Moderna queue at all. And the only manufacturing capability we have now in Australia is in relation to AstraZeneca. They- that means effectively the government bet the house on AstraZeneca being able to vaccinate the lion’s share of the Australian population-
CONNELL: They could only ever bet on one vaccine though couldn’t it. And it couldn’t be Pfizer or Moderna. That was the limitation.
MARLES: I actually don’t think that’s right-
CONNELL: For local production.
MARLES: The point that we were making last year, is that there needed to be much greater spreading of risk, that we needed to be in more than the queues that we were in. And that’s not a point we’ve just made in the last couple of weeks, when things have turned sour, that’s the point we’re making last year as a point of real concern. And I think that goes not only to the queues that we’re in, but how we establish manufacturing capability in Australia. And so, I think the government does need to be looking at this question.
CONNELL: Right. So what’s Labor doing though? Are you looking at it as well, and you can come up with policies. This would sort of fit within your remit; science and rebuilding from COVID-
CONNELL: You could say, hey, we’ll do mRNA, firm commitment from Labor.
MARLES: We’re having a look at all of this, obviously. We’re not overstating our capacity in Opposition to be, you know, running the show between now and the next election. And let’s be completely clear; if Australia is not vaccinated by the time we get to the next election, that is a – an epic failure. I mean, that will be an epic economic failure for our nation. And so fundamentally, this is a task that needs to be undertaken by the government. And the government really does need to explain how it’s going to get the country vaccinated this year. I mean, we are watching North America and Western Europe get right down the path, the real prospect of them opening up to each other, and Australia being left behind. And that all needs to play out before Australia next goes to the polls.
CONNELL: Let me ask you finally about the final Afghanistan withdrawal. Not so long ago, of course, Shadow Defence Minister was your role. We find ourselves in this position where Australians put a lot of effort into it. 41 soldiers killed, of course. But, the Taliban whilst they were ousted early on, they’ve returned with plenty of political power on top of their sort of territorial power as well. Is it fair enough to ask if this was worth it?
MARLES: Well, I mean, they are questions which are always asked when you make the very momentous decision to engage in conflict and war. And the first thing I would say is that, you know, I can understand all the emotions that the 39,000 Australians who have served in Afghanistan would be feeling by virtue of this announcement, really over a period of almost two decades. And obviously, you know, foremost in our thoughts are the families of the 41 servicemen who lost their lives in this conflict. I guess the point I’d make in answer to the question is that we initially went into Afghanistan, with the United States and other countries to deny Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism, as it was in the lead up to September 11. But not just September 11. We should never forget that a number of the Bali bombers were trained in Afghanistan, and that brought huge tragedy to Australia through that event. Afghanistan today is not the place for the harbour of international terrorism and the training of international terrorism that it was in the 1990s. Afghanistan has a long way to go, of course. But I think those who have served can feel an enormous sense of pride in what they’ve done on behalf of our nation, what they’ve done on behalf of those in Afghanistan in rebuilding that country. And whilst there is a long way to go in the rebuilding of that country, it is absolutely not the same place it was in the 1990s which enabled those, you know, appalling terrorist incidents to emanate across the globe, including in Bali.
CONNELL: Richard Marles, appreciate your time today. Thank you.
MARLES: Thanks, Tom.