Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Transcript: ABC Afternoon Briefing

April 27, 2020



SUBJECTS: School closures; Coronavirus tracing app; Relationship with China; Anti-racism campaign

JOURNALIST: I want to bring in my panel this afternoon, Liberal MP Jason Falinski and also the Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles. Welcome to both of you.

Let's start on these big stories today, particularly this news about the winding down of some of these restrictions in Queensland, in WA, and also now in Victoria. There's a resistance, really, to calls from the Federal Education Minister to reopen schools. Andrew Giles, do you want to see students returned to classrooms before the end of the term?

ANDREW GILES, MEMBER FOR SCULLIN: Look, as a parent of primary school students, what I want is for advice to be followed. The right advice. I'm very comfortable with the arrangements that are in Victoria at the moment. Whether my kids are getting the same quality of teaching from me at home as they would be getting in a classroom setting is a different question. But, no, I'm very comfortable with the approach the Victorian Government is taking at the moment. Clearly, in different states there will be different issues that those Education Ministers and their departments will be working through, on advice, I imagine, from their own Chief Medical Officers. I think they're much better placed than the Federal Minister to make these decisions.

JOURNALIST: The Federal Minister, to be fair, says he is relying on the advice from his panel and the Chief Medical Officer, this isn’t advice the Government is coming up on its own, do you accept that?

GILES: Well I'm sure that's right, but we've also heard from... JOURNALIST: Well if that’s right, that’s the advice isn’t it?

GILES: But we’ve also heard advice from Brett Sutton, the Chief Medical Officer in Victoria which strikes a slightly different note, And I guess Patricia, there are a few other issues here aren’t there? I mean understand there are about a million school children in Victoria. One of the things that's been really striking about this is the way in which Australians have come together and managed social distancing. I think we all have to think about the implications of, well, two million more movements in Victoria alone, a day, as we seek to avoid a second wave of infections, as we try and manage our way through this crisis. Whilst also, of course, making sure our kids get the education they deserve.

JOURNALIST: Jason, Queensland and WA are winding back their restrictions. Do you want your home state of New South Wales to do this too?

JASON FALINSKI, MEMBER FOR MACKELLAR: Look, I think - well, Queensland and Western Australia went a let further than New South Wales did initially. So that gave both those states an opportunity to wind those - those restrictions back. Clearly, New South Wales and Victoria have been hit harder by this virus than Queensland and Western Australia has. So that has afforded them the opportunity to wind back those restrictions sooner. But, look, I think all of us want Australia back up and running as quickly as possible without putting the lives and health of any Australians at risk. It is important that these decisions are made locally and that they take into account the local context of that occurring.

JOURNALIST: We see people flocking to Sydney beaches, though - are you worried people are becoming complacent?

FALINSKI: Yes, I am. I've got to say that's very disappointing. In this particular instance I've really been very unhappy with the behaviour of councils in Sydney. I think that they have mismanaged, by and large, our public spaces. And In doing so, when they closed Bondi - I'm from the Northern Beaches in Sydney - what they create is a compounding, cascading set of closures across all beaches because once you close one beach, people move to the next beach and then the one after, the one after, and, before you know, you're closing every beach in Sydney. At a time when we need to make sure that we manage our public spaces as best as possible and that they're available to people who are otherwise stuck in their homes for exercise and fresh air, and, frankly, ensuring that their mental health stays the same, we have relied on the third tier of government, being councils, to manage those public spaces and I'm afraid to say that, certainly, in New South Wales, in many cases they have not been up to the task at hand.

JOURNALIST: What are you suggesting they should have done? Are you suggesting co-ordination, because you are right, the flow on, other beaches are open, there are ramifications to every decision, how could they have done it better?

FALINSKI: Well in economic literature this is called, the Tragedy of the Commons, where you have public spaces that are overused by everyone. It is important in these particular instances that you make public spaces are rationed appropriately and properly. I think too many Councils in the Sydney Basin at the very least, threw their hands up and said they couldn't manage this at all and the result of it was that the State Government had to send in the police and close the whole thing down. That was immensely disappointing. Whereas, If they had simply been managed properly, my experience has been when people are in the first instance, explained to them why they're doing social distancing, what the rules entail, what they have to do, 99.9% comply. When there is non-compliance it is usually due to confusion, or because they didn't understand or they're unaware. Councils had a very specific opportunity during this period to actually show us that they could manage the public spaces which they hold in trust and in many instances they simply failed to do so and that has been, I think, a matter of grave disappointment. When this is all over, it is something that, in New South Wales at least, will need to be reviewed.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles, I know you're a Victorian MP but this is a national issue for us as well as an international well - do you agree with that critique that at a localised level there has been that mismanagement?

GILES: I can't really comment on what's been happening at the Sydney beaches and the role of the local government there but what I can say is that we can all try to be clearer about what we're trying to achieve. I think that's at the core of much of what Jason was saying. I think at the outset we saw mixed messages from government, the Federal Government that is. What we've been trying to do, and certainly what we’ve trying to do in the Labor Opposition, is show constructive advice to the Australian community about how to get through this period of social distancing. That’s an obligation on those of us in federal politics, state politics and on people in local government. And as Jason says, most Australians, we've seen this, have been determined to do the right thing. What we can do as people who hold positions of trust in community and in politics is to try and be clearer about making sure that they have the best information before them about what's the right thing to do.

JOURNALIST: Now this app seems to have been a lot more successful than I think if you rewinded to our conversations just a week ago, there was the view that many Australians might be concerned about their privacy. And yet, by the end of today, the Chief Medical Officer suggests we could have two million Australians who have signed up to this new coronavirus tracing app. It's pretty extraordinary. Jason, why do you think that is? Is it sort of a sort of a rush to take off restrictions, people willing to forfeit privacy because of that rush?

FALINSKI: Can I first off start by saying that I really want to congratulate a number of business leaders in this whole process, from supermarkets, the people who work at supermarkets, who’ve made sure we've had reliable access to food and not had the worries that other countries have had. And today we've seen Mike Cannon Brooks, one of our most successful IT entrepreneurs, and tech entrepreneurs, say to the business community and say it is time for us to step up and explain to people who may not have the technical proficiency to understand that this app is safe. I want to thank Mike for doing that and the other business leaders who've shown leadership during this process. I think most Australians understand that in downloading this app it is not about them. It is about their families, friends, their communities and protecting all of Australia and allowing us, allowing health authorities, rather, to track people where the disease is getting spread or not getting spread. It is for the common good. At this time, I think Australians have come together quite well. We've had a share sense of sacrifice. I agree with you, Patricia, this has been about people making the trade-off - yes, if they download the app and privacy is guaranteed, then there is the opportunity for us to get back to work and our normal lives sooner rather than later. But the fundamental thing is it keeps our community safer.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles, it seems today Labor politicians, including Bill Shorten, who we spoke to just recently, making some point about the app, but have come out saying they've signed up to the app. Have you signed up?

GILES: Yes, I did last night, Patricia. I think all my colleagues are signing up. There is some issues that needs to be worked through around privacy. There will be an opportunity to do that. But look I’ll just echo Jason's comments on this - I think the vast majority of Australians want to keep doing the right thing. They want to keep themselves safe but more importantly, their neighbours, their families and friends and they want to enable us to get to a position where we can return to something that looks like life as it was and the app is a small but critical step in doing that. So I was very pleased to downloading the app. I will pay attention to the issues down the track because privacy matters. We live in a time that's described as a period of surveillance capitalism, where our data is a real commodity, so there are some real significant issues here but we can and will work through them down the track. I was very happy to download the app last night. 

JOURNALIST: There is some breaking news this afternoon of a story reported on that was significant at the time, so It is worth putting this to both of you. Tasmanian police have dismissed allegations that healthcare worker, from the states north-west held an illegal dinner party that contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the region. You will recall reports that there may have been an illegal dinner party and that’s how this spread. The acting Deputy Commissioner Jonathan Higgins says an investigation has determined that there is no evidence of such a gathering occurring after the relevant directions by the Director of Public Health. That's just broken this afternoon. Starting with you Jason Falinski, it was, of course, the Chief Medical Officer that was quoted in a meeting, I think, where he said that he thinks this may have been the reason that this happened. Does it demonstrate we have to be a lot more careful about making these kinds of allegations?

FALINSKI: Well, look, firstly, can I say I'm actually gratified that that has now been dismissed and it's good to know, not that we had any doubt, that healthcare workers are doing the right thing. So I'm glad that that allegation has been put to bed. In defence of Brendan Murphy, he made a comment in a meeting of peers, I believe New Zealand health officials. I'm not sure that he was aware though - he probably should have been aware - that every mic is a hot mic and he made an aside comment which of course went viral. I don't know this for sure but I suspect if he knew that that comment was going to be repeated elsewhere and it was being made publicly, he probably would not have done that. But, look, once again I'm very glad to hear that that has now been put to bed and we know the truth of the matter, and that's - that's a positive thing.

JOURNALIST: Yes, that's right. I'll give you a chance to comment on that, too, Andrew Giles, because it was actually a significant story, that this potentially illegal dinner party may have been held and now police say there is no evidence that this happened?

GILES: Yes, it was. I think this is a salutary example of how we do need be very careful of what we say. I mean no criticism of the Chief Medical Officer but I just think we are in extraordinary times where people are desperate for information, particularly of information of this nature in a community like north-west Tasmania where there was such a shocking rate of transmission. I think we also have to be conscious, when you look at the people who may have been affected, I think everyone appreciates the extraordinary work our front-line medical staff, doctors, nurses and allied health workers, are doing at the moment. But we've also seen the pressure they're under, the pressure of doing their job under difficult circumstances but also some of the treatment they've been subjected to. Maybe that's an opportunity for all of us in public life to reflect on the words that we use and to be very, very careful in how we communicate to the public about these really significant issues.

JOURNALIST: Let's just talk before I let you both go about some comments that have been reported from the Chinese ambassador. China has warned of a possible economic backlash against Australia if the Morrison Government continues to lobby world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, which is pretty strong comments, actually, there. Jason Falinski, what's your response to this threat?

FALINSKI: Well, look, I mean, I haven't seen those comments. But I'm quite taken aback and surprised, to be honest. I would have thought it would be in the interests of any nation to get to the truth of the matter, what occurred, how it occurred and why it occurred, and when it occurred, because the critical thing for all of us here is when we know the truth, when we properly diagnose the problem, then we can actually go about designing the right solutions. So I would have thought it's in the interests of the Chinese Government and the Chinese people to have a properly and full investigation. So I would be - I'm somewhat quizzical about why the ambassador would have said that. Nonetheless, it is important that our organisation, United Nations organisations have the power, the equipment, the tools they need to undertake their functions. Otherwise, it simply diminishes their role and their capacity and, I think, global trust in those institutions. As we're seeing at the moment, trust in institutions is a critical thing, especially at time of crisis like the one we're going through at the moment.

JOURNALIST: Andrew Giles, if we are risking an economic backlash, is it worth it?

GILES: Look, we do have to get to the bottom of this. That's something that Penny Wong said this morning. We have to do so in two critical contexts - our need and the world's need to know how transmission took place. And also to reset our relationships, and I think that's something that Penny Wong spoke very effectively about in the media this morning. I think it is also incumbent on Australia, as the country which has always been open to the world, to restate our faith in multilateral institutions and seek to reinforce bodies like the WHO. I think that's going to be a really critical part of this challenge as well.

Can I also say one other thing Patricia and I think that's it's really important that Australians separate the criticism of the actions of the Chinese Government with criticism of Chinese Australians. I think we've seen some shocking incidences of racism in recent times that I hope all Australian Parliamentarians are concerned about. I hope we can continue to have a debate about the actions of the Chinese state engages in and separate that from unfair racist critique of Chinese Australians.

JOURNALIST: You have been urging the Government to implement a strategy to stop virus related racism particularly of Asian Australians as you say. What are you calling for, what do you want them to do specifically?

GILES: Well, the first thing the Government should do is to reintroduce an national racism campaign, like the Racism it stops with me campaign, to show to those who are affected and also to the broad community the harm racism does and the collective responsibility we have to stand together, particularly at a time like this. But I also think when in are so many signals about racism on the rise and the Human Rights Commission alerting us to the amount of COVID-19 related racism, perhaps it is time for a national strategy to combat racism. To make sure that through this crisis and beyond it we really are all in it together, that individual Australians can't be singled out by reason where they come from or how they appear.

JOURNALIST: Thanks to both of you for joining us from your homes and offices. Always good to get a little window into people's lives.

FALINSKI: Thank you.

GILES: Thank you.