Television Interview with Fauziah Ibrahim and Joanne Nicholson – ABC Weekend Breakfast – Saturday 1 May 2021


SUBJECTS:  COVID crisis in India; Government’s failure to take responsibility for hotel quarantine; Housing Minister passing the buck on housing affordability.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM, HOST: The Government has tightened travel restrictions for Australians in India leaving thousands stranded in the COVID-ravaged country. Australian citizens who attempt to get home in the next fortnight or so could face the prospect of jail time as well as heavy fines.

JOANNA NICHOLSON, HOST: It comes as India recorded another 380,000 infections yesterday and health officials in the country have warned the death rate is likely to spike dramatically in the next two weeks. Let’s bring in our pollie-panel, now. We’re joined by Liberal MP, Doctor Katie Allen, who joins us from Melbourne, and we’re joined in the studio by Labor MP Jason Clare who’s the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness. Welcome to both morning. Katie Allen, earlier in the program, we had epidemiologist Michael Toole from the Burnet Institute on and he said that the fact that we’re stopping, we’re banning these flights from India with the consequences being jail or hefty fines if that’s breached, he says that that shows there’s no confidence in the system. Is that right?

DR KATIE ALLEN, MEMBER FOR HIGGINS: I think we are understanding that what’s happening in India now is an absolute crisis. And I think the world is watching in a very worried state about what’s happening in India. Certainly a year ago, we thought that India would have more difficulties and so you know, it’s a year later that it’s happening now. And, and our heart goes out to what’s happening there. But we have to be very careful about how we respond to this crisis, as it’s emerging very quickly. We want to make sure that we are doing the right thing and being very careful in our response. It’s a bit like, during summer, we hear every week about people who are so worried about someone who puts their hand up in an emergency at the beach, and rushes to the rescue and unfortunately, they’re the ones that have the outcome that results in a fatality rather than the person who’s putting up their hand. So we need to be careful about the way that we respond. This is a very rapidly emerging situation and I think putting a pause on flights, for the time being, is the right thing to do. We do have a great quarantine system, it’s one of the best in the world, we just want to make sure that we’re doing our response in a careful way.

HOST: But these are Australian citizens who are wanting to come home from India. If we have one of the best quarantine systems in the world, then can’t we set up some sort of a process to help them come back?

ALLEN: I completely agree with you that we have to be absolutely supportive of every Australian citizen returning home. It is one of those situations where quarantining is difficult, we know that quarantining can’t be perfect because one that can be human error, but also one in 100 cases become positive after the first two weeks. And so when we bring in large numbers to Australia, we are bringing in more risk. So that is why the system is quite careful and considered backed in by excellent contact tracing, and the states and territories have been doing a wonderful job with quarantining, bringing 500,000 people in Australian citizens back to Australia over the last year. But we have to do it in a careful way because if we overwhelm the system, it can be easily overwhelmed. It’s not about the individual aspect of the system. It is about the actual systemic aspect of the system. One in 100 cases after 14 days can become positive and so if you bring in vast numbers, then you increase the risk significantly for keeping this nation safe.

HOST: Jason Clare, do you think the decision to suspend flights to and from India was the right decision given we didn’t see a similar decision being made when the UK had their numbers as well. America their numbers, the EU also had their numbers as well. We limited flights from these countries, from these continents but we didn’t ban them. Is this the right decision?

JASON CLARE MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: I think it was the right call. It was based on health advice about the number of people coming from India that had COVID in quarantine. I think it’d be a big call, though, to make it a crime for Australians trying to get home. I think what we should be doing is trying to make it easier for people to get home. When we did something like this, in respect of flights from China, we charteredd a flight to Wuhan to get Aussies out and took them to Christmas Island. Why aren’t we doing that now? We could do that. What’s Christmas Island being used for apart from apparently housing those serious criminals from Biloela? The Australian Government is responsible for quarantine. They’ve pushed all the responsibility for that on to the states. The states are doing a good job but when it fails, they just blame them. The Commonwealth is responsible for quarantine, it’s right there in the Constitution, Section 51. They’ve done it before with Christmas Island and they could do that again. The other thing is, believe it or not, four and a half thousand Aussies were allowed to go to India in the first three months of this year January, February and March, Australians were allowed to go to India. Now, why was that allowed to happen? In hindsight, that was a big mistake. There are people there now that a desperate to get out and can’t get out.

HOST: You know, you say that the federal government has pushed the quarantine responsibility on the states. One particular state is taking that very seriously, Victoria have announced that they are planning on building a purpose built quarantine facility and that would work in conjunction and in addition to hotel quarantine as well, but it does depend on federal funding as well. Is this something that you would support?

CLARE: The Federal Government’s got to play a bigger role in quarantine. Go back a hundred years to the last time we had a pandemic with the Spanish flu and quarantine was done then. Guess who did that? The Federal Government. They ran the quarantine stations. That’s their job, and what the states are saying here to the Federal Government is do your job. Don’t just duck shove everything off to the state governments. Victorian Government says “here, we can build this facility, make it purpose built so we don’t have the problems you’re seeing in hotels, but provide some money for it. You run quarantine, you’re responsible for it, you should put your hand in your pocket and do it,” and if the Commonwealth says no to that, then do the same thing somewhere else.

HOST: Katie Allen, the hotel quarantine system clearly is a weak spot for Australia. We’ve seen a number of leaks and a number of outbreaks originate from hotel quarantine. Why isn’t the government, the federal government, stepping up its role in this particular area?

ALLEN: I disagree with you completely. The quarantine system of bring 500,000 people back from overseas has been absolutely outstanding. So look, I hear what Jason says about Victorian Government that says it’s committed to building a quarantine station in a year’s time with federal money. Just listen to that. They’re not committing money themselves. They’re promising other people’s money for years’ time. That’s not about responding to the situation in India right now. We know COVID has been changing and we are seeing a very rapid change in what is happening. So there’s a lot of war-gaming going on at the moment with regards to what our plans are for the future. The Federal Government has had a plan from the very start and I back in each of the decisions the Federal Government has made including National Cabinet a year ago. We reactivated National Cabinet’s operational footing and I very much welcome that, and the states took on the role last year of quarantining. They’re using quarantining with regards to their border closure as well so this is not just about international quarantine, it’s also about state based quarantine. So it’s more complicated than Jason is actually giving credit for and he’s talking about something that happened 100 years ago. We’re now talking about a modern Australia in a modern globe and talking about quarantining, where the states or using quarantining for their border closures as well. Perhaps if the states gave up their arguments about border closures, it would be a different situation. But this is much more complicated than Jason says. It’s also rapidly changing. We’ve already been talking about other options with regards to where we will be in the next six to 12 months as vaccine rollouts occur right around the world, and the changes that happen to the risk benefit ratio. That is also something that we’re looking at with regards to the possibility of home quarantining. I think Australians would really welcome the opportunity to have home quarantining as an option provided it’s safe and effective. So there are lots of options on the table that are being war gamed as we speak. These are important decisions for the nation to be making, they should be made in consultation as they are as at National Cabinet with the federal, state and territory governments working hand in glove, not playing politics about something that might happen in a year’s time. Sure, those things have to be considered, and I’m sure they are being considered. But we shouldn’t talk down our excellent quarantining system. Yes, human error occurs. Yes, there are aspects of COVID that make it very difficult for us to work with. But the vaccine, in my view, will move this from being a deadly disease to being a serious disease.

CLARE: Just to touch on that, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t bag the Victorian Government last year and say they’re doing a terrible job with quarantine and now say that the current hotel system is (interrupted)

ALLEN: I didn’t Jason. I actually said, I never said that. I said they were doing a bad job. I didn’t.

CLARE: What I’m saying is (interrupted and inaudible). I didn’t interrupt you, Katie (interrupted)

ALLEN: You did actually, at the end of what I said. I said they were doing a bad job with contact tracing, and I stand by that. They’ve now sorted that system out and credit where credit is due. That is the contact tracing needs to back in the first line of defence which is quarantining, and I was very critical last year of the Victorian State Government because it had the wrong strategy. And I back that in still, they’ve changed their strategy.

HOST: Very quickly, Jason, because we are running out of time.

CLARE: The bottom line is until we make the quarantine system bulletproof, it needs a bigger investment by the Commonwealth Government, and until we roll out the vaccine to the majority of the Australian population, we’re going to continue to have cities shut down and we’re going to continue to have to shut flights to countries like India. The Government can’t just push all the responsibility off to the States. They’ve got to play a bigger role in quarantine, and they got to speed up the role of the vaccine.

HOST: Okay, we do want to move on to some other stories and some comments made by federal housing minister Michael Sukkar about housing affordability in Australia. He’s saying that the states and territories need to take more responsibility for this. He says it’s local levies imposed on new developments that are hurting first time buyers. That’s prompted a response from the New South Wales Planning Minister Rob Stokes, who’s blaming interest rates and federal tax rules for pushing up the price of housing. Jason, you are the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness. Is it’s a state responsibility, a federal responsibility?

CLARE: This is why Australians hate politics: the blame game between the states and the federal government. The federal government’s blaming the state governments, the state government is blaming the federal government, they both blame local government. Local governments blame the developers, and all the while prices go up, rents go up (interrupted)

HOST: But practically, what is the factor here?

CLARE: There’s no one single thing. Part of it is land supply. Part of it is planning changes. Part of it is tax policy. It might surprise you that these people that are fighting in the newspaper today don’t even meet. There’s no meeting of housing ministers. If we win the next election, that’s the first thing I’d do. The Federal Housing Minister should be meeting with the states and local governments, as well as all the other people that are involved in housing policy here. You’re not going to fix this unless there’s a bit of goodwill and a bit of communication.

HOST: Katie Allen, do you think that this is just basically the government, you know, passing the buck over to the states as they have with the quarantine issues as well?

ALLEN: I think there’s one aspect that’s been had a lot of investment, and that is about making housing more affordable and we do know with the first homebuyers loan scheme of five per cent, that that’s been enthusiastically supported and we also know that there’s been a lot of investment into the HomeBuilder program. So we know that there’s a lot of funding coming in to make home buying more affordable, which means there’s enthusiasm for that. What we need to do is make sure that homes are more accessible. So we do need to see more supply being opened up and I’d like I’d encourage that there to be hand in glove, as we spoke about before between the states and territories and the federal government about a how to make the supply meet the demand. So we need to make housing more accessible and that does mean looking at aspects at the state level because the state is actually responsible for the supply side. I do know that the Commonwealth Government is opening up some of its own land to make it more accessible, but we need to work more on the accessible side because we know people are enthusiastically wanting to buy, they’ve got money to buy, but they don’t have enough supply. So that is where I think the work needs to be done and I do believe that the states and federal government need to work very closely to make sure that Australians can fulfill their dream of getting into that first home.

HOST: All right, on that note, we’re going to have to end our discussion. Thank you so much for being with us today, Jason Clare and Katie Allen.