Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB Afternoons

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Vaccine rollout; Australians returning from overseas; humanitarian visas in Afghanistan; 2032 Olympics.

Deborah Knight: The news at the moment is still very much all about COVID. Infections from the Delta strain are on the rise. We’ve had 126 new infections in New South Wales, 26 in Victoria. We’re still behind the rest of the world with the vaccine rollout, and no-one knows when the lockdowns in three states will end. It’s a mess. The states are putting pressure on the Prime Minister. He’s putting pressure on the medical regulator ATAGI to change the advice for AstraZeneca. And at the end of the day, Australians don’t care who’s to blame or who gets the job done; we just want to get through this mess. Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, is on the line for us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Deb. How are you?

Deborah Knight: I’m well, thank you. Now, we’ve had the New South Wales Minister for Jobs and Tourism, Stuart Ayers, on with my colleague Ray Hadley earlier, and he’s very critical of ATAGI and the advice that they’re giving on AstraZeneca. And the Prime Minister’s also been critical of them in recent days as well. Do they need to change the advice on AstraZeneca in light of the way Delta is spreading?

Marise Payne: I think the Prime Minister made the point yesterday that the situation Australia faces is one which we have to manage on the balance of risk. And when ATAGI made the decision to restrict or to have a reference for those under the age of 60 not to have the AstraZeneca vaccine, they actually said they made that decision on the balance of risk. So we’re in a very different position now some months later, and it is perhaps for ATAGI to be regularly reconsidering how that balance of risk actually applies and to provide that advice accordingly. What I would say is that we have seen many younger Australians who are choosing to speak to their GP and then, with informed consent and based on their own circumstances, choosing to take the AstraZeneca vaccine. In fact, in under 40s, that has increased by tens of thousands –

Deborah Knight: Well, we just had Henry call in before you came on the line – 31 years of age on his way now to get the AstraZeneca jab.

Marise Payne: And that’s indicative of what I’ve been saying. The medical advice is to work in informed consent in discussions with your doctor. And it is important that people do that. In Victoria, they pushed an extra 300,000 AstraZeneca vaccines into the state through their state-based clinic when they were going through that challenge several weeks ago and really lifted those numbers. So we have seen take-up that has been considerable.

Deborah Knight: So you think it’s timely, though, that ATAGI should have a review of that age of over 60 for AstraZeneca?

Marise Payne: Well, I’d never get into the business of providing medical advice, but if you say that you prefaced your decision or premised your decision on the balance of risk and if the balance of risk changes because infections are increasing, because the Delta strain is something which we are dealing with that was not previously the case, then I think the Prime Minister’s decision is very sound that we would constantly reconsider how that balance of risk applies and then provide advice accordingly.

Deborah Knight: And what about responsibility for the vaccine rollout? Because there’s so much frustration among Australians with the rate of the rollout. Five months in and just 14-and-a-half per cent of the adult population is fully vaccinated compared to the UK – five months into their rollout over 33 per cent were fully vaccinated. The PM has said he regrets the rhetoric that it’s “not a race”, but he won’t apologise. Why not?

Marise Payne: I think the Prime Minister’s been very clear that accountability rests with the Government and that these have been very challenging times. In a pandemic no country gets everything right. But we are certainly sorry that we’re not further down the road with the vaccination rollout. But what we are doing now after a difficult start is turning that vaccination program around. And in fact, we’ve seen in the last seven days over a million doses distributed in Australia. We’ve reached over 10 and a half million and seen a daily increase in vaccinations of more than 184,000. That’s a record day.

What I really think is important, though, Deb, for those of us who are passionately committed to Sydney and to New South Wales, as I am, even though I’m speaking from quarantine in Canberra, is to encourage people, encourage our families, encourage older family members, to take the opportunity to please get vaccinated through the GP program, through the Commonwealth vaccination clinics, through the State clinics. The Prime Minister I think will be speaking very soon today, if he’s not already on his feet, about greater involvement of pharmacies in the rollout. But in my part of the world in western Sydney, please talk to your older parents and your older family members and encourage them to protect themselves and to protect their families, and please yourself take the opportunity to talk to your GP if you are younger and want to choose the AstraZeneca vaccine, but take every opportunity, Deb.

Deborah Knight: And what will be the decision with pharmacies? Is there a breakthrough in allowing more of them to provide the vaccines?

Marise Payne: The Prime Minister’s going to speak further about that today, but we know that’s an important part of the rollout. And he’ll be providing an update imminently I believe.

Deborah Knight: All right, we’ll bring you that news, and we’re on standby to give you the details from that press conference when it happens. Now the caps on Australians allowed to come home, they’ve been cut, and in terms of the Aussies who are still stranded overseas, how many are there?

Marise Payne: Well, states and territories have sought a reduction in those caps, that’s correct. And we’ve been prioritising our flights into the Northern Territory resilience facility. We have just over, I think, 36,000 currently indicating they wish to return. That number does change very often because people’s circumstances change. We have 47,000 registered with DFAT and, as I said, 36,000 or so who’ve indicated their wish to return. So we are planning those flights through the Howard Springs facility each fortnight and pursuing those from a number of locations overseas where we have a presence, a significant presence, of people. They are booking very quickly, and we will continue to do that, as we said, to the end of the year.

Deborah Knight: And in light of the Delta strain and the way that it is at the moment with the lockdowns in three states and with the case numbers rising in New South Wales and Victoria, the increase on those caps, that’s not going to happen any time soon, is it?

Marise Payne: Well, ultimately that will be a decision for the National Cabinet and the steps that the states and territories wish to see put in place. That’s why we are trying to put as many flights as we can through Howard Springs, including arrivals from India, as we’ve been continuing since the pause there. We plan that program with the Northern Territory Government. We’ll soon see Howard Springs at capacity based on that agreement with the Northern Territory. We agreed that flight schedule, and that is a 24-hour-a-day job through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade right now, I have to say.

Deborah Knight: And what about the compassionate cases? Because there are so many heartbreaking stories of Australians who have returned at extraordinary cost to themselves because of tragic circumstances or who are wanting to come home but even though they’re fully vaccinated they keep facing hurdles, keep facing brick walls. Many of them aren’t able to see their loved ones before they die. Why don’t we have a consistent national guideline for dealing with these compassionate cases?

Marise Payne: Well, Deb, I think frankly every case is different, and I have certainly seen that over the last year and a half.

Deborah Knight: But what about for people who are fully vaccinated?

Marise Payne: Well, ultimately they will be decisions that we make on the health advice. And the Department of Foreign and Trade, which assists with that process in terms of the facilitated commercial flights, is guided by that through the Cabinet processes of the Commonwealth and the National Cabinet itself. Where there are Australians who are vulnerable overseas, we, of course, have also been providing financial assistance. That has included over $34-and-a-half million in both grants and loans to more than 4,500 Australians. We are trying to provide that support and strong consular support through our posts and through the consular centre here in Australia.

There is no doubt that international movement is extraordinarily challenging in a pandemic, and there is no doubt that this has put significant pressure on many, many people. And I have spoken to so many of them myself and so many families that I aware of who come to me and come to my office, come to my department, come to many of my parliamentary colleagues. We are all trying right across the parliament to support them as well as we can and to return as many as we can.

We’ve had over 629,000 Australians come back since we said reconsider your need to travel in March of last year – a lot of those on our facilitated commercial flights. So there is a lot of movement, but the numbers continue to be something that we’re working with every day.

Deborah Knight: And yet we see people like Katie Hopkins given exemptions to film a reality TV show before being booted out because she thought it was a laughing rollicking joke to flout the quarantine rules – and rightly so, she was deported. And then we’ve also got the official delegation to the Olympics in Tokyo right now. All these exemptions are above the caps – in other words, not taking the space of a returning.

Marise Payne: That’s right.

Deborah Knight: But if we can lift the caps in these special circumstances, why can’t we do that for ordinary people?

Marise Payne: Well, Deb, you’d have to probably ask the states and the territories who are actually managing the quarantine caps themselves –

Deborah Knight: But we’re sick of the blame game, though, Minister. This is what we keep hearing.

Marise Payne: It’s not a blame game.

Deborah Knight: But everyone’s saying it’s their fault and then they’re saying, “but it’s their fault.”

Marise Payne: Well, I don’t think I was saying that. I think I was actually saying that the states and territories ask for exemptions, travel exemptions, from time to time. You’ve evidenced a number of those, including the Olympics delegation that is currently in Tokyo – and what great news that is. Where there are exemptions, the states and territories ensure that they don’t take the place generally of returning Australians, as you said. Mostly the exemptions are requested, as I understand it, and it’s run through the Department of Home Affairs, on the basis that there would be an economic benefit to the states. And I would always encourage the states and territories to be generous in the provision of quarantine places. I must say, in New South Wales we have carried the broad share of this through the entire process of returning Australians through hotel quarantine, and we’ve had hundreds of thousands of Australians go through hotel quarantine in the last 15 to 18 months. So I would always encourage them to be generous with their approaches and sensible in their applications for travel exemptions.

Deborah Knight: Okay, a couple of quick ones, if I can. The Afghan interpreters and others who helped Australian soldiers, we’ve seen some veterans burning their medals in protest at the way they’ve been treated by some of the Australian government. Should we be doing more to help get the Afghan interpreters who did so much to help our forces, our troops, over this two-decade war out of Afghanistan and out of harm’s way of the Taliban?

Marise Payne: Well, we have granted 400 visas so far this year to former employees and to their families, and not just interpreters but a broader range of former employees. And since, of course, 2013, we’ve seen over 1,500 visas since the program began. In the last two months – or this month and in June – we’ve seen 225 Afghan former employees and their families arrive in Australia. So this is a very high priority for the Government through the special humanitarian visa program. But, importantly – and I think Australians expect us to use the standards that we use for all those who come to Australia – there are health, there are character, there are national security requirements that are part of the visa application process. And through both the certification that I give as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, that Minister Dutton gives as the Minister for Defence, they are all taken into account and then the Department of Home Affairs provides the visa grant.

Deborah Knight: Will we see a reinstatement of our presence in Afghanistan? Because that would make it much smoother and easier, wouldn’t it?

Marise Payne: I’m not going to comment on that particularly. And I’ve said previously that when we announced in May that we were going to leave Afghanistan, we indicated quite clearly that we hoped that that would be a temporary position. There is a number of conversations ongoing with counterparts particularly over the circumstances that we would need to see in place, particularly around security, to enable us to return. But on the resettlement process, we have two streams: we have the special humanitarian visa program and, of course, we have the general humanitarian visa program which has brought 6,500 Afghans to Australia through that process.

Deborah Knight: Okay.

Marise Payne: And it’s one which we take very seriously.

Deborah Knight: And just finally, what’s your response to the way that AOC President John Coates spoke to the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, at that press conference in the wake of the great news of Brisbane getting the 2032 games? I thought it was uncomfortable to watch, basically speaking to her a bit like a recalcitrant teenager saying, “You will go to the opening ceremony.” You’re the Minister for Women. Was it a bit of mansplaining there?

Marise Payne: Well –

Deborah Knight: I’m sure you’ve copped a bit of that in your time.

Marise Payne: Deb, you and I see a bit of mansplaining most of our working days, don’t we? And I haven’t seen the vision – I’ve seen the reports, I’ve been in meetings all day. But I am absolutely elated. As somebody who was part of John Fahey’s team in the lead-up to 2000 when we won the Olympics for Sydney, I am elated that we are able to welcome the Olympics to Brisbane. I think it’s fabulous.

Deborah Knight: Yes, well, less mansplaining and more winning for countries like Australia and for cities like Brisbane. Marise Payne, thanks for your time.

Marise Payne: [Indistinct] less mansplaining, more winning.

Deborah Knight: Absolutely. Good on you. Thanks for joining us.

Marise Payne: Thanks, Deb.

Deborah Knight: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

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