Transcript - Afternoon Briefing [12 May 2021]

12 May 2021

Subject/s: Budget; COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, Host: Time for my political panel now. Liberal MP Tim Wilson and Labor MP and Anne Aly. Welcome to both of you in person.

TIM WILSON: Hey Patricia.

ANNE ALY: This is so close!

KARVELAS: Are we distancing enough? (Anne’s voice in background) Yes, I think we’re okay.

ALY: As long as Tim and I are distanced enough, because it might get heated.

KARVELAS: Let's start with talking about some of the projections in this budget, starting with you, Tim Wilson. We've had really mixed messages from the government about whether everyone will be vaccinated by the end of the year. Should everyone be guaranteed vaccination done and dusted by the end of the year?

WILSON: What we've said is we have the supply necessary that every Australian who wishes to be vaccinated by the end of the year will be in a position to do so. And of course, we want as many Australians to vaccinate as possible. I'll be getting a vaccination. I hope you two will as well. And I hope all the viewers will as well, because it's the best way that we can get back to a road where we're able to open up, not just domestically, protect ourselves against the threat of the virus, but also progressively our international borders. But that requires people to be vaccinated. We've had 77,000 nearly in the past 24 hours, which shows you that, yes, there's been a build up, but it's now moving apace. Around 2.8 million Australians have been vaccinated. And that's a huge success. But there's more to do.

KARVELAS: What do you make of the government's projections for when it will get this job done?

ALY: Which predictions are there? I mean, you had Josh Frydenberg saying that the projections in fact, the Budget was predicated on the assumption that everybody would be vaccinated, have both vaccinations by the end of the year. And then you had the Prime Minister say something entirely different. Then you had the Minister for Health say something entirely different. So which is it? You know, what are the projections and what are the assumptions that the budget is based on around the vaccine rollout? I have people coming into my office every day saying ‘I don't know when I'm getting the vaccine. I don't know, I've been told that there are no vaccines available for me.’ So, you know, you can talk all you like about how many people have been vaccinated. But, Tim, your government promised that there would be four million people vaccinated by the end of March and they’re not. So I don't know how on earth you can assume that you're going to have all of Australia vaccinated by the end of the year.

WILSON: Just for clarity, what we've said is there's available vaccines for every Australia by the end of the year to be able to do so. Now, you know and I know Anne, as you do, Patricia, that there will be some people who've made a choice not to get vaccinated. And now, while obviously not share their view, I’ve said that I’ll get vaccinated, we have to respect the fact that people have the freedom to decide what to put in their body.

KARVELAS: Ok, so the international borders don’t open, according again to the budget estimates, until the middle of next year. Are you satisfied with that time frame because business is bristling?

WILSON: I've said consistently I'd like to see international borders open as soon as it's safe to do so. But the reality –

KARVELAS: If we’re all vaccinated by the end of the year, why isn’t it safe to do so immediately?

WILSON: Well, firstly, we know that there are other variants of the virus out there. We don't know whether that way one, two or three or one point one, one point two, one point three, we've seen variants, mutations. And so, we're making conservative estimates based on what we understand are known risks. We've seen what's happened recently in India. We've seen what's happened potentially in other countries like Indonesia and Canada, where there have been disastrous health consequences for younger people. We’ll make prudent, responsible decisions to protect the Australian community, while absolutely with the ambition to try and get us back to normal as quickly as possible.

KARVELAS: Labor's been critical of this. Do you think that the international border should be opening earlier?

ALY: Well, let's talk about what's predictable and what's not predictable in this scenario. OK, so the things that we do have control over or that we should have control over are quarantine and the vaccine roll out. Now, no mention of quarantine in the budget. If you were to listen to Josh Frydenberg’s speech last night, you would think that the first rule of quarantine is to not talk about quarantine. So you have control over quarantine, you have control over the vaccine rollout. There are the two things that you can control. They also are the two things that will determine whether or not we can open up the international borders sooner rather than later. We've got a ton of industries who are reliant on those borders being open universities, tourism, business. I'd like to see them open as soon as it's possibly safe to do so. And I understand we live in an unpredictable world. Understand every point you make about the unpredictability of the COVID pandemic. However, there are points that we can and should be able to take control over and give Australians some certainty on.

WILSON: OK, so what’s your date?

ALY: My date for what?

WILSON: You said you want to open them up.

ALY: So as soon as you can vaccinate everyone and as soon as you can put in Commonwealth quarantine. But you guys have no plans to do any of that.

KARVELAS: So let me as you a question (Tim interrupting)… well, let me ask the specific question. There's a Victorian proposal. Scott Morrison says, you know…

WILSON: That it’s considering in good faith.

KARVELAS: … yeah, and that it’s a well-developed proposal. He's actually been quite complimentary about the details philosophically rather than because I'm not saying that you've gone through the details, you’re an epidemiologist. But philosophically, would you like the Commonwealth government to fund such a facility.

WILSON: Well, I'd like to say quarantine facilities that actually provide the pathways for Australians to return. That's why we've seen a doubling of the Howard Springs facility and I haven't seen the proposals –

KARVELAS: You’re a Victorian MP, would you like to see it funded?

WILSON: Well, this facility or any facility would be for the whole of Australia, not just for Victorians, but of course, I'm absolutely open to these prospects. And I think the opportunity to see facilities to get more Australians who haven't been able to return home. And of course, we don't know how long we're going to live with this scenario. So if people need to depart and return and provide a pathway, then I'm absolutely open to it.

KARVELAS: So you think it's a good idea that the Commonwealth get involved with funding these alternative approaches like Howard Springs in other places?

WILSON: Well, we've already funded and supported the expansion of Howard Springs –

KARVELAS: Other than.

WILSON: And we've already done that, which shows absolutely there's a clarity there in an objective to do this. And if there are good proposals on the table, that's why the Prime Minister said he'll not only consider in good faith, but as you said, he's been very complimentary, but will come down to the detail and making sure it works because –

KARVELAS: Should it have happened in the Budget?

WILSON: Well, there's been allocated funding, lots of different things in the Budget. But actually the decision to invest in building a facility should be based on the merits of the proposal and the capacity to keep Australians safe. The dollar figures are considering the circumstance we're facing, I think are actually largely immaterial, is about the merit of the proposal.

ALY: We should also consider the need for the proposal. I mean, you know you know what Australia does really well. Australia does rapid building really, really well. We have got some of the best rapid building technologies in the world. You know why? Because we build dongas and we build mine sites. Yes, we could have constructed quarantine facilities that could have brought back Australians and could have safely housed –

WILSON: As you and I both know Anne, that's rather simplistic answer because you need things like workforce's access to airports, access to facilities –

ALY: If you want to do it, you would have done it.

WILSON: And so that's one of the reasons why we've actually used the hotel quarantine system, because the advice has been that with the workforce, with the capacity of things like kitchens, access to doctors, medical advice and medical support offices, the hotel quarantine system has been important. We've been building expanding up the Howard Springs facility and the potential that more facilities…

KARVELAS: OK, final question before we wrap up, just on spending, do you see this is a Labor-lite Budget?

ALY: They wish, this is how I see the budget. You know, when you go shopping with your kids and you let them fill the trolley and then at the end, you end up paying 100 dollars for sweets and lollies, but nothing to sustain you for the week. That's how I see this Budget. It's a budget of sweeteners and a budget of lollies. But there is no real reform. There's nothing to really sustain. It's a Budget that's predicated on a whole lot of assumptions that may or may not happen. And then there's the piece, the centrepiece of low wage growth and wage stagnation. That's how I say this Budget. Is it Labor-lite? They wish.

KARVELAS: Is it Labor-lite and are you concerned about the high levels of debt?

WILSON: Well, I've always been somebody who's fiscally prudent, and I absolutely want to see us get to a position where we return and are able to pay down debt, that there will always be my objective in terms of balancing budgets into the future. But you're deluded if you think it's anything other than a pandemic budget focused on what we need to do to support families –

KARVELAS: But it's baked in, some of it this is baked in long term funding. Aged care, mental health. So you say it's a pandemic budget, but it's not stimulatory. These are essential services.

WILSON: There are multiple parts of the Budget. There is the pandemic component which is supporting people through this period. There's obviously packages and support packages, particularly addressing gender inequity in our society. And there are structural funding for things like aged care, because one of the benefits of having a strong economy, Patricia, is you can actually fund these services. One of the reasons why it's definitely not a Labor Budget is because Labor has a long and very successful tradition of trashing the economy so they can make commitments, the financial commitments that they then can't make.

KARVELAS: OK, big claim that I know you want to contest but we’re out of time, ‘I don't think Labor trashes the economy.’ You do, something like that. Well, thank you to both of you. Nice to see you.

ALY: Thanks PK.

KARVELAS: Liberal MP Tim Wilson and Labor MP Anne Aly there.