Transcript - Afternoon Briefing [27 April 2021]

27 April 2021

Subject/s: India flight ban; defence policy rhetoric; Scott Morrison's public expressions of faith.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Time now for my political panel, Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Labor MP Anne Aly join us. Welcome to both of you.

Let's begin on this unfolding crisis in India and beginning with you, if I can, Dr Anne Aly. Obviously a really, really dangerous situation in India. Now, the government's made this decision to suspend flights to May the 15th. They will work on helping get people in the most serious situations back. But ultimately, a lot of people will be waiting. Is this the right call?

ANNE ALY: Yes, I do think it's the right call, Patricia. It is an evolving situation, as you say, and India now is the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak and a particularly virulent strain of the outbreak. So it is the right call to suspend flights coming in from India. I would have liked to have seen some earlier action, perhaps to at least curb people going and coming back from India, as we saw with the case of the individual who went to attend a wedding and then returned with the COVID strain and caused the community transmission here in WA. But, you know, I think it's a welcome move to suspend, at least temporarily, while still giving attention to those 15,000 or so Australians who are stranded in India and need to come home.

KARVELAS: Dave Sharma, you've previously called for more help for Australians stranded overseas. Are you comfortable with this ban?

DAVE SHARMA: Look, I think we were one of the first countries to impose a travel ban on some countries early on in the pandemic back in February. And I think we've been well served by that. Forgive the background images.

KARVELAS: I’m loving it on every level. Keep going.

SHARMA: We were well served by imposing a travel ban quite early. Look, I feel tremendous sympathy for those Australians and Indians who are stuck over there would like to come to Australia. But I think we've seen with the multiple iterations of this disease and the virus outbreaks and whatnot, that this we can't afford to be complacent. So I think leaving early and moving quickly, like we've done in these cases, is the prudent move.

KARVELAS: A few people are sort of commenting online that we didn't see this approach when we saw those skyrocketing cases in the United States, Dave Sharma, and that this seems to be a stronger reaction than we got in that case with exemptions and a suspension of flights. Is it a stronger reaction?

SHARMA: Well, I think what we’ve seen in India is, you know, we're talking about 320,000 cases a day, which is a world record. And I think, you know, it's like nothing that we've ever seen before in the world. And we know that about 20 per cent of the arrivals into Australia that are testing positive for COVID-19 are coming from India. I don't think we are in this situation that… I don't have the figures in front of me. But when we're talking about the early stages of the outbreak, when it was rife in the United States, but I think we did impose a travel ban on Italy and Iran and a few other countries in the early stages of the crisis when numbers were added or at a similar level to this one.

KARVELAS: Anne Aly, that is sort of common thing I'm hearing online that there has been maybe a different reaction. Do you see it as inconsistent?  

ALY: Well, it's a different situation, isn't it, Patricia? Like Dave was saying, you know, it is a particularly new strain, a more virulent strain by the by the looks of things you've got, as Dave was saying, 323,000 people or so diagnosed in a single day. That's a record. And so, you know, this is an evolving situation. I think it's prudent to have an evolving response. And I understand that some people may feel that this is perhaps a double standard and the kind of undertones of what is being said there. But I think looking at it from a logical and objective perspective, it is hating, hating, to use this word again, but it is unprecedented that we have that many people diagnosed in a single day in a single country.

KARVELAS: Look, I want to move on to another topic. The Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, has argued Australia must strive to reduce the likelihood of war, but not at the cost of our precious liberty and talked about the drumbeats of war. What do you think about that language, Dave Sharma?

SHARMA: Well, I think it was a statement that's not dissimilar to what we've been hearing from our political leaders over a number of months now. And I think, you know, Peter Dutton, since he's become defence minister, has definitely spoken in these terms. And I think it's an observation in the sense that we face a more difficult and uncertain strategic environment. And the Prime Minister made that an observation himself last year at the Defence Strategic Update, which is more challenging for Australia. And whilst we strive to maintain peace and harmony in the world and relations with good relations with any number of countries that are in our region, this cannot be at the expense of our values or the integrity of our political system or any other number of features of our sovereignty. So, look, I think Mike Pezzullo's remarks on Australia are his message to staff in Australia Day was a restatement of messages that government ministers have been giving now over a number of months.

KARVELAS: Dr Anne Aly, is that your view that it was just consistent with what the government's been saying?

ALY: I disagree slightly with Dave on this one, Patricia, I think it's I think it's quite concerning that we have a senior public servant, quite cavalier, to be honest, with his statements about war. What Australians need now, and particularly those who rely on trade with China, is the de-escalation of the tensions between Australia and China, not an escalation of those. And I think, you know, war, as we come out of Afghanistan as we have now decided to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan after a long war that really didn't achieve what it was intended to do, this so-called war on terror. I think it's very prudent to really look at war as absolutely a last resort and be very careful about how we talk about armed action.

KARVELAS: I just want to, again, change the topic, to talk about something that's been, I think, a very strong conversation point. And that's a speech that the Prime Minister made and his claim that he's been called upon to do God's work in a speech to an evangelical conference. Dr Anne Aly, lots of discussion about the separation between church and state, the Prime Minister's faith, the way that this has been handled. What are your thoughts about the way he's handling this and the way that this speech was delivered in this speech that's been heavily reported on, talked about praying for people when he was, you know, hugging them, that sort of stuff? Is that just the Prime Minister talking about his own faith and you comfortable with it?

ALY: I am. I am comfortable with it, Patricia. We live in a secular country which enables us to have religious pluralism and I'm completely committed to that. And as somebody who gets attacked about her faith, quite often, I want to do as I want to be treated, as I want to be treated, so to speak, do unto others and all of that. And I would like to afford the Prime Minister the respect of allowing him to express his faith in any way he wants. He is perfectly entitled to be a person of faith and to express his faith. He was addressing a religious conference and it's entirely appropriate to look to use religious language when you are addressing a religious conference. So I make no judgement, no judgement of any person of faith because I don't want to be judged on my faith either.

KARVELAS: Dave Sharma?

SHARMA: I think I agree wholeheartedly with Anne there. And I think it would be inauthentic and insincere if the Prime Minister went around pretending he's not a person of faith. He is a person of faith. It's part of his identity. He is a Christian. And it would be strange if he sort of was forced to disavow that upon taking public office and it would be unhealthy. We do have a separation of church and state in Australia, but that doesn't mean that religion is excluded from public life or personal or private life. And I think we need to be careful not to demand of leaders that they must discard personal matters of conviction before they hold public office. I think that would be the wrong thing and it would end up excluding any number of Australians.

KARVELAS: I suppose there's no doubt about that. And people know that's is the point of a free society. People have absolutely every right. But then there is the failure to publish the speech on the Prime Minister's website. Should that have happened, Dr Anne Aly? I mean, the Prime Minister obviously gave a speech at the Business Council and we saw that speech.

ALY: Well, look, you know, part of the whole idea of the separation of religion and state is that religious discourse happens within a religious environment. So, you know what's said in the pulpits of the church or the mosque or the temple isn't the kind of political currency that you use in civil debate. And I think that's important to maintain here, that the Prime Minister was addressing a gathering of fellow people, of faith, of his faith. And I don't see any reason why that should be made public, to be honest.

KARVELAS: What do you think, Dave? I mean, it seems that Anne Aly is kind of defending the Prime Minister, also not sharing the speech, which has been criticized.

SHARMA: I mean, to my mind, it was a it was a private event. I mean, I give any number of speeches to community groups, as I'm sure Dr Aly does, where I mean, it doesn't mean that we're where we say something that we wouldn't be comfortable being publicised. But it was you know, it's a private meeting and inviting cameras. You don't put out a transcript. You don't take questions. And I think that's how the Prime Minister treated it. Someone's chosen to put out a transcript or recording of it so be it. And I'm happy to stand by what he said, and I'm sure he's as well. But I think, you know, it's important to allow for these sorts of, you know, addresses to communities, not always to be a, you know, an address from the from the podium with the full press conference and cameras and questions. You know, it's a it's a different audience.

KARVELAS: Yeah, okay. Thank you to both of you for joining me. And Dave Sharma, before I let you go, you know that your cat’s just become famous on the television, right? You're across that?

SHARMA: I know I've had a few cameos today so my apologies PK.

KARVELAS: Oh, no, your cats are very popular. So I think just like Malcolm Turnbull, who held the seat for the Liberals before you, there was a brief period where it was held by an independent, know too much about your seat, but his dogs on our big feature. But clearly your cats are about to become a big political tool. Thanks to both of you. Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Labor MP Anne Aly. And yes, lots of cat vision there, too, in the background.