THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
THE HON CATHERINE KING MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH
MEMBER FOR BALLARAT
THURSDAY, 23 OCTOBER 2014
The foreign affairs department has revealed the UK and US Governments made specific requests for Australia to send personnel to help fight the Ebola crisis in West Africa, weeks ago.
In Senate Estimates today, the foreign affairs department’s Ebola response chief admitted that back in September the UK Government sent a specific request to the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, for Australian personnel to be sent to West Africa.
Foreign affairs’ officials confirmed this request was consistent with the views of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.
The foreign affairs department also revealed that the US Government has requested Australia send personnel to West Africa. That request was made formally through the Australian embassy in Washington DC, again in September.
In a further extraordinary admission, the head of the foreign affairs department said he had no information about a phone call between Prime Minister Abbott and US President Barack Obama where they discussed Australia making additional commitments to the Ebola crisis response effort. That’s despite details of the call being released publicly by the White House.
The Abbott Government must immediately explain why it hasn’t acted on these very specific requests from the US and the UK - two of our closest friends.
Today’s revelations follow 24 hours of wildly different accounts of the Abbott Government’s preparedness to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa from the Chief Medical Officer, the head of the health department, the Defence Force, and the immigration minister.
The Abbott Government’s uninterested, chaotic response to this serious health crisis is just not good enough.
EXTRACT FROM SENATE ESTIMATES TODAY
WONG: Now UK, I think in answer to a question from Senator Rhiannon you indicated there had been a request from the United Kingdom, is that right?
WONG: Just remind me, I apologise, I can’t recall this, it might have been reported but –
EXELL: So I mentioned earlier that the request covered personnel into the broader Sierra Leone Ebola response and for funding to again to support the response in Sierra Leone.
WONG: And how as that request received?
EXELL: I, from memory, I think Senator that was a letter to the foreign minister.
WONG: When was that received?
EXELL: The end of September.
WONG: From her counterpart?
EXELL: Actually I think it came from the High Commissioner , UK’s High Commissioner to Australia.
WONG: Australia’s High Commissioner? Sorry, the UK –
EXELL: High Commissioner –
WONG: Here in Australia?
WONG: Did that, given that was to the foreign minister tell me what happened as a result of that. Was there a meeting between the foreign minister and the High Commissioner or between DFAT and the High Commissioner or?
EXELL: Yeah, there’s been a number of meetings then between DFAT and the High Commissioner, I think he then went overseas so it’s actually been the acting High Commissioner. So we’ve been in touch with that office here in Canberra and indeed there’s been conversations that have been occurring in the UK as well.
WONG: In relation to this request, right. And has this request also been the subject of cabinet consideration?
EXELL: In the same way that I think the secretary referred to before as being part of the consideration, yep.
David Cameron’s views consistent with the request from the UK High Commission in Australia
WONG: And Mr Cameron maintained the British Government’s position in relation to the request or has the request been altered in some way?
EXELL: To my knowledge it hasn’t been altered.
PETER VARGESE, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE: My understanding is the UK is still interested in Australian assistance along those lines….
Later – the US request
WONG: Finally the US, what is the US request?
EXELL: So there was an initial request for a liaison officer and then more recently the request from the US has expanded again to request personnel to support their efforts in Liberia and request has been for further contributions in to the UN system for financial resources.
WONG: What’s the nature of the request in relation to support, personnel to support US efforts in Liberia?
EXELL: It hasn’t been more specific than that Senator; it’s been personnel to support their efforts in Liberia.
WONG: And how was that communicated?
EXELL: I think that’s been through meetings with our Embassy in the US.
JOHN FAULKNER: Does it go to the number of personnel?
EXELL: Hasn’t gone to that detail Senator.
WONG: Can we just get some timeframes around this, so you said more recently, there was, there was the initial request for liaison officer then and more recently personnel to support their efforts in Liberia. Can you give me the approximate date of the second?
EXELL: Again the initial request was in the end towards the end of September.
Later – about the status of this request
WONG: What’s happened with that request?
PETER VARGHESE, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE: I think it is part of the general process.
On the head of the foreign affairs department and Tony Abbott’s call with President Obama
WONG: I appreciate that you’ve said you haven’t seen a record of this conversation but have you been orally briefed? Or have the Foreign Minister or her office, to your knowledge, been briefed?
VARGESE: I don’t know.