TRANSCRIPT - 702 Breakfast, Friday 17 October 2014

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Subject/s: Ebola.

ROBBIE BUCK, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek is the Federal Member for Sydney, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development and joins me this morning. Good morning.


BUCK: Okay. Well we have heard the Health Minister, Peter Dutton speaking just there. Isn’t that a fair enough point that if you have Australian personnel, and I guess our situation is unique in where we are, trying to get people back from West Africa, if they have contracted Ebola, poses a very difficult situation?

PLIBERSEK: It certainly would be difficult to bring people back to Australia but that is not what anyone is suggesting.  What we’re suggesting is that arrangements should be made and could be made with the UK, with the European countries, with the United States to, in the first instance, take any Australians that might be affected to one of those countries. We also know of course that the UK government is building a hospital, temporary hospitals for health workers in West Africa. We know that the UK is likely to send a hospital ship. There are other arrangements that could be put in place. Australia has AUSMAT teams, so they’re Australian Medical Assistance Teams, which are made up of volunteers who have doctors, nurses, other health professionals, who have said they are willing to be deployed into crisis situations, that is one alternative. We have also got individual Australian doctors, nurses and other professionals who have told the AMA, who have told the Nurses Association that they would go if support arrangements could be put in place. The problem here, Robbie, is not that there are no arrangements that could be put in place, the problem is a lack of willingness from the Australian Government to put those arrangements in place.

BUCK: Well, why is that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, you would have to ask the Government why they have not tried harder to do this-

BUCK: Do we know if they have made any overtures to- for some of these outcomes that you've been suggesting?

PLIBERSEK: Yes, I believe that they have spoken with other countries but I do not think it is beyond the capacity of a country like Australia to put in place arrangements. The thing you have got to remember is, there’s already Australians there on the ground who have gone with voluntary organisations so we need to be confident that we can look after them. We know that we have teams like AUSMAT teams, Australian Medical Assistance Teams, that could be deployed in similar situations, that they have been set up specifically to do this. We know that there are Australians who are willing to go with organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières, but those organisations are stretched to the capacity- their maximum capacity at the moment. What we are saying is that when we have Australians who are trained and able and willing to go, it is a shocking thing that their government will not put in arrangements to support them to do that.

BUCK: Is it risky though to have Australians on the ground there, particularly if the crisis worsens deeply, does it mean that other nations, whether we have got an agreement with them not, if they are overwhelmed, they’ll be taking their own citizens first other than Australians, wouldn’t they?

PLIBERSEK: Robbie, of course it is risky for individuals to go there, people would be doing something that is incredibly brave and beyond most of us, but we know that some Australians have already done that and more wish to. And I really- I admire that dedication. But the reason they want to go is that they know that we have a 60 day window to stop the spread of this virus. The World Health Organisation has said this virus is spreading exponentially. There’s 10,000 people infected at the moment, if we do not get a handle on it in the next 60 days by, some estimates, January next year, we will have almost a million and a half people infected. And then to say, you know, we do not want to send people now because we want to protect Australia from this virus. When you have got millions of people affected around the world it becomes very, very difficult to protect Australia, so we have an opportunity to act now. Yes, people are going into danger, there is no doubt about that. But they are people who have trained for this, they are dedicated people who wish- who really wish to assist to get this virus under control. How can it be that we are not big enough to support them to do that?

BUCK: Do you agree though that we shouldn’t be sending in any personnel until any of those arrangements are made first up?

PLIBERSEK: I think we have to make arrangements for what happens when people get sick. We have already got Australians there. We need to have those arrangements in place for those Australians, but countries around the world are putting those arrangements in place. There was a report yesterday that the Japanese have not sent a team yet and in fact we read overnight that they are preparing to deploy, that they are putting those arrangements in place now. I certainly do not say that we need to airlift Australians home over a 30 hour flight, I do not think that is a reasonable solution. I simply do not believe that we cannot make an arrangement with one of our partners. We are, right now, in Northern Iraq with the United States and a range of other countries providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Northern Iraq. Are we saying that none of those partners are willing to partner with us in West Africa to put Australian personnel who are trained and willing and able to go onto the ground there with some back up?

BUCK: Up until now, there has been bipartisan support for Australia's response to Ebola, what has changed this week for you?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we have been happy that the Government sent some money. They sent initially $8 million and another $10 million, total $18 million. That is not bad, I mean it’s not much given that one individual has put in $25 million, we’ve put in less than one generous individual. But there’s nothing wrong with sending money, it’s just that the World Health Organisation, the Centre for Disease Control in the United States, our own Australian Medical Association, our own Public Health Association, our own Nurses Association, all of these organisations are saying that this virus is getting out of control, we’ve got a window to shut it down now, if we do not, the consequences for West Africa and the world are dire.  We have got people who are ready and willing to go and we are not assisting them. Of course we wanted to give the Government some time to put those arrangements in place. We simply have not seen willingness for them to do that and what’s changed, Robbie, what changed is, we’re getting warnings every day, like the World Health Organisation in the last 48 hours has said we have got a 60 day window. That is new information saying if we do not close it down in the next 60 days, it is unpredictable, the consequences are unpredictable on a global scale. The more information we have about the spread of the virus the more critical it becomes that we support Australians who are able to go.

BUCK: Okay, Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time this morning.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Robbie.


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