THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST
FRIDAY, 31 OCTOBER 2014
SUBJECT/S: Ebola Crisis; Iraq.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Hello Fran.
FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, has America offered Australia the use of a new 25 bed field hospital that it is apparently about to open in Liberia?
PLIBERSEK: Well of course I don’t know what formal communications have been made between the United States Government and our Government but I can certainly tell you I’ve had very senior meetings here with the State Department, with the United Nations, with representatives of the White House and it was made clear to me that that facility would be made available for health workers not just Australian health workers but health workers of any nationality who are in West Africa fighting Ebola.
KELLY: Can you tell us any more about this field hospital? The Sydney Morning Herald today quotes the US Embassy spokesperson in Canberra saying that a 25 bed field hospital will be provided and it could be open within days. Have you been told the specifics of this field hospital? Has it been mentioned to you?
PLIBERSEK: Yes it has been confirmed to me that it will be open very shortly, that the treatment available will be of a first world standard, that it has been set aside for health workers to give health workers from countries around the world confidence to go to West Africa to fight Ebola. The treatment for Ebola is, in a way, quite basic treatment - you have to keep hydration and nutrition up for the patient, you have to keep them clean and comfortable. And beginning treatment as close as possible to where the diagnosis is made is actually often considered best practice in treating a virus like this.
KELLY: Do you know when this hospital will be open?
PLIBERSEK: I’ve been told very shortly. I haven’t been given a day, but within days.
KELLY: The Abbott Government has so far resisted calls to send Australian health professionals and other teams to West Africa because the Government can’t guarantee treatment for Australians who might get sick with Ebola. In your meetings with Ambassador Nancy Powel, Ebola Coordinator for the State Department did you determine whether or not the US has offered access to that facility to the Australian Government? The Australian Government is aware of it?
PLIBERSEK: Well she made it very clear to me that that treatment facility would be available to health workers of any nationality who are in West Africa working as volunteers fighting Ebola. I can’t answer for specifically what formal communication has been made to the Australian Government but I think the fact that this hospital was under construction was widely known and I certainly have known about it for a number of weeks. I’d be very surprised if the Australian Government hasn’t had specific conversations with the Government of the United States about it.
KELLY: You’ve been meeting with a range of high level people across a range of agencies, one of those is the Managing Director of the World Bank Dr Indrawati. We know that the IMF have been calling for improved contributions from Western countries. Are they calling on Australia to do more in West Africa? What message did you get in these meetings more broadly?
PLIBERSEK: Every meeting I have had, whether it’s been with the World Bank, with the United Nations, with people in the White House or the State Department - it has been made clear to me that there is a very strong view that the United States, the United Kingdom, to a degree France, are bearing most of the responsibility for fighting this outbreak and that there is a disappointment that countries such as Australia are willing to sign on to UN resolutions calling for people to do more, to send equipment, personnel and so on, then simply there is not the follow through. There is a critical window, this virus is doubling its number of infections every twenty days or so. The Centre for Disease Control estimates are that there could be a million people affected by early next year. Even more than a million people affected by early next year. So there is a very strong sense of urgency here. Countries such as the United States are making very large contributions because they understand that containing Ebola in the three countries where it is most active now is in the interest of the entire world.
KELLY: Of course but given the formal statements that have been made by some of the people at the agencies did you get informally – what kind of commentary did you get about Australia’s reluctance to send in teams. Were people voicing frustration?
PLIBERSEK: Well certainly there is an expectation that a country like Australia could do more. We are considered to be a country with a very strong health system. We know that we’ve got health professionals who are willing to go. We have been very prominent on the Security Council this year and we have cosponsored a resolution that calls on countries to do more to send people, send supplies and equipment, to help with logistics. The US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said something along the lines of “you’ve got countries that are signing up to these resolutions and then not sending doctors or providing beds, that’s a bit rich really.” That’s the sense that I’ve had from each of the organisations and people that I’ve spoken to here, that it’s all very well to have kind words in the United Nations and the Security Council and so on, what they are missing is practical support on the ground. And yet the Government has not yet put in place any measures to support and assist these people to do what they want to do.
KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is Tanya Plibersek Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, joining us from New York. On other issues, you’ve been also meeting with US National Security Officials talking about the situation in Iraq, did you get any clarity on what the mission is in terms defeating ISIS, or a progress report? What was the atmospherics there?
PLIBERSEK: Well certainly I’ve had conversations about Iraq and Syria, of course, the two are so closely linked. And slightly different views from different people but I’d say a strong sense that push back against IS is starting to have effect, that the more inclusive Iraqi government has certainly given people confidence that the Sunni tribes can join the fight against IS, that there is a greater opportunity now of pushing them back or at least halting their progress in Iraq.
KELLY: Can I just interrupt you on that front because we’ve just had an interview earlier with Kym Bergmann from a defence magazine here in Australia, we’ve been talking about on the face of it the more inclusive cabinet but actually realising the interior minister is from a group with links to the Badr Brigade which is a Shiite militia that has been accused of violence against Sunnis in the past. I notice that Shadow Defence Minister Stephen Conroy is now demanding to know is Australian Defence Forces, when they are finally allowed to go into Iraq, could end up working with either Iranian forces or Iranian backed forces, he says this could be a game changer. But it is inevitable isn’t it? Everybody knows that Iranian defence leadership has been in there working with Shia militia and are partly responsible for the success some have had against IS.
PLIBERSEK: Well one of the conditions that Labor put on its support for the involvement of Australian personnel in this mission, in Iraq, was that the Iraqi Government would continue to behave in an inclusive way. We are of course watching very closely, not just the formation of the new government and the fact that it is representative, but there have been concerns expressed in the past about the use of militia, that’s something that we’ll continue to look at very closely. Australia absolutely has a responsibility to protect those civilian communities that were under imminent threat of mass atrocity crime, but this is not a blank cheque. We need to see and Iraqi government –
KELLY: But what does that mean? If Iranian military leadership is in Iraq, is working with the militia who in turn are working with the Iraqi army, is that a red line then for Australian forces in your view?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think we need to have more information before we make any assumptions about what type of involvement, or whether there is Iranian involvement, of course there have been reports but those reports vary a great deal about the scale and the type of involvement that Iran has. Iran has a very strong interest in fighting IS. They are concerned themselves about the prospect of a chaotic state on their border, of Iraq falling apart but to make any more assumptions about the likelihood of Australians coming into contact with Iranian forces we’d need a lot more information.
KELLY: Tanya Plibersek thank you for joining us on Breakfast.
PLIBERSEK: Thank you Fran.