TRANSCRIPT: Capital Hill, Thursday 16 October 2014

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Subject/s: Ebola.

JULIE DOYLE, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining me today. Now, you've written to the Health Minister and the Foreign Minister asking for Australia to step up its efforts to fight the Ebola crisis. What do you think the Federal Government should be doing here?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Well, I think it's a good thing that Australia's given $18 million so far but we need to keep that in perspective. One generous philanthropist has given $25 million, one person's given more than the Australian Government. But beyond money we need to provide personnel and equipment to help with this crisis. We've heard from the World Health Organization, from the President of the United States, from the President of Sierra Leone, the United Nations, 130 nations, more than 130 nations have signed up to a pledge saying that we all, all nations must provide personnel and equipment, technical expertise and assistance on the ground to help stop the spread of this virus.

DOYLE: Precisely what kind of personnel and equipment?

PLIBERSEK: Australia has AUSMAT teams, Australian Medical Assistance teams that are actually created for this specific purpose. In 2005, when Tony Abbott was the Health Minister, he formed up these teams that were specifically created to be deployed at times of humanitarian crisis like this. They have been sent, for example, to the Philippines after the typhoon. They would be ideally placed, they're interdisciplinary teams of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. That would be one example. Other nations have sent defence personnel. The US has got about 4,000 people deployed and the UK has about 750 deployed. They're able to provide logistic support, build temporary hospitals, make sure that medical equipment and basics like bleach are able to be ferried around the country. There are both medical professionals willing and able to go from Australia, people who would have already said that they would go if they had the support and assistance of the Australian Government rather than being discouraged by the Government from going and then there's also the potential to provide people that can help with the logistic support.

DOYLE: On the Defence Force personnel then, again what kind of numbers, what kind of defence assets do you think should be sent?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think that it's important to have advice from Defence about whether they are able to provide assistance at this time as a first step. What I can say is that partner nations, nations that we often work with at times of crisis, are deploying their Defence personnel. But I haven't had specific advice from Defence Forces. So you’d have to, as a first step, ask Defence whether they are able to contribute to this effort. It's certainly the case, however, that we have medical personnel who have expressed a desire to go. We've got our own Australia Medical Association, the Public Health Association of Australia saying that Australian medical personnel would go if they had the support and assistance of the Australian Government and that, of course, is something that is simply inexplicable that we've got Australians who want to assist, that are being prevented from doing so by the Government.

DOYLE: What about the concerns that the Government has expressed about not being able to evacuate health workers or other Australians if they did get infected, where would they be treated?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I just simply cannot believe that it is beyond our capacity to make an arrangement with one of our European partners or with the United States to provide a back up for Australian personnel who might become sick. We have partnership relations with these countries, we've served together at times of humanitarian crisis around the globe at various times and we've helped look after each other's personnel in the past. It's simply not credible that we can't form an arrangement now. We know that there are Australians already serving on the ground there. They have gone without the support of the Australian Government and of course I hope that the Australian Government are preparing in case any of those Australians should need to be evacuated already by talking with partner countries.

DOYLE: Looking at some of those partner countries, looking at somewhere like the United States, there's already public concerns and fears about this virus. Could you imagine then that the reaction, if they were told that they were going to have to deal with Australian workers as well?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think the question here is what's the scenario if we do nothing? We've already heard from the Centre of Disease Control that the current 10,000 cases of Ebola could grow to 1.4 million by the beginning of next year. We've been told by the World Health Organization that we've got a 60-day window of opportunity to close down the spread of this virus. If we don't use this next 60 days to close down the spread of this virus, the risk to Australia and the risk to the developed world generally grows exponentially.

DOYLE: Tanya Plibersek, where are you getting your advice that what you're proposing would be manageable? Have you had briefings from Defence or the Health Department, for example?

PLIBERSEK: We have had briefings from Government departments who have told us that the Government has not got these arrangements in place. What I have not –

DOYLE: And have they said that it could be done, that it's manageable?

PLIBERSEK: Well, they've told us what Government policy is and that is not to send Australians-

DOYLE: But you’re saying that it should be done. Do you have advice that it can be done?

PLIBERSEK: From the Australian Medical Association, from the Australian Public Health Association, from medical professionals. We've also got requests from the President of the United States, the President of Sierra Leone, health organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières that say that Australia should be involved with personnel on the ground. We have expert advice across the spectrum of health organisations and we have formal requests including, I should say, a UN Security Council resolution that Australia signed up to saying that all countries should do more, should provide personnel, medical equipment and supplies. We signed up to that agreement voluntarily and yet we're not doing it. We're not doing our share.

DOYLE: Tanya Plibersek, we'll have to leave it there, thank you very much.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.


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