TRANSCRIPT - Capital Hill, Thursday 23 October 2014

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Subject/s: Ebola

JULIE DOYLE, PRESENTER: We've heard evidence from the Department of Foreign Affairs at Senate Estimates today that there's now been requests from the United Kingdom and the United States for Australian people to be sent to West Africa to help fight Ebola. If they're asking for us to send people, should they be agreeing then to evacuate Australians if they do become infected?

PLIBERSEK: Well both the US and the UK are making a decision to treat their own medical staff in-country. That means wherever possible they'll treat people as quickly as possible on the ground in Liberia or Sierra Leone where they are building hospitals with first world health standards. The UK's also said that they are potentially sending a hospital ship. They're making a different decision about their own health staff in the first instance to treat in-country. But of course, the proposition remains that Australia should be able to get an agreement with the United States, with the UK or one of our European allies to provide health facilities on the same basis, or health treatment on the same basis, to our personnel as they would to their own.

DOYLE: Does it surprise you that we've had confirmation - that we have had these official requests from the United Kingdom, United States amongst others, but this agreement as far as the evacuation of Australian personnel hasn't been sorted out?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s very significant that we've had the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States make formal requests of our government for extra Australian commitment to fight Ebola in West Africa and those requests haven't been met. These are two of our most important allies. They are bearing a huge share of the responsibility of fighting Ebola in West Africa. We've now got a situation where the President of the United States is ringing the Prime Minister of Australia. The Prime Minister of the UK has spoken to our Foreign Minister, and still the Australian Government is not making arrangements to support Australian personnel who are trained, who are willing, who are able to fight Ebola in West Africa to go.

DOYLE: But don’t they need some way if requests are coming and they want people to go there, isn't it fair enough that the Australian Government says there must be a way to evacuate or treat Australian people if they get infected?

PLIBERSEK: Well, of course it's fair enough to say that there must be a way of treating Australians. What's in question is what effort has the Australian Government made to put those arrangements in place? And the Prime Minister says that it's impossible, it’s just too hard. For weeks now we've had the Health Minister saying it's just too hard and we find out that, in fact, the Health Minister’s only for the first time on Friday joined the weekly meeting of chief health and medical officers to manage the Ebola crisis. So we've got a chaotic 24 hours in Senate Estimates where there's three different stories about Australia's preparedness in Australia and in our region and we have further evidence now saying that Australia has been requested by the United States, by the United Kingdom, joining requests from the United Nations, the UN Security Council, the International Crisis Group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the World Health Organisation, our own AMA, Public Health Association - all of these organisations saying that it is important to have personnel on the ground in West Africa, people who are trained and willing and able to go. We're knocking back the requests of all of these health and security organisations. Now we're also saying no to some of our most important allies.

DOYLE: Looking at some of the measures closer to home to deal with any kind of outbreak in the Asia Pacific region or with people coming back here from West Africa, now there's been reports about some tension in the Cabinet when it comes to the role of the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Now as far as quarantine measures at the airport for example, for people coming back from West Africa, wouldn't it make sense, doesn't that require Customs and Immigration to have a greater role there?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it absolutely requires that Customs and Immigration are aware of what they should be telling passengers who are coming back into Australia. It's very important that they have very clear instructions, that they obviously tell passengers that if they have any of these symptoms that they should go to a hospital and so on. I think the problem here is after 24 hours of chaotic answers in Senate Estimates we now have Scott Morrison making a bid to expand his portfolio responsibilities further. To be honest, it doesn't matter to me so much who is in charge within the Government, there needs to be someone in charge.

DOYLE: Wouldn't it make sense then to bring all this under one umbrella?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think that's a matter for the Government.

DOYLE: Alright, Tanya Plibersek, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.


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