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
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Today in Question Time we heard for the first time the Prime Minister admit that our friends and allies have been calling on Australia to do more to help fight Ebola in West Africa. We have heard over the last 24 hours that the Prime Minister has spoken to President Obama, who has been urging Australia to do more, we know that the Foreign Minister has previously spoken to the Prime Minister of the UK who has also asked Australia to do more. This comes on top of requests from many international organisations including the United Nations Security Council, including organisations like Oxfam, Medicins Sans Frontieres, the International Crisis Group and others. All of them say that countries such as Australia should assist with personnel as well as money. Now we know that any such mission would not be without risk. Of course it’s dangerous to go into an area where a virus like Ebola has taken hold. We also know that not acting is simply not an option. President Obama has said very clearly that the best way to protect Americans from Ebola is to fight it in West Africa. The same goes for Australia, the best way to fight Ebola, to protect Australians from Ebola, is to fight it in West Africa. I am going to hand over to Catherine King in a moment to talk about the chaotic stories that have been coming out Senate Estimates over the last 24 hours about Australia's preparedness in the area of Ebola, but I want to finish by saying this - there is absolutely no time to lose in fighting Ebola. We have heard that there could be up to 1.4 million cases by January next year. It is reported that the number of people infected by Ebola is doubling around every 20 days. If we do not get a hold of this virus in West Africa, the chances of it spreading into our region grow. If Ebola reaches our region, we are in big trouble. The World Health Organisation has said that Ebola reaching Asia is potentially catastrophic. We have got some very strong health systems in our region but we have also got some that would be overwhelmed by a virus that spreads so easily. I am going to ask Catherine to make a few comments about domestic issues.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Tanya, and I too just want to reiterate very clearly that it is in Australia's absolute and best interests - the way that we protect Australian citizens from Ebola is fighting this in West Africa. We have some of the best public health systems in the world, we have some of the best health services staff in the world, in fact it is actually why we have been saying that they need to use that expertise volunteering internationally. Now, yesterday at Senate estimates we quite deliberately asked the question as to whether any volunteer personnel, any AUSMAT personnel had been trained ready for Ebola. The reason we asked that question was specifically that we know that should the Government reach a great arrangement with other international countries in relation to treatment or evacuation of health services personnel, we know that it will take two to three weeks for a team to be ready to go. So we wanted to find out whether there was one ready. Now the chaos that occurred yesterday where we had different accounts coming from different officials and then finally late at night a statement made and statements made from the Minister for Health show that there has been a lack of command and control on this issue. It is clear that the first time the Minister for Health has attended one of the chief medical officer and state medical officer meetings or teleconferences was last Friday, when this was first raised or began to get raised in the media. Labor has been calling for months now for the Government to engage with the international community on this issue and to send medical personnel. It should not have been up to Labor to force the Minister for Health to actually start for the first time to go and meet with the chief medical officers and state medical officers. I think that the Minister for Health has something to answer to here and certainly it has not filled me with great confidence in his efforts to actually make sure we are domestically ready, but I do have enormous faith in our health services personnel to deal with the unfortunate circumstances should there be a case of Ebola in Australia. I think we’ll take some questions now.
JOURNALIST: Minister, given that there is so many moving parts, different ministries involved, Scott Morrison’s apparent proposal to have everybody- to have him take charge of the whole response, does not that idea have some merit?
KING: Do you want to take that one, Tanya? You can have that one. I’m happy to answer it.
PLIBERSEK: Well, what we’ve heard today is another land grab from Scott Morrison. He’s now tried to take interest in about half a dozen portfolios. I think it is important that someone is in charge and at the moment we’ve got a Health Minister, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Immigration Minister that all seem to be competing for who is in charge. This is a very serious issue for us domestically. It is a very serious issue internationally. And instead of getting on with the job, making it clear who is responsible, we’ve got internal competition within the Liberal party.
JOURNALIST: But there's a sort of a conglomeration of public service departments that was announced today, I think nine or ten departments put together at a public service level, so why shouldn’t there be the same sort of thing at a ministerial level?
PLIBERSEK: Well, look I'm not going to make comments about the internal arrangements of the Liberal Government. My responsibility and Catherine King's responsibility is to make sure that we hold the Government to account. To make sure that they are confidently preparing Australia should the worst happen and we see a case of Ebola in Australia. And it's our responsibility to say loud and clear that the best way to protect Australia is to fight Ebola in West Africa, and that Australia must be part of that global effort. We've got our very close friends and allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, asking Australia to do more. We've got the United Nations, and international organisations like Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres and the International Crisis Group, and others saying that Australia should be involved with sending personnel to West Africa to help fight the Ebola crisis there. It is unacceptable that a month after these first formal requests have come from our allies, that the Government is still not able to answer whether it will be sending Australian personnel and what arrangements it has put in place for the safety of those personnel.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that Scott Morrison can do a better job than the Health Minister? If he can stop the boats he can stop Ebola?
KING: Well I think surely it's obvious the Immigration Minister thinks he can do a better job than the Health Minister. I'll leave that for people to conclude.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that the Government has been complacent about the threat that Ebola poses?
KING: I don't think that they've been complacent, I think they've been missing in action, is really what's happened. And you know it's as though because this wasn't on the front pages of our newspapers that they have been very, very slow to the case. The fact that we've been calling for weeks now for there to be a response, the fact that the Health Minister for the first time came in on the teleconference that the chief medical officer and state counterparts have been having for several weeks now, is pretty extraordinary, frankly.
JOURNALIST: Just in regards to the response of Peter Varghese from DFAT today said that there have been talks with allies, the United states, the United Kingdom for instance, but there isn't an agreement yet. The fact that there isn’t an agreement, doesn’t it make it risky to launch ourselves to promise that we will send medical teams if we still don't have that agreement in place?
PLIBERSEK: Any mission like this has its risks, and it would be completely irresponsible of the Australian Government to send people if there was no support measures put in place. What we know though is that these requests came in a month ago. The Prime Minister admitted today that requests from our friends and allies came in one month ago. We've had all sorts of excuses from the Government about why they can't make arrangements for our personnel. What we haven't heard from them, is the effort that they've put into making those arrangements. Of course we need to protect and support Australians who go to West Africa to fight Ebola but we also need to know that our Government is actually making an effort to join that international mission, not sitting on its hands.
JOURNALIST: You say the Government is complacent, isn't it in fact the entire world, the entire world has been put on the hop by this deadly virus?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think it's fair to say that there are a number of countries that are shouldering the greatest responsibility at this time. We know of course that the disease is particularly affecting Sierra Leone and Guinea and Liberia. Those countries are bearing the brunt of the Ebola virus outbreak. And assistance is being provided most generously by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany and a number of others. It is absolutely critical that Australia become part of that international effort. It's no good now saying the world was caught off-guard. We have a very limited time to act, we heard on the first of October that we have sixty days to act, and that means 70% of people in treatment centres or receiving treatment and 70% of bodies buried appropriately and quickly. If we don't act within that sixty day window, the World Health Organisation cannot tell what will happen. They say that there will be a crisis that is unprecedented and that the world is not prepared for. We have a limited window of opportunity to act, and we must be part of that global effort to act.
JOURNALIST: Does this make you all the more curious about the conversation between Barack Obama and Tony Abbott yesterday?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think it's plain that the President of the United States has been saying for a month to countries around the world, we all need to lift our game. And the President has been saying that the world has come late to the assistance of West Africa. I obviously can't say what happened in that telephone conversation, but it's been made clear by the White House that a request for greater assistance, including personnel, was made by the President of our Prime Minister. And it's up to the Prime Minister to answer now whether he will refuse that request from our friends and allies.