TRANSCRIPT - Doorstop, Sydney, Friday 24 October 2014












Subject/s: Ebola, Gough Whitlam

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Reports overnight that the Ebola virus has spread to Mali are of substantial concern. On the 1st of October, the World Health Organisation said that if we didn’t get Ebola under control within 60 days, the consequences of the spread of the virus would be completely unpredictable. There would be a situation that there were no plans for. We know that the virus is spreading quickly, about 4500 people have died so far, about 10,000 are infected. But reports suggest that the number of infections is doubling about every 20 days. That means that if the Ebola virus continues to spread in the way that it’s spreading, it will be very difficult to contain it to West Africa. We’ve had calls from around the world for Australia to send in personnel to help, we’ve had calls from the US President, from the Prime Minister of the UK, from the United Nations, from Medicins Sans Frontieres, from Oxfam, from our own Australian Medical Association and our own public health association all saying that Australia has highly experienced staff willing and able to go and that they should be sent. Today there are also reports that the Chief Medical Officer has joined in saying that Australian medical assistance teams should be sent to West Africa. Of course, any such mission is not without risk. This is a dangerous part of the world now with a virus that is spreading quickly. But what President Obama has said, and what our own health professionals are telling us, is that the best way of keeping Australia safe, of keeping Australians safe, is to stop this virus in West Africa. If this virus continues to spread in the way that it does, if it moves to other continents, if it moves into our own region, the consequences are potentially catastrophic. Indeed the World Health Organisation has pointed to the fact thata densely populated region like Asia could have very severe consequences from an Ebola outbreak. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: What do you [inaudible] Minister’s statement that you’re playing politics with Ebola?

PLIBERSEK: There’s nothing to be said about that. This is one of the most critical issues that he has faced as Health Minister. We heard in Senate Estimates this week that Peter Dutton attended the weekly meeting of chief medical officers for the first time last Friday. This is a group that’s been meeting since August. There has been a lack of clarity about Australia’s preparedness. In Senate Estimates we’ve heard different stories from the health department, from the Chief Medical Officer, from defence, all giving different accounts of the level of Australia’s preparedness. And we hear also that Scott Morrison has been after the job of Ebola coordinator. So I think it’s very important that the Health Minister focus on his responsibilities, which are ensuring that Australians are kept safe, that we are prepared domestically and that Australia does its share to halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

JOURNALIST: We’ve been told that careful consideration is being given to sending our medical personnel over to help. The thing is- it deserves careful consideration doesn’t it? You can’t rush these things.

PLIBERSEK: This is absolutely something that needs the most careful consideration and the most careful planning. What concerns me is that that consideration and that planning is not happening. We heard different accounts just two days ago about whether Australian staff were being trained and readied to go. It is clear that this Government has not put effort into talking to our allies like the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union to make arrangements for Australian staff, should they need medical back up or evacuation in West Africa. I’m pleased to hear that consideration is being given but I think that that’s rather late in the piece. As I said earlier, we heard from the World Health Organisation on the 1st of October that if we don’t get this virus under control within 60 days - and that means 70 per cent of people being treated in hospitals or a treatment centre, and 70 per cent of dead bodies buried quickly and safely - then we risk seeing this virus spiral out of control - this becomes a global problem. The estimate is that on the current trajectory 1.4 million people will be infected by January next year. We have to stop this in West Africa, and Australia must be a part of that international effort. If Ebola gets to Asia it is very difficult to guarantee Australia’s safety.

JOURNALIST: There has been a case of the New York doctor who has contracted Ebola. Doesn’t that underscore the serious danger of sending medical teams there and how would you explain that to Australians if there was a similar case here in Australia after sending medical teams to West Africa?

PLIBERSEK: There is no question that it is dangerous for medical staff to go to West Africa - no one has ever denied that there is a danger, and that we have to do everything we can to make it as safe as possible for our medical staff. But it comes with risks. What I say to people who are worried about this story of the doctor who has come back to New York is - I understand those fears, I understand those concerns. But we can’t protect Australia if this virus gets out of control. Medical staff who volunteer to go to West Africa know the dangers. The Nurses and Midwives Association have told us that within 12 hours they had 135 nurses ring them to volunteer, to say they were prepared to go to West Africa. Nurses know the dangers of going, doctors know the dangers of going. Why then are they going? They also know that the best way they can contribute to keeping Australia and Australians safe is to go to West Africa and fight the disease there. They have trained all of their professional lives to serve humanity and that’s what they are asking to be allowed to do. They’re asking for the support of their Government to do what they are trained and equipped to do, what they know they must do to help keep Australians safe. It is not without risk, that is clear. But we have medical personnel who are prepared to take that risk with their Government’s support - to keep not just Australians, but the globe safe.

JOURNALIST: You can’t knock the Australian Government however for being unwilling to send Australian personnel into dangerous areas - can you?

PLIBERSEK: I think it’s very important to say that if this virus continues to spread in the way that it has, it will become difficult to keep Australians safe.  I’m asking the Government to look ahead to the worst case scenario. The Centres of Disease Control, a very authoritative organisation in the United States is saying on current trajectories we’ll have 1.4 million people infected by the beginning of next year. How does the Government keep Australians safe if that comes to pass?

JOURNALIST: In Senate Estimates, it was revealed that Australian diplomats have been talking to partner countries about treatment plans. Doesn’t that indicate the Government has been preparing a response [inaudible]?


PLIBERSEK: What was revealed in Senate Estimates is that in September we had official requests from the United States and from the United Kingdom – two of our closest friends and best allies, for Australia to send personnel.  It shows that despite those requests the Government has progressed very little.


JOURNALIST: Can I just ask – there will be a state memorial service held for the former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the 5th of November. Obviously that will be an extremely special day for the Labor party and millions more Australians.


PLIBERSEK: Well I think you saw an outpouring of national grief on Wednesday for a great man who represented a great Labor tradition.  The 5th of November will be a sad day for many Australians, and of course for our Labor family.  But it will also be a day of celebration – celebrating a great legacy – a legacy that changed Australia for the better, and changed Australia forever.


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