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, 16 OCTOBER 2014
Subject/s: Ebola; Biometric Data.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning. Catherine King and I have written to Peter Dutton, the Health Minister and Julie Bishop, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, to say that Australia can and must do much more to help with the Ebola crisis in West Africa. We have now around 4000 people who have died and around 10,000 people who are infected with this virus. And the World Health Organisation has told us that we have a 60 day window to get this virus under control. If we do not get the virus under control, some estimates would say that there will be 1.4 million infections by next year. Of course, the more people who are infected with Ebola in West African countries, the more danger there is to the rest of the world that this infection will spread beyond West Africa to other countries around the world. Australia has given $18 million and while $18 million is welcome, it is not nearly enough. One generous philanthropist has given $25 million; one person has given more than the nation of Australia. But it is not just about money. Organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières have said that money is welcome but not sufficient, that what is really needed on the ground are experienced medical teams that can care for and provide assistance to local health professionals, medical supplies and equipment and of course other personnel. I know that countries like the United States and the UK have sent defence force personnel who can do engineering tasks, can build temporary hospitals for example, and help with supply logistic issues. We have had many direct calls to Australia to do more. The United Nations has called for countries like Australia to provide more assistance, the President of Sierra Leone, the President of the United States and organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Health Organisation and our own Public Health Association and the Australian Medical Association have all said that Australia should support skilled Australians who are willing and able to go to West Africa to provide assistance on the ground. I am going to ask Catherine King to say a few words now and then we will both answer questions.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much Tanya, and look, Labor has been calling for some weeks now for the Australian Government to do more to resolve the crisis in West Africa. We know the best defence for Australia is to stop this in West Africa. No amount of screening is going to assist in stopping this in West Africa. We need medical teams on the ground, whether they be AUSMAT teams or other Australians who are prepared to volunteer. We know that this has gone beyond the capacity of any one international aid organisation to deal with and the window is fast closing to actually try and contain this crisis. By January, the Centre for Disease Control in America is saying we’re estimating 1.4 million people will be infected. It will take decades to get Ebola out of West Africa and other countries if we do not act now and the Australian Government- the Australian Government needs to hear the pleas of Médecins Sans Frontières, the AMA, Public Health Association and the international community. It is in the best interest of Australia to do so, and the Government should act now.
PLIBERSEK: Any questions?
JOURNALIST: Yes, Tanya, why should Australia send medical teams to West Africa when the logistics of evacuating people who may become infected are so difficult and expensive?
PLIBERSEK: Well, it is certainly not beyond the ability of the Australian Government to organise evacuation protocols for Australians who may become infected with Ebola if Australians should go to the assistance of the West African nations who are most affected. It is beyond belief that the Australian Government is not able to negotiate, with the United States or with European countries, protocols that would provide assurance for Australian medical staff should they need to be evacuated.
JOURNALIST: If Australia sends more Ebola workers to West Africa, isn't the likelihood increasing that the virus could be brought back to Australia?
PLIBERSEK: Well the worst-case scenario for Australia is an unchecked Ebola virus that spreads beyond the West African countries that are affected now, to become a global problem. As Catherine said, the Centre for Disease Control is estimating that if we leave the spread of this virus unchecked, up to 1.4 million people will be affected by the beginning of next year, it becomes much harder to protect Australia if there are 1.4 million people or beyond that, millions of people affected around the globe. The danger to Australia increases if this virus is left unchecked. We have also had people like Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, saying that this is a crisis not just for the health of the African nations most affected by it, but for their economies and also for the global economy. The best thing Australia can do is contribute to international efforts to stop the spread of this virus. The World Health Organisation has said that we have a 60 day window to get this under control. We have to be part of the effort during the next two months to bring this under control or risk to Australia increases exponentially.
JOURNALIST: Do you accept then that the probability of the virus being brought back to Australia could be increased if health workers are sent over there?
PLIBERSEK: I think the probability of Australia becoming affected by the Ebola virus increases exponentially if we are not part of a global effort to bring it under control. We’ve got 10,000 people affected now and, by the Centre of Disease Control’s estimate, over 1 million by the beginning of next year. We have to use this 60 day window to get this virus under control or the risk to Australia increases.
JOURNALIST: The Government says they cannot help- guarantee the health and safety of workers that go over there. Which hospital do you propose to send to or how do you propose to guarantee their health and safety?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think it is absurd for the Australian Government to say that they cannot make an arrangement with the United States, with European countries that have got health workers there at the moment. There are two things to say about this. There are already Australians who have gone without the support of the Government to provide assistance to Ebola victims and those Australians should have the support of their government willing to say that they will work with our partner countries to evacuate those health workers should they need evacuation. More importantly, you look at the United States - has now sent 4000 defence personnel the United Kingdom has sent 750. We are partnering with these countries in the humanitarian mission in the Middle East, so around Iraq, we partnered with them in many instances when there’s been humanitarian crises in the past. To say that we cannot come to an arrangement with the US or European partners for the protection of Australians who are willing and able to assist just isn't credible.
JOURNALIST: I understand you’ve had briefings from the Government advising against sending missions to West Africa. Who is giving you advice that such a mission could be achieved safely?
PLIBERSEK: Well we’ve had briefings from employees of government departments who have told us that it is not Government policy to do this. They have told us all of the problems with going in and they’ve told us – frankly from the briefing I got a very strong sense that the Government is not interested in finding solutions to those problems. We’ve got advice from organsations like the Australian Public Health Association and the Australian Medical Association that Australians are ready and willing to assist and that they should be sent with the support of the Australian Government. But more to the point Australia is one of the nations that signed up to a UN Security Council Resolution that 130 nations signed up to saying that we should provide assistance, personnel, supplies, medical equipment. We’ve had direct requests from the President of Sierra Leone to the Prime Minister of Australia. We’ve had President Obama saying the countries like Australia should do more. We’ve had organisations like the World Health Organisation, the Centre for Disease Control, Médecins Sans Frontières, credible international organisations begging Australia for help. It is completely unacceptable that we are sitting on our hands. Catherine do you want to add to that please.
KING: Look certainly in terms of the Australian response in the briefings I’ve had from the Health Department and other officials, it was very clear from those briefings that this is a matter for Government policy - that they are in negotiations with countries about how we might evacuate Australian citizens but this is a decision that the Government has made only to send money.
JOURNALIST: You mention that other countries could help Australia evacuate infected people. Any indications of what countries might take them or evacuate them?
PLIBERSEK: Well there are countries that have significant numbers of their own personnel going into affected areas. I’ve mentioned for example the United States has 4000 defence personnel that have been deployed to assist. I do not believe it is beyond the ability of the Australian Government to negotiate with our partners, countries that we have partnered with on many occasions, where we’ve worked together to assist in these times of great humanitarian need. I do not believe it is beyond our ability to negotiate with these countries.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop has said she’s been unable to get guarantees from European countries that they’d be willing to transport or treat victims. Are you suggesting that we should send people on this mission when we don’t have those guarantees?
PLIBERSEK: I’m not suggesting for a moment that we send Australian personnel into danger with no provision to look after them should they fall into danger. But right now we have Australian defence personnel deployed to the Middle East. We have been able to work with partner countries to ensure we have the best possible arrangements to protect our personnel to the best of our ability. Of course it is dangerous to send people into an area where this virus is spreading so quickly, but it is more dangerous to stand by and do nothing. We have medical personnel who say that they are willing and able to assist and it strains credulity to say that the Australian Government is not able to partner with other countries to provide some assurance that if the worst should happen and one of them should need evacuation that would be impossible.
JOURNALIST: Are you saying that the Government is not interested in sending teams to West Africa?
PLIBERSEK: I’m saying that they are not trying hard enough to provide an Australian contribution to getting this virus under control.
JOURNALIST: Just on the terrorism laws would you be comfortable with customs and border protection storing the biometric data of potentially 8 million Australians?
PLIBERSEK: Well I have to be a little bit careful because I’m on the Parliamentary Committee that has been examining this legislation and I can’t comment on the contents of a report of that Parliamentary Committee that will be coming out in coming days. What I would say is that the scrutiny of the legislation has been very short in its timeframe, very short in duration, the committee and indeed the Parliament would benefit from a much longer timeframe to examine this legislation. I’ll make a general comment about the question that you’re asking rather than a specific comment. If our security agencies ask for greater powers in times of trouble we need to consider those requests very carefully and when we grant them, if we grant them, we need to ensure there is a great deal of scrutiny and safeguard attached. I am always cautious about the idea of storing people’s private information including information regarding biometric data. I think you’d have to make a very strong case indeed to do so.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you one more question, what role would the Australian military play in West Africa?
PLIBERSEK: Well you would have to talk to the Australian military about the best assistance they could give but when we look at the assistance the US and UK defence personnel are giving it’s very largely building the logistics, such things as building temporary hospitals and making sure that members of staff and equipment are distributed appropriately. Catherine do you want to add to that?
KING: Yeah and certainly in terms of making sure, obviously there is a great need for not just equipment but things like bleach, access to hazard suits, that sort of thing. The defence force does have that capability and certainly they are playing that role from other countries.