TRANSCRIPT - Press Conference, Sydney, Wednesday 5 November 2014

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SUBJECT/S: Gough Whitlam Memorial; Ebola; Abbott Government cutting real wages of Defence Personnel

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Thanks for coming.  We both had the honour today, along with thousands of Australians to go to the State Service to commemorate the remarkable life of Prime Minister Edward Gough Whitlam. His was a truly Australian life and had a life lived for Australia. Gough Whitlam reminded us all about the importance of vision and ambition for our nation. He spent his entire political life trying to make sure Australia could reach for higher ground. Today was a fitting tribute to a remarkable Australian whose like we will not see again.

I also wish to make some brief comments about the Government’s response to the Ebola crisis and I will be asking my colleague to add some more details after I finish. We are pleased that the Government is finally making an overdue first step to provide greater support for the victims of this dangerous and lethal disease which has broken out in West Africa. Labor has long said that the best way to deal with the crisis of this deadly and dangerous disease is to fight it at its source. Now we acknowledge that the Government is moving to try to take up Labor's advice and the advice of the AMA and, indeed, advice from other nations around the world, to join an international coalition to tackle Ebola. There are many Australians who have the skills to help prevent this suffering. There are many Australians who wish to volunteer to use their skills, committed and capable doctors and nurses who wish to help in the fight against Ebola.

However, we believe that the Government, whilst this is a welcome, overdue step, has not gone as far as it should to help tackle the scourge at the source. It is long overdue for the Government to ensure it can put in place propositions which will allow our skilled and capable volunteers to be able to assist defeat this deadly disease at the source. I might ask my colleague, the Shadow Foreign Minister, to talk in more detail about the Ebola announcement

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks very much, Bill. Look, of course Labor is very pleased to welcome extra assistance to fighting Ebola in West Africa. But we are also a little surprised at the way that this assistance will be provided. There have been suggestions overnight and yesterday that perhaps several hundred Australians would be going to help fight this virus in the three West African countries most affected.

We hear today that in fact a private firm, Aspen medical, which has a very good international reputation, will in fact be engaging staff locally in Sierra Leone. It could be that the 240 or so staff that are required to run the medical centre that Australia will be responsible for, may all be engaged overseas. It's possible from what the Prime Minister has just told us that no Australians will actually be involved in providing those vital services. Now, of course, there are very good and dedicated staff around the world and I\'m sure that there are many in Africa who would be willing to help, but it's worth remembering that Sierra Leone is a country that before this is crisis had just 100 doctors for a population of six million.

So in the first instance, it is a little difficult to understand exactly where these locally-engaged staff will be coming from, and it is also a little surprising that given trained, how many hundreds of highly-trained, highly-specialised, very dedicated brave Australians have said that they wish to go to West Africa to help, that they have the skills to help and the desire to help, that none of those people will be facilitated in going. We have heard from the United Nations Security Council, indeed Australia co-sponsored a resolution saying how important it was for countries to send supplies, medical supplies, but also personnel to the affected countries. We co-sponsored that resolution in the UN. We have heard from the United Kingdom, we have heard from the United States, we have heard from the World Health Organisation, we have heard from organisations like the International Crisis Group and Oxfam. We have heard from doctors without borders, Oxfam, our own Australian Medical Association, and nurses and midwives association, that personnel are necessary in West Africa. We know that we have hundreds of Australians who have said that they would go if they were facilitated by this Government.

In fact, the nurses and midwives association said that in just 12 hours, they had 350 nurses that said, rang up to say they were willing to go. The Australian public health association, the Australian Medical Association have both said that they have been contacted by medical personnel that would go to West Africa if they could, that have the skills and the desire to go. So it is a little surprising to know that despite the availability and the desire of these Australians to go to West Africa to fight this virus at its source, that they won't be facilitated by this announcement. It also continues to be a little surprising that the Australian medical assistance teams, those hundreds of Australians who have signed up for this type of dangerous work overseas, have not been called upon. I think it's up to the Government why the Australian Medical Association teams have not been part of this response.

SHORTEN: We are happy to take any questions people might have.

REPORTER: Just on the question of having Aspen involved in this, would you prefer that the Government had sent over its own medical teams?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think there is absolutely no problem with Aspen Medical being involved in this. I think the important thing is having people who are skilled at providing this sort of medical assistance, in very difficult circumstances. They are already, I believe, on the ground in West Africa, so that makes sense. What is a little confusing about this decision is that the many hundreds of Australians, skilled personal have said they wish to help, continue to be knocked back by this Government.

REPORTER: So would you prefer to see perhaps a quota introduced or something like that as part of the package as to how many Australian personnel can be sent over?

PLIBERSEK: No, I don't think a quota is the way to deal with it. What is perplexing about this is the suggestion that the majority, indeed perhaps all, of these staff will be locally engaged in Africa, or nationals of other countries. Now, what we have been asked for by the world community, what we have been asked for by the United Nations, the United Kingdom, the US, the World Health Organisation, Medecin Sans Frontier, Oxfam, all of these organisations are making the very strong point that medical services are overwhelmed in the three countries worst affected by ebola. They started off with poor medical services, a very small number of doctors and nurses for the size of the populations that we are talking about. It is difficult to understand when we know that we have highly skilled, highly trained passionate Australians who are desperate to help, why they are still not being - their offer is still not being accepted by the Government.

REPORTER: Does it actually matter? The Prime Minister said some Australians will go.

PLIBERSEK: The Prime Minister says some Australians may go. The point is all of the international organisations, all of our partner countries, have said the difficulty is finding the trained personnel who are able to go. I think there is - of course, it's wonderful to have professionals from Africa, from around the world in West Africa fighting ebola. But what we know is that Australian health workers are some of the best and most dedicated, most highly skilled in the world. We also know there are hundreds who have said they want to go. This announcement, while welcome, doesn't answer that call.

REPORTER: (Inaudible) do you think it was appropriate the Prime Minister was booed?

SHORTEN: No, in an ideal in world you treat Prime Minister and former Prime Ministers at a State Memorial Service with some degree of decorum. But on the other hand I think the funeral was fantastic, I thought that the speakers presented their views of Gough Whitlam powerfully, the artists who performed there reminded us of the contribution that Gough Whitlam made to the arts. I think today was a very moving day and I wouldn't unduly focus on the hurly-burly outside in terms of average politics. It was an amazing service.

REPORTER: In relation to the pay deals for the Australian Defence Force personnel, was that something you would like to see increased?

SHORTEN: I think the Prime Minister should be ashamed of this pay decision. It just goes to show how out of touch Tony Abbott and his Cabinet are, when they offer what is effectively a real pay cut to the people in Australia who wear our uniforms and make us safe.

Families of the military still have to go shopping every weekend and they have still got keep up with the cost of living. I think it is breathtaking we have a Prime Minister who talks so much about his love of the military, except when it comes to ensuring that they don't get a real pay cut. In addition, let’s not overlook that fact that for people serving overseas, they’re going to receive less leave as a result of this decision. Working away from your family is hard at the best of times. But when it's the military who can go anywhere at any time, to lose leave conditions and have a cut in their real rate of pay is disgraceful.

I, for one, believe that what's motivated this decision hasn't even been the military, it's been a decision of the Abbott Government to try and force down all public servants' wages and I certainly do not believe they should have been using the military as some sort of pawn to argue about how they can or can't manage their employee relations. One thing everyone knows about Tony Abbott and the Liberals - you can't trust them with the conditions of ordinary men and women in Australia, whether or not they wear a uniform or they have don't.


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