TRANSCRIPT - RN Breakfast, Wednesday 5 November 2014

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Subject/s: Ebola, Gough Whitlam.


FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek is Deputy Labor Leader and the Shadow Foreign Minister. Tanya Plibersek, welcome to RN Breakfast.


KELLY: The Federal Government has, the details we know so far are a little scant, but we understand they will pay for these healthcare workers to go to Sierra Leone, but the work will be contracted out to a private firm. Is that type of arrangement satisfactory? Are you happy? You’ve been pushing the government to do more, are you happy with this plan as you understand it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, Fran, as you say the details of the plan haven’t been confirmed, so I don’t want to talk too specifically, but what I would say is if the reports are correct and that Australian volunteers who want to go to West Africa - to help fight Ebola in West Africa, if they are able to go, then that is a good thing.

KELLY: And is that kind of support enough? You’ve been calling for the government to support Australian health workers who want to go, what sort of support did you have in mind? You’ve been talking to people about this.

PLIBERSEK: Yes, well certainly, in fact I have just returned from a trip to the United States where I spoke not just to the US State Department, to the White House, but also to the United Nations, to people leading the effort there and I think what we need to ensure from my discussions with them is that Australian volunteers who have the right skills are able to go, that their travel is facilitated and that they have a backup should the worst happen and they become sick. A number of countries now have made arrangements for their staff to be, and their volunteers, to be treated in field hospitals in West Africa. The medical advice that I got from the experts is that the sooner the treatment starts, if there is a suspected case of Ebola, the better the chance of recovery. And if you have high standards of medical treatment the recovery rate gets to about 80 percent so it is important to treat as close to where the diagnosis is made and as soon as Ebola is suspected. So think if we have got adequate health treatment in the country, then that is a very good first step.

KELLY: And it does suggest- that’s been the holdup for the government, it wasn’t prepared to risk the health of Australian workers without some kind of evacuation plan and taking them back to Australia was not feasible. It does appear as though this agreement that we’ll get the details of today includes an agreement with the UK to medivac any infected Australian health workers to Britain for treatment or even to Germany to a German hospital for treatment.

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it is very important to make a case by case assessment on the best course of treatment and it is really not a good idea from the distance of Australia to be making assessments about treatment. What we need to do is give a range of options to any health worker or volunteer who might be affected. We know- I know from my discussions with Medecins San Frontieres that they have managed to have a number of options for each of their health workers that have become sick so they’ve been- had more than one choice of country to medivac them to.

KELLY: I guess what I am asking though, is it important that the Federal Government got this agreement with the UK in place, that was the sticking point? Does this justify the holdup given that they now seem to have this agreement with countries like the UK and Germany?

PLIBERSEK: It has been clear for many, many weeks now that the UK, the US, the UN, the WHO - the World Health Organisation - and others have been pushing for Australia to become involved. All of those countries and organisations have made adequate provisions for their health workers in the past. I am not sure why it has taken Australia so long but I am delighted if the reports are correct today that Australian volunteers who want to go and join this international effort to contain Ebola in West Africa, I will be delighted if they are able to go. These people are highly skilled, they know there are risks involved and nevertheless they have been desperate to participate in this international effort. We have been contacted by doctors, by nurses, by logisticians saying that they want to go to help, this is what all of their training, all of their skills and experience leads them to do and if the reports are correct, that the Government will finally facilitate that, then that’s a good thing.

KELLY: Nevertheless, as Michelle used the term at arm’s length, the way it’s going to be set up as contracted to a private contractor, a group called Aspen Medical is what we think, which is based in Canberra, has global experience, already operates an Ebola clinic in Liberia apparently. But why that option and why not, what some people have been talking about, the deployment of what is called the Australian Medical Assistance Teams, which are still volunteers I think, but have experience and expertise in dealing with overseas crises. Why wasn’t that activated or would you have preferred that option?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I can’t answer why Australian Medical Assistance Teams, or AUSMAT teams, weren’t deployed. They are, as you say, volunteers but they’re people who have been particularly selected to be part of a team that has a cross-section of skills so that the team can be deployed quite independently into troubled areas. They were set up to go into natural disaster areas and I thought all along that that would have been a good option. I can’t answer why the government decided against that but I don’t think that the- I am certainly not going to be quibbling now about why not AUSMAT teams and I think the important thing to recognise is that we have had Australians who have the skills to go, who want to go, they see this as an enormous humanitarian challenge, they want to be a part of solving it. And if it is true that the Government will be facilitating their travel now, then that is a good thing.

KELLY: It’s 12 minutes to 8 on Breakfast. Our guest is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Tanya Plibersek. On term- in those terms of course, it is risky, we know that it is risky, we know the number of health workers who have contracted Ebola is quite high so there is risk to this. Is there any concern that by contracting these volunteer teams to run this hospital out to a private contractor, that those people aren’t- don’t have the protection they may need if their Government was the direct contact?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think it is absolutely vital that we give the best possible support and protection to health workers, Australian health workers and others from around the world that are in West Africa and indeed to the local workforce as well. The three countries worst affected already had a health workforce that was under enormous pressure, very few doctors and nurses to the size of their population, so making sure that all of the health workers are protected is important. I do not think you can fairly make a distinction between who is providing the logistic support on the ground in the way that we have done.

KELLY: Okay, on another matter you are the Deputy Labor Leader and a long time obviously member of the Labor Party. You’ll be attending Gough Whitlam’s Memorial today at the Sydney Town Hall. By all reports, it is shaping up to be one of the biggest public farewells in recent memory, I wonder what your thoughts are this morning.

PLIBERSEK: Well, obviously today is a day of great sadness because we have lost a great man, but we’re also, I think, at our best in the Labor Party when we come together to celebrate the sort of achievements that Gough fought for and delivered, free education, Medicare, land rights, a greater place for Australia in the world. And at the same time it will be sad today, I think it is a gathering that we all draw enormous strength from.

KELLY: The reports suggest that tens of thousands of people will actually be on the streets of Sydney for this and also out in the parks of Parramatta and in Federation Square in Melbourne. In the fortnight since Gough’s death, have you had a lot of people, Australians talking to you about Gough?

PLIBERSEK: I have had a lot of people just coming in off the streets to talk to us in the office. We actually had on the Saturday after Gough died, we had a gathering of Labor Party members where people just took turns speaking about the difference that he’d made to their lives, the difference that the Whitlam Government had made to their lives, a lot of people talking about the fact that they were the first in their family ever to go to university, but a lot of other things as well. People talking about how they or their parents had been able to have a no-fault divorce instead of going through a horrendous court process as previous generations had. People really wanted to talk about the impact that the Whitlam Government had on their lives, so it’s a very emotional time for many Australians and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if many thousands more people than can fit in the Sydney Town Hall wanted to commemorate the day.

KELLY: I think there’s no doubt about that. Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Fran.


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