Topics: Buck stops with Albanese on decision to COVID test Chinese arrivals; 

10:05AM ACDT
5 January 2023


Peter Fegan:  This is the day that arrivals from China here to Australia have to prove a negative PCR test. There is still no clarity on it. I have, I have been sent a link and I’m going to go through it with the Senator in just a moment. Now, Senator Simon Birmingham has been quoted as saying this – It is so perplexing and concerning that Anthony Albanese doesn’t seem to be fronting the cameras or hitting the airwaves himself to explain why they’ve ignored the advice of the Chief Medical Officer – and I couldn’t agree with him more. And he joins me on the line. Senator, good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Peter, and good morning to your listeners.


Peter Fegan: I appreciate your time. Happy New Year. I want to start I’ve been banging on this about this all week, Senator, and last week. There’s no clarity. Now. I’ve just been sent a link by one of the producers here, and I’m going through it, Senator, and I can’t find where it tells me what I’ve got to do if I go negative. It says I can’t find it. There is literally unless I’m missing something here. Senator, there is no clarity on what I need to do. Do I have to go home and prove that I can leave my home again? Am I allowed to walk the streets? I don’t understand.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Peter, look, this is a very perplexing and hamfisted effort by the Albanese government. Just a week or so ago they were saying very clearly that these sorts of measures were not necessary, that the COVID outbreak in China was analogous to any other COVID outbreak, indeed type of situation we’d seen here in Australia 12 months ago. Then they changed their tune. Then it became publicly disclosed that in fact the Chief Medical Officer had advised them that the types of measures the testing requirement they were putting in place was not necessary and would not make any tangible difference to the health situation in Australia. They argued it was out of an abundance of caution, but of course the medical officer himself formed his advice with a cautious lens and approach. Then they said it was to get more data, but they can’t demonstrate where they’re going to get this data from because the tests will be undertaken in China. And there have been plenty of questions as you’re just highlighting, about how it will be implemented. And amongst all of this, where is Anthony Albanese and why is he not coming out to explain the change in approach, explain why they’ve done it and provide the types of details that for anybody who has family, business or otherwise in China would want to know in terms of what will or won’t be possible for movement between the two countries.


Peter Fegan: Well, it’s a dangerous line we’re crossing here because we know how important China is to us in terms of our students and, of course, trade and the relationship with China. And I’ve got to say that Labor is famous for having well- Labor is famous for going weak at the knees at China and having this relationship with China where the Coalition stands up for itself and stands up for Australia. And what we’re seeing now is the complete opposite is we’re seeing that China is obviously trying to sanction those that are putting these sanctions on their passengers. And I would it would seem to me, Senator, that the relationship couldn’t be any worse.


Simon Birmingham: Peter, we should, of course, put the health interests of Australians first, and that’s what we as a government sought to do way back on the 1st of February 2020, when we made decisions to first start to close Australia’s international borders at the early stages of COVID before there were any vaccines, when we didn’t know much about COVID itself and when it was a much more serious variant that we were dealing with than the types of delta variants that have emerged subsequently. And so we’ve got to be willing to take difficult decisions. But at the time when we did that, there were lots of unknowns. We were dealing with more severe circumstances. We didn’t have vaccines, as I said, and we fronted the cameras to explain what it was we as a government were doing at the time. And yes, we took many other difficult decisions in relation to China to strengthen Australia’s foreign investment laws, to put in place foreign interference laws, to ban Huawei from operation in our telecommunications network. All of them designed to protect Australia’s long term national interests. And we knew that China wouldn’t always like those things, and they took some unfair and unjustified retribution against Australia in the form of trade sanctions and we want to see those sanctions lifted and we are wishing this Government every success in getting those sanctions lifted for the good of Australian business and industry, and to ensure that the free trade agreement we put in place with China is upheld. But this type of decision taken in the very haphazard way, it seems to have been done by the Government. Whether it hurts that progress, we’ll have to see, but it certainly can’t help it.


Peter Fegan: I’ve got to say, Senator, I commend the Albanese Government for taking this stance because I, like most Australians, would like to know whether there’s another variant of COVID entering the country. And you’ve got to say on the surface you have to commend them for taking a stance and wanting to find out what viruses or what strain of COVID is entering our country. But what I have concerns with, Senator, is the way they’ve gone about it, that there’s no clarity and also that throughout COVID, whether it would be the Coalition, whether it’s the state Labor government here in Queensland, the New South Wales Government, whatever the case may be, the line that was always fed to us in the media or fed to us in the public was that we will do everything within the health advice from the Chief Health Officer. Now Professor Paul Kelly, he’s advised against this. So, this is a captain’s call.


Simon Birmingham: That’s right. And that is that is why clearer explanations from the government should be forthcoming and why it’s so concerning that Anthony Albanese and his Health Minister, Mark Butler, appear to be missing in action when it comes to explaining this decision to the Australian people and giving clear answers about what drove them to act in a way contrary to the advice of Australia’s chief medical officer through many years now of dealing with COVID. It’s been the advice and the information of chief health and medical officers that has helped guide us. We haven’t always got every decision as a country perfect or right, because we were often dealing with imperfect information and many unknowns at different points in time. But that advice has always been important in this case. Professor Kelly was very clear, it seems in his advice to the Government that these measures were not necessary and would not make any significant difference to Australia’s health situation. The Government chose to act opposite to that health advice, but if you’re going to do that, then there’s even greater responsibility to come out and explain why and talk the Australian people through those reasons.


Peter Fegan: Well, one thing is he hasn’t explained it to the public. And as I’ve said to you, Senator, I’m trying to read through this link that’s been sent to me and it doesn’t say what I need to do. I might have to go through it a little more thoroughly, but I’ve read it twice now and I can’t see what it doesn’t tell me what to do. But I had Senator Murray Watt on the program on Monday, and I’ll give him some lenience here because it’s not his portfolio. But Senator Murray, what didn’t know and he’s a Labor Minister and he didn’t know what the process was. So it seems to me that Anthony Albanese and Mark Butler aren’t just hiding it from the public, they’re hiding it from the Cabinet.


Simon Birmingham: Well, and of course if you are somebody trying to work out how to comply with these requirements, you need clear information and it seems as though it’s being made up on the run without any clear systems or processes put in place and that they actually don’t seem able to answer the questions on the rare occasions where somebody fronts up to address them. And I guess maybe it’s those reasons perhaps as to why Anthony Albanese is so unwilling to come out and address this issue and answer these questions. But he certainly should, because in the end, he’s the PM. The buck stops with him about having made the decision and the implementation of it.


Peter Fegan: Senator Ben Peckham writes in The Australian this morning about the army and it will now have its biggest firepower upgrade in a generation under a new contract. The Albanese Government has signed the contract to acquire 20 new truck mounted Lockheed Martin designed systems by 2026. This is a $1 billion arms purchase and it will give the Australian Defence Force two of the world’s most capable guided weapons as it scrambles to acquire new long range capabilities to deter would be aggressors. This move by the Albanese Government, is this a sign of the times? You feel this tension throughout the world, I feel.


Simon Birmingham: So, if you go back to back when the Coalition government was elected, Australia’s defence spending had dropped to its lowest level since the 1930s under the Rudd and Gillard governments. And we worked to restore that to more than 2% of Australia’s gross domestic product. To put us in a position where the country can make investments in necessary strategic ways to protect us for the future from all manner of different threats or challenges that we face. And there are still global challenges like terrorism that we have to be mindful of. There are challenges, though, from more autocratic regimes that we’ve seen evidence very clearly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And that means as a nation, we have to be prepared. And this type of investment is one that we made sure Australia was well placed to be able to undertake and we will commit to continuance of the step up in terms of our defence capability that was undertaken for Australia.


Peter Fegan: Senator, I really appreciate your time this morning. Happy New Year and here’s to a good 2023 and we’ll talk to you again, of course, throughout the year.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Peter, here’s hoping and indeed a Happy New Year to you and all the listeners. Thanks so much for your time.