Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW
Topics: ADF assistance to Victoria, COVID-19
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NEIL MITCHELL: Now, as I said, the Army has come into town. I've got strong memories of the Russell Street bombing. I was editor of The Herald newspaper. I walked out of the door and there was somebody in full Army uniform directing traffic. Now, it was confronting. You're not used to it, but it was also reassuring.
And I think that is what is happening now. On the line is the Federal Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds. Good morning.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Good morning Neil.
NEIL MITCHELL: Thanks so much for your time. What power will the soldiers have in the streets of Melbourne?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, look, last night we received a request from the Victorian Government in light, as you've said, of the State's increased confirmed COVID-19 cases. So we're looking to rapidly mobilise 1,000 ADF personnel to be on the job from tomorrow in support of Victoria. We're looking at about 850 personnel providing planning advice and also hotel quarantine monitoring, and it's probably about another 200 to provide logistical and medical support for the public testing initiatives. It's really important to note that the ADF has become very, very good at this. We've been helping nationally the COVID-19 response since February. So we're well trained and well-practised in all of the required health protocols and we're coming to help.
NEIL MITCHELL: Good. What power will they have?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, they're not law enforcement and they're certainly not security guards. So what we're doing is really supporting the Victorian authorities, the Victorian health authorities, and also Victorian law enforcement.
So they'll be going out with the Victorian police, and other authorities –
NEIL MITCHELL: You say go with Victoria police and Victoria police need them because there's some trouble, what is their power, what is their authority, what can they do?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: They can't - they don't have law enforcement powers.
NEIL MITCHELL: So they can't get involved?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: No, they can't. So what they can do is they can identify
- if they identify a problem, they then refer it through to the Victorian law enforcement authorities to deal with. So the ADF don't have law enforcement powers.
NEIL MITCHELL: No, I understood that but I thought there could be an arrangement made by which they had more powers. They've basically got the powers of a civilian, have they?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Essentially, in this case yes, they do. So what we're doing is we're bringing in our extensive experience in things that are of help, in medical, in logistics, in planning, and also our great knowledge of the health procedures, because don't forget, Neil, every day we've still got 10 to 12 ships at sea. So we're very, very good at all of the required health protocols for COVID-19.
NEIL MITCHELL: Yes, well that is good. That is good. When did you first or the Defence Force first offer to help Victoria and the other States?
MINSITER REYNOLDS: Well, look, we've had people on the ground in Victoria since April and we still have 28 personnel working very closely with the Victorian authorities.
NEIL MITCHELL: Yeah, but New South - well, Queensland has got several hundred, haven't they?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, we've had up to 2,000 people deployed across the country. So the numbers have varied State by State. We've retained 28 in Victoria doing largely planning tasks, which has made it very easy for us to go up to now over 1,000 personnel as from tomorrow. So we've been on the ground and liaising. But, again, we have to wait to be asked by State and Territory Governments.
NEIL MITCHELL: And you've only just been asked?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Last night, yes.
NEIL MITCHELL: Last night. Yeah, well it's been frustrating to me, I can tell you. The street patrols, what will they do on street patrols?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, look, Neil, as you said, we go out with the law enforcement and other authorities. It was found during Bushfire Assist when we did the wonderful work in support of bushfire-affected regions in Victoria and New South Wales, having service personnel there in uniform is incredibly reassuring. So we're there to provide extra sets of hands and provide our expertise. So we don't carry weapons and we don't exercise, as I said, law enforcement roles but we're there to supplement what the States and Territories are doing.
NEIL MITCHELL: Will you be knocking on doors? Will soldiers be knocking on doors doing quarantine checks, that sort of thing?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: They may well do. They'll certainly be doing it at hotels. Given this is a very rapidly evolving situation, we're working through the details but we have done that in other States going out and doing - checking with State authorities. But, again, if they find something not right or if someone is not complying, they then refer it to other authorities.
NEIL MITCHELL: On the quarantine, you've obviously done a superb job interstate because there's not one case that's been transmitted from a returning traveller to a Defence Force member, is there, or security - anybody?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, we've been doing that - as you said, we've been doing that across a number of States, including here in my own State of Western Australia and we really are - we're very good, we're very disciplined and so we know what we have to do. We know what the standards are, and we are very good at maintaining those standards.
NEIL MITCHELL: Are they medically qualified, the people who are doing this?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Some of them are. We've actually rolled out COVID-19 health training through to thousands and thousands of our troops right across the country and, in fact, it's worked so well we've now given it to regional partners to assist their own Defence Forces, learn how to deal with all the health protocols.
NEIL MITCHELL: So were your staff, were your military people available and ready to work in Victoria's quarantine hotels from day 1?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, we've provided all States and Territories with information about the sorts of things we can do. So, as you know, we were in very early in Shepparton at Med-Con and helped them ramp up their production of masks. So we've actually been doing a lot of things in Victoria and --
NEIL MITCHELL: So you were available for the hotels from day 1?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Yes. But, again, it's up to --
NEIL MITCHELL: If only you had been there.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, look, that is - as I said, all first Ministers, all Premiers, I think have done a superb job working together as part of the National Cabinet with the Prime Minister. As the Defence Minister, I respond to requests from States and Territories.
NEIL MITCHELL: Are you aware of the term "ring-fencing" where you actually identify a suburb and nobody goes in or out and it's been discussed a little, and it happened in Beijing during the SARS pandemic. Have you heard of it?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: I have and --
NEIL MITCHELL: Could you be involved in that, if necessary?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, it depends on the request. We certainly wouldn't want to be seen as, you know, correction officers or law enforcement officers, but we are also at State borders assisting State and Territory police, and particularly at quarantine points into Indigenous communities. So we have to look at each individual request, Neil, to make sure that it's within the powers of the ADF and that it's appropriate to do. But we're available and, as I said, we've had to up 2,000 personnel across the country for many months now.
NEIL MITCHELL: See, I'm just thinking back to the quarantine because I've had a message that some people were leaving either because of ignorance or because of arrogance, so just saying, "Oh, we're going out." Does the Defence people who will be on the spot, have they got the ability to stop them or do they have to call the police? What do they do?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: They would use their powers of persuasion to actually
NEIL MITCHELL: (Laughs).
SEN LINDA REYNOLDS: -- powers of persuasion to actually encourage people to do the right thing but, of course, then they would report it to the law enforcement officer who is generally in location with them.
NEIL MITCHELL: They couldn't stop them?
MINISTER: It's moral authority, Neil, in this case.
NEIL MITCHELL: Moral authority coming from a 6-foot-6 bloke in jungle fatigues or something.
SEN LINDA REYNOLDS: And just not the blokes these days, Neil.
NEIL MITCHELL: I know. I wouldn't take any of them on, I can assure you. Well, look, it's a good thing. I really do wish - it must have been a bit frustrating for you sitting there, seeing you're not being involved.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, not at all. As I've said, we actually have had people in all States and Territories doing liaison and planning but, again, we can't act until we actually get the request. So a lot of work went into negotiations and discussions with Victoria through Emergency Management Australia as well. So we received the request last night and, as the ADF does, we've responded quickly and we'll have boots on the ground today and we'll be on the job from tomorrow.
NEIL MITCHELL: But what was the problem, what did you have to negotiate?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: In terms of actually what support we can best provide.
NEIL MITCHELL: Okay. All right. I appreciate your time and the trouble you've gone to. Thank you very much.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: You're very welcome, Neil. Thank you.
NEIL MITCHELL: Linda Reynolds, the Federal Defence Minister. Look, I know - and I know it's not time for finger pointing, but by geez that frustrates me. The indications are if we had used the Defence Force from day 1 in the quarantine hotels we would not be in the position we are now, because there are 33 - 32, I suppose, but there were 33 cases at least out of the hotels through security guards and to their families and the like, 33. And the other States none. Defence was sitting there waiting to do it. Okay, street patrols, hotel security, knocking on the door. It will be different. It's not what you want to see in a democracy, but it is necessary and I think we've got to trust them.