Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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21 November 2023

SUBJECTS: COVID vaccines; Unsafe interaction with People’s Liberation Army-Navy; NZYQ High Court case.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Okay, we're about to bring in our political panel and joining us today, Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston. Anne is in Adelaide and Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite is with us in Sydney. Thanks both for joining us and I might pick up on something that Mark Butler leads us to there and for which you are the opposition's spokeswoman. You've been very critical of vaccination rates for COVID of late and I think of what you said was tardiness in the approval of these two latest vaccines. But now that they've been approved, what leads you to believe that take-up rates are also going to lift?

ANNE RUSTON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Well, nothing is actually letting me believe that the take-up rates are going to lift because you have to have a campaign that sits around this. It's too little, too late. I mean, we've waited so long. We know that not much better than 25 per cent of Australians over the age of 75 are currently covered by some form of vaccination for COVID. So, it's really concerning that we've got that situation. What I'd like to see is I'd like to see the Minister out there explaining to Australians about the value of being protected, where's the Chief Medical Officer, which we saw constantly throughout the pandemic. I mean, accept the fact that we've got to move away from this being a pandemic response and we've got to learn to live with COVID. But that doesn't mean to say that we can shy away from our responsibilities to make sure that vulnerable Australians have the information and are encouraged to protect themselves. And 25 or 27 per cent coverage for over 75s, I just don't think is good enough.

JENNETT: All right, and just one more to you, Anne, because I know you probably have the technical knowledge of these things. What's so good about these two newest vaccines that are coming online within weeks?

RUSTON: Well, my understanding from the information, I've no more information than what you have received through the media, is that they are more specifically targeted to the variants that are currently before us. We know that as the viruses sort of progress through its generation, we're seeing less symptoms, but it doesn't mean to say that those symptoms can't be quite catastrophic for older Australians. But my understanding that the monovariant that has come out that the Minister announced is going to be available in December, I mean, we're still talking about a month away, will be better targeted to the variants that are currently in our communities.

JENNETT: All right, well, Matt Thistlethwaite, I know none of this is within your area of responsibility, but to the broader question Anne Ruston raises with us today, what is happening on the communications front? Why don't we get more active encouragement for people to take their extra shots, whether it's from the Chief Medical Officer or even from the Health Minister?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: The first thing to say, Greg, is that Australia has one of the highest rates of COVID vaccination in our population of any nation in the world, and that's obviously a positive thing. And credit where credit's due that process began under the previous government and has been continued under this government. The announcement that the Health Minister's made today means that there are two new vaccines that are available for Australians to potentially use. And Anne's analysis is right. As this virus mutates, different strains come into being and these new vaccines better target those variants to provide a much more effective cover. I think, Greg, what we're seeing with COVID is it goes in waves and generally when we're in the trough of the wave, people can become a bit relaxed and forget that they should be trying to get a vaccination, at least on an annual basis. So, we're trying to be as vigilant as possible and reassure people and remind people that they should be at least visiting their GP once a year and talking to the GP about getting an update and a booster to their vaccination to make sure that they maintain that continuity of coverage against further infection of COVID for them as personal individuals.

JENNETT: All right and Anne one more on this to you. The order numbers, I think we've just heard Mark Butler saying it's about 3 million doses initially. What would that tell you about levels of government planning for uptake? Obviously, that doesn't get you anywhere near even half the population.

RUSTON: Well, I mean, clearly 3 million doses is what they've currently got in stock. I think that's what the Minister just said. So, I mean, one would be hoping that there's going to be a whole heap more, because 3 million doses is not going to touch the sides when it comes to even vulnerable Australians. So, making sure that those people with comorbidities, those people with autoimmune disease, as well as older Australians and Australians that are vulnerable. So, we'd hope to think that there was going to be more vaccines available for those that want it. But the point is, as Matt mentions, when we go into these troughs, people do become a little complacent and they don't go out and continue to have their cover. So, that's why we need the government and particularly the Chief Medical Officer, who is considered the authority, actually explaining to Australians the protection they get from these vaccinations so that they have all the information when they make the decision as to whether they're going to have one. Because the last thing we want to see is another great big wave of COVID come through, because we know what catastrophic results it has, not just on people's health, but on our economy.

JENNETT: Yeah, and I think there's been a bit of a correlation in the past about holiday periods and travel and the like. But anyway, look, let's move on from that and let's go to the China ship issue, more squarely in your wheelhouse Matt Thistlethwaite, China's going on with protest against Australia's condemnation of what happened between the Toowoomba and the Ningbo. Due to its persistence then, why doesn't the Prime Minister clear up one way or another what level of communication he might have had on this issue?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously, this has been a very dangerous incident and when it occurred the Australian Navy expressed its concern with the Chinese naval vessel that was in the area. It issued warnings that there were Australian naval divers attempting to remove nets that had been caught around the propellers of the HMAS Toowoomba. Regrettably, this sonar incident did take place and there was an injury that occurred to Australian naval divers and it's a very, very serious issue and it's been raised by the Australian government through the appropriate channels. And on a daily basis, you've had Ministers, including the Defence Minister, saying publicly that this is an issue of deep concern for the Australian Government and for the Australian people, and that we expect that the Chinese navy, and indeed all international navies would abide by the laws of the sea and ensure that they act appropriately to protect the safety and the welfare of particularly divers who are undertaking what was a very dangerous operation.

JENNETT: All right, well, a variation on that question to you Anne Ruston. I guess it is predictable, or somewhat predictable that Beijing would deny or refute some of the Australian allegations about the circumstances here. That being the case, a Prime Ministerial protest wouldn't change anything, would it?

RUSTON: Well, look, I think the first question here is why is the Prime Minister just looking tricky. He was asked a straight out question as to what his communication had been at the highest levels over what Matt quite rightly describes as a very serious incident. And he won't give any information, citing that private or conversations between leaders are not something that you comment on. Well, I'd say conversations between leaders are often commented on in minute detail after they've met. So, it just seemed really quite bizarre that the Prime Minister would refuse to be transparent around what had actually transpired between himself and the highest levels of the Chinese government in relation to this incident, because it is a tremendously serious situation. And I think the fact that we didn't hear anything about it for seven days, there's some questions to be asked, and clearly the Prime Minister just doesn't want to answer them. And it just goes to a question of transparency, and I think he plainly looks tricky.

JENNETT: All right, well, look, no one in the Defence portfolio with Richard Marles being overseas has directly been able to respond to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry. Matt Thistlethwaite, what is the Government response to them quibbling over the location, the recklessness, that's their words and other circumstances surrounding this naval encounter?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The Australian Government disputes the Chinese government's characterisation of this incident. We believe that it was a very serious incident. The Navy certainly reported that to the Government that there were some minor injuries to the divers who undertook this operation, and that is unacceptable, that type of behaviour from a foreign military that jeopardises the safety of Australian clearance divers whilst they're undertaking what is generally considered a pretty routine removal of nets, fishing nets, to ensure the safety and the continued operation of that vessel, to jeopardise their safety in those circumstances is unacceptable. And that's why the Australian Government has voiced its protest at those actions and we dispute the characterisation that it never occurred.

JENNETT: All right, and a quick one, finally on immigration detention. Anne Ruston to you, were you aware that the former Government had released a number, I'm not sure we know the precise number, of detainees into what's called residence determination from this detainee cohort prior to the debate that ensued last week?

RUSTON: Well, I think we have to be very clear about the significant difference between detainees that have previously been able to be released under certain circumstances. And just like the carte blanche release of some of the most dangerous criminals, that have ever come to this country, into the community with no constraints around them whatsoever, and without telling the victims of the crimes of which they'd perpetrated. So, I think there's a significant difference. And I think we also know last week that we saw a government that had not prepared for something that we knew was about to happen for months. We've known that the High Court was very likely to bring down this decision. And I think you only have to look at the extraordinary crimes that were committed by the people that were released into the community to understand why the public sentiment was as it was.

JENNETT: Yeah, all right. And a quick word from you, Matt. Were you in any way surprised by the release of some of these Home Affairs documents via the High Court today?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously, this is a decision that the Government acted very quickly on. We argued against the release of these detainees in the High Court. Nonetheless, the High Court found that indefinite detention is unconstitutional and without having the benefit of the reasons for the High Court's decision, they won't be published till February. The Government acted as quickly as we possibly could to put in place additional safety measures to protect the Australian public. And that's been the actions that have been paramount for this government, how we can protect the safety of the Australian public moving forward. And the amendments that were proposed by the Coalition, all of them have been accepted by the Government, as well as the proposed amendments that we put up. So, we've acted as quickly as we possibly can. We've gone as far as we possibly can without having the reasons for that judgement. Now, when they're handed down in February, that will provide a further opportunity for the Government to act further if it's needed.

JENNETT: All right, well, look, thank you. We're going to wrap it up there. There's more we could talk about on immigration detention, but we won't. Anne Ruston and Matt Thistlethwaite, really appreciate it both today. Thanks for joining us.



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