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31 August 2021




SUBJECTS: COVID-19 in NSW; right wing extremism.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Kristina Keneally. Thanks for your time. As a former Premier of New South Wales, how worried are you about that health system holding up amid the outbreak and the strain it’s copping at the moment? 

KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Incredibly concerned, Kieran. I feel what we're heading for in New South Wales is an unmitigated disaster when it comes to the ability of our hospitals to cope. We're already hearing on the ground horror stories of people waiting hours in ambulances, people who are COVID positive, people who need to be on ventilators, who are getting them maybe in an emergency room, not in an ICU. We're hearing other stories about people just simply being turned away or ambulances not turning for hours, for things they would have been there for in minutes, ambulances ramping up at hospitals.

GILBERT: Are you surprised by how quickly it's got to this in some respects and in some areas particularly Western Sydney?

KENEALLY: I'm incredibly concerned for two reasons. One, the capacity of our hospital system to cope is fundamental to our ability to open up, and if our hospital system can't cope, it's going to make it much harder for us to open up and all of us want to open up. I mean, New South Wales is in a desperate situation right now, these lockdowns are incredibly hard, and if we can't get a hospital system to cope, we won't be able to open up. But I am also concerned because it does seem like there has been a lack of planning, a lack of preparation for this third wave.

GILBERT: At the state level as well?

KENEALLY: Well, at a state and a federal level, I mean to listen to, to the Morrison Government, you know, they say the Doherty modelling says we can open up at 70 to 80% but the Doherty modelling also says our hospitals have to cope. We know that from doctors in Western Sydney that there hasn't been the kind of coordinated planning you would expect in a crisis like this. So yes, I think both the NSW Liberal Government, and the Morrison Government at a federal level, need to act fast in order to ensure that our hospitals can cope with this outbreak.

GILBERT: The Prime Minister says he is moving, you know, heaven and earth to get every dose that he can at the moment. He’s got 500,000 doses from Singapore in a swap arrangement, do you welcome those initiatives to speed up the rollout?

KENEALLY: Kieran, I welcome anything that gets more vaccines into people's arms. We know and I know, from the mail that comes into my office and the phone calls, people are desperate. They can't get appointments. They've been struggling to get those vaccines and they want them. But it’s too little, too late from a Prime Minister who always said vaccination wasn’t a race. Well it always was a race Kieran, and what we’re seeing in New South Wales, where we don’t have aged care workers vaccinated, where only 8% of First Nations people in western New South Wales are vaccinated. These are vulnerable groups that have been left behind by this slow roll out.

GILBERT: What's your view as Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and as well as your other responsibilities, in terms of home quarantine? How soon should we be looking to home quarantine and is that going to be safer, potentially than the hotel quarantine we're still running?

KENEALLY: You know, last year, Jane Halton, who is Mr Morrison's handpicked expert gave him a report on the hotel quarantine system. She said it's not fit for purpose. She encouraged them to set up a national quarantine system and they haven't done so. The fact that we have got this outbreak in Sydney is because we had an unvaccinated limo driver, taking people to a hotel quarantine system, something Jane Halton said was a real vulnerability, the transport system, in this whole quarantine process.

Now when it comes to home quarantine Jane Halton made the point that it should be on the table, but it should be on the table when it’s part of a vaccination rollout, that is keeping pace. Right now we've only got one in three people who are fully vaccinated, and yes it's welcome we're seeing more people able to get appointments, but the reality is a lot of people are of the view we are not going to get to that 70 to 80% this side of Christmas, and that just shows how slow this has been, and the challenges we still face. 

GILBERT: Onto the topic of right wing extremism, you provided a briefing for your colleagues today in the Caucus on this. Not only that ASIO has announced 50% of its workload which is extraordinary, but also, you argue that the Morrison Government itself is enabling this ideology. What justifies that?

KENEALLY: Well, it's not so much the Morrison Government themselves but members of the Morrison Government - MPs. And let me be clear about something here, Kieran, you and I were here a year ago, we talked about right wing extremism and since then, what we've seen is extremists - right wing extremists - using the pandemic to spread disinformation about vaccines, about testing, about drugs like Ivermectin and...

GILBERT: ASIO are at that point, Mike Burgess, he said it was 40% their workload, now it's up to 50% in 12 months.

KENEALLY: AFP has warned that right wing extremists are targeting young men in particular in Australia for radicalisation, using a pandemic as a way in. My concern about some members of the Morrison Government is that they have been willing to appear on social media platforms and encouraging other Australians to go on social media platforms that are used by the right wing extremist communities and groups, that they are giving tacit and sometimes explicit endorsement of conspiracy theories and other views that are being spread about the pandemic and about vaccines.

When you have people like George Christensen encouraging members of the Australian public to go on Telegram, the social media platform used by right wing extremists, what that does - it connects Australians with more extreme views, and it tacitly endorses the views that are on platforms like that. 

GILBERT: You mentioned Matt Canavan as well as George Christensen among a couple of other MPs, but Matt Canavan appearing with Steve Bannon, for example, saying, “the way countries lose their liberty, and lose their freedom, before you know it,  all the freedoms that we have cherished completely go”. He’s talking about lockdowns in that scenario. Where do you draw the line though in terms of free speech, and being able to argue what many people, it would resonate with a lot of people about lockdowns - people are over it. But you’ve thrown Canavan in with that same basket?

KENEALLY: You know, I would say first of all, Senator Canavan is criticising his own government's lockdown. Mr Morrison himself encouraged Premier Berejiklian in New South Wales to go into a lockdown in Western Sydney.
The concern here really, is that by going on platforms with Steve Bannon, by going on and letting yourself be aligned with groups like the True Blue Crew, and the Proud Boys, who are on social media sharing, promoting and endorsing the views, of MPs like Senator Canavan, Mr Christensen and Senators Rennick and Antic, what we're having, what we see here is this connection, this tacit endorsement. I'm not saying these MPs and Senators…

GILBERT: What would you want to see from the Prime Minister though, because, obviously, he doesn't express those views - he's been clear in terms of his support of the science. Now you might criticise his approach, but you can hardly say that he'd be fostering this sort of view, what would you like to see from him?

KENEALLY: Well let me be clear about one thing. I’m not saying that these Members and Senators are themselves far-right extremists, but what I am saying is that give tacit endorsement to the platforms and the individuals, at times, and the conspiracy theories that are being shared amongst right wing extremist groups, and it’s taking those from the echo chambers of social media onto the floor of the Australian Parliament. 

What we need now and what I’ve argued for years now is that when it comes to right wing extremism we need intelligence, we need the right law enforcement tools and we need leadership. 

You’ve got someone like Boris Johnson in the UK who’s unequivocal in his rejection of far-right extremism. We haven’t seen that type of leadership from Mr Morrison, and that starts with him being clear with his own members about what are acceptable and appropriate types of messages to be sharing, particularly within a pandemic.