26 April 2020


SUBJECTS: The Ruby Princess buck stops with the Commonwealth; the tragic human cost of the Ruby Princess; the economy under the Liberals; company tax cuts; JobKeeper; schools; the Government’s tracing app.
DAVID SPEERS, HOST: I'm joined by Senator Kristina Keneally. To take us there, here was the Chief Medical Officer answering Senator Keneally's questions this week about the Ruby Princess debacle and who was actually responsible for letting those passengers disembark.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER (CLIP): Border Force and Agriculture have very strong local operational responsibility. The Commonwealth Department of Health, me as the Director of Human Biosecurity, have overall policy responsibility. We work very closely with the human biosecurity officers in the states and territories, but the operational decisions are very much delegated to the state and territory human biosecurity officers, but we certainly have responsibility and I'm not in any way denying that.
SPEERS: Senator, welcome to the program. Let's start with the Ruby Princess cruise ship, now linked to 21 coronavirus deaths. Who do you think was responsible for the decision to let 2700 passengers disembark on March 19?
KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Well, good morning, David and good morning to your viewers. When it comes to Australia's borders, the buck stops with the Commonwealth.
On the 15th of March, the Prime Minister announced that his Government would stop – would ban – foreign-flagged cruise ships from arriving in Australia. He also announced on the 15th of March that there would be some exceptions made for cruise ships already heading to Australia that had Australians on board. And the Prime Minister said on the 15th of March that those cruise ships, which include the Ruby Princess, would be and I quote, “under bespoke arrangements under the direct command of the Australian Border Force.”
So, 4 days later, the Ruby Princess arrives under the conditions the Prime Minister set out, under the direct command of the Australian Border Force. And I note that when it did arrive, frontline Australian Border Force officers did raise some concerns about the passengers and the illness on that ship. For some reason, those seem not to have been listened to. The Ruby Princess's 2700 passengers were allowed to disembark without a temperature test or quarantine arrangements. And, as you say, we now see that one ship responsible for 700 COVID cases, over 20 deaths and a significant outbreak of COVID-19 in North West Tasmania. This one boat that Scott Morrison failed to stop has had tragic results right across the country.
SPEERS: But do you accept even under the bespoke arrangements you talk about there, that were meant to be in place, the decision around the health of the passengers was still delegated to New South Wales Health? Peter Dutton this morning on Sky News has said that Border Force officers at sea and airports aren't doctors. That decision is devolved or delegated to New South Wales Health, in this case.
KENEALLY: David, since 1901 the Commonwealth have had responsibility for our borders. And it might help for your viewers to understand a bit how this spaghetti bowl, this complex web of border security at our seaports, works. The Chief Medical Officer is the Director of Human Biosecurity. Federal Agriculture Department officers work under him. When a ship or a plane arrives, it must report ill passengers to the Federal Department of Agriculture. And, of course Australia Border Force enforces the laws at our borders. And in this case, they had specific direct command as given to them by the Prime Minister for arriving cruise ships.
SPEERS: A key part of that…
KENEALLY: You are correct that…
SPEERS: Sorry, is the Department of Agriculture delegates to…
SPEERS: State health officials.
KENEALLY: And that's exactly where I was about to go, David, before you interrupted me. The New South Wales Health have a delegated authority, but it is a delegated authority under the Biosecurity Act. The Federal Biosecurity Act. As Professor Murphy said this week, as Professor Murphy said this week, there are state and federal responsibilities here. He did make the point that Australian Border Force are the lead agency. I agree with Peter Dutton – they're not doctors, and that's why you've got a Federal Director for Human Biosecurity.
SPEERS: So this gets to who? Who gives who gives the medical clear?
KENEALLY: Well, indeed, David, we have a Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth who is the Director of Human Biosecurity, and Australian Border Force is responsible…
SPEERS: But he's not there at every ship and plane that arrives. So when a ship or a plane arrives…
KENEALLY: Yes, and those reports go to, David, those reports are made to the Federal Department of Agriculture. And so when it comes to both practice and law, when it comes to our borders, the buck does stop with the Commonwealth.
SPEERS: Yes, I appreciate ultimate responsibility there, but I'm just getting to who, do you agree that his New South Wales Health in this case that was responsible for giving the medical all clear?
KENEALLY: No, David, I don't, because the Prime Minister stood in front of the nation on the 15th of March and said that arriving cruise ships would be under “bespoke arrangements under the direct command of the Australian Border Force.” The Prime Minister, I don't believe, said that as a marketing line; I believe that he meant it. And so the Commonwealth have a clear responsibility here for those arriving cruise ships under the announcement made by the Prime Minister on the 15th of March.
SPEERS: This is a pretty key question here. That was still delegated to New South Wales Health, the medical decision, wasn't it?
KENEALLY: Well, David, in fact, as the Chief Medical Officer said on Thursday in front of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, there are federal and state responsibilities and he did not shirk the fact that mistakes have been made. And in fact, what he made clear is that when this ship arrived, it was under the command of the Australian Border Force.
SPEERS: Yes. I appreciate that. I'm sorry to stick on this, but I'm just trying to get from you an acknowledgement that it was New South Wales Health responsible for the medical “all clear”.
KENEALLY: David, that is not clear at all, who gave the all clear. As I said, the Australian Border Force front line officers…
SPEERS: But who should've, who was responsible, was that clear to you? Who was actually responsible for that?
KENEALLY: Well, I know what's clear under the law. And under the Federal Biosecurity Act, the Commonwealth are responsible ultimately for what happens at our borders.
SPEERS: Do you think it should be cleared up going forward? There needs to be some change to get away from the spaghetti bowl as you call it? And maybe Border Force needs to be equipped with its own medical teams at airports and seaports to do this work, rather than delegate it?
KENEALLY: David, what the Ruby Princess has exposed is that there are gaping holes in our border security, particularly at our seaports. And these gaping holes have real human consequences.
Take Graeme and Karla Lake from Queensland. They went on the Ruby Princess to celebrate Karla's 75th birthday. They both contracted coronavirus on that ship. Ten days after disembarking, Carla died. Graeme is devastated. It is a heartbreaking story and I don't understand how the Prime Minister and Peter Dutton can't be moved by their story and by the countless other stories that are arising out of this. The tragic consequences of the gaping holes, and the decision to allow the Ruby Princess to freely disembark passengers.
SPEERS: This question, though, does there need to be a change?
KENEALLY: David, we saw just a few days ago, the Australian Border Force Commissioner, Michael Outram, stand up and say that there are holes. It was an extraordinary public critique of Federal Government border policy. I think he's right. And this is a matter, in the first instance, at a Federal level that the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 can examine in detail.
SPEERS: Do you have any thoughts at the outset, though? Would you like to see Border Force take control of these decisions?
KENEALLY: It does seem like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, when it comes to our border security. What the right arrangements should be, I don't think we should start to draw that out here today. But I do think that does need to be examined and clearly, David, what Ruby Princess has exposed is that there are gaping holes in our border security. Australians like Graeme and Karla Lake should be able to rely on our border security for their health, their wellbeing and indeed their very lives.
SPEERS: Let me turn to the debate around economic reform that's begun this week. Are there any no-go areas for Labor here?
KENEALLY: David, I want to make three quick points on economic reform and I will get to the direct question that you have asked. But my three quick points are these. One, this is an unprecedented economic crisis and, no matter what side of politics you sit on, it is near-impossible to say what the economy will look like in three, six or twelve months' time.
Two, Labor does want to see a rapid recovery if it is possible, but we are sceptical about that, given the RBA and the IMF's projections for protracted high unemployment and given the Morrison Government's decision to exclude workers from JobKeeper. Workers like a million casuals, temporary migrants, workers in the arts and entertainment sector, council workers, some teachers. And it does remain to be seen if the economy can snap back to normal recovery in this 6 month time frame that the Prime Minister has set for himself.
Thirdly, when it comes to this unprecedented economic crisis, the Government needs to come to the table, not with ideological positions but with an open mind. With solutions that fit the unprecedented challenges that we are facing. Now, you ask if there are any no-goes to this. To this reform. I point out that the Government hasn't actually put any reform options on the table. They haven't actually canvassed any changes to taxation. Should they do so, we will look at them carefully and respond and we will respond with what is in the best interest…
SPEERS: Are there any no-go areas at the outset of this?
KENEALLY: We will respond with what is in the best interest of real people in the community and in the real economy.
SPEERS: OK. But no red lines?
KENEALLY: Now, I suspect you want to know what our views are on company tax and on industrial relations, and I'd like to make these two points. One, when it comes to a company tax rate, our position on that has been known for some time. It's not based on ideology. It's based on economics, on evidence and on the cost of the thing. If there was evidence that cutting the company tax rate in any country in the world has led to economic growth, you can be sure the Government would have been trumpeting it from the rooftops last year when they were trying to get it through the Senate. We know that a company tax rate is more likely to see the benefits go overseas in the form of share buybacks, increased dividends and executive salaries. There are better ways to support business, such as an investment allowance, and we encourage the Government to look at that.
When it comes to industrial relations, let's remember that the Australian economy was not a great place for the Australian worker prior to COVID-19. There was rampant wage theft, there was stagnant wages, there was increasing casualisation and gig work, there were rising prices. The Australian Government should not come into this reform process with old ideological anti-worker, anti-union agendas. They should see the unions they should see working people as their partners, as they did with JobKeeper. We've got that direct wage subsidy for many workers now, because the Government, rightly, did not view the unions as their enemy but rather their collaborator and their partner.
SPEERS: Just on that, can I just pick up on the point you made there. The JobKeeper payment is not available to a lot of casuals, to those on temporary visas as well. Is it your view that they should be getting JobKeeper?
KENEALLY: Labor has been arguing since the JobKeeper legislation was put into the Parliament that JobKeeper needed to be expanded to include as many workers as possible in the Australian community.
SPEERS: Just to be clear, it should go to all casuals and all temporary visa holders?
KENEALLY: When they qualify under the rules of JobKeeper…
SPEERS: And you're arguing that rules aren't broad enough.
KENEALLY: That is right.
SPEERS: Sorry, should temporary visa holders and casuals, get JobKeeper?
KENEALLY: That is a position Labor has been arguing since we put, since the Government put the legislation into the Parliament. Because, David, if we can keep employees linked to their employer, that is a better outcome and it will lead to a quicker recovery.
SPEERS: That would add about 20 or 30 billion dollars to the cost here, wouldn't it, if you extended it to 2 million more people?
KENEALLY: David, we are already paying a cost, but through increased JobSeeker. We are going to pay a longer term cost if the tail of this economic crisis extends longer than it needs to. And I might just note that the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg was given by the Parliament the power, with the stroke of the pen, to include other workers into JobKeeper. I note that late on Friday night he did make changes to JobKeeper after the Government said they would make none. We welcome the fact that he has used those discretionary powers and we say to him, if there are employees that we can keep an employment relationship with their employer through JobKeeper, he should consider doing that.
SPEERS: Just a couple of quick ones – schools. The Chief Medical Officer says the medical advice has never been that schools should close. He says, quote, “we don't have evidence of significant infection in children. And more importantly, we are not seeing evidence of significant transmission amongst children.” The New South Wales report that's been done by New South Wales Health in the National Centre for Immunisation Research also finds no evidence of students transmitting to teachers in their schools. Do you think it is safe for children and teachers to be at school?
KENEALLY: When it comes to schools, all of us in the community, especially parents and teachers, should be listening to our Premiers and our Chief Ministers. They are the ones that run the school system. And yes, there are concerns about children at schools. There are also concerns about staff, cleaning staff, teaching staff, administrative staff and parents who have to congregate at schools as well. So I say listen to your Premier or your Chief Minister. At that Senate Select Committee on Thursday, the Federal Department of Health could not tell Senators what the Federal Government's advice is regarding schools. They took that question on notice.
SPEERS: Well, their medical advice is clear. Okay, I've just pointed to the medical advice…
KENEALLY: Well then why can't the Federal Department of Health tell us that. Why can't the Federal Department of Health tell Senators that?
SPEERS: The Chief Medical Officer has been very clear in this. Are you saying – listen to the Premiers, not the advice from the medical experts?
KENEALLY: The Premiers participate in the National Cabinet. The Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer gives advice to the National Cabinet. When a Premier or Chief Minister comes out of the National Cabinet and makes the decision, I have the confidence, they as the people who run the schools are making that decision in the best interest of students and parents and teachers. David, can I also say this. I want to just take my hat off to the parents right around Australia who are working from home trying to continue to educate their children from home. I mean, my own children are grown. But I have extraordinary respect for what parents are doing right now. And also teachers, who are trying to remotely educate or educate in a classroom. I think all of us in the Australian community owe them a debt of gratitude.
SPEERS: I think you're right in that. Final one, the tracing app is being launched today. Will you be downloading it yourself?
KENEALLY: Well, David, first of all, the tracing app could be a great tool, it could be a great tool to protect Australia's public health, we have really good public health officials who do paper-based, if you will, contact-tracing. And if an app can help, new technology can help, that's great. However, Australians will only download the app if they have confidence that their privacy will be protected. And so we are encouraging the Government to ensure those privacy protections are built into the app, that the app has legislation around it that means the data cannot be used for any other purpose, except contact-tracing and that when this crisis is over that authorities ensure that that data is deleted.
SPEERS: So you want this legislation, you want those privacy protections legislated?
KENEALLY: Yes, we do.
KENEALLY: And I think the Australian people want that, David, I think the Australian people want that confidence.
SPEERS: So you'll have to wait until Parliament comes back next month, pass legislation, before you consider downloading it?
KENEALLY: David, like many Australians, I'm waiting to see what the Federal Government has to say in terms of the privacy protections that are built into the app and the legislative privacy protections they're going to put in place.
SPEERS: Kristina Keneally, thanks for joining us this morning.
KENEALLY: Thank you.