Transcript - Television Interview - ABC Capital Hill

25 August 2021


SUBJECTS: COVID—19; Vaccination rollout; Afghanistan.
MATTHEW DORAN, HOST: Let's bring in Melissa McIntosh and Marielle Smith. We will get to Afghanistan in a second, but I do want to start with the Coronavirus situation, particularly with Melissa McIntosh in lockdown like all of New South Wales currently is. You are out in Western Sydney; I want to ask about the situation on the ground in your community. Are people fearful this is the new normal in a way? That there’s no way of getting back from the situation now we are seeing hundreds and hundreds of new cases recorded each and every day?
MELISSA MCINTOSH, MEMBER FOR LINDSAY: It has certainly been very tough in Western Sydney, Matthew. We have been in lockdown and part of our LGA in Penrith is undergoing some of the stricter health measures by the NSW Government, but everyone here just wants to do their part. We have around 50% of people having their first vaccinations which is really good. Our school kids can get vaccinated now, that 16-39 year old age group. I believe there are lots of booking still available for people to go and do that. As you said, it is tough. Mental health has been an issue, that’s been the number one issue coming through to my electorate office. We have a mental health pop-up hub coming forward to take some of that pressure off our health system to ensure that people in my community can get the help they need. I had a Zoom meeting with school kids the other day and they told me they were struggling, they want to see their friends, they want to go back to school, so we need to ensure that they can go back when we hit that 70% vaccinated rate.
DORAN: We have had confirmed reports of just how much strain the health system is under in Sydney, concerns about Westmead Hospital, Nepean Hospital, the pressure that’s being put on the facilities there. Given what you’re experiencing in your community, do you understand the reluctance from Premiers and Chief Ministers in other parts of the country who are living with certain freedoms that they don't want to open up and don't want to ease some of their restrictions, if not within their own jurisdictions but further out and further afield?
MCINTOSH: I was part of the work done around Newmarch House. Our hospital system is absolutely ready. It was such a tough time back when we had lots of people passing away, unfortunately from COVID, so we never want to experience that again of course, but the Premiers have made a commitment to the Australian people, they signed up to this at National Cabinet. That when we get to 70-80%, we will get to enjoy more of the Australia that we all love and miss. I certainly know that in my community we want to get to that phase. We had one of our leading doctors come out and encourage our young people again to get vaccinated. She is seeing 25% of people in ICU right now with COVID are under the age of 40. It is really clear that people need to come out and get vaccinated, do their best, but when we get there we should be opening up.
DORAN: Marielle Smith, we’ve heard of course Labor’s argument that the Prime Minister needs to step up and show some leadership in this situation, but there is an obvious question here about what was the point of the Premiers and Chief Ministers agreeing on the 30th of July to the Doherty modelling, to those vaccine thresholds if some are walking it back now?
MARIELLE SMITH, LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA: I don't think the Premiers are walking back from it, I think everyone is still committed to this plan. Federal Labor is certainly committed to this plan and supporting the plan. Just because we support it doesn't mean that aren't legitimate questions that the Prime Minister needs to answer about how we move safely and quickly through these lockdowns. No-one in Australia wants to see anyone else in lockdown for a moment longer than they need to be. But there are significant questions around First Nations populations who are significantly underrepresented in vaccination rates, in terms of children who are not yet eligible for vaccines in schools. These are significant questions which will affect the effectiveness of the national plan. It’s fair enough that people have questions, and this is the Prime Minister's lockdown, he has to answer those questions.
DORAN: We need to highlight that it’s not only Labor leaders who are voicing these concerns, Liberal Premier Steven Marshall in South Australia where you are Senator. He may not be as explicit in his concerns, but he is certainly showing some signs of wanting to open up to the rest of the country. What can the Federal Government do here, the Prime Minister in particular do here to force any change?
SMITH: Australia is bigger than New South Wales and you have to remember that Premiers in the small states and other states have been working incredibly hard to keep their populations safe from COVID. They’ve got very real questions that they’re asking about how they continue to keep those populations safe, how certain parts of this plan are going to work, how we get kids vaccinated, how we get vulnerable populations vaccinated. Everyone wants us to move through this, everyone wants to move past lockdowns. We want to be reunited with family and friends. We can't be at the moment because the Prime Minister bungled the vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine. It is his lockdown; these are his questions to answer.
DORAN: While we talk about the vaccine rollout Melissa McIntosh, I want ask you about the development many are expecting to come by the end of this week - a recommendation from ATAGI, the vaccine expert task force, to allow all teenagers between 12 and 15 to get a vaccine. First of all, do you think given we are still waiting on significant proportions of the older population to get their shot, that children should wait until that cohort is fully vaccinated?
MCINTOSH: I just want to dispute the last point that was made. It’s not the Prime Minister that makes a choice on who gets vaccinated where and when. He has always been clear it is upon health advice. We need to be always making decisions on this advice so ATAGI is yet to give the all clear for this 12 to 15, and we want to make sure that the vaccines are safe and that is the approach we have always done. We all want our kids to go be able to go back to school, I’ve got three children. Kids are struggling a lot but when ATAGI has made that advice, General Frewen and the Prime Minister have been working really hard on a plan to ensure that our kids aged 12 and 15 can get those vaccinations. As I said, in my local electorate, 16 to 39 year-olds can go out right now and get vaccinated.
DORAN: Marielle Smith, do you think it’s going to ease some of the concerns in the public about the protections in place in for children, once this green light is given as many expect it will be?
SMITH: Well right now parents are really anxious about their kids, they don't want to see their kids become the new frontline in the fight against this virus. They’re calling for a plan and they’re calling for reassurance and I’m sorry, this is typical of the Liberals. There is always someone else to blame, there’s always someone else responsible. Ultimately Scott Morrison is the Prime Minister, he needs to provide that reassurance to Australian families about when their kids are going to get vaccinated, how it’s going to work and I understand why parents were anxious about that because he’s bungled the vaccine rollout to date and they’re scared he’s going to bungle this one too.
DORAN: Before we run out of time because we do have to release you both for Question Time in the next couple of minutes, I do want to briefly touch on the issue of Afghanistan. Melissa McIntosh, the Prime Minister keeps saying there will be 3,000 spots under the humanitarian intake this year for people coming from Afghanistan, and he describes that as a floor and not a ceiling. Is it incumbent on the Government to actually be more upfront about how many people Australia is willing to take in, giving the sheer scale of the crisis gripping Afghanistan?
MCINTOSH: You said it right, the sheer scale of the crisis. Right now, the Government is doing everything it can to process those offshore humanitarian visas. I am experiencing it myself. I have an Australian family who are only just getting on a flight. They have gone through such a dangerous experience to get home and my get home and my heart... (NO AUDIO) and we are processing those offshore humanitarian applications as quickly as possible. So as the PM did say, it is a floor and we expect over the months and years, we will be looking at getting more people in.
DORAN: Marielle Smith just briefly, how many people do you think Australia should be considering to take here?
SMITH: Look I think what’s most important is that we see the Government respond generously and compassionately to the needs of the people of Afghanistan. You know, this 3,000 number seems to be piecemeal. We're not sure where it has come from. We didn't meet the full cap of our refugee places last year; we really need to respond generously. There are many people who helped Australia in Afghanistan, who supported us and supported our mission. I want to see them brought home to Australia safely and urgently, as quickly as possible, and then I want the Government to respond compassionately and generously to their needs.
DORAN: Melissa McIntosh, Marielle Smith, we do have to leave it there but thank you both for joining us on Capital Hill.