05 May 2021




SUBJECT/S: Federal Government’s response to India’s COVID crisis, governance at Australia Post and NBNCo.


KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Now the Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland’s seat of Greenway has a large Indian-Australian community; larger than any other electorate in the country. I was joined by Michelle a short time ago and I asked her what the reaction has been to this travel ban from India.

MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I think it’s two-fold, Kieran. There’s an understanding that it is necessary for the Australian Government to do what is necessary to keep Australians safe, and that includes having a ban on flights, and that’s nothing that’s particularly novel. But there is also a disbelief that a particular cohort of Australian citizens abroad have been targeted and effectively threatened with criminal sanctions, including potential jail time or substantial fines if they seek to come back to Australia. So, there is an element of disbelief and in particular, anger over the inconsistency in that regard.

GILBERT: Has it been suggested to you that the ban is racist and if so, do you agree with that assessment?

ROWLAND: That has been expressed to be me by some of my constituents, and I must say, it’s been expressed by a range of people – not just people of Indian descent. There is a view from people impacted by it. I think the view overall seems to be one of inconsistency and incompetence. Effectively, the Prime Minister is saying the reason why we need to impose these sanctions is because our quarantine facilities aren’t up to scratch and they’ve known for some time, and they’ve had that Halton Report sitting there, saying there needed to be scenarios where we could have a surge capacity requirement, and that has been ignored. There is a feeling by some people that this does have an element of racist undertones, but also that feeling of incompetence, and these are people who are directly impacted by it.

GILBERT: So, do you think it is racist then?

ROWLAND: I’m not saying it’s racist – I think it’s incompetent, but certainly I can’t discount the views of many of my constituents who feel that because they are impacted by it.

GILBERT: What do you make of the Government’s message and overall response here? Obviously, they’re saying – the PM and other senior Ministers – that their number one priority is the stop another wave of the virus here.

ROWLAND: Well, that’s well understood. It’s the first duty of the Australian Government to keep Australians safe. But that means they need to be kept safe wherever they are – in Australia, or abroad. The fact is that this Government has failed in its duty of care to Australian citizens who are located overseas. There’s some 9,000 Australians in India, 650 of whom are vulnerable. It’s well understood that we need to keep Australians safe, but at the same time, it is the inconsistency and the shambolic way not only in the way it’s been announced, but the way it’s been handled since. It’s completely the wrong end of the telescope now to see we have Ministers sitting down with people trying to explain the situation that they’ve gotten into.

The reality is that there was a complete lack of transparency, this announcement was made in the middle of the night, and that included an express announcement of the threat of fines and jail terms. We had the Prime Minister out there yesterday saying that this wasn’t going to be enacted, that there certainly wouldn’t be a circumstance he could foresee where these sanctions would be given effect. So, it begs the question: why was a deal made about this in the first place, why was this announcement made, and why is he seeking to walk it back now?

I’ll tell you what really is getting on a lot of people’s goat over this: the Prime Minister yesterday saying, ‘people are criticising me for making tough decisions, this isn’t the first tough decision I’ve made and I expect people to criticise me now’. The fact is you just want to say to the Prime Minister: this is not about you. This is about people whose families and loved ones and colleagues are directly impacted by this decision that has been made, impacted in a very real sense. To have a specific cohort of Australian citizens singled out in this way – that inconsistency is really rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.

GILBERT: On another matter, you gave a speech earlier today on government-owned companies saying that there needs to be “contextual restraint”, which was the phrase you used, when it comes to the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. Can you elaborate on what your thinking is there?

ROWLAND: Certainly. This is something I’ve been reflecting on for a while, and in the wake of the saga that we’ve seen going on at Australia Post and the some $77 million in bonuses that NBN handed out during the recession, I think it makes sense to examine the fact that this is taxpayers’ money and what does the public expect? Not only that, what is good governance for these government-business enterprises? I think it’s important that we have efficiencies and the best people working at these institutions. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be adopting the worst excesses of corporate culture. We shouldn’t be handing out bonuses during a recession when people are taking wage cuts and losing their jobs. So, we need to exercise that level of restraint but also recognise that it is taxpayers’ money that we are talking about here and the public needs to have confidence in these government business enterprises that permeate every aspect of our lives.

GILBERT: So, would that contextual restraint be relevant to say, those Cartier watches at Australia Post?

ROWLAND: Well certainly. We have a Senate Inquiry on foot which is examining those matters. It goes to defining what the problem is. The problem here being whether there was sufficient guidance given to the Board and did the Board follow that guidance? And again, I think this goes to defining what the problem is and being prepared, under those various Acts and tools we have at our disposal, making some modest improvements that I think could go a very long way to improving public confidence to avoid getting to the stage we are at now.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, thanks for your time.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.