17 May 2021


MONDAY, 17 MAY 2021

SUBJECTS: Australia’s borders; international arrivals; tourism sector.

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Let’s bring in Michelle Rowland, the Shadow Minister for Communications. Michelle, thanks for joining us on a Monday as you usually do. So, we’ve got our cricketers who have now arrived home. They are not taking up any of those international caps for other Australians, which is something you would support?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Absolutely. No doubt when they touched down, that would be the happiest touch down they’ve ever had.

STEFANOVIC: On to international arrivals. This is a debate that’s gaining a fair bit of momentum at the moment. Do you think there needs to be a rethink in this space?

ROWLAND: I think there needs to be some thought leadership put into a strategy. I’m not surprised by the polling out today indicating that a vast number of Australians favour making sure our borders are well-managed. I think what’s interesting is that the question that’s asked there is: ‘Do you support closing borders until COVID is under control globally?’ – what does that mean? You can appreciate – and State Premiers have done this over the last 18 months – you can appreciate that people’s number one priority is to be safe, which is of course the first role of government. There is of course that tension between economic necessity, we can’t be perpetually closed, but we also need to take the best health advice and appreciate the very real links between immunisation levels and being able to open up our economy.

STEFANOVIC: The Prime Minister is now in election mode, it would now seem. It seems pretty clear that he’s now adopting the methodology from the States to be tougher on the borders because it’s what people want.

ROWLAND: That’s what it’s looking like, but I think Australians also expect there to be a strategy, and so does the business sector. Even the NSW Treasurer is out there saying that we need some long term thinking about this. I believe it would be cheating the Australian people not to be going into the next 12 months with a strategy for quarantine, with a strategy around immunisation. We were promised 4 million by March, we’ve barely hit 3 million. We’ve had the Prime Minister out talking about home quarantine a few weeks ago, and we haven’t heard about it since. I think people want a coherent strategy.

STEFANOVIC: How can there be a coherent strategy when there are so many shifting sands in this environment? You can’t be solid on it.

ROWLAND: There are certainly the variants we have seen from overseas unfortunately; the UK and the India strain. But again, health professionals are consistently telling us that we need to ramp up those rates of vaccination, we need to ensure we continue to practice –

STEFANOVIC: And that is happening, it is ramping up.

ROWLAND: And that’s good to see, finally. But at the same time, I think people need to continue to exercise common sense, even though thankfully in NSW we’ve had those restrictions eased. At the same time, we all need to make sure we are doing all the right things in regards to our hygiene and our own health and safety.

STEFANOVIC: There was an op-ed in the London Times over the weekend that had a crack at Australia actually; that Australia was at-risk of being left behind in a tourism sense. That we would be cut adrift from the rest of the world – it was quite dramatic. Do you think that there is a danger of that happening at all?

ROWLAND: Whatever that danger is lies in not having an eye to the future. We can have short termism; we can have short political fixes for the moment. But the sense that I get from my community from going around and listening to people, they want three things: they want to be healthy, they want to get vaccinated and they want their lives to get back to some sense of normality.

STEFANOVIC: But they can’t travel until the end of next year?

ROWLAND: Well, I was talking to one gentleman the other day and he made the point to me very saliently that he’s retired, yes he had plans but all those plans have been put on hold, but he is like thousands and thousands of other people that feel like they don’t have a lot of time left and this is the time of their lives to be doing the things they enjoy. While people want to be safe, they want to live their lives and the way we are going to do that is by having some coherent strategy that links the health aspects to the economic.

STEFANOVIC: Those comments from Nick Coatsworth over the weekend that this quasi-elimination strategy is a false idol. Having no cases is not sustainable. What do you make of those comments?

ROWLAND: Well, I’ve heard comments to the contrary to that, of course. I think one of the most coherent arguments I’ve heard is that we need to appreciate it’s not going away in a hurry and there are going to be variations of it. Ultimately, we would want this to be something like a common cold, where you can contract it but our bodies have become used to it and our bodies can deal with it. Yes, that’s partly linked to vaccination. Herein lies the conundrum: we want to take the best health advice, and sometimes that is conflicting, but we need to trust the science on this.

STEFANOVIC: Well, on that point, once we are all vaccinated, do we then just let it rip like Brett Sutton was saying?

ROWLAND: Well, that’s one of the arguments that’s been put forward. But I think the Australian people will demonstrate that they are very reluctant, particularly since Australia has done so well because Australians have done as our health officials have asked them. I think this is incumbent on the Morrison Government to explain what the strategy is and the people will follow it.

STEFANOVIC: Okay, well what would you like to happen once everyone is vaccinated?

ROWLAND: Once everyone is vaccinated, I think we need to examine the state of play in Australia and overseas, including whether there is any transmission in Australia. We do have arrivals coming in and of course whilst we have quarantine there is always that risk of transmission. We also need to assess how the rest of the world is going. Let’s remember too, we’re going into winter. There are have been some reminders from health officials in the UK that this is when it started getting very bad for them and they’re only just starting to get a grip on it now. We’re going into winter here, so I think we can’t let our guard down.

STEFANOVIC: Michelle Rowland, good to chat again, see you soon.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.