03 May 2021



MONDAY, 3 MAY 2021

SUBJECT/S: Federal Government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in India

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Joining me live now is Michelle Rowland, the Shadow Minister for Communications. Michelle, good to see you as always. Those numbers there just go from bad to worse, don’t they?

MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It’s diabolical. It is most distressing for constituents in my electorate where I have a very high population of local residents who herald from the Sub-Continent and it’s extremely distressing to be seeing at this time.

STEFANOVIC: What are they saying to you? What’s the feedback you’re getting?

ROWLAND: It’s actually very measured. It’s well understood that the first priority of government is to keep Australians safe, and that one of the reasons we’ve done so well is because our States and overall international borders are capable of managed. At the same time, there is grave concern about perceived inconsistencies here. We have this rule that has come into effect effectively criminalising Australian citizens from returning home. There is unrest over that. There is consideration of what sort of precedent this sets. For many constituents, they have family and friends overseas – not for sightseeing, they were given permission to go overseas – and now to be told they can’t come back lest they face the threat of jail or a substantial fine is very distressing.

STEFANOVIC: Just to clarify on a couple of points there. What is Labor’s position on those flights coming back from India? That they should be stopped?

ROWLAND: Well, we understand that those flights have already been stopped. So, what we need answers on is why is it necessary over and above to be imposing these new requirements? Now I understand from the media statements from the Government that this is from medical advice and we always respect medical advice. But as I said, the issue here for many in my community and what Labor questions as well, is the consistency. We didn’t have a similar situation in terms of the US or the UK. Even at the height of corona in Italy, we didn’t have that situation. This really is something that is on the minds of my constituents who are extremely concerned.

STEFANOVIC: Do you support that move to stop those flights, to pause them for a couple of weeks?

ROWLAND: That is well understood. The question then comes to these other measures that have been brought in and the perceived lack of transparency around that.

STEFANOVIC: Some people have alleged racism here. Do you believe it is racist?

ROWLAND: I’m not saying it’s racist, but again, I’m not someone who is personally affected by it. I also appreciate that the predominate view that has been coming out of my community is questions of consistency. The first priority of government should be to keep its citizens safe – that includes Australian citizens who are overseas. There are some 40,000 Australian citizens still overseas – a quarter of them are in India. We need to be doing everything we can to keep our citizens safe. I’ve even seen reports that the government of Iraq is sending repatriation flights to get their citizens out of India. Now, if that’s the case for Iraq, we’ve had situations in the past where the Australian Government has been very forthright in trying to repatriate. I don’t see that happening in this case, and these are the questions that many of my constituents are asking me.

STEFANOVIC: The CMO said on radio this morning that it wasn’t his advice to make those flights illegal. What’s your reaction to that?

ROWLAND: Well, I’m not privy to this advice. But again, this points to one of the deep concerns about this lack of transparency. It was seemingly made in the middle of the night. I have a number of community members who aren’t necessarily on my side of politics who are quite outraged that this seems to have been done without any consultation. To be quite frank, the manner in which it’s been received would say that this has been quite amateur, in the way it’s been conveyed. Bear in mind, this has never been done in Australia’s history, as far as I’m aware: telling a specific class of citizens that they cannot return home. For something of such import, you would expect there to be a lot of thought that has gone into it. Fair enough if it’s based on medical advice, then we accept that. But the way in which this has been communicated reflects the way that it has been received by many in our community unfortunately.

STEFANOVIC: There’s also some comments from Alan Tudge this morning that the advice from medical experts is that they only want a cap of two per cent of people with COVID in quarantine. That’s a figure that’s never been made public before. What do you make of that?

ROWLAND: Well, this is the first that I’m hearing of it and I’d be interested to know what the current levels are in facilities we have, including in hotel quarantine right now. If that’s the aim, then I question how that is going to be impacted by the current bans in place. It is difficult to fathom why a specific target has been set in that regard. Again, if this is based on medical advice, you’d want that to be properly communicated so people understand what it is.

STEFANOVIC: Two out of one hundred, that seems pretty low?

ROWLAND: It seems pretty low, and I don’t have the latest figures in front of me, but I don’t know how many cases there are in Australia at the moment and whether that is actually a figure capable of being exceeded or not.

STEFANOVIC: Well, Howard Springs is currently at fifteen per cent at the moment. The majority of them coming from India. So, this ban on flights or pause on flights is allowing these quarantine facilities to have a breather. Does that make sense to you, that some of these facilities need a breather?

ROWLAND: Well, I don’t know what the definition of a breather is, but you would assume that the purpose of quarantine is to ensure that the infection is contained. It would seem to me that the actual number within those facilities really has no bearing on how that is going to infect the rest of the community. But again, if this is the Government’s medical advice, then it should be communicating it much clearer to the Australian people.

STEFANOVIC: If these numbers continue the way they are in India, with some expectations that positive cases may head towards 500,000 in the next couple of days. The advice isn’t going to change is it? The travel ban is unlikely to move mid-May.

ROWLAND: One would think so, and I note that in two weeks that is going to be reviewed. As you say, this all depends on the situation there. It doesn’t seem at this moment, unfortunately, to be looking to an upside. This is something the Government says it will review and we’ll take the medical advice as it stands at that time when it is given.

STEFANOVIC: Would you be comfortable if the flights resumed while those numbers were as high as they are in India?

ROWLAND: Again, I think we need to take the advice. Those numbers are staggering, and it is an enormous country. I also understand that some of those outbreaks differ on where you are in the country – it is a massive, non-homogeneous place. We should always take the medical advice and monitor the situation as it emerges.

STEFANOVIC: Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.