JIM CHALMERS MP
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
FRIDAY, 14 JANUARY 2022
SUBJECTS: Novak Djokovic Decision; Rapid Antigen Test shortage; Scott Morrison’s failure to do his job; New arrangements for returning to work; Maryborough floods; Vaccinations.
SARAH ABO, HOST: Supermarket purchase limits are back, rapid antigen tests are near impossible to find and our aged care sector has entered crisis mode again. You’d be forgiven for thinking our government hasn't had the time to prepare for living with the virus. All this while the world's number one tennis player faces the possibility of being kicked out of Australia. Let's bring in Finance Minister Simon Birmingham from Adelaide and Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers who's in Maryborough this morning in Queensland. Simon, let's just start with you and the Novak Djokovic saga. This visa debacle remains an absolute headache for the Government. When will the Immigration Minister make his decision?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM, FINANCE MINISTER: That is a matter for the Immigration Minister. Our policy, not to come to any specific case, but our policy remains the same. That is that non Australian citizens entering Australia should be double vaccinated. We've been very clear about that all along. We seek to ensure that policy is enforced across Australian borders, because our border controls have been a very important part of helping to keep Australia safer and more secure during the COVID-19 outbreak. Our intention is to continue to use those border controls where they can help including to ensure that those who enter our country who are not Australian citizens should be double dose vaccinated.
ABO: But Simon, the Australian Open starts on Monday. How do we not know yet what the result is going to be?
BIRMINGHAM: Look, the arrangements for the Australian Open are a matter for tennis officials. In terms of decisions that will be made on individual cases, they're matters for the Immigration Minister, but the policy settings of the Government overall remain crystal clear. That is that people who enter Australia who are not Australian citizens should be double dose vaccinated unless they have a clear and valid medical exemption against.
ABO: Jim, we know that Tennis Australia delayed its draw yesterday off the back of National Cabinet meeting and announcements that were made there. But there's still no clear decision. So of course, the Serbian has now been named in the Australian Open draw, do you think he should stay?
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Our position has been clear from the beginning. If he doesn't meet the visa requirements, he shouldn't have been given a visa in the first place. But there are two issues as this debacle drags on for another day. First of all: make a decision. Our international reputation is being trashed more each day that the government delays. Secondly, when Scott Morrison thought there was a political opportunity in this, he was all over it. Now that it's gone so badly, he wants to pretend it has nothing to do with him and it's all Alex Hawkes' job and all of his fault. Unfortunately, there's a pattern of behaviour here. When things are easy, and there's a photo or a political opportunity, there’s Scott Morrison all over it. But when things get difficult, as they have with this Novak Djokovic case, he's nowhere to be found. We're seeing that once again. We need to see it resolved so that the Government can focus on what they really should be focusing on, which is the grocery shortages, the fact that people can't find a test, people are having their kids’ vaccination appointments cancelled, there’s uncertainty about school going back, all of those sorts of things are far more important than whether Novak Djokovic plays or not. We need to see the Government make a decision and then do its job.
ABO: I think it really highlights that lack of decisiveness across the board that we've been seeing for the past two years, and the federal government and the states not talking. We know decisions were made by each party that are inconsistent with the expectations. But anyway, let's move on because we know that National Cabinet is set up for national consensus. Simon, the list of critical workers has been expanded. It's hoped to ease pressure on strained supply chains, but I guess what would really make this work is rapid antigen tests and they do need to be rolled out to all don't they? Not just some. Otherwise, how will this work effectively?
BIRMINGHAM: Yesterday the Prime Minister chaired National Cabinet and they spent of course the time focusing on the extreme set of circumstances that the Omicron variant is posing. These are dramatic changes Omicron is posing. Right around the world you have shortages of rapid antigen tests in the United Kingdom, in the United States and in Canada. This is a global challenge because Omicron is so much more transmissible that it's put pressure on systems right around the globe. Now, the worst thing you could do in a sense, is to take Labor's policy, which is to suggest that everybody could just pick them up for free off the supermarket shelf, stockpile them at home, and just have continued pressure in terms of the availability of those.
CHALMERS: You think that's the worst thing we could do?!
BIRMINGHAM: Sorry, Jim, I haven't interrupted you mate so let me go. What we are doing together with state and territory governments, Labor and Liberal is making them freely available to those who need them, to people who are close contacts, to make sure that testing remains free to those who have symptoms. This is how you make sure we get through this challenging time of Omicron, and yes, adjusting to the different circumstances of Omicron. People are less likely to get very sick, which means we can change those close contact arrangements. That's precisely what we continue to do to adjust that to make sure we can keep the workforce going. To keep systems across Australia going under incredible stress and pressure this new variant poses.
ABO: I guess rapid antigen tests are the one thing that taxpayers are probably willing for the government to spend their money on in terms of protecting us. What do you think Jim? Obviously you guys want to roll out rapid tests for everyone for free? Is that realistic?
CHALMERS: Of course it is. We should be providing rapid antigen tests free via the Medicare system. Simon Birmingham just said that the worst thing that we could be doing is supplying these tests for free -
BIRMINGHAM: No Jim - I said picking them up on supermarket shelves and letting people stockpile them would be.
ABO: You can put measures in place to prevent stockpiling.
CHALMERS: [Laughs] Okay Simon, no worries. Our point is really clear, Sarah. The reason why Australians are finding it difficult to go back to work is because they either can't find or they can't afford rapid antigen tests. This is one of the defining failures of Scott Morrison and his Government. The whole plan that was announced yesterday hinges on whether or not people can find tests that either don't exist, or are priced out of people's reach. Australians are prepared to do their jobs, they just need the Prime Minister to do his job. The problem we've got here is because he ignored the warnings in September and October last year, from the doctors, from the truckies, from the unions, we've got this problem. Now we've got this rapid antigen test shortage. So people are in this extraordinary state where they are undiagnosed. They don't know what the rules are. They can't find a test. They're still driving around trying to find one. And they're still paying exorbitant prices for them if they do. That is the problem here. So if the Prime Minister and his Government seriously wants to get people back to work, back to doing their jobs, than they need to do their jobs. It all hinges on this rapid antigen test failure. That's why we're in this position we're in right now, where the grocery shelves are empty, the chemists are getting increasingly frustrated because they can't supply the tests that people need. The Prime Minister needs to do his job for once and secure this. They cut the ad saying that they are providing tests, there's ads running on our TV screen saying that there are tests, but they didn't get around to it until this week issuing the tender for more of the tests that Australians need.
ABO: Obviously we know that the economy is a big factor here. We do need to keep that rolling. That's where the schools factor in and childcare centres. So they will be developments that come out then, obviously, unions are meeting on Monday for those crucial talks. But let's move on. I just want to go to Jim, we know obviously you're in Queensland at the moment, we can see the wreckage there behind you from the floods that have been experienced in Maryborough. How's it all going?
CHALMERS: As you know, Sarah, this is one of the great Australian towns - Maryborough - and they've had a really rough trot the last week or so. You can see some of the damage behind me on the banks of the Mary river. So I'm here with Anthony Albanese and Murray Watt today to express our appreciation and our admiration for the emergency services, the volunteers and the community groups who've done so much for people here in a really difficult time. Now it's time for governments to do their job to make sure that the disaster payments and the support which locals need and deserve here to get back on their feet is provided as quickly as possible. We know from earlier disasters, not just here in Queensland, my home state, but around Australia that often this is the most difficult time. People are assessing the damage. It's an incredibly difficult time and we need to get around them.
ABO: Just to end on a positive note, guys, isn't it good to see those borders finally come down in Queensland no more restrictions? Let's keep it that way, shall we?
CHALMERS: Let's not stop at 90 per cent. People need to keep getting vaccinated and keep getting the boosters. I'm sure that Simon can agree wholeheartedly with that. We need to get as close to 100 per cent as we can.
BIRMINGHAM: Third highest day for vaccinations ever in the country yesterday. So great news there and keep going Australia.
ABO: It is excellent. I'm sorry, we're out of time. It would be lovely to chat a bit more Simon Birmingham and Jim Chalmers. Thank you both for your time.