Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB

Deborah Knight
COVID vaccine roll-out, Afghanistan

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    And joining us as they do every week, Federal Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister, Angus Taylor, and the Member for the Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon. I want to start with COVID and the vaccine rollout, fellas, particularly the situation in Greater Sydney, which is getting worse with the case numbers, up to 644 now. The PM yesterday announced that 16-to 39-year-olds can now access the vaccine. But Angus, the big question, I guess, is, what does having vaccinations actually mean? What tangible benefits will come from it, other than obviously protecting yourself and your loved ones? But we keep getting confusion and questions about whether or not the state and territory leaders will abide by the Doherty Institute modelling and abide by the freedom, the ticket to freedom, we're told we'll get when the community reaches 80 per cent of people being fully vaccinated. Can you guarantee that freedoms will come when we reach that point, Angus? 

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Well that's what the premiers have said, and it's important we all hold them to that, Deb. This is enormously important. Look, for 16-to-39-year-olds, it's important to also underscore that this is going to protect them and their loved ones. We know that the vaccines substantially reduce the likelihood of mortality, hospitalisation, ICU admission and also symptomatic infection, so infecting other people. So it is very, very important we get vaccinated. That, for me, is a good enough reason. We are keeping ourselves, our family, our communities safe. But it's also important, as you rightly say, that we hold the Premier's to account to make sure that they do open up and we reach those thresholds. 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    And Joel, I spoke with the Deputy Labor leader yesterday, Richard Marles, and he wouldn't come in and criticise the WA Premier Mark McGowan directly, because it's WA and the ACT which are saying they'll hold out, even though they are signatories to that National Cabinet meeting that said that they would, all state and territory leaders agree to that 80 per cent benchmark and then no longer keep the borders up. WA saying well, actually, we may well do that. It's a good measure, I think, for the Treasurer who said that the government may actually withhold providing Federal Government payments to those states who don't carry out what they've signed up to. Do you think that's a good move, Joel?

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    Well, Deb, we have to continue to put more supply into the system. We have to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated. But at some point, we need to be able to open up our lives and our economy. And I would be urging the premiers, all of them, to follow the health advice. And I suspect the balance of the health advice is that it will be safe, or at least the risk ratio will be appropriate, to open up at around 80 per cent. And I'd certainly be urging people to do so. 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    If a state doesn't do it, though- if a state doesn't do it, like WA, is it fair enough then that they don't get, and their citizens, access to Federal Government help? 

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    Oh, I think that's certainly, at this stage, a bridge too far, Deb. Let's cross that bridge if we come to it. That sounds pretty radical to me and pretty aggressive, and I hope it never comes to that. 


ANGUS TAYLOR:    I hope it never comes to that, too. I mean, I'm hopeful that the Premiers will want to do it. Look, Gladys in New South Wales, for instance, I think is very keen to get things back opened up and to get to the thresholds where we can do that. We've got to make the lockdown work in the short-term. But we're seeing vaccination rates now, which are phenomenal. Over 300,000 yesterday, Deb. That's a million every three days, just under a million every three days; so, phenomenal. Let's keep nailing this. We're doing really well. It is important that the Premiers then keep to their commitments. 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Yeah. It feels as though- I mean, it is great news. And the vaccine rollout, the fact that it is picking up pace, and that more people are getting the jab, and the way that it is actually now finally being no longer just a slow rollout and getting to a lot more of the community, that is welcome. But we've also seen cases continue to rise. And I know that the sense in the community, and particularly in New South Wales, is when are we going to get out of this mess? 

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Well, at 300,000 a day across the nation, the gap is closing very, very fast. Now, you can predict the day, you can sit there with a spreadsheet, if you want, try to work it out, but it doesn't matter. It is approaching and we've got to be ready for it. We have to make sure we do open up then. We can't stay closed forever. We'll destroy our small businesses and so much of what we do. I think the good sense of Australians will win out in the end. 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Now, the scenes from Afghanistan this week have been heartbreaking. And Joel, I know you visited our troops in Afghanistan when you were Defence Minister. And a lot of veterans are really struggling right now. And you've written this piece about the complexities of what we're seeing in the wake of the Afghanistan conflict in The Daily Telegraph today. But we've been warned about this for years. And the chaos and tragedy that we're seeing unfold, its feels to me like it's a real failure from the US President Joe Biden. Could it have been avoided coming to this point, Joel? 

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    Well, the fact is, Deb, as I pointed out this morning, our original objective in Afghanistan was met 18 years ago, arguably. And we stuck around to try to consolidate a democratically elected government. We did so by trying to help them build an economy, build schools and hospitals, and importantly, build the capacity of their security forces, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. And along the way our, our people did amazing work dealing with the insurgency which was continually trying to run interference on that work. What we overestimated, Deb, was the capacity of the Afghan National Army in particular, or we overestimated our own ability to bring them to the point, to the extent to which they could defend the Government and the interests of the Government, and therefore it's people. In the end, Deb, if you hadn't achieved that after nearly 20 years, after the original objective, then frankly, you were never going to achieve it. We, we gave the government of Afghanistan and its security forces every opportunity to sustain that Government, that democracy on an ongoing basis. And in the end, Deb, it's pretty apparent that the Government and the security forces didn't want it badly enough and, you know, therefore, it made no sense for us to keep hanging in there, putting Australian lives on the line, when the Government itself didn't seem to have the will to fight.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    And that's why it is so important to reach out to Aussie Diggers who have fought and died - 41 lives lost, and many of those Returned Service men and women are back now wondering what was it all for. So, I think it's so important for us to…

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    Can I just, as you say, they did everything we asked of them and more with the greatest of courage, skill and commitment. They are all heroes. And political decisions went wrong, but military operations rarely went wrong. And we can be very proud of what they did.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Well said. And Angus, the Federal Government's also announced that 3000 humanitarian visas will be reserved for Afghan nationals within our existing refugee cap. Well, we've got US, and Canada, and the UK also offering up places, but a lot more than us - 20,000 over the next few years for the UK and for Canada. The PM says that our figure isn't a floor, it's a ceiling. But how high is that ceiling? How high could it go? Angus? 

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Can you hear me there, Deb? 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Yeah, got you now. 

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Yeah. Can I just say, you know, I very much agree with those comments just from Joel a moment ago. Look, tragic scenes. The fight for freedom is always important. Sometimes we win, sometimes we don't. But everyone involved in that fight should be proud of their association with it. Well said, Joel. Look, in terms of humanitarian visas, as you say, we've made an initial commitment of 3000, we'll continue to assess over time. We've taken, over the last five years, 5500, which is far more than most other countries, including the UK. But, we'll continue to assess it. It is a floor, not a cap. The important thing now is to get people as safe as we can; get people, our Australians out of there. This is a very tough effort, a very important effort and we'll continue to reassess the appropriate number to come back into Australia. They should come in the front door, not the back door, that's hugely important. But…

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    But what happens though to the Afghan Nationals who have come to Australia by boat? Who the Prime Minister said will not be granted protection visas? What are you going to do? Will you be sending them back to Afghanistan? Where do they get left now? 

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Well, they have temporary protection visas, and that's appropriate. But look, we're not going to change the rule. Look, we've been through all of this, and this has been a tough political issue. But it's important that we send the strong signal to everybody who wants to come to Australia - and there's no shortage of people wanting to come to Australia for good reason - send that message that you come through the front door, not the back door. That remains important, and it will remain important. We'll continue to be one of the most generous providers of humanitarian visas in the world, and that's important as part of this mix, but it's the front door. 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    And Joel, do you think that's good enough? 

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    Well, just on the evacuations first, Deb, I thought the Government was disappointingly complacent early on. Mark Donaldson VC set the example here for us when he ran 80 metres across open ground under fire to pick up an interpreter laying listless on the ground, to carry him back to safety - that's the guidance we should have been following. But I'm pleased the Government has now upped its concentration on this issue and its efforts. It's difficult now, of course because we've left it a bit late. But it's a Team Australia moment now and we've all got to be on one hymn sheet. On visas, et cetera. You know, these people need to be assessed on the basis of the risk to them if they return to Afghanistan. Now if they're Hazara, Tajiks, Uzbeks, you know, a part of the minority ethnicities in Afghanistan, then they shouldn't have any difficulty demonstrating that a return to Afghanistan would be a disaster for them. But we need to focus also, of course, on those who helped us in, in theatre, in Afghanistan. They deserve for us to get them out of there as quickly as we can. 

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Now, just want to end on this. There's a big online sale at the moment, AfterPay Day - and I know that some members of my staff are really struggling, trying to resist the temptation of buying things and having a spending spree - but there's some funny stories during the lockdowns about people buying strange things, or the wrong things. Like someone who wants five mandarins ends up buying five kilos by mistake. I guess if you're not a seasoned online shopper, it's an easy mistake to make. But what about you two? Do you have a regrettable purchase? Or something that you've bought that you just thought, that is not what I wanted at all? Angus?

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Well look it's a long list, Deb. Mostly bike parts for my bike over the years.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Bike parts.

ANGUS TAYLOR:    I've got those wrong. Well actually, the worst COVID story I've just heard from one of my staff members is, earlier this week she bought a very cute little Pomeranian pup, only to discover that she hadn't got the approval of her landlord. So I'm sure she'll find a way through that one. But that’s a regrettable COVID purchase.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Whoops. That sure is. What about you, Joel? 

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    Well, I've been sucked into buying things online more than once, Deb. You know, you Google something and next thing you're getting all these ads popping up, it's reinforced in my mind, you only get what you pay for. And my worst example, I had a bit of a sore foot, a thing called plantar fasciitis - many of your listeners will be familiar with it. 


JOEL FITZGIBBON:    I was desperate to fix it. And I bought this pair of joggers online, and they were so cheap and nasty that I didn't even put them on. I threw them straight in the bin.


JOEL FITZGIBBON:    So I, I learned a lesson.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Try before you buy. Sometimes you can't with online shopping, that's for sure. Fellas always good to talk. Thanks for joining us.

JOEL FITZGIBBON:    A pleasure. 

ANGUS TAYLOR:    Thanks, Deb.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:    Joel Fitzgibbon and Angus Taylor for Friday Question Time.