By Tanya Plibersek

31 January 2022




SUBJECTS: Ash Barty; NSW and Federal Liberals’ mishandling of COVID-19; Australia-Chinese relationship; Teachers.
RICHARD GLOVER, HOST: Now for our Monday political forum. Joining us is Tanya Plibersek, Federal Labor MP for Sydney and Shadow Minister for Education. Tanya, good afternoon. 
GLOVER: Professor Andy Marks, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Western Sydney University. Andy, good afternoon. 
GLOVER: And with us also, Pru Goward, Professor of Social Interventions and Policy at Western Sydney University and a former Liberal New South Wales government minister of course. Pru, good afternoon. 
GLOVER: Yeah, can we start with Ash Barty's win in the tennis? After all the miseries of the news - an outbreak of pure delight. What was it about the win that seemed to slake our thirst for joy, Tanya? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, obviously she's an incredible tennis player. She's hard working, she's talented, but I think the thing that people really warm to with Ash Barty is that she is absolute proof that you can be a decent human being and rise to the top of your profession. I thought that Evonne Goolagong Cawley presenting her with the trophy - I don't know if there was a dry eye anywhere in Australia at that moment. I know that Ash is a huge role model for young girls and boys, she's a proud indigenous woman, like what is there not to love about Ash Barty? 
GLOVER: It was pretty good. Andy you like your sport, I bet you liked that moment?
MARKS: Richard, it was amazing. It was the first time I felt really, really deep pride at a sporting victory in Australia. We've made it so that winning is everything. You had sandpaper-gate and you had this desperation to win at all costs, but Barty was a winner before she even walked out there. She’s such an achiever, and it's the way that she plays that really does it for me. And I felt really, really proud. What a great moment we're having for Indigenous Australians. You know, we've got The Kid Laroi in music, we've got Steven Page in Bangarra kicking on, and then we’ve got Ash Barty. It makes you feel really proud, and just imagine what that would be like as a galvanising thing for Australia if we really embraced reconciliation. I mean, so proud of her. So, so proud. 
GLOVER: When you say the way she plays, what do you mean? 
MARKS: Look I like the way Nick Kyrgios plays too. What I like about it is that each of them, at either end of the spectrum, put their personality. Ash is reserved and determined and she knuckles down. Kyrgios makes it about a show. Both of them make it about enjoying the game though, above everything else. And it's not about winning at every cost. It's not do everything you can to crush the opposition. And that's great, I'm sick of that in the Australian sporting context. Ash and Kyrgios, they both won because they won the audience, they won the respect of the game and their opponents, not because they brutalised anybody. And that's something to hang on to. And it's a little, it's a little shift in the way we think about sport in this sport-obsessed country. 
GLOVER: Pru Goward, it is a sport obsessed country, but that was peak sport wasn't it? It just felt like you were standing in a group of 25 million people cheering.
GOWARD: Yes, I agree. I mean it's interesting the way everybody cared, and as I think others have said just then, it's her humility, it's her preparedness to not draw attention to herself. She always talks about her team, and I noticed now that other tennis players talk about their teams. I mean, I think she really has reinforced, as Tanya says, the goodness in people. And that very highly competitive people can still be decent people, and I think that's wonderful for us all to see and reflect on. Again, like Tanya said, I know lots of mothers who made sure their daughters sat down and watched that because what she demonstrates is that you can do it with hard work. A very different game to everybody else's. I think we also enjoyed that too, that she doesn't play that smash and baseline game that becomes very boring.
GLOVER: The winner instinct is not necessarily the killer instinct I guess. Pru Goward is with us, Andy Marks, Tanya Plibersek. The New South Wales Opposition has released a briefing note from New South Wales Health which did warn the Government about the dire impact of the Omicron variant just days before Premier Dominic Perrottet announced the COVID-19 restrictions would be scrapped or lowered. But Premier Perrottet is sticking by his decision to open up, saying today that the rise in cases was not a surprise.
(RECORDED CLIP) DOMINIC PERROTTET, PREMIER OF NSW: What we've always known, what we’ve always known in our state is that as we open up, case numbers will increase, hospitalisations will increase. We've known that, we cannot eliminate the virus.
GLOVER: Yesterday, there were 52 deaths in New South Wales. Today, there were 27. Is it right to think these figures are inevitable and part of living with the virus, to use the Premier's language. Tanya Plibersek? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, I think 52 deaths is shocking and it's really up to the New South Wales Government to account for this. Absolutely, we know that we have been best served when governments, state and territory governments and the federal government, have followed the medical advice. I think the truth is we really would be in a better position now if we'd had a speedy and effective vaccine rollout and a quarantine system that was working properly. So there is a great deal of responsibility on Scott Morrison for this second outbreak as well.
GLOVER: Pru Goward, the Premier's saying 'look, you know, we had to open up at some point and this is was going to happen.' It is true though, isn't it, that if we were cautious it might have, I don't know, reduced the death by even 5%, that would be pretty significant. That would be worth wearing a mask for a few more weeks in Woolworths wouldn't it?
GOWARD: If that was the case, and as Tanya says, the best way is always to take the medical advice. But people running governments have to do unfortunately, more than that. There is a balance of interest. So there's public interest at the end of all of this. My own sense was in that pre-Christmas period, that certainly in New South Wales, and lord knows how much more this would have been the case in Victoria, was sick of it. I'm not sure that Perrottet in a way had much choice. I mean, we're all hoping for the golden variant. This clearly isn't it. But the golden variant is one which enables the public health system to cope. I don't think we can expect that there would be an elimination of it. Now, even with the vaccine rollout, the very high rates, what’s clear is that it is like a flu and you're going to have to get updated vaccination. So, in a way, I'm not sure that he had a lot of choice given how distressed and frustrated people were with the way they were living. Yes, it hasn't been the one that has ended up with no hospitalisations, but neither does the flu. Flu kills older people and fragile people and immuno-suppressed people every year in huge numbers. I guess, it's a horrible thing to say, but there's a balance of interest that you have to take into account. Yep, you could say he might have delayed it for two weeks, but I don't think he could have delayed it inevitably. Even with a faster vaccine rollout. We were at 91% when Omicron hit and it still hasn't altered the fact that some people have died. I don't know what percentage of people who have died were not vaccinated or were over the age of 65, in other words, you don't know what all the co-morbidities were. Yes, you can always do better. But the question is, how do you balance all those conclusions?
GLOVER: Well it's not one or the other, is it? For instance, you could have decided to open up restaurants and pubs in a limited way. 
GOWARD: That's true.
GLOVER: But also require people to wear masks when they're doing the supermarket shopping. I mean, after all, that's what ended up happening. And we don't all seem to be crushed by the need to wear a mask in Woolworths.
GOWARD: No, no. We've all got used to that. And I think Perrottet at the time thought that it wasn't necessary, but eventually conceded that it was. As I said, no government, nobody's going to get this right. Because we haven't dealt with this for 100 years, and vaccinations, medical science, everything is extremely different. As is people's mobility. I guess the question is: when do you make that call? And he made the call before Christmas, judging people's frustration, but I guess hoping also that our medical system and all the emerging drugs would be sufficient, but you're never going to get it completely right is my view. Australia, by world standards, has done extremely well.
GLOVER: Well that's true. Andy Marks, what do you make of the Premier? He's really sticking to his guns, and saying he’s played this right?
MARKS: Look Richard, I think the real point here is that nothing is inevitable in politics and you make the best decision you can on the information you have. I will firstly say though that we should just of course pause and think of those people who have tragically lost their life and those deaths are very significant, regardless of the numbers. So I'd like to do that. But the other element you got to think - some things are sadly inevitable. We know, for example now, that over 50 per cent of people in wealthier areas of Greater Sydney are triple vaxxed but in the worst affected areas like Fairfield, Liverpool and Bankstown, that level of triple vaccination is less than 40 per cent. Now, we're two and a half years into this thing. We have the science, we have the evidence and we've seen what happens in those communities. That's what disappoints me is that we don't get ahead of the game when we have the opportunity. We should be having much more targeted efforts to get boosters into those communities. We should be doing health messaging, even more intensively in multiple languages. The delay in vaccines originally, regardless of the course that Omicron has taken, is unforgivable for a country as wealthy as Australia. The dithering over the RATs, the dithering over quarantine facilities and other measures is unforgivable. That's probably not really Dom Perrottet's space. It is essentially a federal matter. But we're not learning some of the lessons that we need to Richard, and I think Southwestern Sydney showed us how resilient it was last year - let's not let them down. And that's what's happening, that's what worries me.
GLOVER: Why do you think there is a differential in triple vaxxed rates between Western Sydney and the more affluent suburbs? 
MARKS: I think it's both simple and complex. I think at the simple level it's because they have greater access in wealthier areas. You have greater luxury of time. If you are a shift worker in an insecure job in southwestern Sydney, you don't have the time to squeeze that in. You can't walk into your employer ask to take an hour off and then a day to recover from my booster. They don't have that luxury. So that's one of the elements. The other element is messaging. We have very well educated people in this wonderful multicultural country in Southwestern Sydney who know how to deal with emergencies. Many of them have come from countries in states of emergency. They can handle the pressure. But they need the messaging to be targeted to them. That's not unreasonable. You know, it's not unreasonable at all. To do it once and to have that fall short on one occasion, like it did last year, is one thing. But to have that happen again, that's unforgivable. 
MARKS: Professor Andy Marks is here, he's Pro Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University. Also with us, Tanya Plibersek, Federal Labor MP for Sydney and Shadow Minister for Education. Pru Goward, a Professor at the Social Interventions and Policy Unit of Western Sydney University, former Liberal New South Wales government minister, of course. The Monday political forum. The new Chinese Ambassador to Australia has begun his tenure by saying he wants to get the relationship back on track, but that partial olive branch has been greeted with some caution by both Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton, both of whom responded with a list of their continuing problems with Beijing. They didn't seem particularly, to me anyway, too keen to kiss and make up. Is Australia's relationship with China shaping up to be an election issue with divisions between Labor and the Coalition. And if that happens, is that in the national interest? Tanya Plibersek?
PLIBERSEK: Well, it's not in the national interest for people to manufacture divisions on foreign policy. We have traditionally always taken as united a position we can on matters of national interest and foreign policy, and Labor will continue to do that. We welcome the arrival of the new Ambassador. We really hope this an opportunity to resume that high-level contact with Australia that has been missing in recent times. We've been very cooperative with the Government in supporting the Government's efforts to try and sort out the trade sanctions that have been placed on Australian producers. They are completely unreasonable trade sanctions. We've supported the Government's actions in the WTO against China. We know that there are a number of things that continue to be difficult in the relationship and Australia shouldn't at all take a backward step on raising issues of human rights. The Uyghur people, what's happening in Hong Kong, some of the territorial disputes. It is absolutely right and proper that we continue to raise those issues with China, but preferably to do it in a united and bipartisan way that is in the national interest.
GLOVER: People like Penny Wong had been using strong language about China, I think it's fair to say. But Peter Dutton is using ever stronger language about China. Is he trying to wedge Labor? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, I think people will make their own judgements about that. What I would say is trying to use these really consequential issues for short term domestic political gain would make a person completely unworthy of high office. These relationships are too important strategically and economically. Mistakes now, miss-steps now, have ramifications over years and decades. Very serious ramifications. It does sometimes appear that people don't think through their comments before they make them. That's very dangerous.
GLOVER: Is it true that at least some people in the Labor party believe that you are being too hard lined on China. For instance Paul Keating has made this point, he's even been very critical of Penny Wong. There are people in the Labor party who would like to have a bit more of a pro-China stance than the Government. So that would end up in that circumstance, some sort of ability for the Government to paint Labor as more pro-China than they are themselves.
PLIBERSEK: Well China continues to be a really important economic and trading partner for Australia, but China has changed as well. And we need to be clear-eyed about that. It's definitely become more assertive in the region and that is something that we'll need to manage into the future. I think when it comes to our national interests, we need to absolutely be upfront in calling out any behaviour that we disagree with. Whether it's the economic coercion we've seen that we’re currently prosecuting through the World Trade Organization forums. human rights concerns, military intimidation. what's happening in Hong Kong. It's important that we are able to raise these issues. But if we can do it in a sensible and sober way, I think that's the right approach for the future. 
GLOVER: And would you hope in the election campaign that by and large both sides would be, not in lockstep perhaps, but pretty close. That the attitude to China wouldn't end up as a big election issue, would that be your hope?
PLIBERSEK: I think it's always in our national interests if we can take a unified position on these big, consequential global issues. We should have a 'Team Australia' approach when we can. There are things that we would say the Government should do differently. We should be looking to diversify our export markets, for example. But it's possible to make those suggestions in a way that doesn't try and capitalise for short term domestic political gain. I think that's a really irresponsible approach to take.
GLOVER: Andy Marks, have you got some concerns that our attitudes to China, whatever difference might be able to be pointed to between the parties, might end up an election issue? And would that be a fair enough election issue or would it not be in the national interest?
MARKS: Look Richard, I think it's certainly not in the national interest. Since Tampa we've had this tendency towards the sort of car key kind of based approach, a xenophobic approach to score cheap points in the context of a campaign. You really don't want to be doing that on issues that are so consequential. Yes, we should be absolutely, without question, holding the light on human rights. But I can't help think, to hark back to the tennis, that we're not covering ourselves in glory by locking people up in indefinite detention alongside Djokovic in a hotel in Melbourne. That means that we need to lift our game internally as well. We can't hope to have a credible platform with China, in an election or any other time, if we can't hold ourselves to those standards. And that's what's been really disappointing. The last point I'll make on it too Richard, it’s really clear putting the economics and the strategic considerations Tanya mentioned aside, even though they're very important, the real problem here is we have a lack of cultural context and understanding between Australia and China. When Gough Whitlam went off to China in 1971, they prepared a great big briefing for him on economics and on trade policy. He basically threw it out and went straight to books on Chinese culture. He devoured those lessons on Chinese culture so that he had context within which to help the relationship grow. And that was what we need to see occur through both the campaign period and with the Opposition and Government in general. We need them to respect the cultural context of the relationship. That's how you get through through this kind of stuff. 
GLOVER: Pru Goward, is Peter Dutton being increasingly shrill on China as an attempt to try to prove that there is some distance between the Coalition and Labor on this issue. Even if Labor doesn't want to play that game?
GOWARD: [audio cuts in] As Tanya says, this is something where people, the parties are usually quite bipartisan. With foreign policy, we rely essentially on public service advice, diplomatic corps. Nobody has some other avenues through which they can judge the situation much. So I don't think I know much about his motivations, but I guess what I see him saying to the Chinese Ambassador is look there's been a lot of cage rattling. A lot of damage done to the trade relationship. We're not the only people in the region nervous about what's happening. We're going to send you, well I hope it remains, a signal that it's great that you want to get it back onto a better footing, but we need to see more than just a comment you’d like to get back on a better footing. We'd like to see some real action.
GLOVER: Yeah, that's right. Pru Goward is with us, Andy Marks and Tanya Plibersek. Just finally for most kids school starts tomorrow with many paediatricians and mental health professionals shouting "Hurrah!". Saying the pandemic had reminded us of the myriad virtues of schooling. Just quickly, what was the main thing you got out of going to school - was the education or was it something else? Tanya Plibersek? 
PLIBERSEK: I'm still friends with people I went to school with in primary school and high school and some of the teachers too, so it's friendships. But it's also the things that I'm still interested in. I'm still interested in Ancient History, Modern History, Art, English, Jane Austen, Kenneth Slessor, Janet Frame. I learnt so much from the teachers who just gave me a new way of seeing the world, and I'm still so grateful to them for that. The social elements of school, the growing up is so important. That's why Labor’s got a $440 million "Back To School" package to help kids cope with the two years from hell that they’ve had.
GLOVER: That was a little personal question at the end, Tanya. It wasn't an invitation!
PLIBERSEK: Oh, well, you can't blame me for having a go Richard, come on. 
GLOVER: Exactly right. Andy Marks, what did school give you, was it was an education or was it, as with Tanya, things like friendship?
MARKS: Look absolutely Richard it was friendships. You know, I was thinking as well that it's those one or two teachers, if you're lucky to find them and stumble upon them across 10 or 12 years, who just go the extra yard. I remember, Miss Adams for me in English. I was sort of flagging towards the end of year 10 and she just put in that extra time. She knew that I liked music and she would have conversations with me about that. And I remember she brought in some Nick Cave records. Honestly, just going the extra yards to keep me engaged was important. The other thing I learned, which I use just about on a weekly basis, is how to make a really good omelette.
GLOVER: Home Economics!
MARKS: Yeah! I actually paid attention that day. I was probably pretty hungry and I go back to that recipe every week and the kids love it. It’s a success.
GLOVER: Well, there you go, Jane Austen and omelettes. What is school for? What did you get out of it Pru Goward?
GOWARD: Well, I loved school too. And I still am in contact with a teacher, a couple of teachers, a primary school teacher and my English teacher - she's in her 90s. At the time she seemed so old and of course, we have much of a muchness. But, yes, I think the teaching and the person that sees something in you, the teacher that says you could do this. I think it's an incredibly important part of going to school. But the other thing I really learnt was how to get along with people or not get along with people. Girl politics are very complicated. And although I had a twin sister, we didn't really play girl politics. Then you get to school and suddenly have somebody saying, well, you're not coming to my party and you can't be in our friendship group. I think I learned how to get along with kids.
GLOVER: The socialisation of the jungle. 
GOWARD: Yes, exactly. 
GLOVER: Pru Goward, thank you so much. Andy Marks, thank you so much. Tanya Plibersek, thank you so much. It is time for the news now on ABC radio.