By Tanya Plibersek

12 September 2021



SUBJECTS: Roadmap to reopen New South Wales; Scott Morrison’s bungled vaccine rollout; Getting kids back to school; Support for schoolkids; Women’s Safety Summit; Fowler.

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Tanya Plibersek, thanks very much for joining us. So are you comfortable with this reopening plan in New South Wales?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN: I know people are desperate for New South Wales to reopen. The lockdown is really taking a toll. People are worried about their health, their jobs, their businesses. They're worried about their kids getting back to school. So we're very much looking forward to reopening. I guess I would be much more confident about the 70 per cent target if it was clear that the Premier was getting health advice that backed it, and if it was clear that those other things that the Doherty modelling talks about like tracking, tracing, the capacity of our hospital system to cope with the number of sick people – if those things were taken care of. But we're not going to get answers to those questions because the Premier has suspended Parliament and cancelled the daily press briefings that she was giving. 

SPEERS: Well, they're going to be less frequent apparently. We're going to talk about that a little later on. But just to pick up what you're saying there: you would like to see, you would be more comfortable if you saw what modelling exists around the capacity of the hospitals, the tracing and testing systems to cope with this reopening at this point?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I just think it's been clear from the reporting this week that the health advice that the Premier's getting might not be enthusiastic about opening up at 70 per cent. I get that people are well and truly over lockdown. I get that there are other issues to consider here. But like always, I think transparency is the best way forward. And once again, we've got a Prime Minister who's urging states to open up, lift all restrictions, get on with it, but not prepared to take any responsibility for his role here. I mean, the reason we're in this second lockdown is because Scott Morrison failed on the vaccine rollout and quarantine. We did so well at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn't use that as an opportunity to get people vaccinated to get a national quarantine system operating. That's why almost half the country is in this lockdown right now or has other restrictions placed upon it. 

SPEERS: So, do you think though, just with this New South Wales reopening plan, is it consistent with the national plan in your view?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I've had a look at the national plan and I think it leaves a lot of scope for interpretation. It is exactly the circumstances where you'd expect the Prime Minister to be playing a role, a leadership role, working with the states and territories to get back to something like normal as quickly as possible. Using what's in the national plan, recognising the different states and territories are having a different experience of COVID at the moment, and using his position as our national leader to work those things through. But as usual, Scott Morrison is MIA when it comes to the rollout of the national plan. 

SPEERS: Well, he's backing this New South Wales plan. I just want to be clear about this, you are worried? 

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, until something goes wrong and then he will be out of, he'll be right out of here, you know? 

SPEERS: Right now though, you're worried that this plan, that hospitals may not be able to cope under this plan based on what you know at the moment?

PLIBERSEK: We're already hearing stories about people dying at home, instead of going to hospital. We're hearing stories about ambulances ramping in emergency queuing up to get patients into emergency. It is troubling when we know how the hospital system is already under a lot of pressure. So absolutely Labor supports reopening as soon as it's safe to do so. We know people have had a gutful of the lockdowns, we understand that. But the Premier needs to be more transparent about any competing advice she's being given and the Prime Minister needs to actually play a role as a national leader and perhaps, finally, get the vaccination rollout and a national quarantine system properly operating.

SPEERS: One of the interesting aspects of this plan is you'll have to be vaccinated to go pretty much anywhere by the sounds of it. Some religious leaders want an exemption for churchgoers, what do you think?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's really important that every Australian who can, who doesn't have a medical reason not to, gets vaccinated, and I really would be encouraging every community leader to encourage the people that they have contact with to get vaccinated. Vaccination is the way through this. It's the best way to keep our country safe and to reopen as quickly as possible. And I think there should be rewards for people who are vaccinated. Labor obviously supports a financial incentive to do that, I'm sorry the Prime Minister hasn't taken up our suggestion to give people $300 to get vaccinated and see that money go into the economy as stimulus. But community leaders have a responsibility to talk to their congregations in this case and convince them that vaccination is a gift to yourself but more importantly, a gift to your family and your community, the people that you want to keep safe, that you love around you. 

SPEERS: Schoolkids in Sydney are due to start returning the classroom from late next month. In Victoria we still don't know. What do you think? When should children be returning to school?

PLIBERSEK: As soon as it's safe to do so. This is really taking a toll on kids, particularly the kids who are facing their final exams in coming weeks. You know, these kids have had two years of disrupted learning. It's taking a toll on the littlies as well - the kindy, year one, the kids who are just starting their learning.  It's not good for those kids to be sitting in front of a computer on their own, they need teachers in the classroom and they need the company of their peers. 

SPEERS: So when is it safe? 

PLIBERSEK: Well David when it's safe based on medical advice. I'm not going to pick dates or numbers out of the air. I'm not going to make this stuff up. It's actually too important for that. But kids should be back in the classroom as soon as it's safe for them to be there. And as well as being worried about their learning, I'm really worried about their social and emotional wellbeing. I've written to the Education Minister, I have urged him for the Commonwealth Government to play a role in helping kids catch up with their learning. New South Wales and Victoria are looking at tutoring programs, we should be backing that nationally for kids who have fallen behind. We need a year 12 guarantee - the Government should give these kids, who've had two years of disrupted learning, some guarantee that they'll have a place at University or TAFE or support to get a job. These kids have had the time from hell. They've missed out on learning, but also school formals, birthday parties, school camps, everything else that's about coming of age and we need more support for their mental health, their social and emotional wellbeing. A lot of the kids are suffering. 

SPEERS: That's absolutely true. But, and I take it you may not want to give any sort of number or date around when they should return, but isn't this the task, the difficult task that political leaders face, because of the health advice on one hand about the risks they may face, in balancing that against the social, emotional, mental health toll that you're talking about that there as well? Ultimately someone has to make a call on when they should return to school.

PLIBERSEK: Yes, absolutely, governments that have those experts at their fingertips and access to all of the modelling, need to make a call that brings kids back to school as soon as it's safe for them to do so. And they need to look at the modelling that they've got about that safety. They need to look at issues like vaccination of the workforce, they need to look at ventilation in our classrooms. There's a range of issues that governments will need to take into account. I accept that, but I can tell you right now, the kids are missing out, they're really suffering. And there's a lot of pressure on families, parents who have lost their jobs or parents who are still trying to do their full-time job while they're looking after kids learning from home, they're really having a tough time at the moment. We want kids back, but we need to answer these questions about vaccinations, ventilation and other areas -

SPEERS: Well just on that, a couple interesting point you've raised there. Teachers in New South Wales will have to have a jab. Should every state be requiring that?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's really important that frontline workers get vaccinated and the real problem here is we've got thousands of frontline workers including teachers and school staff who are desperate to get vaccinated. Who haven't had the opportunity - 

SPEERS: So should it be mandatory for all of them?

PLIBERSEK: Well first of all, before we talk about mandatory, let's talk about the people who are desperate to get vaccinated, who can't because this Prime Minister has failed to do enough deals with enough companies to get enough jabs into enough people's arms. People want to get vaccinated and they can't, so let's get them vaccinated first. 

SPEERS: I understand your point there.

PLIBERSEK: Yes, ultimately. Yes, ultimately, I believe that if you're a frontline worker, you should be vaccinated. Teachers risk their own health, but they also risk the health of the people they go home to and the kids if they're not vaccinated. So I do support the New South Wales government's call for teachers to be fully vaccinated. But states and the Commonwealth government have to give people the opportunity of being vaccinated before they start saying look over here let's talk about mandating vaccines. Let's give everybody the opportunity to get vaccinated first. And of course, I'd also like to see students vaccinated when we have the right vaccines for their age group. So we're already looking at 12 and above, that's great, I think we should be looking at school-based vaccination programs. We've got very successful programs for vaccinating kids with Gardasil for example. We should be looking at how we most effectively deliver those vaccines in the school setting and we should be making sure that this government doesn't fail younger children. That we are talking to companies that are testing vaccines for younger age groups. And that we get, not at the back of the queue like we have been for the mRNA-style vaccines, but we do some deals now so that we can keep our younger children safe in the future, too. 

SPEERS: Let's turn to the National Women's Safety Summit earlier this week. Was it, in your view, a worthwhile exercise?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think there were some excellent contributions from a range of really good speakers. The criticism I think I and many others have is that so much of this stuff we already know. We know what we need to do to keep women safer and we're not doing it. Just the week before the Summit, this government voted against measures that would have prevented sexual harassment in the workplace, measures that were recommended by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Labor has already said we want to invest more in emergency accommodation for women and children fleeing violence, the Government won't do that. We've already said we back 10 days paid domestic violence leave, the Government won't agree to that despite the fact that a lot of businesses already do it and the Business Council of Australia agrees that we should do it. So we know so much of what has to happen. We’ve got to stop talking about it and actually do it. We've had Royal Commissions, Parliamentary inquiries, Law Reform Commission reports - we've had report after report and recommendation after recommendation that would keep women safer and we're not doing it. And in fact over the course of this government, we've actually seen so much go backwards for working women in Australia, or women in Australia. We've seen pay and conditions undermined. We've seen frozen superannuation, a suggestion that women should use their superannuation to flee violent relationships. We've seen cuts to child care, cuts to family tax benefit, cuts to the pension - all these things affect women's ability to safely escape violent situations. We've seen funding to Working Women's Centres cut. So, I mean, you know, the Summit had a lot of great speakers but we are beyond just talking about this. We're beyond just more talk. 

SPEERS: Well we'll see what more the Government does. Let me turn to Kristina Keneally, your colleague in New South Wales. She's now been endorsed to become the new Labor candidate for the lower house seat of Fowler. It has upset some in the Party, in particular that a local candidate, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees has been pushed aside. Amongst those concerned, your colleague Anne Aly. She says it's not fair, it's not right. It's a huge failure for Labor on diversity. What do you think?

PLIBERSEK: Well, the first thing I want to say is that Chris Hayes, the outgoing Member for Fowler, is one of the best people I've ever had the honour of working with and he'll be sorely missed. His work particularly on combatting the death penalty and supporting Australians on death row overseas is just extraordinarily principled -

SPEERS: He's upset about this move too.

PLIBERSEK: Principled and honourable work that he has done. Yeah, and David, I'm a glass half-full person. Aren't we lucky in the Labor Party to have three fantastic women, all who want to be in Parliament representing the Labor Party. We've got Deb O'Neill and Kristina Keneally who have done such great work, both of them, in the Senate. And we've got Tu Le, who grew up in the local area -

SPEERS: She's going to miss out, the diverse candidate.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'll give you this message for Tu Le. I really hope that she sticks with it because her work standing up for for exploited migrant workers, her connection to the Vietnamese community and the Buddhist community, that's exactly the sort of experience Labor wants to see in our federal Parliament. We have a very diverse Parliamentary group. We've got people from all different racial, religious, ethnic backgrounds, we're half female -

SPEERS: Why has she been pushed aside? Is this the right call?

PLIBERSEK: I'm proud, I'm proud of the diversity that we already exhibit, and I'll tell you this, we can always do more and I hope that, Deb and Kristina have both done great work in the Senate, but I hope we do have a next generation of candidates like Tu Le who will put a hand up again in the future.

SPEERS: Do you back this decision?

PLIBERSEK: I don't have a vote in this decision, David. This is a matter for the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party and it'll go through all of its normal processes. But as I say again - 

SPEERS: You are a pretty senior member of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, I know this is the right faction, you're from the Left faction,  but do you support the move?

PLIBERSEK: And as a senior member of the New South Wales Labor Party, how proud am I that we've got three fantastic women who are prepared to stand for the Labor Party -

SPEERS: I appreciate your point there.

PLIBERSEK: I'm so proud, when the Liberals keep saying that they can't find female candidates. 

PEERS: I think your viewers might have noticed that you haven't answered the question.

PLIBERSEK: The Liberals are at 25 percent female and we're at 50 percent female, and they keep saying they can't find good women. How lucky are we?

SPEERS: Indeed. Let me just return to this one last time though Tanya Plibersek, because I am sure our viewers have noted you haven't said whether you support this move or not?

PLIBERSEK: I think Kristina is a fantastic candidate who's made a great contribution. I also think Deb O'Neill has made a wonderful contribution in the Senate, and Tu Le has got a big future, a really big future. 

SPEERS: All right Tanya Plibersek. Thank you.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.