Interview with Peter van Onselen, The Sunday Project

Home » Media Centre » Interview with Peter van Onselen, The Sunday Project
25 Jul 2021
Prime Minister

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining me. I want to ask you about this tragedy in Sydney. The woman in her 30s who we learnt today has died of COVID, no pre-existing conditions. She, because of her age, wasn't eligible for Pfizer. She was advised at the time not to take AstraZeneca. Is this something that a faster rollout could have avoided?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, first of all, it's terrible news, and I feel awfully for her family and for all of those who knew her. This is a terrible disease. It's taken millions of lives all around the world, and the world has sought to suppress as many of these deaths as possible. And, here, of course, in Australia, some 30,000 people we believe we've been able to save the lives of in the way it's been managed till now. There's not a country other than Israel, arguably Malta, in the world that is at a level of vaccination at the moment that certainly could be preventing things like the lockdowns. But, the AstraZeneca vaccine, as we know, as ATAGI has said today, over the last couple of days, it is a vaccine that is approved in Australia. It is one that has certainly saved the lives of many, many people, thousands of people in the United Kingdom. And, we've had frustrations there, there's no doubt about that. But, sadly, this is a terrible epidemic and it's an epidemic that takes a terrible toll on people's lives, on their health, and, of course, on their livelihoods. And, we've done all we can to try and prevent as much losses as has been possible.

VAN ONSELEN: It feels like the federation, PM, is crumbling. You've got state premiers bickering, refusing to help each other, a Prime Minister who doesn't have the power, we've learnt, to prevent or to weigh in even, almost, on lockdowns, states closing their borders. There are limits to the vaccine at the moment. We hope that's going to ramp up. What do you say to Australians that feel like we don't have one leader at the moment? We've just got a bunch of premiers looking after their own states. 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, I don't think that's how it is. I mean, I can understand how it can appear that way. I mean, at no other time have premiers, chief ministers and I, in a federation, worked together as often as we have. And, that means we've been able to make many decisions. I just talked about, you know, being able to save those lives. A key reason for that was the way we have been able to work together. And, when you get people together that often there'll be things they disagree on. But, I can assure you, even as recently as our most recent meeting, it wasn't about not supporting, it was about how can we best support, what support is being offered, and that's income support, it's economic support. And, as I've already mentioned, there's 90,000 extra Pfizer doses going into New South Wales from next week. That was scheduled increase from earlier this month, there’s another 200,000 that’s gone in on top of that ...

VAN ONSELEN: But, can you unite the states, do you think? They’re all looking after themselves. The New South Wales Premier is pleading for more vaccinations and other state premiers are saying, “Sorry, we're not able, we're not willing to help.”

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't think that's how it played out at all. I mean, that request wasn't even made at the meeting on Friday. It's important that we keep the pace of the national vaccination program and not to disrupt that program. We’re getting the extra doses into New South Wales. But, the key thing we need to do in New South Wales right now is make sure the lockdown works effectively. It's supported by those additional vaccines, and in particular the AstraZeneca vaccines that we're pumping in and making available. The GPs have been doing that and we look forward to more AstraZenecas being supported in the New South Wales vaccination program. And, so, those vaccines are there in both of those programs. But, the vaccine, the lockdown program has to work effectively, as it has in other states and territories. Once you're in a lockdown like this, once you’re in it, then the only way through is to make sure that that lockdown is effective. It’s supported by vaccines ...

VAN ONSELEN: Well, can I ask you, can I ask you about that. A colleague of yours told me that they don't actually think that New South Wales, or Sydney in particular, can get out of the lockdown until enough people are vaccinated, because that's just the nature of the Delta strain. You can't suppress it. Is there any possibility of that? You have to get enough people vaccinated before you can even get out?

PRIME MINISTER: No, the, the lockdown, as we've already seen in Victoria and in South Australia, can be very effective, and it sometimes can take some time. But, suppression is the only way you can stop the virus moving around. It doesn’t move by itself, it moves with people ...

VAN ONSELEN: But, they got to it a lot earlier than New South Wales, Prime Minister. They, they could do that because they got there earlier.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, of course they did. They, they went into a lockdown far sooner, but lockdown in preventing the movement of people and people staying at home and people getting tested. It's a much more virulent strain. We all understand that. And, the testing and tracing defences that we've had in the past are not as effective now against this Delta strain, and that's why the lockdown has become a more necessary tool. It’s supported by vaccines, don't get me wrong, of course it is. And, that's why the additional vaccines have already gone in, as well as the, I welcome the ATAGI updated advice, which means AstraZeneca hopefully will be used more, more often than it has been in New South Wales and that will lift those vaccination rates. Vaccination protects you against future lockdowns, but once you're in one, the only way through is to make sure it's effective and that it works, and you prevent and stop the virus from moving around. And, that comes from people staying at home and following those instructions.

VAN ONSELEN: I want to ask you about why we're not seeing more vaccines come in from other states as a reallocation. This population distribution, it just doesn't make sense. I mean, there's been a lot of military comparisons during this pandemic. The bullets and the guns go where the battle is. We need the vaccines in south west Sydney. Your Premier there is pleading for more. Why don't we just take them off states that have got their borders shut and don't have COVID?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, a) I'd say the battle is everywhere. And, and no state or territory is immune from this Delta strain of the virus, and we could have exactly the same situation presenting in Perth by the end of, by the end of tomorrow, or we could have it in Brisbane or Far North Queensland. And, the vaccination program needs to work right across the whole country. Now, it would be wrong to say that additional vaccines haven't been pumped into New South Wales. Immediately on the day I was asked for more, we provided 150,000 of both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines. Unfortunately, none of the AstraZeneca vaccines were used, and the 150,000 were provided. Another 50,000 is now being provided and it's, and it's escalated by 90,000 a week and then 110,000 a week from the first month of August, from the first week in August. So, there's more vaccines going in. But, you know, what you have to also take into account to, to cancel the appointments for three weeks of people who have got their vaccinations scheduled will only slow the vaccination program down more right across the country. We can do both and need to do both and are doing both.

VAN ONSELEN: But, but it, it might do that, it might, it might, it might slow it down elsewhere. But, it’s an emergency in south west Sydney, in particular. The Premier wants it. It feels like it's nothing but state parochialism that's preventing it. And, I don't understand when you've got the power on the vaccines, why you don't just override these premiers and take them off them and put them in there?

PRIME MINISTER: Because I think that would undermine the national vaccine program, Peter, that's what I'm telling you. You may not appreciate that point, but we have put additional vaccines into New South Wales and particularly through the GP network. I mean, 70,000 of those additional Pfizer vaccines going in every single week are going through the GP network, which is the best place to get people vaccinated because they're closer to where the people are, particularly in south west Sydney. One of the things we set up recently, working with Dr Jamal Rifi down there in south west Sydney, is setting up the Chester Hill GP vaccine clinic. Now, that's going to be an important tool for addressing the situation there in south western Sydney. So, it would be wrong to, it would be wrong to, it would be wrong to suggest, Peter …

VAN ONSELEN: But, right now we’ve got, right now we’ve got people dying in New South Wales and the outbreak there is only going to get worse, according to the Premier. Surely it's the time to prioritise it. If we were a unitary system without states, not a federation - New Zealand, for example, the UK - if they had an outbreak in one of their major cities, they would redirect vaccines to that outbreak from cities that are sealed off and safe. We're not doing it because of the states, surely?

PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not true, Peter. We're not doing it, as you suggest. That's not correct. We are doing it. We are putting more vaccines into south western Sydney, putting both more Pfizer and more AstraZeneca there. So, I mean, the point you're making doesn't hold up because we're putting more in. But, at the same time, we're doing it in a way that doesn't disrupt the broader national vaccination program, and they’re decisions we're taking. This isn't about state parochialism. It's got nothing to do with it. It's got everything to do with applying the vaccines across the country, and as well as in south western Sydney. But, also, you can't make this error either. And, that is, the way the virus stops moving is by stopping people moving, and that's why the lockdown is the principle tool by which we’ll be able to rest this and get it back to a situation which is far more manageable, and hopefully down where we would like to get it to. Vaccines can help that and are, and more doses are being provided. As I've said, 90,000 extra every single week, and that goes up to 110,000 extra every single week, and 200,000 doses on top of that. So, I'd say that has been quite a swift response, on top of the income support to support the lockdown, which is seeing almost 400,000 people already supported, and around a, $220 million going out the door every single week to support people get through this lockdown.

VAN ONSELEN: Are you worried that if you take vaccines off other states, citizens in those states would basically just be up in arms about it?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm not. That's not the point. The point is managing a national vaccination program to ensure the whole country continues to get vaccinated to protect their health and their, and their livelihoods, right around the country, and at the same time respond to the situation we have in New South Wales. That's what our focus is. It's been made on the best possible advice and focusing on what the, on what the tasks are.

VAN ONSELEN: Let me ask you about children - TGA approval now for over 12s to be able to get Pfizer. Previously, you've said that schools are safe. That was obviously a different strain to the Delta strain. How concerning is it for our kids now that the Delta strain looks like it is starting to get towards and attack the younger?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is different, you're right to say it, between what was happening earlier on, and that's why we're watching this very carefully. The TGA has just approved Pfizer for those age groups and next month, early next month, I hope, we'll get further advice from ATAGI about where we need to focus our attention in vaccinating that, those children, and in what groups and in what priority. There's been mixed experience with this overseas, with different results. And, when it comes to our children, I can assure you I'm going to be very cautious about the decisions we take here, but very, very mindful of the urgency, at the same time, of getting it to where we need to get it to. I mean, I have no doubt, speaking as a parent, I'm sure you'd be the same, Peter, we would forego our own vaccinations to ensure our children were safe. And, so, I can assure you, we’ll be, we’ll be acting with those sorts of priorities. And, last Friday we worked with the states and territories to start putting in place the capability to deliver those sort of, those vaccines through a school-based system. And, so, it's another example of how we are working together. We are getting it done, and we wouldn't have saved more than 30,000 lives and got a million people back into work were it not for the way that everyone has worked together. From time to one, like in any family, there's going to be disagreements. But, I tell you why it, if it wasn't working, Peter, we wouldn't be meeting every week. People would be refusing to meet. But, we are meeting every single week and working through all of these issues, and getting solutions.

VAN ONSELEN: Prime Minister, just finally, and we're almost out of time, but I want to ask you about the training for parliamentarians around sexual harassment and bullying. It's optional. Will you undertake it? And, do you think it should be compulsory? Because it strikes me that the kind of person that might opt out is perhaps the kind of person that most needs it.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, of course I'll be doing it, and so will my ministry. And, that's already been my, my direction and, and I have no doubt that that will be followed through on. For the rest of the Parliament, as you know, the Parliament and Members of Parliament are subject only to Parliament. I'm not in a position to give them those, those directions or to, or to enforce them.

VAN ONSELEN: Do you think it should be compulsory, though?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don’t, if there’s a mechanism where that can take place, then I'd certainly welcome it, but I would be certainly setting my own example by doing it. This is why we put this independent complaints process in place, and it's supported by these types of measures. I said we would do exactly that, and we've already got the 24-hour counselling that is available to staff and others who work here in Canberra, that was put in place months ago. This was the next step that I’d initiated to ensure we had a fully independent complaints process that could handle these matters. That is now coming into force. And, in addition to that, this other training, which I think is absolutely necessary. As, as Members of Parliament, whether you’re the Prime Minister, or you’re a, you’re a Member just for your electorate, then you're an employer and you have responsibilities and you need to uphold them.

VAN ONSELEN: Prime Minister, we appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Peter.