Topics: Temporary pause to further easing of international border restrictions; Morrison Government partnering with industry to crack down on text scams; clear choice facing the Australian people in 2022 at the next Federal election.
LIAM BARTLETT: Joining us right now is Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. Minister, good morning to you.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Liam. How are you?
LIAM BARTLETT: I’m well. Thanks very much for having a chat to us this morning. I know you’ve been running around to a million media outlets. Many other countries have shut their borders; we’re not on our own there. I take it caution is the name of the game at this point?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, caution is very much the name of the game at the moment. We met as the National Security Committee of Cabinet last night and we heard directly from Professor Paul Kelly – Australia’s Chief Medical Officer – and it was his advice to us – that we accepted – which was that we should effectively defer or pause the further reopening of our borders that was due to take effect on 1 December. We should pause that for 14 days. Now, what we had previously announced is that we would be allowing to enter international students, skilled workers, humanitarian visa holders, provisional family visa holders, people who have been double vaxed and were able to come into the country as of 1 December. The advice from Paul Kelly meant that we had to reconsider that. We have agreed and now announced that we will defer the opening for two weeks; we will look to reopen on 15 December for those cohorts. But importantly, there’s been no changes to the announcement that we had previously made – ‘immediate family’ was extended to include parents; we have a bubble – in addition to New Zealand now with Singapore and Singaporean citizens. Those changes remain in place; so nothing has changed there. It is just a temporary deferral of the next stage of the reopening. I think that is absolutely appropriate and, importantly, what it shows is that we didn’t take a step backwards. We didn’t close down things that we had already reopened. We just deferred, and that is to give us the time to be able to understand the significance of this particular variant and that’s actually really important. It’s an unknown variant to the world.
LIAM BARTLETT: I saw Nick Coatsworth on the TV news last night saying ‘indeed this could be a good thing; if it is milder, if they’re suggesting it, it could be a good thing for the entire pandemic’.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, indeed. It is important that we have those additional 14 days to understand in more detail the impacts of this, but the preliminary views are that the symptoms are quite mild; that’s the advice that has come through to us from our medical advisers. But, look, I think we need a lot more certainty about that; so the decision was taken – somewhat reluctantly; it wasn’t a decision that we made or took lightly – we have been very focused on reopening our international borders as soon as we can. We – along with many other people – are disappointed that we won’t be in a position to reopen our borders on 1 December.
LIAM BARTLETT: Has there been any pushback, Minister, from any other countries or any other national leaders? I know that the South African President is not very happy; he thinks his country is being unfairly targeted.
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I do understand the concerns of the South African President and, let me say, we are very grateful to South Africa for the work that they have done to identify this variant and to let us all know that it was out there. So, it is actually because of the actions of the South African Government that we are in a position to be able to deal much more effectively than we would have thought with this variant. So, good on the South Africans for putting their hand up.
LIAM BARTLETT: For doing it – leading the way.
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes, absolutely, and I would hate them to feel as though they were being criticised for this. We genuinely very much appreciate the fact that they took the position to let everyone know about this variant. It has helped the world and Australia dramatically.
LIAM BARTLETT: Do you think this afternoon a consensus is possible among State Premiers or will some of them be resistant?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I hope there will be. I’ve listened to the calls of industry, particularly, over the last 24 hours. They are looking for certainty and consistency in relation to the states and territories’ position on borders. That is actually really important to industry and of course it’s really important to our families as well, many of whom were planning to get together over Christmas, and we do have such high vaccination rates across Australia; you know, over 86 per cent of eligible Australians are now double-vaxed and that puts us in a really good position. I would hope that there is a consistent view coming out of the National Cabinet discussions this afternoon.
LIAM BARTLETT: Is Paul Kelly and ipso facto you and your government saying that there should be no changes to state borders right now?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, the state borders are a matter for the state and territory governments to determine. What I will say is that we already know that this variant – the Omicron variant – is quite different to the Delta variant, and we will know more over the next 14 days. We actually do want to enable people to be able to move as freely as possible around the country. We do have such high vaccination rates, particularly in New South Wales; Victoria; and the ACT, I believe, is the highest vaccinated of the states and territories. We have such high levels. We are in such a strong position to be able to protect ourselves from the impacts of COVID‑19. I think it comes to a point if we’re following the National Plan whilst there will always be issues – and one of them we’re experiencing now with the Omicron variant and determining what the impacts of that are – but there comes a time where we all need to be working together to make sure that we reopen Australia.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, Minister, as you know, not all of us are following the National Plan.
KAREN ANDREWS: Which is very disappointing, because the National Plan was put together with the support of states and territories and obviously the Federal Government. It’s actually a very good plan; it’s very easy to understand; very easy to follow. It does allow that there will be some shifts over time when we have to respond to particular threats or different variants coming in. That was all clearly anticipated. But I would urge all of the states and territories to adhere to the National Plan. It is a step-by-step process about how we will reopen Australia. It’s important to individuals, families and, of course, our businesses.
LIAM BARTLETT: Minister, there have been calls, as you know, to help poorer countries, especially those on the African continent to get their vaccination rates up. I suppose that surrounds their availability of vaccine. Are we assisting at all in that way?
KAREN ANDREWS: I can speak specifically about the work that we have done in the Indo–Pacific area where we actually have supplied a lot of vaccines. Our Foreign Minister – Marise Payne – will be doing all that she can to support those nations and clearly we will do all we can to support any nation who is experiencing particular difficulties with COVID where we can. We have a significant number of vaccines here in Australia, so we are in a strong position here. Booster shots are available, and we’ll do all we can to support our neighbours.
LIAM BARTLETT: We have talked about that on the program. I mean, we’ve talked about our assistance for PNG, and the Solomon Islands and Fiji and places like that, but I wonder – I mean, this call has come out from the UN with the suggestion there from the UN that some Western or richer countries have been stockpiling. Are they talking largely about European-centric countries or have any sort of calls for assistance and inquiries gone into Australia?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, look, in relation to stockpiling: Australia is not stockpiling. We’re making sure we have adequate levels of vaccines for first, second and now booster shots, and Greg Hunt –our Health Minister – has been very clear on that. Look, I don’t know what other nations may well be doing in relation to stockpiling, but I would say that if there are nations that have significant excesses of supply, then they could look at what they might be able to do to assist those nations that are in quite a degree of difficulty at the moment.
LIAM BARTLETT: Minister, can I just ask you, I noticed you had an announcement yesterday, and I ask you this question because we’ve had a lot of calls to the program – some on-air, some off-air – about the scam text messages that have been going around for the last couple of months. I notice you’re moving to force the telcos to put an end to those. How long will it take to put the brakes on them, do you know?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, work is already underway – clearly – with the telcos. We – as a Government – have worked very closely with them. Everyone is sick of getting those text messages coming through, but there is a much darker side to that which is that you click on those links or take any action in relation to the SMS messages that come through, you’re potentially just supporting criminals – because they will steal your identity; they will steal your data; they will steal your money given a chance. So what we needed to do, was work with the telcos, to make sure they can do all that they possibly can to stop these SMS messages at the source. They’ve already done a whole heap of work to make sure that they can identify the SMS messages and they can block them. They needed additional support from the Government, and that’s why we put in place the regulatory amendment to give the telecommunications sector the authority that they needed to block the SMS messages at scale.
LIAM BARTLETT: So, you’re saying they had the ability to do it; they just didn’t have the law on their side?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, it’s a combination of both. They’re developing the technology to be able to do it – some of that is already in place now. They needed to have the authority to be able to block it at scale, which is what we’re doing. Both Optus and Telstra have been very clear that they will continue to work on the technology. Its artificial intelligence machine learning; it’s going to get better over time, but, yes, they’re already in a position where they’re able to block some of the messages coming through and that’s fantastic.
LIAM BARTLETT: Especially in the lead‑up to Christmas, because they’re certainly being ramped up.
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes, and it’s very easy particularly during COVID where many of us – me in particular in some cases – were buying a lot of things online; it’s very easy to assume that the message you get to say ‘your parcel is ready for you’ is legitimate, and this is the sort of thing that as a Government we’re very mindful of, because we don’t want people to lose money and/or their identity.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yes, exactly. Minister, finally, speaking of stings, on a Government matter, the Parliamentary sitting calendar has been tabled and March 29 next year has been pencilled in for the Budget, so we can expect an election shortly after that I take it?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, it was interesting to see the Parliamentary calendar released for 2022. Yes, it does have a number of things that people are speculating on what it could mean. All I can say is that it has been issued; that is what we’re working with at this point in time. We know there will be a Federal election in the first half of next year; it could be in March; it could be later towards the middle of May. But importantly, what Australians will have is a very clear choice between a Government that has demonstrated its capacity to deliver – particularly in the face of the COVID threat environment – and an alternative potential Government that does not have the runs on the board that the current Government does have.
LIAM BARTLETT: Minister, we’ll leave it there. Thanks very much for your time this morning.
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s a pleasure. Take care.