Topics: Lockdown protests, ramp up of vaccination rollout, border exemptions, QLD-NSW state border.
MATT WEBBER: Member for McPherson on the Gold Coast and Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, joins me each fortnight to talk about, well, any number of issues, it’s a movable feast.
Minister, good morning to you.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning Matt. How are you?
MATT WEBBER: I’m well, and there’s lots to talk about too. The topics keep coming thick and fast.
We’ll start with protests, if we can, in Sydney. I got a quote for you, what New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said post-fact: ‘it broke my heart,’ she said, ‘millions and millions of people across our state of doing the right thing, and it just broke my heart that people had such a disregard for their fellow citizens. I just ask everybody to think about that. Each of those people who protested illegally, I’m sure have loved ones. They are going to go home and risk passing that virus on to the most close people to them.’ What was your reaction when you saw the images of what was happening in Sydney?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I was horrified, without a doubt. And I think that the New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, summed up what many people were thinking. I mean, it puts so many people at risk. We know, or we’re certainly hearing, and becoming very aware of how fast this Delta variant is actually moving, and to then have these protests out there where lots of people came together, I mean, it really just flew in the face of all these people who were trying to do the right thing, trying to keep themselves and their families safe. Now, when protests got violent, that’s taking it to an entirely different level, but in my view, these people put Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, and anywhere else that they had these protests, at an unacceptable risk.
MATT WEBBER: Do you think the Prime Minister talked them down to a significant enough degree?
KAREN ANDREWS: What do you mean? Sorry, talked down the?
MATT WEBBER: Do you think he- well, put a line through them to the extent that he should have yesterday when he addressed the matter.
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I think that, in fairness, he probably did. Time is going to tell what the outcome of those gatherings are – whether or not they actually do become super spreader events.
But look, my view, my view is unchanged. These events put many others at significant risk, at an unacceptable risk, and it’s not good enough.
MATT WEBBER: Does that same feeling apply when you see your coalition colleague, George Christensen, up north? Different set of circumstances, we understand that. It’s in Mackay, it’s not Sydney, different degree of restrictions in place. But he did appear to be endorsing the behaviour of protesting Sydneysiders. At a time when unity of purpose is paramount, how can you justify that?
And what do you have to say to him?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I can’t justify under any circumstances those gatherings. Now, my understanding of George is that he was supporting the intent of the protests, and that’s for him to say. What I’m concerned about is people coming together in, in those numbers and putting others at risk, so I don’t think it’s acceptable in any circumstances. So, I will have to disagree with, with anyone who says that it was okay.
MATT WEBBER: On to matters of vaccination. We heard over the weekend that an order is been placed for a significant number of booster, Pfizer booster vaccinations, 2023 thereabouts, we can expect to take delivery of that which is, in the grander scheme, good news. But, should we really be looking seriously at making this stuff locally? I know there’s some impediments from a manufacturing point of view, but should we be looking at jumping these hurdles now? Surely no time like the present to, to equip ourselves to the best degree we can.
KAREN ANDREWS: So a couple of things on that. So yes, it’s 85 million doses. They’ll actually start to come in from the first quarter of 2022. So 60 million will come in through 2022, and 25, at this stage, on 2023. We’ve also got…
MATT WEBBER: [Interrupts] It’s important to emphasise, though, these are booster shots.
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes, they are. And the Moderna and Novavax will come in also early next year.
From a booster point of view, we believe as a Government we are well covered with the forward orders that we have. Now, I know that mRNA has been something that people have been very focused on, and in my previous role as the Industry Minister, I was very focused and continue to be on our ability to manufacture vaccines here, particularly mRNA.
The manufacturing strategy specifically calls out mRNA manufacturing capability here. That will continue to go through its scoping exercises effectively. There have been, in effect, expressions of interest called. They’re being assessed at the moment and we will certainly be looking at whether or not it’s viable to set up such a facility here. What we all have to be mindful…
MATT WEBBER: [Interrupts] So – sorry – what do you mean in effect there’s been a call out for interest in this?
KAREN ANDREWS: Yep. I’m not sure that it’s actually called an expression of interest, or whether it’s a market test, but basically we’ve gone out and we’ve asked for manufacturers to come back to us with, potentially, proposals for how such a manufacturing facility would be set up in Australia. So, in effect, it was really me not being sure whether it was expression of interest or market test.
MATT WEBBER: I understand that and appreciate it, but where are we at with this? What sort of timelines can we, we look at? How significant a response have you received?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I’m not the minister responsible for that and I don’t have visibility of what’s come in from for good probity reasons. But, I’m on the record as saying, it would be nine to 12 months – that’s actually the build of the facility – so we’ve got to go through the process. We’ve got to look at whether or not it’s viable. Because it’s not just the ability to set up the manufacturing plant, it’s whether, in the case of Pfizer or Moderna or Novavax, whether we can get the licence to be able to produce in Australia. Now, those licences are very tightly held, Pfizer in particular have made it clear that they believe that the facilities that they have up and running can deal with the demand that they have and they’ve not been very keen to have other sites set up, although I believe that that may well be changing. So, it’s not just a case of when can we get the facility here, we’ve actually got to get the licences to be able to produce those proven vaccines here.
MATT WEBBER: Karen Andrews is the Minister for Home Affairs, Member for McPherson here on the Gold Coast. You’re someone with a science background, famously, engineering of course, and we’ve spoken about that a lot before. You are aware of what science is capable of achieving, things have been moving pretty sluggishly. Can you tell us about your own personal frustration at the way the vaccine rollout has happened?
KAREN ANDREWS: My view was always that this was a major logistics exercise, that what we had to do was focus on how we were going to have the vaccines distributed to the points that they could then be administered and put into people’s arms. Look, the other thing that I’m really conscious, and I understand people’s frustrations, I really do, and I will put my hand up and say that I am really sorry that we are where we are now, and that we need to be continuing to focus on how we can get more vaccines into the country so that we can distribute and get it into arms – if it’s Pfizer, Moderna or Novavax. We have very, very good supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine because we’re manufacturing that in Australia. But it is a major logistics exercise and the decisions that were taken were pre Delta variant.
When the decisions were taken as to what contracts would be put in place and how we would manufacture, it was on the basis of the information that we had 12 or so months ago. Things have moved, we have the Delta variant, we know that it moves very quickly, we know that younger people are being affected – that has meant that there’s had to be changes in priority groups. So we were very much focussed, taking the health advice, to make sure that older Australians were vaccinated. Then there were issues with AstraZeneca and the health advice from that. So, we have been flexible. We have looked at how we can still continue to make sure that we’re following the health advice and get these vaccines out. And you know, everyone’s got 20-20 hindsight, and maybe decisions would have been different 12 months ago if we’d known about the Delta variant, but that was not the advice.
MATT WEBBER: Seven, eight minutes past nine. Karen Andrews, the Member for McPherson, also Minister for Home Affairs. We’ll go to matters that fall under your Home Affairs umbrella. And I was curious to see in the Sydney Morning Herald reported over the weekend that the Australian Government had granted exemptions for 75 foreign nationals with critical skills in religion or theology, to allow, were allowed entry into the country in the first half of the year. Now, people may not be aware that this exemption exists. Why is there a religious exemption? And who’s coming in on it?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, very good points, because people are obviously very focused on what’s happening with exemptions at the moment, as they should be. So I have no issues with that. There is actually an exemption that’s available for critical skills and religion, and support for religious activities is actually listed as a critical skill, and was put on some time ago, I believe, last year.
MATT WEBBER: Last August. But I’m curious about when it, why it went on last August? But why indeed it in these times, in particular, it’s deemed a critical skill?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, my understanding is that the reason it was put on the skills list, and why there has been level of activity there, is because we’re very aware, well aware of mental health issues that people are, are facing. And for many members of our community, they find a lot of solace and a lot of support from members of the religious community supporting them. So it’s on the skills list because that is considered, not just for economic benefits, but it also looks at the broader support for the community.
MATT WEBBER: One thing that I did notice in the same report is that there were a number of religious organisations that said, well, we haven’t made any applications. Which begs the question as to, who has come in on these exemptions? Which churches? Which officials are represented? And what have you been signing off on?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, the exemptions are actually firstly administered by Australian Border Force, they actually deal with the exemption categories – as it should be, it should be at arm’s length from me. Personally, I’ve got no issues with that. Because it’s an exemption, it relies on applications, so people have to apply to get the exemption the first place. So clearly, those religious organisations that applied had their applications considered and were granted, and it’s an exemption.
So it’s not just something that Border Force goes out, or the Government goes out, and actively starts looking for people to come in on a critical skills list broadly, although we do have to look at things like COVID support and making sure that we do have the critical skills there. So this would have been various groups applying for exemptions, they would’ve been assessed by Border Force, and if they were considered essential and fit the criteria, it would have been granted on that basis.
MATT WEBBER: Well, I’m still curious as to who, though, given so many of the religious organisations, I can list them, if you like, who’ve said well, it wasn’t us that applied. Hillsong, the Australian Christian Churches, Australian Christian Lobby, Church of Scientology – everybody has said, well, we’ve made no applications. The great synagogue of Sydney, no. The Buddhist Council of New South Wales, no. Who has been getting in on these exemptions?
KAREN ANDREWS: I don’t have the full list. I don’t have a list at all of who comes in under any particular category. And often, quite frankly, it’s through stories like this that I can go back and ask questions, which I already have, and I will find out what the basis of the exemption was, why these were granted, and where these people are, but I don’t have that information now. But I can assure you and your listeners that I do follow up when I hear these things, and I do ask questions about various reports in the media, and I will take action when I need to.
MATT WEBBER: We had these reports with the whole Katie Hopkins brouhaha last week, though. Surely, the lightbulb was flashing?
KAREN ANDREWS: We actually do have, still, significant numbers of people who are coming into the country, and they are following strict exemption criteria. And as I’ve said before, these people would not have been allowed into the country if they hadn’t filled out their applications, if they didn’t fit the exemption criteria. And that’s assessed quite independently to me, as it should be. So, whilst I can’t give you the details of the organisations that made these applications or the individuals that are here, I can say they wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t fit into an exemption criteria.
MATT WEBBER: We’ll move on at 9:22, Karen Andrews, Minister for Home Affairs, Member for McPherson. The border, only in the most extraordinary of circumstances a couple of weeks ago, that was the line flying about Queensland, close to three states now. New Zealand, we can’t go there these days either at least for the time being. Are you comfortable where things stand as far as the local business community is concerned and its viability, given where things are at with border closures?
KAREN ANDREWS: So, there’s two issues. One is the borders between states and territories and the other is our international borders. But locally, if I look at the border between New South Wales and Queensland, because you know, that directly affects me as an individual, but as the Federal Member here. Look, I’m in favour, and the Federal Government is in favour, of supporting our small businesses, our medium businesses, et cetera and trying to keep things open as long and as much as we possibly can. And I think the Federal Government’s been on the record clearly about that. We want to do all that we can to make sure that domestic borders remain open between states.
Now, ultimately, those are decisions that are made by the first minister, the premiers – and this is not a blame game at all, this is just a division of responsibility – so, the premier’s take action that they believe in the best interests of the states. And in this case, the decision’s been made by the state government to close the border to a number of states at this point in time. It is hard for people in border communities, and that’s us here on the Gold Coast. You know, we rely very much on international visitors as a tourist destination. And we have had so many school holidays where we’ve not been able to get visitors into the Gold Coast and that has had a huge impact on our businesses.
In my view, we need to be looking very clearly at how we’re going to live and work in the environment in which we find ourselves now, which is how we deal with the Delta variant. It’s not helped by people that do the wrong thing, who let themselves out of isolation or quarantine and travel through the communities when they shouldn’t be there.
MATT WEBBER: Do you think that, given the circumstances that have unfolded in New South Wales, again, 2020 hindsight, that the New South Wales Premier, indeed the New South Wales Government, was too slow to act?
KAREN ANDREWS: I don’t, actually. I think that the New South Wales Government did all that it could to try and contain the spread of the virus without locking down. And at the point where the .
MATT WEBBER: [Interrupts] I’m sorry to interrupt you, but these lessons have been learned. We know that it spreads. Delta or not. Surely, we can pinpoint that sluggishness has been a significant factor in the context of New South Wales.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I would say, actually, that there are conflicting views on that, because there are many people out there who have a view that we should be trying to keep our economy running as much as we can. And the impact of lockdowns on individuals and businesses is significant, and that’s probably understating the effect of these. So, should we be trying to keep our businesses and our communities running as normal for as long as possible? I think there’s a very strong argument that that should be the case. Now, I know that there’s a lot of commentary from people as to whether or not the lockdown should have been harder and faster in New South Wales.
My view is very strong that we should try and keep things open as much as we can. I would say the same thing about Queensland, I would say the same thing, particularly here on the Gold Coast, that we should make sure that we are keeping our social distance, wearing our masks, doing all the things that we have been advised to do for close to 18 months now, and to try and keep our lives and our businesses going the way they need to be for as long as possible.
MATT WEBBER: We’ve had it pretty good here in Queensland, though, haven’t we, as a result of some pretty hard measures. Hard to deny that they’re working and others aren’t.
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, we have done very well in Queensland for a whole range of reasons. And it largely, I think, comes back to the Queensland people, because they have been very good at following the advice. And I know that our borders were shut and there was a lot of criticism for that.
Obviously, when you’ve got shut borders and people can’t move around, it does significantly stop the flow of any disease, without a doubt. It’s balanced then by the impact on individuals and businesses and it’s getting that balance right that’s important.
MATT WEBBER: You don’t think Queensland’s got the balance right? Isn’t the proof in the pudding in other words?
KAREN ANDREWS: I wouldn’t say that at all. I want Queenslanders to be able to live and work in as open a set of circumstances as they possibly can. The decision sits with the state as to what the health advice is and whether there will be mandatory mask-wearing, what those circumstances will be, and whether or not the border shuts. My view is that Queenslanders want to be able to live and work as normally as they possibly can, for as long as possible.
MATT WEBBER: Appreciate your time, Karen Andrews. Thank you.
KAREN ANDREWS: No worries. Take care.