TRANSCRIPT INTERVIEW – 4BC – BREAKFAST WITH NEIL BREEN
Topics: AUKUS; migration program; illicit drug seizures; Moderna COVID-19 vaccine rollout through community pharmacies.
NEIL BREEN: Every Wednesday, I speak to Home Affairs Minister, Cabinet Minister, MP for McPherson on the Gold Coast, Karen Andrews. The Minister joins me on the line. Good morning, Minister.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Neil. How are you?
NEIL BREEN: I’m well, thanks. The big news since we last spoke has been the AUKUS announcement and that Australia will have nuclear-powered submarines. The Prime Minister is in Washington for meetings with the US President – I’ve been covering it on the show this morning – Peter Dutton is there as well as Marise Payne; but the situation in the Indo–Pacific, that is what this is all about.
KAREN ANDREWS: It certainly is and the Prime Minister has made it very, very clear that this is all about making sure Australia is well placed to look after its defence needs – both now and well into the future.
NEIL BREEN: So we’ve got AUKUS – that’s obviously Australia, UK, the US – and that’s the defence deal; and submarines; and technology; and helping us build them and everything. Then there’s the Quad – and the Quad is brand‑new – that is us, India, Japan and the United States. You don’t need to be Einstein to look at the geography and size of those four countries to work out what it is about; it is about China. The Prime Minister was asked this morning whether we’re in a Cold War with China. He didn’t quite answer the question; he just talked about conflict. He wasn’t asked if we were in a war with China; we know we’re not in a war – but we’re definitely in a Cold War.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, listeners will all be aware too that China is one of our largest trading partners-
NEIL BREEN: That’s because they need us – because of iron ore – and the day they don’t need us because of iron ore is the day we could be in all sorts of Barney Rubble.
KAREN ANDREWS: I think that goes to the importance of making sure we are diversifying our markets wherever we possibly can. Dan Tehan is going over to Europe to have some discussions over there. As a Government, we’ll continue to do what we can to make sure we are assisting our businesses here to open up those opportunities, because we can’t just continue to have all of our eggs in one basket – so to speak.
NEIL BREEN: China must be looking at all of us, and India, and Japan, and the US, and the UK. I can just imagine they’re sitting back in Beijing seething at us – and it’s not our Government’s fault by the way; don’t think I’m being critical of Federal Cabinet or the Federal Government – the fact is China for some reason tried to say, “Hey, we’re open to the world. Look at us hosting the Beijing Olympics and we’re ready to welcome everyone in”, and then they went and shut everyone out. There’s not one foreign journalist left in China. Just think about it, Karen Andrews. Not one.
KAREN ANDREWS: Our focus is definitely on Australia’s best interests, and we will be very single-minded about that. Every nation focuses on their own needs; Australia will be doing exactly that. We need to make sure that Australia is in a very strong position. Whether that be defence; whether that be in trade; whether it be in our manufacturing industries; we are very much focused on making sure that we get the very best outcome for Australia and Australians.
NEIL BREEN: We know we’re worried about trade sanctions and cyberattacks – that was a warning we heard yesterday. This AUKUS deal though – the wheels of it began around the time the COVID pandemic began – and I suppose conspiracy theorists who might have watched the show on Sky News this week about the origins of it and it getting out of a lab and everything… does the world think that China is up to something pretty sinister here?
KAREN ANDREWS: I think all of the world watches with interest what other nations are doing and I know there’s been a lot of focus on China, particularly with COVID. We are still searching for answers as to exactly what has happened. The reason that is important to us is because we need to make sure what preventive measures are needed for the future. It is important that we understand how the virus started; how it escaped – if that’s what happened – so we are in a good position for the future. I very much support the actions the Australian Government has taken, particularly led in this instance by our Foreign Minister Marise Payne. We do need to understand what’s happened and all of the speculation at this point is unhelpful. Let’s just get to the facts.
NEIL BREEN: The Australian reported yesterday; there’s been a drop in the number of skilled-worker visas issued this year. Is that a concern for our economy?
KAREN ANDREWS: It would be an issue if we were not able to remedy it – but work is clearly underway now to make sure we are identifying the skills that are needed here. That’s been happening for some time. I’m working very closely with Employment and Small Business Minister Stuart Robert to make sure we are able to bring people with the right skills into this country as soon as we possibly can. That’s a key part of us being able to re-open our international borders, which is making sure we are bringing in the skilled workers. We are working with the states and territories on that. We are also working with industry to look at industry-led solutions to make sure that we can bring the right people in as soon as we possibly can. So, yes, we do need to look at bringing in people to support their families here – that’s a key part of the ongoing work that we’re looking at – but in terms of skills, we know there are significant shortages here. I hear every single day from businesses that they can’t get the workers they need for the jobs they currently have. So, we know we have to be bringing people into the country and that work is starting to happen.
NEIL BREEN: Some of the workers in Australia don’t want to work – the ones in Melbourne; the ones in the construction industry whose jobs got saved for them – they were marching saying they didn’t want to work.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, the scenes that are being played out in Melbourne are just horrendous at the moment; it’s just shameful conduct, clearly. We actually need people who can work to be working; we need people on the jobs. Obviously, there’s a range of health scenarios in place at the moment that are going to have an impact on people being able to get to work, but those who can work should be working.
NEIL BREEN: That’s my sentiment exactly. On a completely different note, I read over the weekend that seizures of illicit drugs at Australian entry points skyrocketed over the last year. Maybe we’re getting better at finding the drugs? Australian Border Force officers recorded a 250% increase in heroin detections. Is heroin on the way back?
KAREN ANDREWS: Australians’ appetite for drugs is just extraordinary. There is very high demand here; people are prepared to pay a lot of money for drugs. That makes it a very attractive destination for the drug cartels overseas to actually be pushing their drugs. Fortunately, we do have the Australian Border Force; we do have the Australian Federal Police; and they are working around‑the‑clock to detect these imports, take them off the streets and stop them before they’re even getting there.
NEIL BREEN: Well, it’s a bit alarming, isn’t it? Australia has got a large appetite for drugs?
KAREN ANDREWS: Absolutely – it is a real issue of concern when you’re an attractive market. Simply because there is such high demand and people are prepared to pay so much for the drugs. Now, we have to deal with that; one step is to stop drugs coming into the country – and the ABF and the Australian Federal Police are doing a fantastic job with that –but there’s still a lot of work to be done because the Australian appetite for drugs is so large.
NEIL BREEN: You know, you’ve been pretty busy this week, though. You’ve been to the Daniel Morcombe Foundation headquarters; you’re going to a vaccination program today – the rollout of Moderna, is that starting today?
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes, it certainly is. Over the weekend we had a million doses of Moderna come into the country. Two shipments came in – one Friday, one Sunday – it’s now out into community pharmacies. People will be able to go in with their families – into their local pharmacy – and get their Moderna shot. There’s also AstraZeneca that’s available at community pharmacies. So it is absolutely full steam ahead.
NEIL BREEN: Poor old AstraZeneca. I got AstraZeneca, right? So did the whole of the UK. Yet the stigma about it – caused by the Government in Queensland – is amazing. I was watching the Prime Minister and Peter Dutton and Marise Payne and looking at all those meetings and I was sitting here seeing life as normal. You know, they were travelling around; they were in New York City; there’s sunny skies; there’s not many masks around the place – only when they have to wear them – and it makes me think… in Australia; we’re big; and robust; and we’re casual; and we’re ocker; and ‘she’ll be right mate’; and all that sort of stuff. We’ve become the most uptight nation on the planet; we’re no longer the “she’ll be right” nation, and I think people are so fearful now and have been led to be so fearful that I can’t see how these State Governments are going to release the strings and free us.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, you can see the community attitude is well and truly starting to turn now because people are questioning why – in the case of one or two COVID-positive results – local government areas are being locked down and locked down so quickly. I think people understand the need to get a vaccination – particularly in New South Wales, first doses are sitting at about 83 per cent – but in Queensland first doses are sitting at around 60 per cent. We’re 23 per cent behind New South Wales on first doses. New South Wales have that added incentive – things were not going so well in that state – but Queenslanders: we need to roll up our sleeves and get on board. A way to reopen our borders – particularly internationally so that we can get in and out of the country – is by getting those vaccination rates up. But there are people in this country who have not been able to see their families because they can’t get across state borders – it’s just a terrible situation for those people and we need some movement. We need commitment to make sure we adhere to the national plan, not a moving feast from various Premiers around the country.
NEIL BREEN: Well, Karen Andrews, I know for a fact there are kids in boarding school in Brisbane – basically, all the boarding schools in Brisbane – kids in those boarding schools whose parents might be Brisbane parents living in Singapore or working in Hong Kong – they haven’t seen their parents since January 2020. That’s a fact.
KAREN ANDREWS: It is terrible. At one of the community meetings I was at on the Sunshine Coast yesterday – there was a number of people there – they are now Australians but they’re from, in one instance at least, the UK. They haven’t been able to see their families – they’ve had new children; babies; kids have arrived – they haven’t been able to get their parents to come over here. I really feel for those people, which is why I’m so determined to do everything I possibly can to get those international borders open. If we can get those vaccination rates up, we will see the movement we need. But the states and territories have to start looking at what they’re doing to make sure that they’re opening up, not taking every opportunity to keep our borders shut.
NEIL BREEN: Karen Andrews, Home Affairs Minister, have a good day.