Topics: Queensland Government’s border restrictions; COVID-19 vaccine rollout; JobKeeper.
MATT WEBBER: Federal Minister for Home Affairs, member for McPherson, good morning to you Ms Andrews.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Matt. How are you?
MATT WEBBER: I’m well, with the Titans into the finals – I know you enjoy a Suns game from time to time – pretty happy to see the other code representing though?
KAREN ANDREWS: I do. Absolutely – I was very excited about that.
MATT WEBBER: A good start to the week – a finals build up; that’s the light stuff. There’s plenty of heavier stuff to discuss though and a lot of it COVID-related. The Prime Minister has said the National COVID Plan is ‘a good plan; it’s a safe plan’. It’s been a line we’ve heard a few times. He’s been pretty vocal about the states sticking to it; you’ve been pretty vocal about it too. When your colleague Stuart Robert comes out on the weekend and says, ‘hang on, plans change all the time,’ what do you think that does for public faith in your agenda?
KAREN ANDREWS: I understand what Stuart was trying to say but-
MATT WEBBER: Can you explain it to us?
KAREN ANDREWS: I can explain what the situation is in my own words – and that is: we have a National Plan; it’s been agreed to by the Commonwealth, the states and the territories; and we are all working towards implementation of that. If we just put that to the side, I think what we’ve all got to be conscious of is that we continue to be in a somewhat new environment; none of us had dealt with COVID until about 18 months ago. We started with the Alpha variant; we’re now at the Delta variant. So it’s ‘be prepared if we need to look at other things’, but the plan is the plan and that is the one we’re implementing.
MATT WEBBER: Okay. I want to personalise things a little bit if I can, and I’m not alone here. I have a mother-in-law with emphysema; I have a wife with multiple sclerosis who needs to take immune-suppressive medication to keep symptoms at bay and does so very successfully at this stage; I have father-in-law who is 90. Can you explain to them why it is unreasonable for the state government here in Queensland – who’s ultimately responsible for their health through their infrastructure – to insist upon the best possible data and the most up-to-date analysis moving forward?
KAREN ANDREWS: I am really sorry to hear that about your family, and I do wish them all the very best. I understand there are significant issues that we all will have to grapple with as we start to reopen. I think that we should have the best possible information; the best possible data. I have a science and engineering background so I pretty much live by the data and the information. It’s fair to say that some of that data is evolving, and there are differences in the variants between Delta and Alpha that we first started with. Yes, I think everyone wants to be safe – and everyone deserves the right to be safe – but we need to make sure we are doing that while, at the same time, allowing as many people as possible to live their lives as best they possibly can.
Vaccination is the key to reopening – but it is not the only thing that we all need to do; we still need to maintain the social distancing; we still need to wear masks as and when we are required and asked to do so. Things have fundamentally changed; we will get more data and we will get more evidence as the Delta variant continues to – quite frankly – wreak havoc around the world. I agree that we need to have the best possible data, but I don’t think we should be frightening people in the process of getting that information, and I don’t think anyone should be out there scaremongering.
MATT WEBBER: But its fundamental – is it not – in these circumstances? I mean, the analysis that you’re relying on – the Doherty Report – hasn’t really even contemplated the Delta variant. It’s fundamentally premised on the Alpha variant and so the information that we’re basing our plans on is not the most up-to-date. Aren’t the states in these circumstances perfectly legitimate in approaching their borders – and the opening or closure of them – with caution?
KAREN ANDREWS: I think the states and the territories have demonstrated they have taken a particularly cautious approach with what they are doing with borders. You’re also seeing play out on the Gold Coast here the extreme concerns that people have when they’re losing their businesses because they can’t get people in here, and that has a big impact on their livelihoods as well.
What everyone needs to be doing, is focusing on getting the balance right. That’s why – federally – we are certainly pushing to make sure that as many people get vaccinated as quickly as they possibly can. Now if you look at the differences – and let’s compare New South Wales and Queensland here – New South Wales has been hit hard with significant outbreaks of the Delta variant. Their vaccination rate for first doses is the highest in the country; sitting at over 73%. In Queensland, our first vaccination rate is the slowest rollout across the country; and our first doses are sitting at 53%, which is 20% less than what is happening in New South Wales.
MATT WEBBER: You can’t give what you don’t have Minister.
KAREN ANDREWS: Doses have been allocated across Australia on a per capita basis. There are doses available here. What we had was extreme vaccine hesitancy in Queensland, fed by a number of factors. There are more than adequate doses of AstraZeneca; there are additional supplies of Pfizer coming in; so there are vaccines. Queenslanders: we need you to be out there getting vaccinated.
MATT WEBBER: I think this is the message coming through from all levels of government. The Premier herself was pretty outspoken on this issue on the weekend. We’ve created this window where we have an opportunity to be fully prepared for that next phase, and much will bear out in the numbers over the next few weeks and months, or the next month or so. In terms of supply, though – you say per capita – if it is of a specific concern to you, your constituents and the state of Queensland, is there some sort of guaranteed supply about what is in the pipeline for Queenslanders? Surely that would give Queenslanders some motivation and some comfort?
KAREN ANDREWS: There are very, very good supplies across Australia of the AstraZeneca vaccine. You have seen that there are more doses coming into Australia; coming in from overseas. We’re bringing forward some of those doses – where the Prime Minister has been able to secure those – and that includes from Poland, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Those doses are coming into the country now. We are doing all we can to access doses from anywhere around the world that we can; and more of those doses will be coming into Queensland.
MATT WEBBER: They’re not here, though; are they? I mean, when do they arrive?
KAREN ANDREWS: Some of those doses actually are already in Australia. The doses from Poland are already here; more doses came in overnight as well – they will go through testing and then they will be distributed. For your listeners who have not already had a vaccine – book in now so you can get those doses. There is not nil supply in Queensland, Matt; in fairness.
MATT WEBBER: I’m not suggesting there’s nil supply; I’m just talking about things more broadly than that. Your colleague Simon Birmingham last night – and this is a late addition to the agenda – was put through the ringer on 60 Minutes over a number of businesses that participated in the JobKeeper scheme despite those businesses being perfectly profitable at the time. How will you advocate for those businesses to square the ledger, because it doesn’t really seem fair, does it?
KAREN ANDREWS: I understand everyone’s concerns about that. JobKeeper was actually a very, very good strategy, and that’s been proven because many businesses would not have survived without that. What we’ve seen is that some businesses have come back very strongly post the first wave and subsequent waves as well. Our legislation doesn’t require the repayment of that, but I think there’s actually a responsibility on many of those businesses now – if they are doing well, they need to do a bit of soul-searching. Some of these businesses have put their hands up-
MATT WEBBER: I’m just thinking about the value of soul-searching, Ms Andrews. I’m not being disrespectful; soul-searching is one thing but this is taxpayers’ money.
KAREN ANDREWS: It is; without a doubt. As we have all said; as the Prime Minister said; as the Treasurer has said; and I’m sure many others of my colleagues have said: JobKeeper was there to support businesses. It was done with the very best of intentions and had a very strong strategy, well supported by information from Treasury as to what we needed to do support those businesses. I think it is incumbent on many of those businesses to look at the money they have received from the government and to draw their own conclusions; many of them have, and that’s to their great credit.
MATT WEBBER: If you were on the receiving end of what went down with robodebt for instance –you’re not going to take much solace in a request for a sort of soul-searching process or some sort of moral compass being imposed on business – when you were on the receiving end of something far more significant than that?
KAREN ANDREWS: I understand people have a range of concerns; I truly do understand those concerns. I understand issues with robodebt where there’s been significant overpayments and recoveries have had to take place in a range of different areas. I truly do understand that but the legislation does not deal with repayments of money where the situation has changed. JobKeeper was not set up on that basis.
MATT WEBBER: Is there any will within your side of politics to make legislation on that basis?
KAREN ANDREWS: I think there are a range of issues that we need to all be very conscious of and I go back to the point I have made at least several times now in this interview – the way that JobKeeper was established and payments were made was so that we could keep employees connected with their workplace and keep businesses afloat during the initial and terrible first stages of the COVID pandemic. That has actually been a very good strategy and many businesses do say that it was only JobKeeper that enabled them to keep trading to the point that they are now; so that was the purpose of it and that’s what was achieved. On that basis the money was dispersed. It was never set up so that it would need to be repaid in the event that the businesses did not suffer the downturns that were considered the eligibility criteria in the first instance.
MATT WEBBER: Appreciate your time, Ms Andrews. We’ll leave things there. Thank you.
KAREN ANDREWS: Thanks. Bye.