Topics: International borders, skilled migration, vaccine manufacturing, Sri Lankan family, aged care
ANDREW CLENNELL: Okay, so now I’m joined by the Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. Minister, thanks for joining us.
KAREN ANDREWS: A pleasure.
ANDREW CLENNELL: We’ve heard here from Greg Hunt, Scott Morrison, different versions of what might happen with the opening of international borders, certainly quarantine to remain. Is there any time period being envisaged for when we could start home quarantine of vaccinated Australians? Will we be quarantining for years to come? And what sort of planning are you doing around this?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well they’re all very good questions, clearly, Andrew. And what I can do is assure you and assure Australians that work is well underway, particularly from my own Department of Home Affairs, to look at what the issues are that we need to consider in terms of opening the border. Now, clearly, we are in the process of rolling out the vaccination strategy across Australia. That is very important but it is only one part of what we need to do to make sure that we are keeping Australians safe and secure. So, the things that have kept us in very good stead so far have been things such as what individual Australians have been able to do with social distancing, with washing their hands, sanitising, social distancing, all of those things are very important to maintain. So the vaccination is a very important step, but it is not the only step that we need to undertake. Now, from a Home Affairs point of view, we are working across government with many agencies to make sure that we are ready and able to support the opening of borders as and when that happens. There’s clearly a lot of work that is being done, but we will be led by the health advice. So Greg Hunt, as the Health Minister, will be working with health professionals across states and territories. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will be opening borders as soon as we can, but we need to be mindful of the risks that that opens us up to here in Australia. So yes, the Government is absolutely on track working towards reopening of those borders, but we need to make sure that we do it in a manner that keeps all Australians safe and secure.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Just to that, my question earlier was: could we be quarantining for years, whether it be hotel or home quarantine returning from overseas to Australia? Is that something we just have to get used to? Could we halve it from 14 to 7 days?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I think that what we need to be very aware of is that circumstances have changed significantly over the last 12 months. Now, Australia, quite frankly, is so well-regarded around the world for the actions that we have taken. One of the things that has been so successful is the quarantine practices that we have put in place right across Australia, and that has been done clearly with the support of the state and territory governments. Now, as we move into situations where more people will be returning to Australia, as borders start to reopen, we need to look at what that is going to look like. Now, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that home quarantine is something that will be considered. What we shouldn’t be doing is leaping into decisions now without having all the evidence in front of us. So I think the Government, it’s fair to say, is very open to looking at how we can best manage this. But safety and security is going to be important. Will we look at home quarantine? We’ve already said that we will look at that, but it will be part of a very holistic approach to opening borders.
ANDREW CLENNELL: How are you going to get the Premiers over the line? This is the key issue, isn’t it? They want zero cases. As I said earlier, a government official said to me: you can’t have zero cases and an international border open.
KAREN ANDREWS: This is an important issue that we do need to make sure that we are all on the one page on. So, how are state and territory governments going to work with the Commonwealth Government to facilitate the reopening of borders whilst minimising the number of cases. Now, clearly the quarantine process has been important and it has worked very well, so it’s good to see that there have been movements in Victoria with additional passengers being able to come in through Victoria. Howard Springs has been an important part of our strategy. What we need to do is look sensibly at how we’re going to bring people into Australia so that we can reopen our economy.
ANDREW CLENNELL: When do you think we’ll see immigration again in this country? And if we don’t have it within the next couple of years are we going to have a severe skills shortage on our hands?
KAREN ANDREWS: Skills shortages is something that I have worked on now for a number of years. Immigration plays a key role in that. But I’m also very confident that we are well on track to be building the skills that we need within Australia and to be able to support that with migration as and when we are able to do that. Our priority, clearly, as a nation, has to be how do we develop a strong skill base right here. So that work is being undertaken. There’s been significant funding, billions of dollars that have been put into our vocational education and training sector. These are all important steps. There is not one solution to dealing with our skills. It’s encouraging our kids at school to study the subjects that are going to lead to them having best access to the jobs of the future, it’s making sure our VET providers, our universities, are training people. And yes, I agree with you, skilled migration is a key part…
ANDREW CLENNELL: … But Minister, when do you think we’ll see immigration?
KAREN ANDREWS: We are looking to open the borders as quickly as we possibly can. But the role of the Government is to make sure we are keeping Australians safe and secure. So, what we have demonstrated over 12 months as Australians is that we are ready, willing and able to look at what the alternatives will be. So yes, when we can get people into Australia safely and securely, I’m all in favour of doing that. But I’m not going to advocate a path that is going to put Australians at risk.
ANDREW CLENNELL: All right, Minister. Well, let’s move to the vaccine issue now. Some of your previous portfolio might come in handy here too. Why aren’t we building an mRNA plant so we can manufacture other vaccines than AstraZeneca? Given the problems with AstraZeneca, is it possible we could do this? People say it’ll take six to 12 months, but it’s pretty clear by now we will need booster shots. So is this something the Government should look at?
KAREN ANDREWS: A couple of points on that, Andrew. Firstly, we do have capability in Australia to manufacture mRNA vaccines. We don’t have the capacity to produce at scale at the moment. Part of the manufacturing strategy that we announced in October last year identified medical products as a national priority. That roadmap is out now. The funding guidelines are out. Funding allocations will be in the process of being assessed over the next few weeks. In medical products, one of the things that we identified as a sub-sector that we needed to look at was mRNA vaccine manufacturing capability. So that work is already happening and, you’re right, we will be…
ANDREW CLENNELL: … Minister, we’re just running out of time. So just briefly, do you think a plant could be built in Australia?
KAREN ANDREWS: Absolutely, absolutely.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Well, that’s good news. All right, I wanted to ask you about this Sri Lankan family from Biloela that’s still in detention in Christmas Island. Kristina Keneally’s obviously visiting them. Do you see any ability to use your ministerial discretion to have them allowed out? What is their ultimate fate? Why do they still have to be detained?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I will always make my decisions based on the evidence and facts that are before me. What I’m very determined to do is to make sure that the people smugglers do not think for a second that there is a change to our policy, and I am not going to open that door even a slither. We have been very clear for a number of years on what our border policies are. And what I said to the people smugglers, and I did this by video very quickly, I think it was the day after I was sworn in, I recorded a video that’s been distributed to our nearest neighbours making it very clear that people will have zero chance of settling here in Australia if they come here illegally. That position has not changed, and I remember very clearly what it was like under a Labor government when we had over 50,000 arrivals.
ANDREW CLENNELL: So it sounds like they won’t be being let out, essentially, from what you’re saying there.
KAREN ANDREWS: I will make any decisions based on the evidence. But I’m very conscious of a whole range of implications, and on my watch there are not going to be more deaths at sea.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Okay, Minister. Just finally, on aged care, some speculation it will cost, or there will be more than $10 billion in the Budget. I think I’ve reported a similar figure. But there’ll be no aged care levy to fund it in the Budget. Does that sound about right, that sort of figure, that that’s what’s required?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I’m not going to comment on what may or may not be in the Budget. Aged care is a significant issue for our government and for the people of Australia. We established the royal commission to look at aged care. We’ve made it very clear that there will be a comprehensive response to that.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Minister Andrews, thanks so much for your time.
KAREN ANDREWS: Pleasure, take care.