4 January 2023
Subjects: Labor's decision to ignore the Chief Medical Officer's advice, the Voice to Parliament
SARAH DINGLE: The decision to join other nations in restricting travellers from China, despite the medical advice, has already attracted heavy criticism. Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston joins me now. Welcome back to Breakfast.
ANNE RUSTON: Thanks, Sarah.
DINGLE: Why do you think the Government has chosen to implement these restrictions on those traveling from China?
RUSTON: Well, obviously that's the question you need to put to the Minister and need to put to the Government because, clearly, we have some very strong advice from the Chief Medical Officer that has been disregarded. Having previously, up until Sunday, had a government that was basically saying the same thing as the advice that we've seen, the Government really does need to explain why it's changed its position and gone against that advice.
DINGLE: Well, we have put that to members of the Government this week, including the Federal Treasurer this morning. They keep saying they're acting out of an abundance of caution. Do you think that is the case? Or is there another motive?
RUSTON: Well, I would have always thought that the advice that we received from our medical officials was, by its very nature, cautious. Because, of course, there are some very serious consequences of getting that advice wrong. So I'm not quite sure what the Government is saying, are they saying that the advice that they are receiving from the Chief Medical Officer and the health officials is not cautious? Are they saying that it's reckless in some way? So I think there's some further explanation as to why an abundance of caution would suggest that they're thinking that the advice they're getting isn't cautious.
DINGLE: We're not the only country to do this though. The US, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, India, I could go on, made that same decision first to impose some restrictions on travellers from China. Why shouldn't we follow them?
RUSTON: Well, Australia has a unique set of circumstances. We have a highly vaccinated population, most of our population has already contracted COVID, and we know that the variant that is currently the cause for concern in China is a variant that's been in Australia for many, many months. We're also in summer, coming into summer, whereas most of the countries that you've referred to are currently battling a triple sort of whammy, in the sense that they've got RSV, which is a respiratory disease, along with the winter flu as well as COVID, and they're struggling under that burden. Whereas our health officials have said here that there is no need, that our system will be able to cope with whatever comes into Australia. So I think we have to make sure that we take the advice that's specific to Australia and Australian conditions, which is what we have always done.
DINGLE: The Health Minister says the WHO is concerned that China isn't providing real time genomic sequencing of COVID cases, which makes it really hard to know if there is in fact a new variant. Is that a legitimate concern?
RUSTON: Well, I think the Chief Medical Officer made comment around the increased surveillance, because that was something that they wished to get was greater data, but for the Minister to suggest that the measure of pre-flight testing is going to provide any additional data is simply not true. None of the testing will be genomically sequenced, whether it be Rapid Antigen Tests or the PCR tests that are being required by the Government tomorrow. None of them are going to be genomically sequenced. So there will be no data collected by this measure. So even if that was the concern, and it appears to be a concern, this is not going to solve that.
DINGLE: We had epidemiologist Professor Fiona Russell on the program yesterday who said this imposition on travellers from China is discriminatory because it affects only travellers from China. Do you agree?
RUSTON: Well, certainly there has been commentary around how there are other places in the world where there is a lack of information in relation to the COVID waves that are going through particular countries, and certainly there is concern at the moment by the size of the wave that is going through China, but there certainly are other countries around the world that I think we would like to have better information about what is happening in their country. So I think we do need to be consistent in our application of the health advice. And as I said, the main question the Government needs to answer is why it has chosen not to accept the health advice that has been provided by the highest health officer in the land.
DINGLE: Sure, but we've got a text here from Lee saying I'm very pleased that the Government are looking after the health of its citizens. Let's put our health first. You heard that as well from David Olson from the Australia China Business Council. It's hard to argue against, isn't it, that we put the health of Australians first?
RUSTON: The Australian Government's first priority should always be to act in the best interest of Australians. But what I think is the confusing thing about this decision is that it seems to not be based in any fact or any need. So the question is, what is the basis to say that the Australian Government is acting in the best interest of Australians, when the medical advice is all saying that it's completely unnecessary?
DINGLE: Numerous surveys are showing that Chinese Australians felt discriminated against during the first few years of the pandemic. How do you stop that from happening with a decision like this?
RUSTON: Well, that is a question that I think you do need to be putting to the Government. They're the ones that have made the decision to go against the health advice and put these measures in place.
DINGLE: But you've said that you don't think it's discriminatory. So what will you say to Chinese Australians who believe that it is?
RUSTON: Well, I think it is unfortunate that, particularly for Chinese Australians who are trying to get back from China who've been visiting loved ones for the Christmas break, it is very very disconcerting for them to have their travel plans pushed into disarray, as they're about to come back to Australia. So I think the Government does need to explain not just to Chinese Australians, but to all Australians, the basis of why they've made this decision and the consequences that flow from it.
DINGLE: On another issue, I want to ask you about the Voice to Parliament. This year, we can expect to see a referendum on that. Your party is under pressure to determine a position or announce a conscience vote. What do you think should be done?
RUSTON: Well, obviously I'm not going to make a public comment here around a matter that’s still before our party room and under discussion within the party. That will be a matter for us to continue to discuss and our position will be made clear once the decision is made.
DINGLE: But time's running out. I mean, we could have a vote on this as early as August. When will the party announce a decision on this?
RUSTON: Well, as I said, it's a matter that is under current consideration by the party and I'm not going to be making an announcement on radio this morning as to the timing of any decision.
DINGLE: If there isn't a conscience vote for liberal MPs, though, are you worried we could see some of your colleagues crossing the floor or leaving the party like we’ve seen in the Nationals?
RUSTON: One of the things that, you know, I was previously the Social Services Minister and I've been out in communities and seen the devastating consequences, and your previous person that you had on was talking about the implications of FASD and the disproportionate number of Indigenous Australians that are impacted by many things, domestic violence, child abuse and FASD etc. It is a really, really important issue, but the most important thing that we need to make sure of is that whatever we do is actually improving the outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
DINGLE: So a Voice to Parliament itself is not enough, you need to see some sort of concrete outcome tied to that, is that your position?
RUSTON: Look, certainly at the moment, I don't have enough information about what has been proposed for me to make any decision. But what I'll say is, having previously been the Social Services Minister, I will support real and tangible actions that will deliver clear outcomes for the people of Australia who currently need the kind of support because of the terrible outcomes that we're seeing in our Indigenous communities.
DINGLE: Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston, thanks for joining us this morning.
RUSTON: Thanks Sarah.