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30 November 2021

SUBJECTS: Omicron virus continues to impact COVID response; WA re-instates 14 day quarantine after SA cases; May 2022 Federal election speculation; anti-corruption and religious freedom legislation; Christmas wish list.
SYLVIA JEFFREYS, HOST: Welcome back, the impact of the Omicron virus is deepening this morning, the PM last night ordering an immediate two-week delay in reopening international borders for two hundred thousand skilled migrants and international students. Let's discuss this now with the Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten, who is in Melbourne and in Perth, very bright and early, well, dark and early 6PR host Gareth Parker. Good morning to you both. Bill to you first. It's a pause, not a cancellation entirely. Is the PM's response proportionate to the threat at this point, do you think?
BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Well, I think it is right to go hard and go early. No one wants to see lockdowns in Australia, so better to have a short lockout than a long-term lockdown. So, I think it is the right call. I do think, of course, the Prime Minister needs to build purpose-built quarantine facilities because even if Omicron doesn't turn out to be as bad as people hope it isn’t, we'll have these variants again. The nation can't shut, and we can't just keep putting people into hotels, but it's the right call. Two weeks, I think we can live with that which is what we've got to do. But I want the Aussies to come home. They should still be coming.
JEFFREYS: Could we have gone harder in your opinion?
Speaker2: Listen, I think one of the problems with the whole COVID-19 in the last year and a half is that every galah in the pet shop has got an opinion. So, listen, I think the two weeks is the right call. But again, I just say to Mr Morrison, Let's build some purpose-built facilities. Did you know, Sylvia, that one in every 100 people has gone into a hotel for quarantine has come out with COVID? In other words, they didn't have it when they went into the hotel. And then when they go into the hotel for quarantine, they come out with COVID. So, I think that's a disaster. So, we need to have special facilities in every state built for purpose.
JEFFREYS: Meantime Gareth, WA Premier Mark McGowan has responded by introducing 14-day self-quarantine for arrivals from South Australia. The reopening plan seems to be staying in place for now, do West Australians still support his very cautious approach.
GARETH PARKER, 6PR: For the most part they do, Sylvia, but I think it's getting more and more difficult with each passing month. And he will need to stick to that plan, I think, because people are trying to make their own plans around it. It is pretty interesting that the walls effectively went up to South Australia again after just a relative handful of new cases, when we're only about seven weeks away from what at the end of January or early February will effectively be a reopening not just to all Australian states, but to the world as well. So, there's a lot of - there's a big shift that's going to have to happen to get us from here to there in a relatively short space of time. The good news is that the vaccination rates are getting higher. We're over 85 per cent first jab now, so within probably three or four weeks, you would expect that we would cross that 85 per cent threshold. The Premier says he wants to get to 90, which is an awfully high bar of the over 12.
JEFFREYS: Bill, Victoria, as you know, has suffered more than any other state during the pandemic, really any other territory in the world, in terms of lockdowns anyway? Can you take another COVID setback in Victoria?
SHORTEN: Oh, we don't want another big lockdown. I have to be very clear there. We have to pivot to post-pandemic. So, I get that the COVID-19 is mutating and metastasizing and there'll be new variants. That's why I think that the Federal Government needs to do some basic things. We should be making vaccines in Australia. We shouldn't be relying on imports. I would like to see the five- to 11-year-olds as soon as possible, be able to get vaccinated. I think we need to get the booster shots going. And also, just as a special case, we've seen this new variant come out of southern Africa. We've got parts of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea with low vaccination rates. Maybe rather than letting some of the vaccines in Australia get wasted and expire, we should be making some here to send to our region because no one in Victoria wants another lockdown. I just - I wouldn't want to ask that of our fellow Victorians and Australians.
JEFFREYS: I don't think anyone could bear it, could they? Also, on front pages this morning? Speculation is reaching fever pitch this morning that we are heading to a May election. The government set March 29 for the federal budget in the calendar that was released yesterday. Bill, all I can think is that is an awful lot of campaigning between now and May.
SHORTEN: Well, I was looking at the calendar when it was announced yesterday, and it allows for only 10 days of Parliament, practically for the first half of the year. So, I think that Australians could be a bit rightly annoyed that we've got a work-shy government. I mean, if an unemployed person on Centrelink only had to do as few job interviews as Mr Morrison expects LNP parliamentarians to attend work in parliament, the person on Centrelink would be breached and kicked off the dole. So, you know, I think we should, I've said in the past fixed terms, you know, people get sick of game playing over timing and we just need to get on and start working through the consequences of COVID and how we come out of that, rather than this constant campaigning, which is a pain in the butt to everyone.
JEFFREYS: Yeah. Five days for the Senate to sit between now and potentially a May election, Gareth. That's nice work if you can get it, isn't it?
PARKER: It's not bad. There's obviously not a lot of legislating that needs to happen on the Government's program, they reckon, although in the PM's defence on the timing of the election, he's been pretty consistent about this. Despite all the speculation that Bill is referring to, for months and months and months now he’s said it'll be before May, and it'll be next year. And that's what that calendar released yesterday points to, a March budget, a May election, exactly what happened in 2019. I'm sure Bill remembers it.
JEFFREYS: Well, Bill, I suppose truthfully, a May election may not be all that positive for the Labor Party because it gives the Prime Minister a chance to throw out a very sweet budget right ahead of the election.
SHORTEN: Well, I think Labor's competitive, we're united. I'm surprised, though, that the Prime Minister doesn't want to get on with having an Anti-Corruption Commission. I also think that when we talk about COVID, you know, he should be focusing rather than just trying to splash taxpayer cash around to plug his declining stocks in the electorate, focus on building some quarantine facilities. Let's get the boosters rolled out. You know, I think people just don't want to be in lockdown any longer. That's the number one job a Prime Minister's got in Australia at the moment, making sure that we never have to lock down again. And I worry the Government's eyes off the ball.
JEFFREYS: Would you like to see the religious freedom issue addressed before an election?
SHORTEN: Well, I think that it's an important issue to debate, but I don't think it should automatically be rushed through. I mean, why that's the only issue the Government wants to rush through, I don't know. Australia's at the moment been the United States of Australia. We've had states and territories divided from each other. We're almost like a little mini nation of eight different countries. I worry that if we get too in the weeds on religious freedom debates, that what we could do is divide the place again. I think we should take our time. Listen to all points of view, because the last thing we need in Australia after we've become the United Nations of Australia during COVID is some big argument about religion. I mean, if one thing people dislike more than politics, you know, arguing in politics, it’s arguing about religion. So, I just wouldn't mind if we took our time and tried to pull the nation together rather than divide the joint.
JEFFREYS: Well, it is very important to many people for many different reasons, I suppose, but there aren't many opportunities to get anything through before a May election looking at that calendar, are there? Now I want to finish on a positive note because there's been a lot of concern, angst I think about this Omicron variant that has emerged in recent days. Yesterday on the show, former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said that if Omicron turns out to be a mild variant, which at this stage it seems to be, it could actually help our pandemic recovery. While the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, went a step further, saying it could be the Christmas present we never knew we needed. Which makes me wonder, Bill, is there something on your Christmas list that we need to know about?
SHORTEN: No, Sylvia, oh my god, I really just would like to have some time off with the family after COVID. So, my Christmas list is maybe being able to go to Queensland and Western Australia sometime next year and just spending time with my family. That'll do me a treat.
JEFFREYS: And a March election?
SHORTEN: Oh, the election can't come soon enough for me.
JEFFREYS: Hopefully before a budget, I suspect, is what you're saying, Gareth, anything on your list?
PARKER: I'd like to be able to go somewhere other than Western Australia. That'd be nice. I think we are getting there slowly. But Dr Nick Coatsworth, I think he's onto something. If in fact Omicron does turn out to be mild, as the evidence from southern Africa seems to be, it's still early days but that's what this next two weeks are about, gathering all the information and just seeing what's happening. But if the virus is actually mutated into something that doesn't cause serious illness or death, well, that'd be a Christmas present for the whole world, wouldn't it?
JEFFREYS: For sure. Fingers crossed he is right on that one. Gentlemen, thank you both for your time this morning. Have a great day!
SHORTEN: Lovely to talk to you guys.
JEFFREYS: See you soon!