15 April 2021


SUBJECTS: Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; the state of the economy; vaccine rollout; state border closures.

Let's bring in our political panel now, I'm joined by Liberal MP Tim Wilson and Labor's Alicia Payne. Thanks to both of you. Let's talk firstly about the confirmation today that all Australian troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan. Tim Wilson, how significant is this announcement today?

TIM WILSON, MEMBER FOR GOLDSTEIN: Well it's obviously a significant announcement in terms of our deployment over a very long period of time and what's been necessary as part of our responsibilities, part of a cooperation of forces in Afghanistan. Now, of course, the decision by the United States has meant in like with many theatres of conflict, Australia doesn't operate in isolation. We work with other countries to advance our collective interests in peace and stability. And so, it is a significant announcement, but it's also one that I think most Australians will probably say time has come.

MACMILLAN: Alicia Payne it has been almost 20 years since Australian troops entered Afghanistan. How do you think Australians will be reflecting on this moment today and on the legacy of those operations.

ALICIA PAYNE, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: So obviously it's been 20 years of immense sacrifice, immense loss of life and a lot of destruction, including of course 41 Australian lives lost. And I think it is a day to reflect on that. I think that Australians would want to see us continuing to stand with Afghanistan in their peace process, and not sort of leaving them alone after so long that we've been there after this conflict.

MACMILLAN: Let's turn to the unemployment numbers out today. The rate has fallen again in March, Tim Wilson, these numbers are welcome but they don't take the end of the JobKeeper wage subsidy into account. Are you worried about this month's numbers that are yet to come?

WILSON: Well, today we had the two of the Big Four bank CEOs before the House Economics Committee. And when we put these numbers to the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, Matt Comyn, he made it clear that they were miraculous and he's right. I don't think anybody would have thought where we are today is where we thought we would be 12 months ago. Now, there'll be some adjustment as a follow on from the end of JobKeeper, but to start from this baseline, and all the banks have projections of further declines, or certainly numbers in the similar measures as where they are now, particularly against global standards and what's happening in other countries, there's a lot of room for optimism. But ultimately, it's going to be still a pathway back to rebuild the Australian economy and continue to do so. There are targeted support measures for the sectors that need it. And of course, there'll be the budget, which will outline further measures in only a few weeks.

MACMILLAN: Alicia Payne, the Treasurer argues that these numbers show that the economy is recovering, that it was the right time to withdraw JobKeeper. Do you accept that argument?

PAYNE: No, I don't. It's positive, of course, these numbers are positive and we welcome seeing that recovery happening. But of course, these numbers are from March and don't take account of the withdrawal of JobKeeper, or the setbacks in the vaccine rollout, which is, of course, so important to our confidence in the economy and that recovery. So also in March we saw 21,000 full time jobs lost. So it's important to note that these figures while you know people are employed, we have nearly 2 million people who would still like to work more. So that's 2 million people who are still worrying about how to pay their rent or put food on the table. And there's still a lot of that uncertainty out there when you talk to business.

MACMILLAN: What about when it comes to businesses who say they can't attract staff, they're struggling to fill positions, would keeping JobKeeper going for longer have made it more difficult for them?

PAYNE: No one's arguing that it should be there forever, but clearly there are particular industries that are particularly exposed, those exposed to tourism, hospitality. And when I talk to businesses in my electorate, as long as we are at a risk of having lockdowns, and as long as we're not fully vaccinated or majority of the population, that confidence and certainty is not there. And in a meeting yesterday with business leaders here in the ACT, they talked about the risk of if Australia remains with its borders closed, whereas the rest of the world becomes vaccinated and opens up that is a particular risk to our economy.

MACMILLAN: Tim Wilson, you mentioned the budget next month, is there anything you would like to see in that, either new programmes or changes to existing ones to try to create more jobs.

WILSON: We've already announced a number of measures to support the tourism and travel sector and those who are doing it tough. And that's the natural conclusion from the end of JobKeeper. And just for clarity it was the right thing to do because the longer you keep these programmes in place across the whole economy, the bigger the adjustment comes later. So we're in a position where we're able to soft land, and then target the measures and support that the Australian community needs and businesses need. Now I speak businesses in my electorate all the time and there are ones like the travel sector that do need an ongoing support, and that's why it's been targeted and provided. Now whether there should be further measures in the budget, I think it's a matter of wait and see. Partly we're looking to see what is the consequence of the end of JobKeeper and whether something further needs to be explored because it should be based on facts and evidence, not on feelings.

MACMILLAN: Let's look at the COVID-19 vaccination programme. The Prime Minister says he'd like to see it completed by the end of the year, but he's not setting any firm targets. Tim Wilson, why doesn't he set some goals here? And is that good enough?

WILSON: Well because what we've seen consistently is that their are factors outside of our control. We saw the European Union stop the delivery of 3.1 million doses. We had our own vaccine development domestically, both the University of Queensland which didn't reach fruition, and of course, at the AstraZeneca vaccine being rolled out through CSL in Melbourne. So their are factors outside of our control. The objective of the Commonwealth is to get as many Australians vaccinated as quickly as possible. We're working with the states to make sure that's delivered and they'll be a critical part, not just through primary care, but also the potential for mass vaccination centres so that we can get the assistance and the support we need. But at the moment, the target is particularly on those vulnerable communities, immunosuppressed, people in aged care and delivering that because those are the people who are most risk if there's another outbreak.

MACMILLAN: Alicia Payne, what do you make of that idea of mass vaccination centres? Do you think that is the right approach here?

PAYNE: Well, that is something that we had been calling for and I think that it is, although it's another example of the Prime Minister now shifting more responsibility back onto the states having bungled the rollout. And he had made promises, he said that 4 million people would be vaccinated by the end of March. We're now in April, and we have around a million. We don't even have frontline health care workers or aged care workers vaccinated yet. And I think while the community understands it's a very complex process and a moving feast, they do need some certainty around when they can expect to be vaccinated.

MACMILLAN: Tim Wilson, I think people do accept that things can change. But is it important for public confidence and for business certainty to have some benchmarks here that we can measure progress against?

WILSON: I think to have public confidence, what we need to do is make sure people understand that the Government is making decisions based on evidence. Now the reality is there are a lot of people not just over the age of under the age of 50, but people over the age of 50 now who, for their own reasons, have decided to question some of the vaccine options that are available. And they're well within their rights when it comes to decisions about what people put in their own bodies. But there are other people who want or want to progress onward. So part of it's about respecting people's choice and their bodily autonomy, while also seeking to make sure as much of the population is vaccinated by both securing doses, making sure they're available and of course, there are risk profiles, even with mass vaccination centres. There's a much higher risk profile if you're dealing with older Australians, in comparison to younger and healthier Australians. So it's about getting that balance right to take the Australian community with us so that we can go forward with certainty.

MACMILLAN: Alicia Payne, Virgin Australia has announced today that it's ramping up its domestic services again, it says it wants to see state border closures to be a thing of the past. Would you like to see state and territory governments including Labor governments, making a commitment that they won't put in place those snap border closures that we've seen throughout this pandemic?

PAYNE: Well state borders is clearly an issue that affects the Commonwealth as well. And I would like to see the Prime Minister stepping up and taking some responsibility for that. I can understand why state premiers want to lock down their borders in the current situation. But again, I think this is, the Prime Minister needs to take responsibility, we need to get the vaccine rollout right so that these lock downs don't need to continue to happen.

MACMILLAN: Tim Wilson, how would you describe the pace of the rollout so far? The Prime Minister says that we need to get it back on track. Do you concede that there have been major problems with this programme?

WILSON: I don't think anyone's denying when you have 3.1 million doses not provided by the European Union, when you have the issues around blood clotting for some, a very small section of the community around AstraZeneca, that there has been a disruption. I think we need to be very candid and open with the Australian people that we have had challenges not just as a country, but scientifically. That there may be others that come along throughout this process, we hope there aren't. And so by being candid and honest with the Australian people and taking them on the journey, he goes back to that point that you raised, which is around building a sense of public confidence, because nothing will destroy vaccine rollout faster than trying to force people into situations when they're not ready.

MACMILLAN: All right, we'll have to leave it there. Tim Wilson and Alicia Payne, thank you very much.