ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
SUBJECTS: Australia-China Relations, Oxford Trial Vaccines, Vic Roadmap
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: And that’s the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Time now for my panel, Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Labor MP Peter Khalil, my guests. And let’s just start on this breaking news, this afternoon. Really significant news, senior Chinese media officials in Australia have been targeted and the visas of two leading Chinese scholars have been revoked. I’ll begin with you on this, Dave Sharma. What’s your response to this?
DAVE SHARMA MP: Patricia, first of all, I’d have to say that I’ve seen these media reports, the Global Times, and the ABC. I haven’t seen any official confirmation from Home Affairs or the Australian Federal Police or Foreign Affairs and Trade for that matter aside. I’ve seen the media reports. I expect that whatever was done has been done in accordance with the rule of law and established procedures in Australia. But I’m not really in a position to, to confirm the story or not. It’s just, it’s not within my knowledge.
HOST: I know that it’s incredibly difficult, but you know, for the ABC to publish a story, like this, it doesn’t happen easily without it being absolutely confirmed. So I just want from you a broader question about whether this is retaliation. I mean, it was only yesterday as you know, Dave Sharma that we, we had these two Australian journalists, one of them, an ABC journalist brought back to Australia and now this revoking from Australia, the other side, what does that demonstrate about the relationship? And is it retaliation?
SHARMA: Well look, I can only speak for us as Australia, that we don’t do retaliation as diplomacy. I mean, we act according to our interests, but we don’t think that a race to the bottom is ever the correct sort of approach. You quickly get to the bottom very fast if you do that. So, from what I can tell from the media story, presuming it’s accurate this investigation obviously, you know, dates back a few months and is in connection with our foreign influence transparency scheme laws. And I expect whatever has been done has been done because, there’s a risk or a charge that those laws have been breached in some respect or evidence that suggests that it should be further investigated. You know, we’re a country governed by the rule of law. That’s how we behave in Australia. And we hope other countries around the world do the same.
HOST: Peter Khalil on this breaking news. Just your response to this? Of course, I know it hasn’t had official confirmation. It clearly, I would suggest will receive that. What do you make of this development in this ongoing saga?
KHALIL: Very hard to speculate, the story has just come out. But as a matter of principle, look obviously, the foreign interference laws and transparency laws, their investigations undertaken according to the story back in June by the AFP Asia task force. And they obviously occurred well before, these issues with Australian journalists, that we’ve currently seen. So I think I could talk as a matter of principle, there should be tit for tat reactions or responses that are based on politics. I think from our perspective, we can speak as Australians. We will uphold the rule of law, undertake investigations based on the substance of allegations on the merits of the case, and not do so for political reasons. And I would hope that that would be the case for our law enforcement. And I would, be competent that that is the case. But the assertion that the Australian journalist, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith were somehow involved in some, wide ranging conspiracy as many commentators have obviously pointed out, highly improbable, highly unlikely, and it is a very concerning, set of series of events that have occurred or unfolded. And also Cheng Lei the other journalist who’s been arrested. Look, I can only point to, with respect to this, we, as sort of an example from the past, we suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong, after the national security laws were implemented there or passed there because of the substance of the impact on people’s rights, under the changes to the judicial system. And then we saw not long after a suspension, by Hong Kong, a law enforcement cooperation agreement that we have with Hong Kong similarly, without any real explanation. And Dave and I are on the Joint Standing Committee of Treaties. And we’re actually looking into both those suspensions. So, I’ll leave it at that to say that we don’t actually do things, based or shouldn’t do things based entirely on the politics.
HOST: Dave Shama, returning to you on that issue raised there. How concerned are you that these two Australian journalists have been pulled out of China and that there were no Australian journalists on the ground? This is obviously a pretty low point in the relationship.
SHARMA: Well, I am very concerned. I mean, you know, we look to those correspondence to, interpret China to us, to help us all in Australia, understand China. And I think they do an incredibly good job. All representatives there in doing just this. I think it’s, you know, it’s concerning whenever this happens, if journalists are kicked out or are targeted because it lessens the ability of countries to understand one another and ultimately you need to understand one another, to lessen tensions, to cooperate, to get on with one another. So I think this is a worrying sign. I don’t think it does China any favours. I mean, they’ve obviously they’ve kicked out a number of journalists, in recent months, including correspondence attached to U.S publications, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And I think it means that the rest of the world will, will struggle to understand, their interests, their values, their contribution that they make to the world. And, you know, frankly, that’s not a position you want to be in. If you had aspirations to be a leading power, you want the world to understand you, you want the world to understand your system of government and your interests. And I think China is harming itself with these actions.
HOST: I just want to change the conversation to talk about this major trial of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. It’s been put on hold as has been reported today, worldwide due to a suspected serious adverse reaction in a volunteer in Brisbane. I’ll start with you, Peter Khalil, obviously there’s a lot of hopes that this will work, but what do you make of this pause and our hopes that we can roll this out next year?
KHALIL: A couple of points, PK, I think we were quite critical of the government for dragging their heels. They finally did sign agreements with AstraZeneca, for the Oxford trial vaccine and also CSL for the Queensland trial vaccine. But the point we’ve made is that not only were they slow in signing those agreements, that actually this happens with trial vaccines, and they should be actually looking at a multiplicity of agreements with many more potential vaccines because sometimes trial vaccines get to a stage where, there’s a suspension or a stop or something happens. With respect to the current reporting, there was an adverse reaction there. They have to stop, it’s part of the protocol to investigate that. We don’t know whether the reaction was because of the vaccine or a random illness. We hope, it’s not the former, but the point we’re making is that the government should have been on the ball on this. And they should actually be looking at more than just two options. They should have signed those and more to prepare us for the situation where we might have a vaccine that might not work and we could go to some of the other agreements that might be in place. So I think that’s where our criticism is. I hope that the Oxford vaccine can continue once they’ve investigated this illness, but I really call on the government to actually do better on this front.
HOST: Yeah, I want to ask you Dave Sharma obviously the government’s come out now twice the original announcement, and then even this week, you know, putting more detail out there on a vaccine that now is being paused. Doesn’t it just show that there’s been an over rigging of this, this is not even ready to roll out, doesn’t it demonstrate that, you know, you’ve gotta be pretty careful about what you say will be available?
SHARMA: Well, I think with respect, Patricia, as much as Peter might wish to make this sound like a political problem, this is actually a challenge of science. This is we’re talking about developing a vaccine in a record amount of time for a novel disease that we haven’t been able to treat before. So the challenges that we need to surmount here are scientific and medical and technical, you know, with respect, it’s not, it’s not a problem with politics or government. Now, I think what this demonstrates though, is that, hope is not a plan. I mean, we all hope for the development of a vaccine. We hope it is developed quickly. It’s effective, it’s comprehensive, it’s side effects are limited and it can be rolled out quickly, but we need to manage the economy and manage society and manage our way of life here on the basis that a vaccine might not come along in the next three or six months. And I think, you know, this is the point. I think the federal government has been making it suddenly the attitude that the new South Wales government has taken is that we need to find a way to sustainably live with this vaccine and in some sort of equilibrium where we have, rigorous contact tracing and testing regimes, social distancing, but also some semblance of normal life can continue. Cause it could be, you know, this is the new normal we are in and it could be a couple of years that we have to go through this new normal. We just don’t know.
HOST: Peter Khalil, I want to ask you a specific question and we’re out of the show soon, so I’m going to make it quick, and so are you. You’re a Melbournian and this roadmap out of stage four restrictions has been heavily criticised. Do you think it’s too slow? Would you like to see the government, you know, test a few other options in terms of the modelling?
KHALIL: I’ll give you a straightforward answer to that and very quick, but I just have to say how cleverly Dave, sidestepped my main issue which was not political. It was basically, they should enter into more agreements.
HOST: Now answer my question so we can get out of this.
KHALIL: With respect to that, there has to be better contact tracing. They have to lift the capability and capacity at the state level so that when we ease restrictions, when the numbers get down and we use restrictions and open up, we do not go back to another lockdown scenario. We have to be able to deal with any future outbreaks, with localised responses, with really good contact tracing. And that is the way going forward because people are, have been locked down now for as you know, PK 69, 70 days. I’ve lost count.
HOST: No we’re not counting. No, we’re not doing that.
KHALIL: No we are not counting! So it’s absolutely imperative that we get this right, because I think the social license aspect of these restrictions are starting to fray significantly.
HOST: Okay. So you acknowledge people are pretty angry about this.
KHALIL: Oh, there’s a lot of anger in the community, but there’s also a lot of people who also understand that we’ve got to deal with it. You can have both, opinions at the same time. I would also say there is some hope if the modelling is too conservative and the harming of the cases can actually happen quicker. We hope that the state government can then actually ease restrictions quicker.
HOST: Let’s hope that can happen quicker for people who are doing it pretty tough out there. Thanks to both of you. Liberal MP, Dave Sharma, and Labor MP Peter Khalil. My afternoon panel here on afternoon briefing. Well, thank you so much for your company.