ABC News Interview: Afternoon Briefing: Coronavirus, World Health Assembly Inquiry, Schools, State Borders



SUBJECTS: Coronavirus, World Health Assembly Inquiry, Schools, State Borders 

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I want to bring to my panel, Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Labor MP Peter Khalil. Hello to both of you. 



PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST:I know you’re both from States that have open borders, but is it confusing for people when the deputy CMO has again said there is actually no medical advice to keep the borders closed, and yet we’ve got kind of quite a few restrictions from States and territories, Dave Sharma, what do you make of this disconnect? 

SHARMA: I guess it’s one of the features of federalism, isn’t it? I mean, I think generally speaking, the federal government and state governments have been working quite well together through the national cabinet, and through other processes. And certainly our intent is to keep country as united as possible. Obviously there are different circumstances in different states and different communities, and they need to be factored in, but I think it’s important that states act on the best medical advice available, but also with a view to their workers and their economies. And particularly in Queensland, which is an incredibly tourism dependent state. I hope they’re in a position to open up at least their internal borders to other Australians relatively soon. 

KARVELAS: So you think those states that have the borders closed need to open them? 

SHARMA: I don’t know all they know and I respect their decision to reach a different conclusion. But I think it’s very important that I think getting the economy back on track and flattening the unemployment curve as the primary support cities is foremost in their minds, as well as the health elements of this crisis, 

KARVELAS: Peter Kahlil, you come from a state, as I say same with Dave Sharma, that has open borders. If you need to get across, no one stops you. There’s no checkpoint. You go across, that’s how it works, but do you think this is getting a bit ridiculous to keep the borders closed? Queensland might even go beyond September? 

KHALIL: Interestingly PK, we don’t know what the state health officers are advising their premiers or chief ministers. So we can only speculate about that. We assume or infer that they’re following that advice. What I think is also an interesting point is the constitutional question about States keeping their borders closed, whether they have those powers within the Commonwealth. That’s the kind of policy geek coming out of me, around that because from memory, it might be seen as a restriction of trade or something like that, and it could be challenged under the constitution. So that’s going to play out at. I noted the Commonwealth advice was that there was no medical advice to keep borders shut, but obviously Western Australia has chosen to continue that. And Queensland, as you mentioned. 

KARVELAS: Dave Sharma, a Sydney student has tested positive for coronavirus. Of course, this just demonstrates that this virus is very much still in our community. Should parents be worried about students returning to school? Should this just be something we expect? 

SHARMA: Well, I think we are no more immune to this virus at a macro level than we were a few months ago. And I think we do have to expect that there will be outbreaks, particularly as we loosen up some of the social distance restrictions and we open up schools and businesses. I think what’s different to a few months ago, of course, is that our capacity to contact trace and deal with this, at the capacity within our public health system to deal with patients who have contracted coronavirus is vastly different. So I think with this particular school, it was a day student I understand. The school I think will be closed tomorrow. They’re doing a deep clean and contacting any person that the student has been in touch with. But I think, as the deputy chief medical officer said, there will be these sorts of outbreaks as we move forward because the disease is not passed through the population. It’s still there in a sort of a quasidormant state, and we need to be prepared to deal with this. And we’ve got the capacity to do something, to respond quickly, but it’s going to become part of life I think. 

KARVELAS: And Peter Khalil, are you comfortable sending your children to school now that Victoria is going back? I don’t know if you’re one of the parents that gets to send them back next week. I have to wait another couple. Are you comfortable given we’re clearly going to see some outbreaks? 

KHALIL: Well, I think like all parents were quite relieved that we can send kids back to school, but there’s obviously concern and my kids are going back next week because they’re grade prep and grade two. So they fall in that category that goes back next week. I have renewed respect actually for teachers and the wonderful work they’ve done through the online lessons during this period, and I’ll tell you how difficult it is doing grade two maths. I didn’t realise how hard it was. There’s always going to be concern, and I think I’m from a state which has been very careful and very methodical in the return and cops and criticism to Premier Andrews for making the timeframe that he’s going on with. But as long as there is the protective elements put in place at the schools, the temperature checks, the thorough and deep cleaning that goes on a regular basis, that reduces or mitigates risk as much as possible. But it’s like any other risk factor with your kids and with your life. You’ve got to do everything you can to mitigate that risk, but you’ve got to make a decision at some point to return to school in Victoria chosen partially next week for some of the students to go back. 

KARVELAS: Let’s just talk about this big issue we’re having, I think it’s fair to say, with China. Dave Shama, first to you. The Chinese embassy in Canberra, ridiculed Australia for claiming vindication by obtaining this international support for this coronavirus inquiry. What does it say about how China views Australia that now we’ve seen at least three times that I can count, there’s probably been more, but in recent weeks, that the Chinese embassy has done this? 

SHARMA: Well, I’ve been a little confused by it. I saw President Xi’s speech to the World Health Assembly in Geneva, and the night before last week, he spoke quite forcibly in support of an independent investigation into the origins and causes of this crisis. And I think committed $3 billion US in Chinese money to finding a vaccine, so quite a constructive turn out of Beijing. But the tone we seem to get out of the embassy here is quite the opposite. And I’m a little confused as to whether they’re on the same page. And although if they’re trying to play a sort of good cop bad cop game, but it’s, it’s a pretty strange way to conduct diplomacy. And, you know, I don’t think he’s winning a lot of friends or gaining a lot of influence here as a result. 

KARVELAS: Clearly not. But good cop bad cop, you’ve been a diplomat, is that something that we know that China does? 

SHARMA: Well I think there’s certainly a style in Chinese diplomacy, which is being practiced around the world, it’s not just Australia, which it’s very aggressive. It’s quite nationalistic in its tone. It’s makes threats, quite crude ones at times. But I think often what they’re doing too is they’re playing to an audience at home and they’re trying to impress people at home, rather than cultivating influence in the country that they’re stationed in. But I think the Chinese ambassador to Sweden has been called into the Swedish foreign ministry. I think it’s upwards of 80 times to explain various pieces of parts of his conduct or things he said publicly. But my key metric is, as an ambassador is always, you’ve got to have strong networks within the country. You’ve got to have good relationship back with your capital and there shouldn’t be any daylight between you all. I think this ambassador seems to be flaunting all of those principles. 

KARVELAS: And what are the ramifications of that, to Peter Khalil. This has happened, as I say, a couple of times now. This statement is mocking Australia essentially. Should Australia muscle up and say, “Hey, that’s not okay”? 

KHALIL: Well, I think the diplomatic behaviour has been quite extraordinary in relative terms. And you’re not just seeing this in Australia. I think Dave touched on the aggressiveness occurring in Sweden. President Macron also called in the Chinese ambassador in France a couple of weeks ago because of similar aggressive comments being made by the embassy around the French state and French nurses and hospitals failing. This is happening globally and as a phenomenon, it’s clear that there’s a pattern. Chinese diplomats have been instructed or decided to become far more aggressive in their tone. Which I think countermine some of the obvious objectives of good ambassador that Dave was talking about, which is to build relationships in the in the country that they’re stationed in or posted to. So I find it extraordinary, with respect to our response or ramifications, it really depends if this is part of that pattern of throwing that weight around with China through their diplomacy and so on. It’s a bit of bluster because, as you pointed out, President Xi, that made a very calm speech, frankly, supporting the importance of an inquiry to get to the bottom of the pandemic. So this may be a temporary phenomenon. I’m not sure, I would hope so, because I think it’s very counterproductive, but China wanted to conduct diplomacy in this way, globally. 

KARVELAS: Dave Shama, to you. Chinese state media has branded Australia “a giant kangaroo that acts as the dog of the US.” What do you make of this language? Does it just demonstrate that the dispute is escalating? 

SHARMA: No, I mean, it’s a pretty strange reversion to sort of Cold War language and it’s got a long antecedent. And so I think in, in the China of old, not the modernising China. I don’t think it’s very productive for us to sort of stoop to their level and this whole engaging in kind of gutter of language like that. I think it speaks to an extent it’s true. It speaks more to their own frustration, I think with the international system than with Australia or with us. But I’ll just say this it’s a strange thing to be sort of getting so vocal about. This is a resolution that passed unanimously through the World Health Assembly with 137 co-sponsors, one of which was China. 

KARVELAS: Sure. But let me pick you up on this. It’s not quite what Marise Payne said she wanted originally, is it, when she spoke on Insiders? Where she said she didn’t want the World Health Organisation to do this inquiry, and clearly now it is going to be through its instruments or its committees. Doesn’t that demonstrate that the Australian government has actually changed its view on this? 

SHARMA: No, I don’t agree. I don’t think we were prescriptive. And I think the foreign minister was prescriptive about the form we should take. We talked about the need for an international and independent and credible investigation. And I think to my mind, this is what this resolution will give us. I mean, it’s certainly the onus upon us and others now to make sure that this investigation does do exactly that and delivers on an independent investigation, but we need to make sure that’s the case. 

KARVELAS: Peter Khalil. Victorian state treasurer, Tim Pallas, has blamed the federal government for that 80% tariff on Australian-Bali exports, language used by the federal government. Is that really helpful or even true? 

KHALIL: Well, that’s an interpretation you’ve made of the state treasurer’s statements. 

KARVELAS: How is it different? 

KHALIL: I mean to give him the benefit of the doubt. I looked at the statements, he did clearly say that it would be speculating as to whether the tariffs were retaliation for conduct with respect to calling for an inquiry. And he said that that’d be pure speculation. A lot of people are commenting about this issue at the state level and the Commonwealth level. Tells you why diplomacy is so important. How potent words can be diplomatic speak as it were. I think the point is Tim Pallas also said quite clearly, he supported an inquiry into the pandemic to get to the bottom of it. That no one country should be singled out. That everyone should be held to account. And that is the point of an independent, comprehensive inquiry. Its starting point should not be a presumption of guilt or anything like that. As a start, it should be a factual. It should go through an investigative process. And its outcomes really need to be about accountability, but also making sure that we learn the lessons from this pandemic so we never repeated again. And that’s in China’s interest as much as the rest of the international community. And now I was always very open about this months ago. I mean, I think even a couple weeks before the government or Scott Morrison, corporate inquiry, I said the international community has every right to call for an inquiry and to get to the bottom of this, because this pandemic needs to be addressed and make sure that we don’t see this happen again in the future. We should do this as an international community. So I have no problem with the government’s approach. We congratulate them for getting for this happening through the World Health Assembly as well. And just to your point about the inquiry itself, in diplomacy and international relations, the fact that you’ve got so many countries agreeing to something like this is a really, really good outcome. Our criticism was that the government and Scott Morrison kind of went out publicly, announcing it before they actually did the diplomatic hard yards, but nonetheless, we’ve got there with the support of the EU, most of the EU and many other countries. And that’s a good result. 

KARVELAS: I want to thank you both for coming on my afternoon panel. It was a pleasure to be joined by both of you. Thanks so much.