ABC News Interview: News 24 Afternoon Live: Coronavirus Lockdowns, Border Closures



SUBJECTS: Coronavirus Lockdowns, Border Closures

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: My two guests this afternoon are both Victorian based, Labor MP Peter Khalil joins us from Melbourne and Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie is in Wodonga, welcome to both of you.  

SENATOR BRIDGET MCKENZIE: Great to be with you, PK. 


HOST: Bridget, I’ll start with you. I know the government policy is suppression, but of course, eradication of coronavirus is being also discussed. Should we be considering it, trying to get rid of this virus, given what we’re seeing in Melbourne? Essentially the economy was shut down, and then it was reopened. Now it’s been shut down again. 

MCKENZIE: Yeah, PK, I think having the debate is obviously something the community wants to do and they should be allowed to do that, but it’s an agreed strategy of all governments across Australia towards a suppression strategy with this virus. We’ve been very successful thus far in pursuing that. The fact of the matter is we’re a trading and a tourist destination, and one in five Australian’s jobs rely on that globally focused interaction with the world. So it’s very important for our economic base that we continue to be open facing whilst dealing with the reality of this virus, because it is a deadly virus, It is a highly contagious and it’s sweeping the world. So pursuing an elimination strategy for the nation would effectively mean shutting Australia off from the world in the long-term until there’s a vaccine, and we know for viruses such as coronavirus, as they’ve been inherently difficult to develop a successful vaccine regime for in the past. So that’s a very long way off.  

What we do know is that unemployment is very, very detrimental to people’s health. So having a poorer economy, having a poorer nation, having a lower standard of living would have very, very negative health impacts in the long-term as well. I think we knew that these are isolated outbreaks would occur, and we need to be dealing with them swiftly. We need to be making sure we take learnings from them as they occur. We did with the Burnie one, and we should again with this Melbourne one. Shutting it down, swiftly, shutting it down hard and continuing to let the rest of Australia continue to open up and keep people employed and communities thriving. 

HOST: Peter Khalil, there is a really live debate now, and I think, we’re just right to acknowledge that we should be allowed to have these debates about how we, and I made this point today on my Twitter feed, I just think it’s really important that we’re allowed to have discussions about how to move forward on these issues. It should be absolutely the way we operate. Peter Khalil, eradication. Now, Victoria obviously has very high numbers still by comparison to where we’re at. We all acknowledge that, particularly Melbourne. Should we be trying to eradicate this virus given it is clearly very disruptive to the economy, even when you’re suppressing it?  
KHALIL: Well, that is the question isn’t, PK? I mean, governments around the world of all persuasions are struggling with which model they implement. The point I want to make though, is that there is a continuum in each model. So, obviously you can apply more severe actions within a suppression model that gets you close to type, sort of, an eradication. We got close to that in the initial, what people call the first wave, with some arguing that wasn’t even the first wave, but it was really was about high community transmission, where we got close to eradication. But the interesting point here is that if you are looking at trying to do a real eradication strategy, you do have to completely shut down people coming in and you also have to be pretty confident that your quarantine measures are watertight, so that you don’t allow the virus in. That’s obviously proven to be quite difficult in many respects, whether it’s the Ruby Princess or the example in Victoria with the hotel quarantine.  

The other models like Sweden, where they’ve gone for herd immunity, I think Australian governments of all persuasions of the national cabinet found that not to be the path we wanted to take, because the high mortality rate there would have meant tens of thousands of deaths in Australia. My personal view is, without being a medical expert; I put the sanctity of human life above the short term, medium term economic metrics, as important as they are. I think what we’ve done in Australia protect life and to reduce the infection rates, or suppress the infection rates, and therefore reduce and suppress the mortality rates has been relatively successful compared to the rest of the world. But then the question you ask is how long can we do this up and down in a roller coaster; lockdown, ease, lockdown, ease, until we get to a vaccination or a vaccine? That’s really the question we’re asking. And I think governments at state and federal level are grappling with right now. 

MCKENZIE: I think Peter raises a really great question. We knew a couple of weeks ago that there were 12 local government areas in Melbourne that were having higher and higher rates of community transmission. Should that have been the time that we went in and did a hard lockdown at a very localised level, rather than these state by state border closures, which are causing havoc along border communities, such as the one I live in, for really no health benefit, given the low rate of trans community transmissions and COVID cases in so many of these communities?  

HOST:  Let me just ask you about that chaos. Firstly, if you could just outline how disruptive this is and what sort of issues are being raised with you? And, when do you want that temporary border closure between New South Wales and Victoria to end? 

MCKENZIE: I might take your second question first; I’d like it ended tomorrow. Now that we’ve locked Melbourne down where the problem is, the closure of the New South Wales-Victorian border up here in Murray River communities is no longer necessary because that virus community contagion has been contained to Melbourne, which is absolutely appropriate. The sorts of disruptions we’re seeing here are hours and hours. People are commuting between where I live; Albury-Wodonga, and we’ve got a hundred thousand people just in the twin cities. We share a health system, so you have your babies on this side of the border in Victoria, whereas you have your cancer treatment over in Albury. Our Headspace for our young people here in this community, we’ve only got one Headspace and it’s on the Victorian side of the border.  

There are some very real, problematic issues for border communities because we live as one. If you’re a Victorian, you can get a permit to travel across and you don’t have to self-isolate when you get home, but for the New South Welshmen, they do, and it’s proving very, very difficult for workers for health workers in particular, and for our transport and logistics operators, as they seek to move around. One of the issues we had at the start of the week when this all started was it was sort of this 50 kilometer radius question, which was extremely problematic. If you live in Melbourne or Sydney, 50kms sounds like a long way, whereas for us it’s the netball training run or a drop off to school. It was really excluding so many people on both sides of the border who live and work on the opposite side of the border to which they live. The reality is, we had 92 days without a case up here in Albury or Wodonga, and that’s similar for so many communities right throughout regional Victoria and regional New South Wales, which is why I would argue to lock Melbourne down, rightfully so, where there’s a concerning rate of community transmission. But for those areas of the nation where that isn’t occurring, we need to remain open. Our restaurateurs, our pubs and clubs, our local businesses, are really enjoying getting back open and keeping locals employed.  
HOST:  Peter Khalil, I want to ask you on another issue, and of course you’re entitled to make a comment about the borders as well. But, just since the restrictions were introduced at midnight, last Wednesday, police have issued 546 fines. The big question that’s being raised now is kind of the way we’re policing Coronavirus. So I think again, and being in big favour of debates as you know I am, we need to be having a discussion about policing. Are you worried about over policing this system? 

KHALILI want to answer that question, but just a quick point on the borders and the LGA lockdowns; Just to clarify, as Bridget mentioned, we did have 12 LGAs or local suburban lockdowns initially before we had the citywide lockdown. That is part of that suppression model where you try and ring fence where the clusters are by suburb. That didn’t work. It jumped, and obviously the assessment was made and we went to a citywide lockdown as well as Mitchell Shire. I think going forward, that’s what you’re likely to see, ring fencing or a cluster flares up in a particular suburb, and you don’t shut the rest of the city down as we go forward.  

On the regional stuff, and on the borders, I would also make this point, and this goes to your point about policing of this. It’s incredibly selfish when people are going to regional parts of Australia and crossing those borders, and I’m not talking about the state borders, I’m talking about the lockdown borders. We had people in Eastern suburbs of Melbourne who packed their Range Rovers and their Mercs with their eskies and fled down the highway on Eastlink to get out to their holiday houses and their coastal villas. That’s incredibly selfish, especially when you had a hard lockdown of people in a housing commission, who had no notice, frankly. People just have to do the right thing. I want to protect our regional brothers and sisters and Bridget and her community up there just as much as she does. And I think people in Melbourne need to do the right thing.  

When it comes to doing the right thing and policing, my concern around the policing side of things is that this is a broader issue, PK, around a creeping kind of authoritarianism that comes into our system. Obviously in a time of crisis, there are very broad ranging powers of State and Federal Governments under the Biosecurity Act and so on, which give Executive Governments enormous power. I know they’re temporary and there needs to be checks on those, so that’s something I’m keeping an eye on as well. But I think it’s a cultural thing. People just need to not be selfish and look after their family, their friends, and the broader community and do the right thing. 

HOST:  I just want to touch on another issue, which I know is being controversial, and that’s the story emerged, of course, about Danni Minogue. I’ve just got to say, I like Danni Minogue and the Minogue sisters, just to be fair, I have to have to declare an interest there as a former YTT student, I’m a big fan. But I am wondering why she wasn’t forced into the hotel quarantining everyone else has been forced into. Of course the Minister was asked on, on a sister program of mine, RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly, and was asked what happens. It was revealed that, I forgot the numbers now, but there are people who can pay for their own for their own quarantining and they pay for their own system of basically being secured. Bridget McKenzie, is that fair? 

MCKENZIE: Well, one of the things I love about our nation is that we have values of egalitarianism. It is one of our crucial underpinnings and Peter and I might debate about different sides of the political divide on what’s best for our nation, but I think those principles of egalitarianism have really served us well in our past. So, I like to see one system for all Australians. We are in all of this together and, um, we need to all be subject to the same laws and the same outcomes. My only concern, and I don’t know the details of this, was that when people are in quarantine in the hotels, they are supposed to be being monitored. Unfortunately that didn’t happen in Victoria as, as we all too well know. I’m sure that’ll all be released in the fullness of time, the absolute deplorable situation under the Andrews government. But I want to know those ones that sort of pay for their own quarantine, whether they were similarly monitored. 

HOST:  Well, they meant to pay for their own security, that’s what the minister said. Peter Kahlil, does it sound fair to you? A disclosure that I like the actual person it’s about, but either way, the idea that you can pay for your own version? 

KHALILWell, so are you saying is it fair that someone who’s very wealthy and who is a celebrity of some stature can actually pay out of their own pocket for all the things that would otherwise be provided by the state? It’s only unfair if they are getting a treatment that’s different. And I think Bridget was talking about how Australians have a very strong sense of fairness and a egalitarianism, and we’ll disagree about a lot of things, but, I really can’t abide that celebrity culture or that kind of don’t, you know, who I am kind of a phrase to get a different type of treatment, simply because you’re either a higher up on the socioeconomic wealth scale, or you have some sort of minor celebrity, or even super celebrity. Like you PK at the ABC, I’m sure you wouldn’t be asking for special treatment. 

MCKENZIE: Oh Peter, give it a rest. 

KHALILI think people should be treated equally, frankly. 

HOST:  I’m a big stickler for the rules, Peter. I’m walking my dog just when I’m meant to. I’m mad for a rule and always have been. 

MCKENZIE: So now that we’ve made decisions that returning Australians from overseas are going to have to be footing the bill for their own quarantine. That then begs the question, are they having to go into the same system, Shall we say? Or some returning Australians, if they’re paying for their own, will be able to stay at the Hyatt, and others, the youth hostel. I think that will be interesting to see how that plays out. 

HOST: Hmm. I’ve got to end it there, but you’ve both been great guests. Thanks so much for coming on the program.