Release type: Transcript

Date:

Interview on ABC Insiders with David Speers

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business

E&OE-------------------------------------

DAVID SPEERS:

Stuart Robert, welcome to the program.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Thanks, David, and happy Father’s Day.

DAVID SPEERS:

And to you. Now, the Prime Minister is talking about families reuniting at Christmas. When do you think Queensland, where you are, should open its border?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The National Plan, David, is what we need to stick to, and the National Plan at 70-80 per cent starts to dictate those sorts of numbers to us, and at 80 per cent the National Plan makes it very clear that Australians should be able to, if vaccinated, move in and out of international borders...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] Well, let me just jump in there. Sorry to interrupt, I’ve got the National Plan here. It doesn’t actually say anything about interstate borders.

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, it says international borders, about when travel’s moving. And it would be pretty difficult to have travel internationally if you don’t have it interstate.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay. But it doesn’t say interstate borders should open at any point, does it?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, it doesn’t. It says that lockdowns would be very, very rare and targeted, if indeed they were needed. And if lockdowns were very rare and targeted, ipso facto, you wouldn’t need state borders closed.

DAVID SPEERS:

So, you’re saying your understanding of the National Plan is that they should open those borders at 80 per cent of adults being fully vaccinated?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, they’re decisions for Premiers. But the National Plan is there to provide guidance, and if you’re only locking down very, very specifically and targeting, if at all, Queenslanders have got a right to ask the question: Why would borders be closed?

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay. But just to be clear on this, it’s your view and the Federal Government’s view that at 80 per cent of adults being fully vaccinated, those borders should open?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It’s our view, my view, that Premiers should be looking to open borders as soon as they can to ensure…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] I know that, that’s why I’m trying to get specific here. Are you saying it’s at that 80 per cent mark?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, the 80 per cent mark you’d have to question why borders would be closed if lockdowns aren’t going to happen or would only be very rare and very targeted. On what basis would a Premier stand before their state and say: We’re going to lockdown borders? And in the Gold Coast, where I’m calling from, that means 80 per cent of all traffic into small business disappears overnight. So that’s why the National Plan is there to provide that guidance.

DAVID SPEERS:

But is there modelling from the Doherty Institute or anyone else that says those state borders should open at that point?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, the Doherty Institute modelling isn’t about state borders, it’s all about rates of… 

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] So what are you basing this on?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I’m basing it on the fact that at 80 per cent our international borders would be open for Australians to move in or out. So, for example, pre-COVID, 13 million Australians travelled across the border. It would be very difficult for a Premier to keep their borders closed if there were 13 million transactions moving back and forward. Now, it won’t be that many, of course, to start off with. But it just gives you an idea of why that consistency is important.

DAVID SPEERS:

The Doherty Institute has done some further modelling on the sort of pressure the hospitals are likely to face at reopening given higher case numbers that we’re seeing in New South Wales and Victoria. When will we see that updated modelling?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Don’t know, question for the Health Minister in that respect. But of course when we started in March last year, David, we were very cognisant of suppressing the virus, and indeed giving as much capacity for hospitals. I remember, as the Disability Minister, moving 1,400 Australians with disability our of our nation’s hospitals, into community-based care and home-based care, really to make room for that hospital space. So all of that work has been going on, literally, from March-April of last year.

DAVID SPEERS:

Yeah, but as we know we’ve now got well over a thousand cases a day, over 1,500 cases a day. So it’s a new environment, that’s why this updated modelling has been done, and we saw on Friday, National Cabinet agreed further work is still underway on the capacity of hospitals to be able to cope with this. So how can we be confident until we can see what the hospitals are likely to face?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Because we started it last year. When we started that first big six months, especially from March to September, we were faced with very genuine fears, that we’re faced now, of great overloads of the hospital system, hence why we made available every bed in hospitals, a lot of investment in terms of ventilators and the like. So a lot of that work started then, and that was 12 months ago. So we’ve had 12 months of planning now... 

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] I appreciate that, but why is the further work necessary now?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Like all things, now that we’ve got the Delta strain, last year we planned for a different strain. So it’s always cautionary if faced with a different problem, in this case a different virus. One should always update what you’re looking at.

DAVID SPEERS:

Well, if you haven’t seen that update, you haven’t seen the modelling either from the Doherty Institute, how can you sit here and be so sure that the borders should open at 80 per cent?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Because the National Plan is designed to give us a framework in which to operate from, and for 12 months states and territory hospitals have been planning and working this through, as has the Federal Government with them, which is why… 

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] But that work’s still underway. Sorry to come back to this, but the work is still underway. We haven’t seen it, you haven’t seen it. Shouldn’t we see that, make sure the hospitals will be okay, before declaring: Here’s the point at which we open up?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Which is why I was saying it’s a framework at 80 per cent, David. That’s why the National Plan is there, and that’s what we’re looking at, at that framework, and international experience is also there to guide us as well. Singapore, of course, is at 80 per cent, you spoke before about Canada, and of course the Israeli experience is also there to provide guidance to us.

DAVID SPEERS:

But surely it’s a pretty basic thing that we should all be able to see that the hospitals will manage before we agree that we’re going to open up?

MINISTER ROBERT:

And, of course, National Cabinet dealt with that, goodness, only a few days ago...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] They’re doing further work, as I pointed out, they’re still doing further work. 

MINISTER ROBERT:

And we’ll continue to do further work, and as we move into the months and years ahead there’ll always be continued modelling and further work...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] But isn’t your certainty therefore misplaced?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It’s not a matter of certainty, it’s a matter of using a framework. We have to actually give people a National Plan as to where we’re going and we have to use the international experience as a guide at the same time.

DAVID SPEERS:

A framework that might move, might shift? Or is it set in stone?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Goodness, David, look, in the last 12 months things have been shifting on a daily and a weekly basis...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] So the plan has been shifting?

MINISTER ROBERT:

...The Delta variant has thrown everything up. A plan is always a basis for change, it has to be, because so many things have changed...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] So the 80 per cent might have to shift?

MINISTER ROBERT:

So many things have changed, but that’s why we have a framework called the National Plan from which we can plan on and use everything as a basis from.

DAVID SPEERS:

So that 80 per cent might shift if you’re worried about the hospitals?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Goodness, anything could change next week, David. We could have not just the Delta but the Epsilon variant, and I’m not saying there’s any indication of that. But the whole point is to have a plan as a framework. We’ve got it, we should stick to it. And yes, we’ll continue to...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] So, just so I’m clear: We should have a framework and stick to it, but it might shift and we might need to change it?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, of course plans change, David. Come on, nothing’s set in stone. My goodness. You’ll have a plan for your show next week and I’m sure you’ll change it when something else comes up. And we’ll look to do the same...

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] Lives aren’t at risk, though. Hopefully lives aren’t at stake. Let me turn to the employment-related issues here. The Australian Catholic Medical Association wants to protect workers in aged care and hospitals who object to any sort of mandatory vaccination on conscientious grounds. Do you think conscientious objectors should be given an exemption from vaccine mandates?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The Catholic Health Association, which runs the institutions, of course, called in July for all workers to be mandatory vaccinated, and of course their workers union, if you like, the Catholic Medical Association is saying, oh, we need to look at a conscientious objection. Now, conscientious objection has always been part of our vaccination program. Indeed, the last set of numbers I looked at a few years ago in childhood vaccination saw 1.3 per cent of children conscientiously object, about 30,000 to step out from it. So that's always been a feature. The question is, is should it be a feature of a public health order from the states that requires mandatory vaccination? And to date, of course, if you look at the last one, which was flu vaccinations, which was a public health order, there was no space for that in that program, is my understanding.

DAVID SPEERS:

And is that your view, that they should not be give an exemption?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, look, the challenge here, of course, is do you exempt people who are working from vaccinations? Now, again, the institutions, the Catholic Health Association is saying no. No, it must be mandatory. And their workers association is saying no…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] I’m just asking your view though. Sorry, Minister. Your view? Should they be given an exemption?

MINISTER ROBERT:
Well, public health orders are public health orders. They're called orders for a reason. Because if you-

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] That’s a no?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No. I believe if the public health order specifies something for the public good, we all need to lean into it.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright. Once we do reopen, clearly there's still going to be a requirement to isolate if you get COVID. What we've learnt over the last 18 months is for low-income earners, that they need some income support to ensure that they can isolate and aren’t under pressure to front up to work to earn some money. What support will the Federal Government provide to people who’d still get COVID after reopening to ensure they can isolate for two weeks?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Goodness, since March last year, we've put in so many supports, and we've changed them as the circumstances have dictated and required…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] Have you thought about this, though, what happens after the reopening, what support will be there?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There’s continual planning all the time as to what supports may be needed. And of course, you saw even greater supports going to Victoria in the last few days, the Treasurer's announcement. So we’ll continue to-

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] So what’s the plan?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We’ll continue to announce what we’re going to do when the time is required and needed, David. We won't get ahead of ourselves. [Indistinct]…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] So no plan at the moment, or just…

MINISTER ROBERT:

[Interrupts] No, didn’t say that at all, David. I simply said-

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] So it’s already planned, just not announced.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Said I’m not going to tell you what our planning is up to now, because we’ll continue to roll that out as the circumstances dictate. Because as you said before in your program, David, things are changing, and they’re changing quickly.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay. But there will be some federal income support if people get COVID and have to isolate.

MINISTER ROBERT:

We’ll continue to work through what these measures look like and announce them when we're required to do it. But our track record has shown we have stumped up and taken care of Australians in some very difficult circumstances.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright. We'll wait and see. Let's turn finally to JobKeeper. We now know $13 billion went to firms with rising revenues. Some, in fact, tripled their revenues. More than 11,000 welfare recipients have been told to repay overpayments they received. Why haven't letters been sent to any of these firms asking them to pay back money they didn't need?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I’m pretty sure that was Labor's question in Question Time on Thursday…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] May well have been.

MINISTER ROBERT:

… I’m pretty sure the Treasurer and the Prime Minister answered it. The law, of course, requires…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] What is the answer?

MINISTER ROBERT:

… the law requires any overpayment in terms of welfare to be repaid. That law’s been in place for decades. Across multiple governments, likewise JobKeeper, which was passed through Parliament, and Labor agreed with it, which was to provide from March to September last year, nyou had a downturn, you had a prospective payment at $1,500…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] But the Government [indistinct] this law, so why not have the same rule apply? If you get overpaid, you got to pay it back.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Because the Treasury's advice was we need to give the- as much perspective guidance and confidence as possible. And in fact, in April, Treasury's view was the average downturn across those firms in Australia, which was 3.8 million workers covered, or thereabouts, was 37 per cent downturn. So it was highly targeted, and it was on Treasury advice.

DAVID SPEERS:

If you’re not going to ask them now to pay it back, why not at least some transparency here? Let taxpayers see the details. That seems to have worked in relation to some big companies repaying the money. I think our Skype connection may have just dropped there, too. No, we've got you back. My apologies. A bit of public pressure, a bit of disclosure, a bit of transparency here. Why not at least let everybody see where the money went and then let the firms decide whether to pay it back?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The transparency, if you like, or what pertained in the Senate, which was the demand for all the records of so many Australian companies, and vast majority of them being small to medium enterprises under tax law, that would substantially invade the privacy and which could substantially make a huge step in the wrong direction as to how we manage the privacy of all of those individuals and all of those companies, David. It would be a massive retrograde step in how we do things.

DAVID SPEERS:

Publicly listed companies have had to disclose what they received.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, publicly listed companies have to disclose that because the ASX requirements of continuous disclosure actually demand and dictate that, and they listed knowing full well they would have to have that disclosure. But proprietary limited and non-public listed companies have gone into the arrangements they've gone into knowing these would be fundamentally different.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright. Employment Minister Stuart Robert, thanks for joining us.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Thanks, David.

[ENDS]