TUESDAY, 19 JANUARY 2021
SUBJECT/S: Morrison Government’s slow COVID vaccine rollout, Craig Kelly, Facebook media laws; JobKeeper for tourism industry.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Labor Senator Murray Watt and from the LNP Gerard Rennick, thanks both for your time gentlemen, good to have you back for this year.
Let's just start with the Pfizer vaccine. We've got Professor Allen Cheng, a key adviser to the Government, saying it's still likely to be given to older Australians. And the latest report from health authorities in Norway that no direct link to the deaths that did come to 33 people after the vaccine. Do you have confidence in the way this is happening, Gerard Rennick, the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) and the whole process that's underway here?
GERARD RENNICK, QUEENSLAND LIBERAL SENATOR: Hello Tom, and welcome to your listeners, have a happy 2021. Look, I have confidence in the TGA. My understanding was that with regards to the Pfizer vaccine, we were going to have to pay a little bit more attention to the results going on in other parts of the world. I do have confidence - to the extent that you can have confidence - in the AstraZeneca vaccine because as I have been advised it uses the traditional method of vaccines where you're given a week of vaccine, your body builds up immunity to it, and then it's ready for a strong...it's got a stronger immunity. That Pfizer vaccine relies on a new platform that relies on messenger RNA being put into your body, that's been currently researched for about 10 years and there's been a number of randomised controlled tests or trials conducted with that vaccine. But this is the first time it's been put out into the general use in the general public. So obviously, the longer we have to see the results from that, I think we'll get a better understanding of how that works.
CONNELL: Your thoughts as well on what else Allen Cheng had to say, Murray Watt, about the AstraZeneca jab, that his bet would have been - because as you heard there from Gerard Rennick - this Pfizer vaccine was a new type of vaccine, that the best bet was to make on the AstraZeneca jab - a more conventional one - actually working. That is what the Australian Government did with the 53 doses. So were they just going for the most obvious candidate, albeit still hedging their bets with the Pfizer vaccine and others?
MURRAY WATT, QUEENSLAND LABOR SENATOR: Well, I think that only the Australian Government can explain what its thinking was. But I think the biggest problem that we have in terms of vaccines in Australia is that we're behind the eight ball, when it comes to other countries, in getting our own population vaccinated. This goes back to the fact that we don't have enough deals. Australia, as a country, has only got deals with three drug companies for vaccines when most other comparable countries have got five or six.
We started the process of signing up deals months after other countries did. And we still don't have a clear plan from the Government for how the vaccines are going to be rolled out, assuming the TGA does provide approval. So unfortunately, Australians have been left behind and left at the back of the queue by a government that said that they'd have us at the front of the queue. That's the fundamental problem, when it comes to vaccines in Australia.
CONNELL: When you say they don't have a plan, they did put out a plan as to category of groups, obviously we can't be specific about when it would happen until the TGA has approved the vaccine. Is that fair enough? I mean, the Government is leaving it up to the TGA to have this approval. You get, for want of a better word, other countries testing it for Australia at the moment. Is there any criticism of that approach, given how few cases we have in Australia right now?
WATT: I certainly don't have any issue with older Australians and other vulnerable groups being prioritised for getting the vaccine, but I think all Australians are interested to know how and when vaccines are going to be rolled out more broadly. It's not until we have a vaccinated population as a whole that we're going to be able to get to a point of truly getting back to living as normal and truly looking at opening borders up again, getting the economy moving again. So that's why it's so important that we do have a clear plan from the Government about the whole population being vaccinated. And at the moment, we've got a bit of a plan, for part of the community, for some vaccines. What we need is something much broader based on a wider range of vaccines than what the Government has been able to produce to date.
CONNELL: Gerard, just interested in your view as well on how important it is to have confidence in this for all Australians too. I know one of your colleagues, Craig Kelly, has been outspoken about whether or not he'll accept the word, or the tests, of the TGA. He's pushing other drugs the TGA hasn't gone ahead with, such as hydroxychloroquine. Are backbenchers allowed the normal sort of latitude on this issue, or is it something that isn't just a case of 'say whatever you like'?
RENNICK: Well, can I just address Murray's points about the fact that we're not rolling out the vaccine fast enough? I totally dispute that. We've taken a cautious approach. We've actually got 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is enough to basically vaccinate the entire population. We don't apologise for being cautious with the Pfizer vaccine. It should be noted with the Pfizer vaccine, you've got to actually keep that stored below 70 degrees. So in a big country like Australia, it's a lot of logistical problems. We've already got CSL making the AstraZeneca vaccine. So it's a lot easier for us to distribute that. And if, as Senator Watt says, he wants that to be distributed across the entire population, it's very important that the people had confidence in the vaccine and that won't happen if we rush it out too soon in regard to the Pfizer vaccine. So I totally push back on that.
As for Craig Kelly, he's entitled to say what he likes. I'm personally not against doing more research into these other ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to see if they work. I'm not saying that they do, but any sort of type of research that can help us find either a cure or preventative to reduce the spread of COVID, well, I'd certainly welcome.
CONNELL: But is it important to distinguish between, yes, any research that comes out and if it emerges and the TGA think hydroxychloroquine is a great response down the track, fine. But they've said, so far, no. Isn't it important to also defer to our authorities? The TGA is the same authority that's going to say, yes, this vaccine is safe.
RENNICK: Well, look, I mean, I'm not a medical expert, but my understanding is that Craig, on his Facebook page, generally refers to other medical experts. It's worth noting that in the (United) States over the weekend, they've actually changed their approach to ivermectin, where they've now, not long ago, stopped recommending against the use. They're neither for it or against it. So that from my understanding is saying they're happy to let the doctors - I'll be corrected on this - that they're more open to it than what they were before. As I said, look, any research into what can be either a preventative or a cure, I welcome so that we can open up again.
WATT: Can I just say, Tom, I don't think this debate is assisted by Government members putting up crackpot theories about how we can deal with COVID-19 and how we can vaccinate it.
Gerard has rightly made the point that the TGA is the foremost medical authority when it comes to drug approvals in the country. All Government members should be following that advice and putting that advice out. And the Prime Minister should have the courage to call out his own Members when they're distributing crackpot theories. They shouldn't be being backed in like Gerard is doing now.
RENNICK: I'll dispute that that's a crackpot theory, but yep.
CONNELL: All right, we'll take that as disagreement on that.
The Trump administration is urging Australia not to go ahead with legislation around media laws that would force Google and Facebook to pay for the news that they use on their platforms. What do you make of this, Murray? I mean, this is the US at the last minute, the Trump administration pushing back on Australia's sovereignty, isn't it?
WATT: Yeah, well, there's a Senate inquiry underway into this legislation at the moment, and our Senators will consider that submission along with all others before we arrive at a final position. I do have some concerns, though, in principle about another government dictating to Australia what we can and can't do, in terms of regulating our media environment, to support billionaires and tech giants. I think, in principle, we should have the capacity as a nation to make those sort of decisions. But as I say, I'm happy to wait until we go through that Senate inquiry and hear all views before we reach our final position.
CONNELL: Gerard, should we care what the Trump administration says, what is it, two days before it's the former Trump administration?
RENNICK: Well, we should care, obviously, what the US think because we're a close ally to the US. But look, the primary reason I originally ran - decided to run for politics - was to crack down on offshore profit shifting and what I consider the exploitation by multinationals of profits here in Australia, where they get to ship profits offshore and pay a lot less tax than what they do if they kept the profits here. So anything that's going to make sure that big multinational tech companies or any other multinationals pay their fair share of tax here in Australia, I totally support and I commend the Treasurer on standing up to these big multinationals. Which I know from my base they've been asking for a long time, that we put Australia first. And I'm glad to see the Treasurer is doing that.
CONNELL: All right, we'll see how that one brews along, of course, with perhaps the approach of the Biden administration. Just finally we're being essentially prepared for no overseas travel this year. Tourism would be hit, you would assume, even Australians staying home seem to be more willing to spend money on electronics at the moment. What will it mean for the tourism industry? Does it need compensation? Queensland would obviously be the hardest hit in terms of pure dollar terms here, Murray?
WATT: Yeah, look, there's an unfolding catastrophe in certain parts of Queensland with the tourism industry at the moment. I was in Cairns just before Christmas, and I expect I'll be up there again soon talking with tourism operators and they are very concerned about their future. A lot of people don't realise, but the bulk of tourism into places like Cairns and other parts of Queensland is actually international. So as much as we might have interstate borders opening and encouraging domestic tourists to travel, it's still going to leave a massive hole in local economies and real job pressures.
And that's why it's so important for the Government to turn course on JobKeeper. If you talk to any tourism operator in Cairns, or any tourism worker in Cairns, they will tell you that it's insane to be looking at cutting JobKeeper in March, which is what the Government plans to do. Even Warren Entsch, Federal Government's own Member has said that.
CONNELL: Well, how do you feel about this, Gerard? Perhaps if it's not the whole country still getting JobKeeper but something targeted in this area - Federal Government, financial assistance, for Queensland tourism?
RENNICK: Yep. Yeah, for sure, when it comes to tourism, and I agree with Murray, places like Cairns and the Gold Coast that do have higher exposure to international tourism, I would urge - and I'll talk to the Treasurer myself - but I think that a package for tourists and industries that are vulnerable, have markets in the international sector, I think that we are more than happy to look at tailoring a package towards that.
CONNELL: Well, you say 'we're more than happy'. Is that what the Treasurer, or the Prime Minister, is telling you?
RENNICK: Well as I said, I'm going to speak to him. But I know that the feedback from some of my colleagues and myself is that we're not against trying to keep those industries that have exposure to international tourism going. And that would be where I think we ought to be more targeted in our support packages.
CONNELL: So you want this to happen, we'll just see if...you want some more support to happen financially from the Federal Government, we'll just see if the Treasurer and PM agree?
RENNICK: Yeah, you can ask them that, that's fine. That's my view. And I'm happy to stand by it, yeah.
CONNELL: Murray, Gerard will talk to you again throughout the year. Thank you.
WATT: Thanks, Tom. Thanks, Gerard.
RENNICK: Cheers, thanks very much, Tom.