Anika Wells MP on ABC Weekend Breakfast


SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; stimulus package; Newstart; casual workers.

JOHANNA NICHOLSON, CO-HOST: Let’s get the latest now on the government’s plan to deal with the coronavirus crisis.  We’re joined now by Labor MP Anika Wells and Liberal Senator Eric Abetz for our Saturday pollie panel.  Good morning to both of you. 



NICHOLSON: Eric I’ll start with you.  Yesterday we had the announcement from the government that crowds of over 500 people, those events will be cancelled as of Monday.  If that’s the health advice, why wait until Monday?  Why not be ahead of this given how many events happen during the weekend?

ABETZ: With all these things, we take the advice of the officials and if the advice was that it should be from Monday given that there are certain logistics involved in cancelling events, then that seems to be the calm and measured approach, that I think is the right approach, which the government has been taking.  We’ve been co-ordinating the Prime Minister and all of the Premiers with their Chief Medical Officers to ensure we cross-pollenate between the states the very best ideas with the Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth, and that way, hopefully, we will ensure that we get the best possible advice to undertake the best possible messaging to the people of Australia and in the various states.

NICHOLSON: But isn’t public health more important than logistics?

ABETZ: Oh look, public health is the number one issue.  This is a health issue with economic consequences, but if the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officers with their leaders, the Premiers and the Prime Minister, is that this should happen as of Monday then that’s good enough for me, and with respect what we ought be doing is saying “this is the advice, let’s stay calm, let’s do as is being suggested,” rather than trying to pick holes as to why 500 and not 600, or not 400, or why Monday rather than Sunday.  These are all things that we can pontificate about as much as we like but at the end of the day, it is the advice that we get and the best possible advice that we can get that we are acting on, as governments, Liberal and Labor around the states and federally.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM, CO-HOST:  Just on that issue of staying calm, Anika, do you think we have stayed calm for far too long?  We now have 156 infected cases right across the country.  We’ve had warning of this for quite some time.  We saw our largest trading partner and our Asian neighbours suffer through this pandemic.  It’s only now that we have a national Cabinet to battle this virus.

WELLS: Well I think that’s right, and when you say “have we been calm for too long,” I don’t know many Australians who are feeling calm about it at the moment, because we have a Prime Minister who is not prepared to provide the kind of leadership that we are looking for.  When he says things like “social isolation is coming, but I’m going to go to the footy tonight because it might be a while before I see my beloved Sharkies again.”  Do you know what kind of response that inspires in people out in the suburbs?  It means last night my friend couldn’t buy a second packet of baby wipes for her baby because of the restrictions.  It was like the Hunger Games at Woolies, and we had to do a whip around of the group chat to consolidate baby supplies for the weekend.  It doesn’t feel calm out there, and it feels like the government is more focused on the economic impacts than the health consequences.

NICHOLSON: To be fair Anika, Labor leader Anthony Albanese was until Friday I think it was, he was still saying he was also going to the same football match. 

WELLS: And that’s because he responded to the changing advice of the medical professionals, whose advice changes and evolves.  This is a constantly evolving situation and we do have to listen to the medical advice, but when the Prime Minister constantly says that he is acting ahead of the curve, his actions don’t actually reflect his words.     

IBRAHIM: Eric Abetz, medical expert Bill Bowtell earlier said that politicians should get out of the way and leave the messaging to the experts, the medical experts, and to the doctors as well.  Do you think politicians are in the way and this is why we have a rather mixed messages being sent out to the public?

ABETZ: Isn’t it amazing when the Prime Minister was out of the way, in relation to the bushfires, everybody piled on him and said he should be here fronting the cameras and talking to the Australian people…

IBRAHIM: Don’t you think that’s slightly different though, that is bushfires…

WELLS: That is astonishing.

IBRAHIM: and we are now facing a pandemic, this is where we need medical experts to come through…

ABETZ: Allow me to finish. Allow me to finish…

IBRAHIM: To come through.

ABETZ: Allow me to finish.  And now we have a situation with the pandemic, and the Prime Minister is doing exactly that which was requested previously, and people are critical.  It’s one of these things in politics.  No matter what you do, people will seek to pile on.  The simple fact is, this is an issue that requires leadership of our Labor Premiers, Liberal Premiers and Liberal Prime Minister, and I would invite everybody to take away the political tag of Liberal and Labor and look at this as a national issue that is being dealt with on a national basis and as far as I can tell thus far Australia is doing exceptionally well, but we will have circumstances where this pandemic will be increasing within Australia.  What we need to do is flatten the curve as much as possible, and that is what the medical experts are seeking to do with the Prime Minister.  I think we’ve got the right mix of Health Ministers, Premiers, Prime Minister, Health Minister Hunt and the Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth speaking to the Australian people, keeping the information flow going. That is what is essential, and petty politics today quite frankly is completely unacceptable and should be thrown aside because we’ve got to focus on what is best for the nation. 

NICHOLSON: Anika, do you think the politicians should step aside for the medical professionals at this time, or is this a time where we’re seeing this panic play out, is this the time where the leader of the country should step up and step forward?

WELLS: It absolutely is that.  There was a failure of leadership over the bushfires over the summer, and it’s emerging to be the same with this.  Speaking as a local politician, people want more guidance about what they can and can’t do at the moment, and they want more guidance about what their loved ones, particularly their vulnerable loved ones like the elderly or the vulnerable communities, what they should and should not be doing.  We’re not getting enough of that at the moment.  I think also, people like our local businesses and the casual workers that they employ; they’re at the front line of this.  They’re at the front line of the social isolation impacts and the economic consequences, and the stimulus package that the government brought forward earlier this week didn’t have anything for casual workers.  So it’s up to people like me to represent our communities and to speak up when the government’s not doing enough and that is today.

NICHOLSON: Eric Abetz, I understand there has been some public health information played out on radio this morning, but there are other countries who have had information played out over campaigns since early February.  We’re now in mid-March.  Why wasn’t this happening before now?

ABETZ: Other countries have had the situation a lot worse than Australia and that’s quite clear from the infection rates, the death rates etc.  If we would have gone too early, I’m sure people would have criticised us for going too early.  Why this nit-picking, on our national broadcaster, why not talk about what we can do, help each other, support each other and act in a way that will be beneficial.  Let’s welcome the advertising of the broadcasts, invite people to listen to them to ensure that they protect themselves, protect their loved ones and protect the community so the rate of infection can be minimised to ensure that those that are infected can get the best possible treatment as quickly as possible and let’s step up on this occasion and put the nit-picking, the politicking aside.  Bill Bowtell says the Prime Minister ought to be ought of the way; we have the Labor representative here saying there should be more of the Prime Minister out there.  It seems that everybody wants to be the expert in the area.  What I would simply say is, let’s allow the situation to develop as the Prime Minister and our six Premiers and two chief ministers are doing in a manner that is bipartisan and of genuine concern for the benefit of the Australian people…

NICHOLSON: With respect Senator, I don’t think it’s nit-picking when we’re talking about public health information given how important prevention is…

WELLS: For a global pandemic.

NICHOLSON: and we’ve already seen panic king at the supermarkets and stripping the shelves, people not being able to access essential services.  I don’t think that that is nit-picking to question the government about why they haven’t put this information out earlier.

ABETZ: Look, you can justify the questioning. I’m simply putting to you that the circumstances are such that it is a developing situation and Australia, I think, if you have a look around at the other countries of the world, has acted in a very measured manner, capable manner, bipartisan manner, and I would like that to continue for the benefit of all Australians we’ve all got to pull together and with the benefit of hindsight, should we have gone earlier or later? Everybody is going to pontificate on that.  It’s not going to change anything.  Let’s do what we’re doing now.  Let’s welcome the advertising, let’s welcome the public information campaign, invite people to listen to it and follow the advice so that we can protect each other as much as possible.  Surely Australians, and I’m sure that’s what everybody would want, Australians working together, put the nit-picking and the politicking aside just for once and let’s get through this together for the benefit of all Australians.

IBRAHIM: Well Anika the government has stepped up with a nearly $80 billion stimulus package.  Part of that package includes a one-off cash payment to low income earners, $750 I believe that is.  It’s a one-off cash payment to the unemployed as well as those who earn a low income level.  Would it not be better to increase Newstart in order to be able to keep the consumption of the consumer spending a little bit longer than just that one off payment?

WELLS: Yes it would, and raising the rate of Newstart is something that I’ve been calling for on behalf of the vulnerable people in my community for some months now.  It’s something we’ve been looking towards as a way to improve the economic prospects of the country, long before the crisis of the bushfires and now coronavirus has descended this year.  But sorry, I remain astonished at the comments being made this morning.  This isn’t nit-picking.  This is a global pandemic and this is a government who put their hand up to lead for a third term and now are just content to administer and complain that other people are misrepresenting them.  People want the government to lead, and instead they’re seeing people who are increasingly out of touch I think, increasingly out of touch with how people feel on the ground, and how much this is worrying people.  I think apart from the comments this morning, the best example was the Attorney-General this week who said “oh I’m sure casual workers would have made provisions for not working for a couple of weeks, because the very nature in principle of casual work gives you a higher rate rather than other conditions.”  I mean I’m sure the 15,000 casual workers in my electorate on the north side of Brisbane heard that and just decided to dive into their Scrooge McDuck money vault of gold coins that they’d put aside and made provisions for this global pandemic and the impacts that it’s going to have on our local economy.  It is disappointing to hear people so out of touch be in charge of such an important thing, and I will continue to hold them to account.

IBRAHIM: We would love to continue to discuss…

ABETZ: Honestly that sort of commentary…

IBRAHIM: this but unfortunately we are running out of time and we do have a very limited time for this pollie panel unfortunately, but thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us Anika Wells as well as Eric Abetz.

WELLS: My pleasure.

ABETZ: Thanks.