February 01, 2022


GREG JENNETT, HOST: Mark Butler, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. I assume you've had time to absorb the Prime Minister's set piece opener for the year. “Not perfect”, he says, “can do better, lessons learned”. End of the matter as far as you're concerned? How far does contrition count in your view?

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: I don't think this was contrition. I don't think, again, you saw a Prime Minister willing to take responsibility for so many things that have gone wrong, particularly over the course of the summer, with his response to this disastrous and very deadly fourth wave. This is the theme with this Prime Minister. He doesn't listen to expert advice, he doesn't take responsibility and act on that advice, and when things ultimately go wrong, as we've seen happen time and again in this pandemic, there's a bit of spin, but ultimately, he doesn't learn and change his ways.

JENNETT: He's saying there was a communication difficulty. He didn't appreciate and in essence he miscommunicated the gravity of Omicron as it was going to sweep Australia through the summer. Is that on any level fair enough, how could he have known? What should he have known back in November or even if you like, December?

BUTLER: Before Omicron emerged across the world we were, you might remember, starting to prepare for the next phase of the pandemic. The lockdowns would be lifted that had been in place for many weeks, particularly in Sydney, through New South Wales, through Victoria, and the ACT. Borders were going to be open and there was a serious piece of work under way to prepare to keep people safe, keep businesses operating in that next phase. The Prime Minister received warning after warning about what he needed to do going back months, about, for example, the need to ensure a proper supply of rapid antigen tests.

JENNETT: Even though they weren't fully approved by the TGA at the time? Would you accept that?

BUTLER: They were always coming, they were always coming. Everyone said as we move to the next phase, irrespective of Omicron, case numbers were always going to increase and every health expert said that we were going to need to rely more on rapid antigen tests. That's what every country similar to us had been doing.
There were clearly warnings he refused to listen to. He was warned about the importance of booster shots but we've had, again, one of the slowest booster rollouts in the developed world. I don't know how many warnings we've had about protecting vulnerable older Australians in the pandemic, but what we've seen in the last several weeks has been a scandal. I want to know who is going to be held accountable for it.

JENNETT: Hold that thought, we do have more thoughts to tease out of you on aged care as an alternative. The other thing that Scott Morrison specifically mentioned in the category of "I made mistakes here", was a delay in
flicking the switch to a military style logistics operation on vaccines. Does that wash with you, or was it a more fundamental supply problem? Even if General Frewen had been put on the job earlier, do you think that would have made any difference?

BUTLER: No, it wouldn't have. If General Frewen had been put on earlier he would have had his hands empty. He would have had nothing to start distributing to all of the points of GP practices, pharmacies, state vaccination clinics and the like because Scott Morrison simply didn't order the vaccine supplies when he should have. We saw over the course of last year the revelations about Pfizer, which was the leading vaccine proponent around the world at the time, trying desperately to get onto the Government and get them to sign a deal, just as the UK, the US, Canada, European nations have done, in the middle part of 2020, but they couldn't get a return phone call from the Government.
Instead of signing the deals in the middle of 2020 this Government ended up signing them on Christmas Eve, which meant we were so far towards the back of the queue. The supplies simply weren't there, whether it was a military operation or a Department of Health operation, Scott Morrison had not listened to the advice and had not secured the supplies that Australians needed to keep safe. That's why we had the slowest rollout in the developed world.

JENNETT: Let's not re-prosecute all the events through 2020 and 2021. Let's just...

BUTLER: Scott Morrison was trying to re-prosecute it.

JENNETT: In the process of apologising.

BUTLER: You can't apologise and then spin something that is just completely different to reality. The problem was not whether or not you had a military person in charge. The problem was that Scott Morrison didn't order the vaccine supplies when he should have. He was warned on countless occasions of the urgency of ensuring that we had the vaccine supplies as quickly as possible and, again, he refused to listen.

JENNETT: I just used the word "apology". Can I test that one with you, did it sound like an apology to you? He didn't say sorry specifically. Just a quick one on that before we move to aged care.

BUTLER: No. He doesn't say sorry. He never takes responsibility for his own mistakes. Even worse, he doesn't learn from them. We see this repeat tragedy, in a sector like aged care. We see boosters, one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world, just like the original vaccine rollout was one of the slowest in the western world. He just doesn't learn from his mistakes. That's the fundamental problem with the Prime Minister.
JENNETT: We have got a substantive policy difference of approach in aged care, when it comes to attrition, retention, and vital staff that are needed there. Labor is going to back an ongoing pay rise. You've said that. You must have an understanding in making this commitment, it can't be opened ended. Give us some dollar amounts. I think a rough ballpark, $21 per hour, an extra $5 is broadly in contemplation. How much?
BUTLER: Well, that ultimately is a matter for the Fair Work Commission, always has been for more than 100 years. We've had a system where expert judges consider the evidence -
JENNETT: But if you're the government of the day and endorsing it, which you will be in the form of a submission, you are at the same time, by virtue of that endorsement, signing up to cover at least some of the payroll bill aren't you?
BUTLER: Governments should support this wage case, should be at the table. At the end of the day, the Commonwealth Government is responsible for funding the vast bulk of aged care. When you talk about the care costs, not the accommodation, not the buildings, not the food and the laundry, but the actual care costs, the Commonwealth funds almost every single dollar of that. That's the care provided by nurses and personal carers. This idea that Scott Morrison again proceeded with today that it's not his job, not his responsibility, it’s got nothing to do with him what the Fair Work Commission might decide about what nurses and carers get paid, would be the same as saying a State Government has no responsibility, no involvement in what nurses in public hospitals get paid. It's utterly ridiculous.
JENNETT: Accepting that, and let's, then that same argument would extend to a Labor Government, having to foot whatever it is that comes out of Fair Work. So, in making this commitment up front, you must have crunched some numbers. Can you give us any insights? I know the sector has a few ball parks. I'm really keen to hear what Labor's are.
BUTLER: They have got ball parks. At the end of the day, they’ve made a request for the Fair Work Commission to consider an increase for workers. The Royal Commission into Aged Care said that should happen and said the Morrison Government should be at the table as the funder and regulator of aged care. If Labor were in power, we would be at the table. That’s what we did in the equal pay case ten years ago in relation to social workers who provide Commonwealth funded services It's the sensible thing for a government to do.
Scott Morrison says, how will you pay for this? Is he seriously suggesting if the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission, grants a pay rise to aged care workers, that the Commonwealth Government as the funder of aged care is going to say, “Well, we're not paying it, families will have to pay it”. Is he saying that the families, the wives, the husbands, the children, of the 250,000 people in aged care facilities will have to pony up for a wage increase to nurses in that sector? It’s the same as saying patients at the local hospital will have to pay for a wage increase that nurses working at a public hospital would receive. It is ridiculous. It’s just like this Prime Minister to say "It's not my job, not my responsibility".
Of course, if the Fair Work Commission grants a pay increase to workers the Commonwealth Government, Liberal or Labor, is going to have to fund it. The question is if the government of the day will be involved in the consideration of what a reasonable pay rise for those workers is. Again, Scott Morrison says, “It’s got nothing to do with me". Any government worth their salt would be at the table involved in a discussion about pay rises for one of the most important services we have in this country, caring for vulnerable older Australians. People who paid their taxes all their lives, who built this community, raised their families and frankly deserve a bit better than what they're getting at the moment from Scott Morrison.
JENNETT: Maybe that decision comes on their watch before it even arises potentially for Labor. Beyond the election.
Mark Butler, we are out of time, talk to you soon.
BUTLER: Thank you, Greg.