February 02, 2022



PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The Prime Minister has admitted some mistakes were made in the Government's management of the COVID-19 pandemic. They include not sending in the army early enough to roll out the vaccine and raising expectations before Christmas that the crisis would soon be over.

PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON (RECORDING): I haven't got everything right and I'll take my fair share of the criticism and the blame.

KARVELAS: That was the Prime Minister addressing the National Press Club yesterday. Mark Butler is the Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing and my guest this morning. Mark Butler, welcome.


KARVELAS: The PM says he will take his fair share of the criticism and the blame for a few mistakes made by the Government. Is that the mea culpa you're looking for from the Prime Minister? And will that appease the anger and frustration that some are feeling?

BUTLER: Well, no on both counts I think is the answer there Patricia. My sense is that Australians are getting sick of a Prime Minister who never listens, who never takes responsibility, and when things go wrong, never admits to his mistakes or learns from them and we didn't see anything different yesterday. The idea, for example, that the problem was not sending in the army to control the vaccine rollout earlier, completely glosses over the fact that, really, the problem we had was the Prime Minister did not order the vaccines when he should have while the UK, Europe, the US, Canada, were busy ordering vaccines in the middle of 2020. Our Prime Minister didn't get around to it until Christmas Eve four or five months later. They ignored request after request by companies like Pfizer to sit down with him early and ink a deal that would secure vaccine supplies to Australians. And we paid the price.

It had nothing to do with whether or not the army was involved. It had everything to do with the Prime Minister not listening to advice and not acting on it.

KARVELAS: So do you want him to use the "S word"? Does he have to use the word “sorry” specifically about that particular decision and others?

BUTLER: I don't think Australians are interested in the word sorry for its own sake. But what they want is a signal from a Prime Minister who is going to start listening to the advice he receives, acting on it, and when things go wrong, learning from those mistakes. And that's just been the theme of this pandemic. We saw it again in the lead up to this summer. He was advised time and time again of the importance of rapid tests, including by the AMA in September, by industry, about the importance of rapid tests to securing supplies of groceries and such like, and again did nothing. So the problem wasn't that he told people everything would be great or he was too positive about the summer coming up. The problem was he didn't do his job to keep people safe, on rapid tests, on boosters, on ensuring kids were vaccinated before they returned to school.

KARVELAS: So am I right in interpreting what you're saying is the things that he's acknowledged are not the things that you think he blundered on?

BUTLER: Exactly, he's like the person at the job interview who's asked to describe their biggest weakness and says “I work too hard”. Just focus on your mistakes and indicate to the Australian people you're actually going to learn from them and start listening to the advice you received. And I think people would be much more positive about yesterday. Instead, we just saw more obfuscation.

KARVELAS: The PM admits he didn't get everything right. But he also says that Australians don't expect perfection, they just want problems fixed. Given the unpredictability of this virus, are you setting an impossibly high bar for the Government or perhaps yourselves if you win the election, voters may be prepared to be more forgiving?

BUTLER: Look, this is a once-in-a-century pandemic and these national crises always throw up unforeseen challenges. I don't think anyone expects their governments to act perfectly, whether they're state governments or federal governments, but they do expect their governments to listen to advice. And this has been a perennial problem with this Prime Minister, whether it was about vaccines, whether it's about boosters, about rapid tests, or what he should do to learn from the terrible mistakes that have happened in aged care over the last two years. He just doesn't seem to listen. He doesn't seem to learn from his mistakes. And too often, when critical challenges are thrown up, he pretends it's got nothing to do with him. “It's not my job. I don't hold a hose. It's not my responsibility.” That's what I think people expect of a Prime Minister in a national crisis, not to get everything right, not to predict every sort of curveball that's thrown at the country, but to do those basic things, and that's what people are getting sick of I think with this Prime Minister.

KARVELAS: Already this year there have been more than 1,500 deaths and this thing could be far from over. Experts are warning that the new BA.2 sub-variant is 13 per cent more infectious than Omicron mark one. Now that the Prime Minister has conceded some errors do you have any confidence that he's learned from those mistakes, that we will be better placed to deal with what might be next?

BUTLER: I don't think there's any evidence, or evidence of it so far - he continues to say it's not his responsibility to secure rapid tests for all Australians. There's no evidence they've learned from the terrible tragedies that are happening as we speak in aged care. We've lost more than 400 people from aged care facilities, who have lost their struggle with COVID, just in January. We didn't even lose 300 through the whole of 2021. But who is going to be held accountable for those failures, which are unambiguously the Commonwealth's responsibility - rapid tests not supplied, personal protective equipment not supplied, boosters too late.

KARVELAS: I want to go to this, that you've just raised what we're seeing in aged care. And you say that the Health Minister Greg Hunt has been disrespectful for pointing out that 60 per cent of these elderly residents were in palliative care. But isn't it the case that most of the people who have sadly died and it is absolutely devastating, did have these serious underlying health conditions?

BUTLER: I think one of the real problems in this pandemic is too often the reporting of terrible losses. The losses of members of families, of local communities, and circles of friends seem to have a commentary around them that says, "They're elderly, or they've got an underlying health condition, or they are palliative." Every death is a tragedy. And I really think it's a bad path to go down to start to separate one death from the other, one death is more of a tragedy than the other. Every death in this country is a tragedy. Yes, deaths will happen in a pandemic, there's no question about that. But the death rate we've seen in aged care is a scandal. It is a travesty. And we know from aged care workers, aged care providers, that the scale of the tragedy we're seeing in aged care is significantly connected to failures we've seen in the response.

KARVELAS: Let’s go to booster shots. Greg Hunt says approximately 99 per cent of facilities were expected to have completed their booster shots by Monday. The Prime Minister was asked about this yesterday as well and talked about, you know, you can make them available but people can make their own choices. What did you make of that answer?

BUTLER: Well, again, refusing to take responsibility for probably the most basic job that the Government has. The Commonwealth Government runs aged care. We know how critical boosters are for protecting people, particularly against Omicron. And we know that aged care residents were due their boosters months ago. The booster program started three months ago, how on earth is it that aged care residents, the most vulnerable people in our community did not have and still don't have their boosters completed?

KARVELAS: Do we know how many residents have actually received their third dose? Or how many are saying no because of some personal reason?

BUTLER: No we don't - that's not been reported by the Commonwealth. But we knew that as of last week there were still several 100 facilities that hadn't received a visit for boosters. So right through the course of this dreadful summer, hundreds and hundreds of facilities had not received their booster program, there were reports that the private provider contractor by the Commonwealth had started to sort of drop off their efforts over the course of Christmas and New Year. The fact is we were way behind schedule. This should have been an absolute priority of the Commonwealth, to get in, boost the immunity of these vulnerable Australians living in aged care, have a program for their staff who again, just as they were last year, left to their own devices in their busy lives to access boosters themselves, and we are seeing the consequences of that.

KARVELAS: Finally, the text exchange between former New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian and an unnamed Federal Cabinet Minister, the Prime Minister variously described as a “Horrible, horrible person and a complete psycho”, they are direct quotes. Isn't this robust private language just part of the course in politics? Does it really tell us anything about Scott Morrison's character?

BUTLER: Well, look, I don't know the accuracy of these texts, or who the other Cabinet Minister, the Cabinet colleague of the Prime Minister was, but it's not the first time we've heard that Gladys Berejiklian found her relationship with the Prime Minister extraordinarily difficult, not just robust. And look, you know, Patricia, politics is a robust business but her references to him earlier as an “evil bully”, accusations that he and his office undermined her and backgrounded the media. But look, if that's what his closest colleagues in New South Wales, in his own Cabinet think about him and say about him, who are any of us to argue?

KARVELAS: Well, I suppose people say all sorts of things about each other don't they. That doesn't really carry any weight?

BUTLER: Some of these descriptions really go to the heart of the Prime Minister’s ability to work with others. This idea that he just really works on his own, doesn't listen to advice, tries to take as little responsibility as possible as Prime Minister, I think is something people are starting to work out about this guy.

KARVELAS: Mark Butler, thank you.

BUTLER: Thank you, Patricia.