3.53pm | August 13, 2021




SUBJECTS: ACT covid-19 lockdown; Biloela family; Mandatory vaccines in workplaces. 
JANE NORMAN, HOST: We have Hollie Hughes at Parliament House and Jenny McAllister. Jenny is zooming in remotely. Thank you for joining us.


NORMAN: I wanted to start with the news that has broken in the past hour about the ACT going into lockdown and what implications it has. Parliament is due to rise today. There is a week-long break before they return for a fortnight. Hollie Hughes, starting with you, what advice have you been given about what happens now to the Parliament House and progress?

HOLLIE HUGHES, SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES: Like you, we are still learning as it is going along. It is very new information. From the perspective of the Senate, will be here until we rise which is around 5-5:30 pm this afternoon. I haven't heard of any changes yet. Because of the way that a lot of the states were operating quarantine anyway, the vast majority of us were planning to stay and work here next week. A lot of my colleagues, if they were going to go home, they would be going into two weeks of quarantine. They couldn't actually go home and then return back to Canberra. Obviously, everything is still unfolding. It is too early to make a call on whether parliament will resume the week after next, but it is too early to call it off because if in seven days it is under control... And Canberrans are good at following the rules. They also have a really high vaccination rate as well. If you at the national average, they are well over 50 per cent on first dose and coming up to 30 per cent fully vaccinated. The vulnerable cohorts are in the 80/90 % range of vaccination. It’s certainly coming from a position of strength, Canberra is here. So hopefully it is just seven days and it is under control.

NORMAN: Yes, we’re pretty compliant here. I wanted to ask you, there are some reports that the RAAF are chartering flights to, not evacuate but, get politicians out of Canberra and back into the states. Have ministers taken this up?

HUGHES: This is certainly news to me, I haven't heard anything about that. I don't know where that is coming from. Certainly, the vast majority of politicians I have spoken to are all staying here.

NORMAN: Jenny McAllister, you are quarantining in Canberra in anticipation of joining Parliament in person in just over a week. Have you any updates from the Labor site about what might actually happen?

MCALLISTER: I think we are waiting for advice from the presiding officers. Our general view has been that the Parliament should sit whenever it can, as long as it is consistent with the health advice. We think that at a time like this, it is actually incredibly important that the government is subjected to scrutiny, but that said, I guess we will wait for the advice from the Presiding Officers. I imagine that they are working through the guidance from ACT Health as we speak. And just looking to come to some landing about what is possible for the Parliament.

NORMAN: Would Labor be in favour of pushing Parliament off if this lockdown had to be extended? Obviously not just returning in a week's time, as expected at the moment?

MCALLISTER: As I said, our preference has always been to the Parliament to sit whenever possible, when health guidance allows it. Right now we do not have a lot of clarity about what the implications are from this morning's decisionfor the way that the Parliament operates. I think we will just have to wait on the Presiding Officers for that one. 

NORMAN: Let's talk about the Murugappan family. The High Court has effectively closed one Legal  avenue for this family as they fight for extradition. Hollie Hughes, this is an unusual case because there’s such a massive amount of public and political support for this Tamil family to stay. The town of Biloela in Queensland wants them to stay. Is it time for the Immigration Minister to simply intervene and issue this family with a more permanent visa arrangement?

HUGHES: The decision today has followed a series of decisions and upheld those decisions across a variety of tribunals and courts, and the Department of Home Affairs originally. The decision today has just upheld what has been going through the legal process. But as your former guest said, and as the Minister has said, there are still other legal avenues that are being pursued, so I think it is prudent that we are all very careful around this and don't make too much commentary. But the minister has been very clear from the outset that he wants to wait until those legal avenues are exhausted until taking on any personal decision-making around that.

NORMAN: The family has been in detention for three years. A bridging visa has been issued for the members to stay for an extra few months. Is the minister just kicking the can down the road waiting for legal processes to come to a conclusion?

HUGHES: Absolutely not. It is an appropriate thing to do, when there are legal cases under way, to let them play out is absolutely appropriate, and not interfere in the legal system and the legal processes. It isn't his role. His role, when he has come into this, is to oversee the process until it is finished, and then be the ultimate decision-maker depending on when they learn.

NORMAN: Jenny McAllister, the Labor Party has made it very clear it believes this family should be allowed to resettle in the town they once called their home, Biloela. Are there legal options running out though given what the High Court has said today? 

MCALLISTER: It is hard to see what the Minister is waiting for. The ball has been put pretty firmly back in the minister's Court. This isn't just a matter of legal concern. There are human implications here. There is a community in Biloela that loves this family and wants them returned home. Our view is that the Minister should use the discretionary powers that he has and give them the support they require to go home to Biloela.

NORMAN: Would you be supportive of this family being issued a temporary protection visa or a safe haven enterprise visa? These are visas the Labor Party has previously opposed as policy, but they are the table potentially for the Murugappan family.

MCALLISTER: It is really up to the minister to chart a pathway home for this family. There are obviously lots of technical options, but at the end of the day Alex Hawke is holding the pen. He is in a position to make a decision about this family. I think the whole Australian community is quite invested in their well-being; the community at Biloela wants them back. As I said, it is hard to see what the minister is waiting for.

NORMAN: I suppose it is a question of policy here, because Labor's policy echoes the Coalition's that nobody who arrives by boat can ever be settled in Australia, and we know that the two parents arrived by boat but the two children were born in Australia. On the question of precedent here, why would an exemption not be granted to the Murugappan family?

MCALLISTER: I think the point we have made is that the minister has discretion for a reason. This is a family that has been in the community, that is well-established in the community in Biloela, and if that -- the community wants the family back. We want the minister to use his discretion. Yes, the migration system’s a complex policy area -but there are human dimensions, and very clearly, this is a family that has been positioned to make a real contribution to the Australian community overall and to the community in Biloela. We think it is time for the minister to use that discretion. This has gone on long enough.

NORMAN: What do you think about that argument, Holly Hughes? Is this a unique case that should be given an exception to the rule?

HUGHES: You are talking about, as Jenny said, complex immigration policy areas. There are legal avenues. I don't think you can start to pick and choose. You are right, Jane, when you make the point about what resident you want to kind of set, and we do need to make sure there is consistency, so it is fair. By going through the legal avenues to make sure they are all covered off before the minister intervenes, I think that's the most appropriate way forward.

NORMAN: I want to cover a few issues that have dominated the week in politics. What is this debate going on about businesses who want to mandate vaccines for their workers. Of course, this is assuming what supplies come on board and eligibility is expanded. Sticking with you, Holly Hughes, seems to be a bit of frustration that the Federal Government will not step in here and either provide the kind of legal protections that companies need. Is it fair to just leave them exposed here, asking them to navigate the fair work legal system?

HUGHES: At the end of the day, you are talking about something that will fall under health orders. These can be issued by the states. States can mandate, via their health orders, the vaccination. The Commonwealth has always approached this, but it is a voluntary scheme. We obviously want to provide as much as we can for people to be vaccinated, we are encouraging people to get vaccinated, the only way we're going to get out of this is by vaccination rates. We are now seeing them increase exponentially, not just the first dose but as people are getting that second jab. We have a third vaccine coming online, pharmacy rollout, this is all seeing exponential increases. At the end of the day, like the lockdown we are seeing in Canberra today, this is all issued under state and territory based health orders, and that will actually provide the protection under federal work legislation. So, what we need to see is that if states want to mandated outside of specific industries but make it a blank health order, individual states can do that, in the same way that these individual states are using health orders to shut borders and have lockdowns.

NORMAN: Is the Commonwealth also concerned here about the potential perception issue that if the Prime Minister gives backing to businesses to make vaccines mandatory, but would somehow kind of the road facing this voluntary program?

HUGHES: Look, Australians have always had a fantastic record when it comes to high vaccination rates. It has never been something we have considered. It has been absolutely appalling, some of the vaccine hesitancy that has been encouraged, especially if you look at what is happening in Queensland with their Chief Health Officer and some of the language that has been used, some of these commentators you see out and about. The vaccine hesitancy, the brand shopping is appalling. But Australians do have an incredibly good track record when it comes to vaccinations. We are seeing people come to the table now and I think that will just continue to increase and I think Australians are starting to see that, we have heard from Gladys, she is looking at things in New South Wales, if you have been fully vaccinated, things will start to open up for you. So there is the motivation. I think Australians will respond to that very quickly.

NORMAN: It is a big incentive. Jenny McAllister, are you comfortable with companies being left to their own devices to navigate the legal system and the mandates of business by business for workers?

MCALLISTER: I think we need to acknowledge the situation that working people are facing. The reality is, there are not enough vaccines. There are not enough appointments...

HUGHES: That isn't true. There is more AstraZeneca than we know what to do with. Stop talking it down! This is the issue. People are scared and they think they can't get a vaccine. There is plenty of AstraZeneca and the Labor Party needs to stop saying there isn't enough supply. That is actually a non- issue...

NORMAN: But it is not preferred for the over 60s. A lot of people under 60 are waiting for Pfizer supplies to come on board, which we know will over the next few months. Jenny McAllister, on that issue of companies being given the power to mandate vaccines...

MCALLISTER: Sorry, Jane, it is regrettable that Hollie chose to speak over the top of me. It is kind of premature to talk about mandates, isn't it, when it has been so difficult for people to get vaccinated. There is news out today that in one of the aged care facilities in the Hunter Valley that is navigating an outbreak, only 30% of the staff have been vaccinated. And the centre management there are saying it is because it has been difficult for staff to get access to vaccines. My preference would always be to work with those people in the community who want to get vaccinated. That is the vast majority of the Australian population. We should be getting clear communication about the vaccine, clear guidance and support for these workforces to get vaccinated. I will also say that I think it would be smart for businesses to be brought into a conversation with the union movement. You have the leaders of Australia's union movement out there in the papers today offering their support for a conversation of that kind. We do best when we work together. I think it would be helpful for the Commonwealth government to start taking some of these offers up and actually start to navigate a pathway for more collaborative processes within the Australian Federation.

NORMAN: Jenny McAllister and Holly Hughes, I will have to let you go because Holly needs to go to Question Time in just a few minutes. Thanks for your time today.

MCALLISTER: So do I, remotely!

NORMAN: Of course, remotely. My mistake!

MCALLISTER: Thanks Jane.