Transcript - Tasmania Talks with Mike O'Loughlin - 5 August '21



SUBJECTS: $300 payment for jabs; COVID outbreaks around Australia; lockdowns; vaccine rollout; George Christensen; vaccine hesitancy; rorts.

MIKE O’LAUGHLIN, HOST: Now it’s federal Labor member for Lyons with our regular spot. Brian Mitchell, good morning.


O’LAUGHLIN: Now listen, tell me, the vaccine rollout. We are incredibly successful in Tasmania at this stage compared to the mainland.

MITCHELL: Look, we’re doing very well in Tasmania. We expect to reach 80 per cent by November, so Tasmania’s definitely leading the nation which is terrific. But look, Mike, it’s important that we don’t lowball the targets or the expectations. If we don’t reach that critical mass of vaccinations, we’ll have more infections, more illness, more death when we finally do open the country and we want to avoid that by vaccinating as many people as possible.

O’LAUGHLIN: And also, complacency, as I’ve said at the start of this program this morning. Brian, it’s a fact and we’ve got to be careful of people that come in to visit and then all of a sudden, they’re visitors and wander around out of quarantine, have a bit of a stroll around. That’s what got other states in trouble with the Delta variant and it’s happening here. Complacency is our biggest threat.

MITCHELL: Well that’s right. I think we’ve taken it for granted and remember, these are returning Tasmanians. These aren’t necessarily Queensland visitors, they’re Tasmanians who’ve gone elsewhere and come home and then they’re just travelling around the place. I think because Tasmania has been so lucky in the past year, we haven’t taken it perhaps as seriously as they do on the mainland. But we really need to open up. Delta is an absolute shocker and it’s important – I mean look, there’s a poor young fellow in Sydney –

O’LAUGHLIN: Just 27 - yeah

MITCHELL: –who has just died and look it’s absolutely awful. We’ve got young people in ICU. Delta is a shocker; we need to keep it out of the state and that’s why these lockdowns have been so important. Short, sharp lockdowns are so important but Mike it’s really important to remember as well that lockdowns are costing the country about $2 billion a week for every lockdown. And this is why Labor put forward the idea for a $300 per person vaccination plan. That would cost the country $6 billion overall. If we avoid just $3 weeks of lockdown as a result of that, it’s paid for itself. So, it’s a small price to pay, and we think that’s worth it. Cash incentives work, Mike. Now we know most people are going to get vaccinated anyway because it’s the right thing to do, but there’s a small cohort at the end, 10-15 per cent who we can reach. We’ll never reach the final 5 per cent at the end because they’re anti-vaxxers or won’t do it. But there’s that 10-15 per cent who are saying “oh well, I’ll just wait around till one day when maybe I’ll do it”. That’s the critical mass we need to reach in order to get these vaccinations rates up. We need to try and vaccinate them and that’s why Labor’s proposed that $300 payment for people who get vaccinated before that December 1 deadline. It drives vaccinations up and these things work. Cash Incentives work – they work at supermarkets, retailers – governments do them, you know you  pay your rego early and get a discount, so I don’t know why the government has been so against this other than because Labor thought it up. It just doesn’t make sense.

O’LAUGHLIN: Well Brian, if I may, we put on our Facebook page “should you pay people to save their own lives? Labor wants to hand out $300 to those who get jabbed”. I’ll read you some of the comments. Jenette says “no, people should do their civil duty and just do it.” David says, “stop them from attending AFL games unless they’re vaccinated” and Cody says “any incentive to get vaccinated would be unfair to those who are ineligible to receive the vaccine. The government just needs to pull their finger out and make everyone eligible for Pfizer. First come, first served. The alternative is that those eligible for Pfizer and don’t want the vaccine to give their spot to those who aren’t eligible but do want it. This is from Cody. I know there are thousands ineligible for Pfizer due to their age which is no fault of theirs but want the Pfizer while those in the age bracket who are eligible are wasting a vaccine spot. Another one says, leigh says” sadly Labor is in opposition, say no more.” Tina says, “no, let nature take its course”, and Leonia “bribes, nothing more.” And that’s just on our Facebook page – there’s a lot more there.

MITCHELL: There’s a lot to unpack in all of those. I hear what they’re saying but the fact is cash incentives work. Other countries do these sorts of things – there’s been a lot of research into all sorts of incentives and as I say, we would love a world where everybody gets vaccinated to do the right thing. Most Australians will. Around 70-75 per cent of Australians will absolutely turn up just because it’s the right thing to do for their own health and the health of their families. It’s about 5-10 per cent who’ll never get vaccinated – they’re anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, whatever – they’ll never do it.

O’LAUGHLIN: What will they do though? Because when Delta hits, I mean that’s the scary part. This is just the most horrendous variant ever.

MITCHELL: It is but in terms of what we need to do, Mike, is hit critical mass. The mass we need to open up safely so that when we open up, we don’t have mass infections going through the community, when we hit 80 per cent, and to reach that, we need to reach those people who are just putting it off. Maybe they thought they’ll get it one day but they’re not hurrying up. What we’re saying is by December 1 you’ll get $300 if you’re vaccinated by then and that drives that action. This will work. It’s also important to remember, Mike, there’s a lot of workers in the community who are casual workers, who don’t get paid if they take a day off work to go and get vaccinated, so this helps them. At the end of the day, what this will do is drive vaccinations up, it puts money in the pockets of Australians many of whom are struggling at the moment for whatever reason, and Mike, every single dollar of this will end up back in the local community. It’ll end up in cash registers, at the local supermarket, local farmers market – it’s a six billion dollar shot in the arm for the economy.

O’LAUGHLIN: Will Labor’s proposal retrospectively include people who’ve already been vaccinated?

MITCHELL: Yes. We think that is fair and equitable. Every Australian who has been vaccinated or gets vaccinated will get a payment.

O’LAUGHLIN: Now that’s two jabs? Not just the first one?

MITCHELL: Yes. Fully vaccinated, that’s right.

O’LAUGHLIN: Fully vaccinated, yeah okay I mean that’s still got to pass through obviously…

MITCHELL: This is the thing, Mike. This is not an election promise from us. The election’s way after December. This is an idea to government. This is a constructive idea to the government. There’s no sort of payback for Labor in this. There’s no votes in this for us. This is an idea from us as a constructive idea for the government to drive up vaccinations. Frankly, I’ve been quite dismayed by the ferocity of the political attacks on this idea from the Prime Minister, particularly given Lieutenant-General Frewen and other experts are also saying “look at some stage we may need to consider cash incentives or other ideas to drive vaccinations up”. We’ve put this forward and the attack from the government’s just been off the charts.

O’LAUGHLIN: And what is also a little bit, well, I consider myself, well, what I read in the Australian today – I was quite gobsmacked that there are year 12 students now vaccine hesitant. Year 12 students. Now we’re saying that we need to get these because it’s really dangerous for the young people and this is on the mainland of course, and they’re hesitant. I mean, what is wrong? Obviously, marketing isn’t getting out there, it’s not getting out correctly. I mean, this is Pfizer!

MITCHELL: And this is the awful thing about it. There are so many ways to get information now that people are looking at. There are conspiracy theories and frankly you members of the government backbench who are part of the problem. The Prime Minister said yesterday, he sort of [indistinct] George Christensen over some of the comments he made. He’s not the only one – there’s Senator Gerard Rennick who’s out there. These are government members whoa re adding to this confusion and it’s no wonder there are young people I there’s looking at social media and other things and they’re confused about the messaging. There’s no doubt the advertising and marketing hasn’t bee good and the government needs to do a much better job. Now the number one issue at the moment is the lack of supply but the supplies are ramping up, we’ve got about nearly one million Australians getting vaccinated every week and that’s why we think we’re going to move pretty quickly from a lack of supply to other issues that we need to deal with. Hesitancy is one of those and that’s why we think this ($300 payment) is a good idea.

O’LAUGHLIN: And complacency of course as I’ve said all along, that concerns me more than anything because if it hits, and it hits a place like Tassie and it comes in and just goes rampant, there’ll be people saying “I wish I did – irrespective of $300 or not”!

MITCHELL: Yeah, I think if Tasmanians can start getting used to wearing masks where they can and sanitizing and probably social distancing’s quite important which I know a lot of us don’t do in Tasmania. I know I’m as guilty as anybody. I shake hands when I meet people and it’s only sometimes I do the elbow thing, so we need to get more serious about that sort of thing.

O’LAUGHLIN: Yes, I remember going up to someone to do the elbow thing and he said to me “mate I don’t do that” and I shook his hand. Look, let’s move on. I know Labor’s calling time on how the federal government hands out grants amid new scrutiny on the Coalition’s condemned “commuter car parks scheme” which was a cracker. The Labor finance spokesperson, Katy Gallagher I believe, introduced an anti-rorting bill to Parliament on Wednesday. I’d love your thoughts on this. It allows the public to see how ministers make decisions about where taxpayer money is spent. It’s nice to see some transparency, Brian.

MITCHELL: Well that would be a novel idea, wouldn’t it, to let the public know how public money is being spent? This anti-rorting bill which we introduced to the Senate on Wednesday, well, we’ve got no choice. The car park rorts was only the latest in a long line of them. We’ve had sports, infrastructure, regions, all sorts but the car park rorts where the latest. Billions and billions of dollars have been misused. What this bill will do is force minister who approve grant that have been protected by their departments or who award grants in their own electorates to report that decision to the Finance Minister within thirty days and that will cause those reports to be tabled in Parliament within five sitting days. Now, of course, we hope the government will support this bill. We know they won’t. But we think it’s important to draw attention to this because these rorts are just not the way public money should be spent.

O’LAUGHLIN: Well I mean it improves accountability and transparency. I’d love to know what’s going and half the time we don’t. These people get paid an awful lot of money and all of a sudden, look, even if the department says “no the department shouldn’t go there for a grant” all of a sudden the particular minister says “oh yeah it should, probably because he’s a mate of mine”, of it goes and we don’t hear any more about it.

MITCHELL: That’s right and what we know is where money goes is getting caught up in ministers’ offices with colour coded charts and it’s not based on the merits of the proposal, it’s based on the marginality of the seat and what are the political benefits rather than what are the community benefits. Now, you know, there’s always been election promises, that’s one thing, but when we see in the normal grants cycle – so if you’re a sports club and you put in a grant – if that is being assessed based on whether you’re in a liberal seat or a Labor seat the libs want to pinch, well that’s not the way public money should be spent, Mike.

O’LAUGHLIN: No, not at all. I mean, stops the rorts. Something else I wanted to mention – MyGov are now rolling out vaccine certificates. Have you seen those?

MITCHELL: I haven’t but look anything that drives up vaccinations or encourages people to get vaccinated I think is worth considering. But just before we move on, in the Senate also yesterday – very important – Nita Green, one of our Labor Senators, she’s moved for a senate inquiry into regional health and GPs and the reason I just want to briefly mention this is because we’re having GPs resigning and retiring in regional Lyons. Bridgewater and Brighton, I think we’re losing four GPs – either lost them already or losing them in the next few weeks. We’ve got a shortage across the country, particularly in the regions of GPs, so what we’re doing is calling for an inquiry into what on earth is going on and what we can do to fix it.

O’LAUGHLIN: Indeed, and we have a situation in Tasmania, you know, in that regard. But I just wanted to mention about vaccine passports because that situation with getting certificates through myGov, people will be saying down the track you’ve got – well you look at New York where you can’t go anywhere without proof of being vaccinated. Do you think we will? Because I know there’s a bit of argy-bargy in Parliament about vaccine passports. I know even Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, he regards a coronavirus vaccination passport system a “violation of Aussie freedoms and rights”.

MITCHELL: Yeah well it stopped being actively considered in the parliament, but I know it’s been talked about in corridors and that sort of thing. Look, I’ve got my concerns to be honest. I certainly want to see vaccinations rise but once this pandemic is over, I don’t want to see freedoms curtailed when the pandemic’s over. I think at the moment we’re in what’s like a war-time scenario and I don’t think war-time scenario measures should be continued after wartime, if that makes sense? So, I’ve got some concerns if Australians have to carry around a card or a document forevermore to allow them to travel or whatever, I’ve got some issues with that.

O’LAUGHLIN: But then again you look at Qantas and – well I tend to agree if you want to go on an international trip, I’d make sure I was vaccinated.

MITCHELL: And that happens already. If you want to go overseas, even before the pandemic started, you’ve got to show that you’ve got your TB and all your various shots otherwise they won’t let you fly. And there’s certainly, in terms of the private economy, businesses and Qantas and others can say “well, you can’t use our service if you don’t meet certain criteria”. Now, as long as that doesn’t cross discrimination lines, I think that’s fine. But in terms of access to government services and other things, I’ve got some concerns. I don’t have a fully formed view on it – I’m willing to hear all the evidence on all sides – but I think freedom is important, freedom of movement’s important, and I don’t want to see measures that we take in a pandemic or in a war-time scenario being continued on forever more.

O’LAUGHLIN: Tell me – it’s National Homelessness Week, Brian. We’ve got the freezing temperatures around Tassie and so many people homeless.

MITCHELL: It’s heartbreaking. I think last year 10,000 Australian woman and children were turned away from shelters due to overcrowding. We’ve got about 2,000 Tasmanians homeless right now and they’re thinking that’s going to increase when Census is taken next week. We’ve got demand for affordable housing well outstripping supply. We’re simply not building enough homes – that’s the simple truth of it Mike – and Covid’s highlighted the need for more affordable housing. Labor has plans for this. If we win the next election, we’ll build 20,000 new social housing properties, $100 million in crisis and transitional housing, but that’s in the future. We need action now.

O’LAUGHLIN: Well you do. You’ve got an election next March – potentially, of course – and then by the time that’s in and you’re safe if Labor gets in they will do that now but to build the homes that’s another six to eight nine months.

MITCHELL: That’s right. We need homes being built right now and we’ve got other issues of course. Even if the government stood up tomorrow and said they’ll build a thousand new homes, well where are the tradies? Where’s the supply? Where’s the materials? We know we’re hitting logjams with all that so it’s a pretty awful situation, quite frankly.

O’LAUGHLIN: Can I just mention too – Centrelink – I really quite agree with your thoughts on Centrelink needing permanent staff, not temporary labour hire. Increasing permanent staff numbers at Centrelink. I have spoken through Tasmania Talks to some people, pensioners in particular, who just need help at Centrelink and cannot get it.

MITCHELL: It’s absolutely appalling. The Centrelink system now is virtually unusable. If a person tries to seek human assistance, they just frankly can’t get it. If you’re on the phone for literally hours and sometimes you’re hung up on because they just don’t have the people. I know the Centrelink staff themselves are driven into the ground, they are busier than they’ve ever been and they’ve fewer staff than they’ve ever had and these new staff they’re putting on through labour hire are only temporary. We need more permanent staff in Centrelink – it’s as simple as that – and also, Mike, as a regional MP, what I know is that we need more of these Centrelink services, NDIS, Medicare, myAged Care, we need them in the regions as well, not just in Hobart or Launceston. We need them in our big regional towns – places like Campbell Town and Longford. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you were a pensioner, you went into a Centrelink office, asked for help with your pension and a person at the desk could help you go through the information you need to provide. Instead, the staff there are told you’ve got to redirect someone to a computer and you get onto the computer and can’t even make sense of what’s on the screen. It is almost like it’s been designed to fail and designed to make people give up and I think it just goes right against the whole idea of what we want our social security system to be – we want it to help people.