02 September 2021


SUBJECT/S: COVID in remote Aboriginal communities; state borders opening up; vaccine rates/

 PATRICIA KARVELAS, PRESENTER: Time now for my afternoon political panel. Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, and Labor Senator, Malarndirri McCarthy both join me. Welcome. Malarndirri, starting with you. Hundreds of Indigenous people have contracted COVID since mid June mainly in New South Wales' west and far west. I know you've been very concerned about this. There is now a really concerted effort to try to lift those vaccination rates. The government's been saying all it is also vaccine hesitancy. Do you accept that there's high rates of vaccine hesitancy in some of these communities?

SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Well the question really has to be about what is the government doing to counteract some of the negative messaging that we're seeing across social media that is deterring people and not just First Nations people, but many Australians. And we don't see that counteraction occurring as quickly and immediately as it should. And it doesn't help. It doesn't assist. The second thing I think is that there needs to be translation into Aboriginal languages. At the Department of Health federally has translated six Aboriginal languages for the covid messaging yet 13 languages, Cashless Debit Card messaging. So the question is, what is the priority of the government? Clearly, we need far more communication. As you know, PK, we've got over 100 Aboriginal languages here in the Northern Territory. And of the six that have been translated, only two are from here.

KARVELAS: Yeah, well, look, there are a lot of Aboriginal languages spoken in this country, many are them are first languages for so many people. Trent Zimmerman, the Government's dropped the ball here, right? This is a federal government responsibility. There's no doubt about it. Vaccine hesitancy might be be the case. But isn't it the government's job to know it exists and to address it?

TRENT ZIMMERMAN MP: Well, at the end of the day, vaccines aren't mandatory, But of course, we're got to try and convince people to take the vaccine and we've been trying to do that across the country. And in relation to Indigenous communities, I wouldn't claim to be an expert the same way that Malarndirri is but I heard Ken Wyatt talking about it and he thought that the two principle issues were a bit of hesitancy and some of that related to misinformation but also the problem we've  seen in other parts of the where COVID’s not present, but the sense of urgency that comes with getting the vaccine has clearly been very tangibly driven by outbreaks occurring and obviously New South Wales reflects that today.

KARVELAS: Look, I just want to turn to the issue about borders. We've been talking about borders for so long now, my friends, but the borders around the country, the national plan. Starting with you, Malarndirri McCarthy, the Queensland Premier appears to have shifted the goalposts, talking about even children under 12 needing to to perhaps, or research into them getting vaccinated. For that to be included in order for Queensland to really consider opening up. That wasn't the plan thought was it? Queensland had signed up to a national plan that wasn't actually involving children getting vaccinated.

MCCARTHY: Well, clearly what we're still seeing PK, is that each jurisdiction is very concerned about how they're going to tackle it from their own perspectives. And those leaders of those jurisdictions are very cognisant of that. What we could ask, though, is what is the national plan for the rollout of the vaccination, especially with First Nations communities? So we talk about plans, and I would certainly like to see the plan for the roll out in terms of those remote and regional Australian communities where clearly it is not hitting the ground.

KARVELAS: Trent Zimmerman, clearly, I know your governments been going on - I could read your talking points to you, I’ve heard them so many times so please don't give it to me because I've heard them so many times I might start weirdly shaking. "The national plan, reopening Australia, blah blah blah. But really, if you look at the eligible population, it doesn't include children even in the eligible category from 12 to 15. Shouldn't they at least be included, Trent Zimmerman, given obviously we're seeing teenagers in ICU? This is a genuinely alarming situation.

ZIMMERMAN: Well, one thing worse than we reading the talking points would be me pretending to be an epidemiologist.

KARVELAS: Yes please don't.

ZIMMERMAN: So we have relied on the Doherty modelling. The Health Minister's made clear that they did consider the vaccination rates of children as well but I suppose the good news is that starts next week but we had to wait for vaccinations to be approved for 12 to 15 year olds as so many of your guests today have pointed out, there aren't any vaccinations approved anywhere in the world for under 12 and that will come, I suspect, but it might not for six months, it may not be for 12 months so the model that Doherty did was based on their assessment, including all of the eligible cohorts for vaccines and they've made it very clear that in getting to the 70 and 80% threshold, they considered children. And the other bit of advice that has obviously be very common sense is the best way to protect children is to make sure their parents are vaccinated themselves.

KARVELAS: Malarndirri, obviously the rates of vaccination are really different across the country. Children, not all children can can get vaccinated. If you're 12 and above, you will be able to but there are still delays about when that can happen. Do you think we should just accept that the story is going to be different in every state territory and we should accept that there's not going to be a national approach to this?

MCCARTHY: Well, I do think that what needs to be focussed on, PK, and I can't stress it enough is communication. I really do think this is an incredible failing of the federal government. If it just focussed on the fact that it's not communicating as well as it could in this space. And we have an English speaking country but English is not the only language here. And I think a lot of Australians probably find that a bit difficult to to comprehend. And I sincerely put it out there to the ministers who are listening to this that you must communicate the message even about 12 year olds, 13 year olds, 14 year olds, 15 year olds. Here in the Northern Territory, we've already started vaccinating at 12 year olds. We've already talked about the schools and involving the Department of Education and the schooling system. And again, that is important in terms of communication. So I can't stress enough how communication is vital.

KARVELAS: Trent Zimmerman, the Victorian Premier has warned the state border with New South Wales could stay closed well into even next year potentially, which obviously would be difficult for people who want to reunite. But what do you make of that? Do you think that's reasonable? If the New South Wales numbers are far more out of control than Victorian COVID cases and Victoria feels like closing that border is a way of trying to keep suppressing the outbreak, is it reasonable?

ZIMMERMAN: Well I think that every state government should stick to the plan that they signed up to but it would be very odd if we saw international arrivals freeing up coming into Sydney before arrivals from Melbourne did and that's the type of prospect that Dan Andrews is highlighting so I think that it all goes to the central issue about whether any state can effectively cottonwool themself against Delta arriving. Obviously some states are in that luxurious position at the moment but if you don't accept the targets of 70 and 80% then what is the alternative? It really does come down to that. And we just know that we can't keep the country the way it is now forever. That just would be disastrous.

KARVELAS: But do you accept, Trent Zimmerman for you to say that, because you're in New South Wales, right, opening up at 70 or 80 percent. You've got COVID in your state anyway. It probably isn't such a hard thing to get your head around. If you're in one of the COVID zero states to suddenly get to that trigger point and then open your border, which is another way of saying ok COVID make you're way in, it's inevitable. It's different isn't it? That's that's the conundrum right now.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, and it is difficult. I entirely understand the perspective that if you're in Tasmania or Queensland or WA, you think gosh, why do we want to open to the hordes of this virus hoarding across, open the borders, this virus coming across our thresholds, but it really does come back to, what is the alternative pathway. When we get to 70 percent, 80 percent vaccination thresholds, what we do know is that that is going to provide the community with the type of protection we need and of course we don't stop at 80 percent. I'm hoping we get to 90-95 percent as a nation. I hope we top that leader board by the end of the year, but it is what is the alternative that is available to states that want to go down this path. And I think it's unrealistic. so i think that what is more useful is that those State Premiers that at the moment are taking one tack, do what I thought Gladys Berejiklian did quite strongly today and that's really start the conversation with their communities, start that communication that Malarndirri was talking about what the future is going to mean when we do reach those vaccination thresholds.

KARVELAS: Malarndirri, obviously, the point that Trent Zimmerman makes is a really interesting one because COVID is everywhere and it's also in the two biggest states in the country and maybe the ACT still although they’re trying to get on top of that and look to be more successful. If that's the case, does the rest of Australia just close to those two big states? I mean, there are huge implications in your state for the tourism industry. for the Queensland tourism industry.

MCCARTHY: Yes, and you're right. It is a conundrum. It is a conundrum. Absolutely. And it's it's certainly something but very aware of in terms of the businesses in the Northern Territory wanting to open up. But don't forget too PK, we've got so many families who live up here who've had most of their families interstate and would like to go to Sydney or go to Melbourne and visit them. So we're very conscious of that as well. But ultimately, we have to take the advice of others. And I would like to point out here the Indigenous Doctors Association as well. I understand they put out a statement calling on 90 per cent or close to that for vaccination in terms of First Nations people so for here in the Northern Territory, obviously, we're very pleased to keep COVID out. And I think we would certainly want to continue to do that. You know, you've got the land councils have expressed that they want people vaccinated before they go into Aboriginal land. Nearly 50 per cent of the landmass here is Aboriginal land. So there has to be many people who are involved with that conversation, certainly from up here.

KARVELAS: I want to stay with you Malarndirri on that topic that I think we all need to be exploring a lot more. What does the future look like? So even if you get to 80 percent vaccinated, do you then open up Arnhem Land, for instance, to COVID potentially at 80 percent? What's what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that's not high enough? And do we need to have a separate target, in your view, for remote or regional Aboriginal communities?

MCCARTHY: Well, the challenge for us is clearly the messaging at the moment, PK, that the Australian government and Australians in particular have to focus on the fact that communication is not occurring. So I think that's a that's a really important one. And the use of this nation's media organisations, it's critical in that. Eventually, of course, I know that First Nations people would like to travel from Arnhem Land to other parts of the Territory, and they can at the moment. But if it comes into the Territory, clearly that stops straight away. And what you do have here, because of the Land Rights Act, you do have land councils who can close those communities off. So that conversation, when we get to it, has to include those land councils and also the Aboriginal community health control sector.

KARVELAS: Yeah, look, Trent Zimmerman, it's actually a really important question. I know you're going to point to the Doherty modelling, but it is a very sort of national approach. It doesn't look at the vulnerabilities of those some of those communities that already have comorbidities, other issues in the community. Even at a high rate of vaccination, there are real risks for some of those communities if the Delta variant or any other variant spreads. It is worth exploring the way to manage those communities so they're not shut off forever, which could potentially happen?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, fundamentally, we do need to make sure that the vaccination program is keeping up with those communities and if that means when we're getting towards the state of the national thresholds that when we get to that point, should be happening now, but it will allow us to focus very squarely on those areas where vaccinations rates are lower. But I think the other thing that  is missing in this debate, and I saw it pretty outrageously in Premier Paluszek’s comments this morning, is that when you get to the 70 percent threshold or the 80 percent threshold, the national plan is not one that then says let it rip. It envisages that you are still going going to have very strong public health measures. It envisages that certain localities that you might still need to have lockdowns. It's certainly predicated on the basis that some of the things that we've gotten used to like social distancing and face masks might be necessary in some circumstances as well. So so I think just looking at the thresholds in isolation is underestimating the type of things that we will still have top place when we get to that point.

KARVELAS: I think that's absolutely right. There is a lot more than just this kind of blanket opening. A lot of restrictions will be possible and are actually forecast. Thanks so much to both of you.