Interview with Kieran Gilbert Sky News afternoon agenda

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Vaccine rollout in the Pacific; Ag visa and Pacific Labour.
24 June 2021

Kieran Gilbert: With me now is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja. Thanks for your time. Let's start with the vaccine focus in our region – obviously it is a big focus, quite rightly, that we try to help vaccinate the less well-off neighbours in the region. Where is that at?

Minister Seselja: It's progressing quite well, Kieran, and we are seeing a real ramp up of that in recent weeks, and we anticipate that will continue in the coming weeks. So, a big focus has been on Fiji. Fiji has had a pretty significant outbreak which is still, they are still doing their best to get under control. But a concerning number of cases in Fiji at the moment, and so we've committed 1 million doses to Fiji, our Prime Minister indicated that to Prime Minister Bainimarama a little while ago. We've already delivered 250,000 of those doses, and we're going to deliver another 70,000 doses this week. So that will take that to 320,000 doses – well over 400,000 in the Pacific generally. And we're delivering, I guess, to those who are needing it most, and have the capacity to get it out. So places like Timor-Leste as well, have had 70,000 doses come from Australia, which I know has been very well received.

Kieran Gilbert: And do they have the medical framework and expertise to be delivering those numbers? You're not talking, I mean, obviously Fiji is probably, has a better set up than some. But they're tiny populations, but also tiny medical infrastructure.

Minister Seselja: Well, I think it's fair to say that there is a difference in and amongst different countries within the Pacific. You're right to point out that the Fiji medical system is, I think, the most advanced of Pacific island nations. And what we've seen is a pretty rapid rollout of vaccines in Fiji. We're also seeing some good numbers in Timor-Leste, though. So, for a small population, they are managing to start to vaccinate a significant amount of their population. I think it's fair to say that in PNG it has been somewhat slower, but there are different challenges there both with their health system, also some of the remoteness of what goes on PNG. But what I would say is, we work in addition to just handing over doses, delivering doses, we deliver a lot of other support. So, for instance, in Fiji, we've got an AUSMAT team which is a forward team that helps with a lot of the planning of controlling the virus. We've providing that end-to-end support to PNG, to Timor-Leste.

Kieran Gilbert: So that AUSMAT team remains in Fiji?

Minister Seselja: Indeed.

Kieran Gilbert: And has the revised advice here, which we've seen today, I spoke to Peter Collingon about that timeline for phasing out AstraZeneca, because everyone in that cohort of over-60 that will get vaccinated would have been done by October. Has that helped free up supplies so that we can export it, essentially, to those less well-off nations?

Minister Seselja: Well, I think that's what we'll see more and more. And so, what we do, is we do a pretty regular assessment between DFAT and Department of Health, obviously, and the Health Minister and the Foreign Minister and I. And we are constantly looking at the forward need for doses, obviously in Australia. That is our first priority. But beyond that, where there are spare doses, and we've seen that in recent weeks, we then are able to offer those, first and foremost, to our Pacific neighbours. So we've been doing that, and it has ramped up. A little while ago, we committed to a minimum of 10,000 a week, but we've been doing much more than that in recent weeks, in some cases several times that amount. So I anticipate that that will continue to ramp up. And our first priority is Australia, but our next priority is to make sure our region is looked after. It's in, obviously, the interest of those living in those Pacific islands, but it's also in our interests to see our region looked after.

Kieran Gilbert: It absolutely is. Of course it is. And indeed, whether it be just being good neighbours, but also being the largest nation in our Southern Pacific region, but also, to reopen travel. Because of course, this is, these are destinations that Australians travel to so often, have good relationships with those in the Pacific.

Minister Seselja: Absolutely, and Australians I talk to want us to be generous in this space, they really do, and that's what we are doing. The Prime Minister said it's a moral and economic necessity to help vaccinate our region.

Kieran Gilbert: Can you see a scenario where these nations are vaccinated in their entirety well ahead of other nations, developing nations and regions? Because they're tiny populations.

Minister Seselja: I think we will see that. I think we absolutely will see that in the Pacific, and that is very much our goal. And you're right that once you get it under control, and some nations of course have had either no COVID or very, very little COVID in the region. So we're talking about outbreaks in places Fiji and PNG and Timor-Leste at the moment, but places like Tonga, I believe, have had zero cases. So they are in a different scenario, but of course, until the region is vaccinated and it is under control, it will still be difficult to see travel. But that is the next step. Once you get it under control, once you get a heavily vaccinated population, then of course things like travel bubbles to places like Fiji, Vanuatu, and beyond become a possibility.

Kieran Gilbert: I've seen reports of hesitancy out of PNG and elsewhere in the region. Is that, how big an issue is that to try and grapple with? Because it's one thing sending the doses there, but will people take them?

Minister Seselja: I think it's fair to say it's different in different places. I think you're right to say that in PNG, it has been a pretty significant issue. We have been working with churches, with sporting groups, with political leaders, to counter that, and I think some of that counter messaging has been very successful. I think it's been pretty successful in places like Timor-Leste, where we saw some misinformation recently. I think in places like Fiji and other nations there is less of that hesitancy, based on the figures I'm seeing. So, for instance, in PNG though, responding to that, sports stars like Mal Meninga in Australia are revered in places like PNG. And, you know, Mal and I did some work together, and Mal very generously gave his time, encouraging people to get the jab. So, it's not just people like him, it’s church leaders, it's political leaders. But we've got to really attack this on all fronts, but we're working very hard to make sure it happens. We're seeing real progress, and we're going to continue to work closely with those health systems.

Kieran Gilbert: I think I said earlier that AstraZeneca was phased out. That's not right. The way to put it is that additional orders can be met subsequent to the demands of our over 60 population being met, but AstraZeneca will still be available where needed in this country.

Minister Seselja: It will still be available, that's right.

Kieran Gilbert: So that wasn't the right use of words. But let's finish off, if we can, with the agriculture visa, because this is something the Nationals have pushed for. Is there a risk, though, that our Pacific partners, our Pacific neighbours and friends, miss out because they've obviously had a huge role to play in terms of working in the agriculture sector and sending home remittances?

Minister Seselja: Well, I would say no, there isn't that risk because the Australian Government is very committed to making sure that not only our Pacific Labour Scheme and our Seasonal Worker Programme continue but that it in fact grows, and we've seen it growing.

Kieran Gilbert: So the ASEAN ag visa, for example, that's not a threat?

Minister Seselja: No. So an ag visa from other places would actually simply build on what we're doing in the Pacific. The Pacific is a very successful scheme. We– it's very success-it's very positive for our farmers and other industries, but it's also very positive for those nations. So, it's very much in both our interests and the interests of the Pacific to continue that scheme, but –

Kieran Gilbert: Important strategic policy as well.

Minister Seselja: One hundred per cent. But we can't meet all of our labour needs necessarily from the Pacific, and of course, we look elsewhere. We want to make sure that farmers have the workers they need, but it won't come at the expense of these Pacific labour schemes.

Kieran Gilbert: Senator Zed Seselja, appreciate your time.

Minister Seselja: Thanks very much.

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