Interview with Tahlea Aualiitia – ABC Pacific Beat

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Support for Fiji; vaccines in the Pacific; travel bubbles; Agriculture visa and Pacific labour; Samoa and Vanuatu parliaments
21 June 2021

Tahlea Aualiitia: As you heard earlier in the program, Fiji yesterday announced another record day of COVID-19 infections, 166 new cases and one death, bringing the country's death toll to 7. It comes as Australia on the weekend sent another 50,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to the country and announced they'll also send a medical team to Fiji to help deal with the nation's coronavirus outbreak. Joining us now is Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development, Zed Seselja, to talk about the support Australia is offering the region. Minister, welcome back to Pacific Beat.

Minister Seselja: Good morning, Tahlea. How are you?

Tahlea Aualiitia: I'm doing very well, thank you. And you surely must have a smile on your face. More good news over the weekend, a delivery of 50,000 Vaccines to Fiji, making it 250,000 so far. I know that the government promised a million, so what is the timeline for the other 750,000?

Minister Seselja: Well, it's coming and it's ramping up, and it is good news. The last week, you're right, there was 50,000 on the weekend, there was 20,000 on Thursday, so 70,000 doses went to Fiji last week. And as you rightly point out, that's a quarter of a million of our 1 million commitment. It is ramping up pretty quickly. Obviously, we're making assessments on a, really a daily basis, but certainly a weekly basis, as to how many vaccines we're capable of sharing at any one time. We're in pretty regular contact with our counterparts in Fiji, talking about their supplies, how they're going, as well as other countries in the Pacific.

But Fiji has had a particular focus in the last little bit. As you say, they've had a concerning outbreak. But I think one of the positive things as they responded, as we support them in that response, is the high number of vaccinations. They've now delivered on the latest numbers I've seen, around 274,000 doses - 18,000 of those are second doses - so around 44 per cent of their target population have been vaccinated. So it's a pretty critical time in Fiji, as it is in a number of other countries, that's why these doses are very, very important, that's why the other support we're providing will be very, very important going forward.

Tahlea Aualiitia: Indeed. And the vaccination numbers in Fiji, they're better than what they are here in Australia. So that at least is some good news as the country deals with the outbreak. But as you just said, it's not just Fiji in the region who are dealing with COVID-19, in particular, PNG, Guam and Timor-Leste all dealing with outbreaks of their own, and Australia has been sending AstraZeneca vaccines to the region. Now nationally, the latest update from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or ATAGI as we like to call them, has further restricted the AstraZeneca roll out here in Australia, now recommending it for those aged 60 and over. Could that potentially speed up the rollout of AstraZeneca to the Pacific?

Minister Seselja: Well, that is possible. So what we do is we do an assessment obviously of our stocks of the AstraZeneca vaccine and then how much is able to be shared. AstraZeneca, of course, has been an important part of our rollout. Around, I think, several million AstraZeneca doses have been delivered in Australia and obviously, that is the vaccine that we've been manufacturing. We work with the Health Minister, the health department, and on, as I say, on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, consideration of the number of doses that are available obviously the needs here in Australia first and foremost, but then very quickly behind that is how we can continue to assist our Pacific families. We will see in the coming days and weeks how many are available, and we will continue to have those discussions. Certainly, the intent is to, wherever possible, after we've gotten the right number of doses for Australia's needs right now, is to make sure that excess doses are very quickly shared into the Pacific.

Tahlea Aualiitia: And I know, particularly with AstraZeneca, there is the concern with the very, very rare link to blood clots. So just to confirm, when ATAGI gives the Australian Government advice, that advice is also then applied to how the Pacific vaccine rollout is working out too. It's not like Australia's getting one set of advice and the Pacific's getting something completely different.

Minister Seselja: No, that's right. And so as I said, AstraZeneca has been a very important part of our vaccine rollout and will continue to be. And as that advice is updated, obviously our Pacific neighbours received that advice, they're aware of that advice, and they make their own judgments based on their risk profile. And so obviously, the risk profile is dependent on a couple of really important variables, one is the amount of COVID in the community, and therefore the risk of getting COVID, versus the, as you say, the very, very low risk of adverse reactions from the vaccine. But secondly, it's also about what alternatives there might be. And so those are the risk profiles, or those are the risk assessments that ATAGI makes in Australia, and that's the risk assessments that individual governments make as they're deciding their vaccine rollouts.

Tahlea Aualiitia: And the WHO and the Ministry of Health also in Fiji put out a statement over the weekend talking about that specific thing.

Minister, over the weekend, it was also announced that Australia's first locally-made COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is set for clinical trials. What benefit could the Pacific see if Australia was able to begin locally producing mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer, and does Australia have plans to send Pfizer to the Pacific?

Minister Seselja: Well, a couple of things. One, obviously, our current sovereign capability of being able to produce AstraZeneca in Australia has been very, very important, as obviously we've seen constrained supplies right around the world. And one of the reasons we've been able to deliver to the Pacific to date is because we have a sovereign capability. Now when it comes to mRNA, obviously that is a newer technology, that is in the earlier stages in terms of Australia's capacity to produce that. There are very few parts of the world where that is able to be produced, but we are leaving no stone unturned. But that's not going to be something that can be done immediately, but going down the track, of course, because as we get on top of things, as we get our vaccine rollouts out, our vaccines, our populations vaccinated, we know that, you know, in coming years, there will likely be a need for booster shots and we will be responding to the evolving virus and learning to live with it.

So having that capability, which won't happen immediately, but will happen in the future, I think will be great for Australia, and obviously will be good for our region. Just as having the CSL's capability to produce AstraZeneca has allowed us to share around 350,000 doses to date.

Tahlea Aualiitia: And not only low levels of vaccination do they increase pandemic risks, but obviously they delay borders reopening. I am itching it to go to the Pacific, Minister. So how is the Pacific travel bubble coming along? And you know, given that countries like Fiji, are seeing outbreaks, how long can it be until we expect to be opening of a Pacific travel bubble in the region?

Minister Seselja: Well, look, I'm with you in the itching to get to the region and-- but I think it's fair to say that the Fiji outbreak, Fiji was, is clearly one of the countries that we would like to see travel bubbles with sooner rather than later. But the Fiji outbreak obviously has to be brought under control before more detailed decisions can be made on that.

So, there is a strong intent, when it's safe to do so, from the Australian Government to do this, but at the moment, the focus is on getting those vaccines out, getting it under control, and then we'll be in a better position, in the coming weeks and months to be making further decisions. But it is important. It's important to Australians who, of course love and have many who have very strong family connections and family and friends in the Pacific but also, we know it's critically important to those nations and I'm conscious, very conscious, of the economic impacts of the shutdowns on places like Fiji and Vanuatu, and many other countries in the region who rely heavily on tourism.

So, we're keen to do it, but of course, at the moment, the immediate priority is getting those vaccines out and making sure it's safe.

Tahlea Aualiitia: Indeed, you're listening to Zed Seselja, Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development.

On some other issues now Minister, a proposed new agriculture visa for people from Southeast Asian countries have many people in the Pacific concerned that it will undermine existing Pacific labour schemes, which are really seen as a centre point of Australia's Pacific Step Up.
Now, speaking about it yesterday on Insiders, Australia's Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, said this.

[Excerpt] Minister Payne: Well, the first thing I can say is, it absolutely will not mean that Pacific workers are left out.
Tahlea Aualiitia: Can you explain the how? Like, what are the assurances in place to ensure that the Pacific is not left out or left behind if another agricultural visa is introduced in that sector?

Minister Seselja: Well, I can confirm what the Foreign Minister had to say and that is that we will continue to prioritise this very, very important scheme, the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Programme, well into the future. And in fact, not only will this not be undermined, it will, we anticipate it will continue to grow strongly, because it has been well received in Australia by, in particular, in the agriculture sector, but also in other sectors, and also we know it's very, very important to our Pacific neighbours. And particularly at this time when other sources of income have dried up, such as tourism, the remittances coming from the Pacific Labour Scheme have been very, very important.

Now when we look forward to visa schemes with ASEAN nations, as have been announced, Alex Hawke will be leading that programme and he will be very carefully assessing all of the needs. But this is about responding to shortages as a result of us having a very low unemployment rate now, coming down very strongly, very strong employment growth, and very strong demand.

So, it'll be responding to that demand, and it will be building on and complementing what we have with our Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Programme. So, there is absolutely no intention, and it won't happen that we would undermine that scheme. It's very valuable to the Australian Government, we know it's very valuable to our Pacific neighbours. But we will make sure that our farmers, in particular, have the labour that they need, and we will therefore build on what is a very successful scheme as needed for the demands of particularly agriculture, but also other sectors.

Tahlea Aualiitia: Indeed. I can't let you go without asking a question about China, and Politico was reporting last week that the Pentagon is considering a permanent Naval task force in the Pacific to counter threats from China. Experts say an effective Pacific standing force would require the cooperation of allies like Australia. Is that something that the Government would engage in?

Minister Seselja: Well, look, I obviously leave detailed answers on that to the Defence Minister in particular, but what I would say is we always welcome, we welcome a strong US engagement in the region, we always have. They're, of course, our most important ally, and Australia's own efforts in stepping up our defence is all about Australian sovereignty and ensuring we have a stable region. And you know, the United States is an absolutely key, the absolutely key partner in that. So obviously, I'll leave some of the detail of that to the Defence Minister, but of course, we welcome US engagement in the region.

Tahlea Aualiitia: And finally, Minister, there's a great deal of political uncertainty in both Vanuatu and of course Samoa. How closely is Australia and you following these events, and would you look at stepping in if required?

Minister Seselja: Well, we respect the sovereignty of all of those nations. And as they go through, you know, challenges from time to time. I mean, democracy brings with it challenges sometimes, and very close results and disputed results. We absolutely respect the institutions that they have, the fact that there are judicial proceedings, and we respect absolutely those. So, Australia doesn't dictate terms to our neighbours, nor seek to dictate terms. We respect their democratic rights, and we're watching, of course, very closely as those are being resolved.

Tahlea Aualiitia: Indeed. You've been very generous with your time this morning, and I appreciate it. Minister, thank you so much for joining Pacific Beat this morning.

Minister Seselja: It's my pleasure, thanks for having me.

Tahlea Aualiitia: Thank you. That was Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja there.

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