Q&A devolved into a bit of a mess on Monday night when Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack brought up a Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne, claiming it was a key cause of Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus infections.
The subject came up out of the blue when host Hamish Macdonald asked whether the rest of Australia could trust Victoria’s contact tracing system.
“Well let’s wait and see. At the moment we haven’t been able to do that,” said Mr McCormack, who is leader of the National Party.
“The public health officials have to do that tracking and tracing. That is the key.”
“That isn’t my question. Can we trust-” Macdonald interjected.
“We haven’t been able to so far,” said Mr McCormack.
He then launched into an explanation of the causes of Victoria’s outbreak.
There was a fair bit of cross-talk between the two men, so I’m just going to transcribe the whole exchange for you.
McCormack: “We have had that outbreak because of the security guards, who did the wrong thing. We had that outbreak because of a family who gathered in too large a number. We had the outbreak in Victoria because of a protest rally.”
Macdonald: “Sorry, what’s the evidence of the protest rally leading to the outbreak?”
McCormack: “Well there were three confirmed cases from one of those protest rallies.”
Macdonald: “Are you saying that’s led to the outbreak?”
McCormack: “It didn’t help the situation.”
Macdonald: “Sorry, you’re drawing a link that I’m not sure is substantiated in fact.”
McCormack: “When the second wave occurred, they were the three reasons that were given. It was the security failure, it was the family that gathered in too large numbers-”
Macdonald: “I’m not sure there is any actual evidence that the Black Lives Matter protest led to this outbreak.”
McCormack: “Well that’s what – that is what was being said at the time.”
Macdonald: “Do you accept you were wrong in saying that?”
McCormack: “No I don’t. I don’t think people should be protesting, actually, at the moment. In any way, shape or form.”
Macdonald: “I’m sorry, I’m just testing you on a fact. You have put forward that the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne led to this outbreak. I do not believe that’s supported by fact. There were a number of cases that people had COVID there, but there is no evidence that-”
McCormack: “That can’t have helped. Tracking and tracing was not what it should be. Who knows? They don’t know themselves.”
Macdonald: “Do you accept-”
McCormack: “So there were people at that rally with COVID-19 – and that has since been proven, that they did have COVID-19 when they went to that protest, they should not have been at that protest, nor should the protest have been-”
Macdonald: “You accept that did not lead to the outbreak?”
McCormack: “Police resources have been used unjustly. They should have been doing what their job is, and that is to ensure that law and order has been kept, rather than have to attend and babysit a group of protesters who shouldn’t have been protesting in the first place.”
Like I said, a bit of a mess.
Macdonald then threw to a couple more guests, allowing them to weigh in on the matter. First up was Dr Omar Khorshid, President of the Australian Medical Association.
“With respect, Deputy Prime Minister, we do know what happened in Victoria. We know that the processes around hotel quarantine failed, the virus was able to get into some community groups,” Dr Khorshid said.
“And then the contact tracing and the public health response was too slow. The lockdowns and restrictions were too slow.”
“Omar, is there any evidence that the Black Lives Matter protest led to the outbreak?” Macdonald asked.
“No. I’m certainly not aware of any evidence that the Black Lives Matter protest resulted in the outbreak in Victoria,” said Dr Khorshid.
“But I would agree that congregating in large numbers at the moment does not make sense. But we shouldn’t be hiding from the real causes of the outbreak.”
Labor’s Shadow Home Affairs Minister, Kristina Keneally, then got to take a swing at Mr McCormack.
“I’m gobsmacked by what I heard from the Deputy Prime Minister,” she said.
“Trying to assert that this second wave in Victoria is linked directly to the Black Lives Matter protest. I mean, that is an alternative fact, Trumpism, make up your own reality.”
She then transitioned into an attack on the government’s COVIDSafe app.
For more on the facts around this Black Lives Matter protest, check out this article by my colleague Charis Chang.
AUSTRALIAN BORDERS IN SPOTLIGHT
Monday night’s Q&A episode largely focused on Australia’s border restrictions. The first two questions came from people who were either stranded overseas themselves, or had a loved one who couldn’t get home.
Julia Mickler’s husband was given permission to leave the country on compassionate grounds in July. He was visiting his dying father in Germany. Then his return flight was cancelled because of the government’s cap on international arrivals.
“Why doesn’t the government have a system in place to allow people who left the country on compassionate grounds to return home again?” Ms Mickler asked.
Macdonald gave her question to Mr McCormack.
“Why can’t you get people like this home? It is pretty – seems simple,” the host asked.
“These are heartwrenching stories,” Mr McCormack conceded.
“My heart does go out to your situation. We’re doing everything that we can. Obviously we’re putting the vulnerable cases first and foremost.
“I mean, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are working with individuals on these sorts of cases. There are more than 20 airlines flying into Australia.
“I know, back in March the Prime Minister urged and encouraged, even implored, Australians if they could, to come home. Appreciating that your situation arose after that, 374,000 Australians have come home.
“Yes, we are limited by quarantine capacity that the states asked us to put in place. I have spoken to many of the premiers just today as to whether we can look at the caps and whether we can, in fact, extend them. They are limited by their capacity.
“But we’re doing everything we can.”
Ms Keneally pointed out that 25,000 Australians remain stranded overseas.
“Is there any more Australian value than look after your mates? Don’t leave your mates behind?” she asked.
“With all due respect, Michael, there is a lot more that could be done. Yes, there is a weekly cap of 4000. It is not at capacity. It hasn’t been at capacity.
“Secondly, there are caps on individual cities. There are only four cities where international flights are currently allowed to arrive. Why aren’t we using Darwin or the Gold Coast or Canberra, where we could have international airports?”
“We are exploring those options and opportunities as we speak,” said Mr McCormack.
“We’re certainly looking at this. We’re certainly doing everything we can. It isn’t a new problem. It is a problem that has been exacerbated by states closing their borders.”
Ms Keneally argued it was a Commonwealth responsibility.
“The Commonwealth, at the beginning of this crisis, brought people home from Wuhan, brought them through Darwin and put them into quarantine facilities run by the Commonwealth,” she said.
“It is the Commonwealth’s fundamental responsibility to look after stranded Australians when they’re overseas.
“This government was very quick to put in place a plan to ship seafood out of the country. If you are a lobster or a crayfish, you get a chartered flight out of Australia.
“But what have we done for stranded Australians? How many chartered flights? None!”
Before the discussion moved on, Ms Mickler was given one more chance to speak.
“I just think my husband applied for an exemption to the travel ban, and it was provided on compassionate grounds. And I know you have said there, the department’s working on it. Well, we haven’t heard from them,” she said, referring back to Mr McCormack’s answer.
“My husband was due back. And we haven’t – we don’t know when he’s coming back. And that uncertainty – he can’t tell his employer when he’s coming back.
“We don’t know when he’s coming back. Is it going to be for months? If flights keep getting cancelled …”
Macdonald jumped back in.
“Do you understand why say, ‘We are working on it,’ for these families, isn’t enough?” he asked Mr McCormack.
“I can. And look, there are so many thousands of compassionate cases, yours being one of them. We are doing everything that we can to put those vulnerable people at the front of the queue. It is very, very difficult,” the Deputy PM replied.
Asked whether the government was considering more rescue flights, he said “nothing is off the table at the moment” and “every option” was being considered.
MUM STRANDED WITH FEARS FOR MENTAL HEALTH
The next question came from Ella Callanan, a 28-year-old student who is stranded in Geneva, Switzerland with her young baby.
Ms Callanan said she was suffering from severe post-partum depression, and it was being exacerbated by her separation from her family, who live in Sydney.
“I am alone in Switzerland with no support. I wish to return to Sydney. However, I fear hotel quarantine alone with my baby for 14 days may be detrimental to my health, as well as my baby’s wellbeing,” she told the panel.
“I’m also unable to afford the cost of hotel quarantine. I have made an application to be exempt from hotel quarantine, however, after more than one month, I am yet to receive a reply.
“Despite being an Australian citizen, I feel like my own country has turned its back on me.
“Why am I, like many other Australian citizens, being ignored in favour of isolationist policies?”
Macdonald threw that one to Dr Khorshid.
“It is a very sad story, and underlines the impact of this virus and the various rules put in place on ordinary Australians all over the world. There is more that can be done,” the AMA President said.
He then called back to the previous question, from Ms Mickler.
“The government could do something right now, if it really wanted to. All the figures are arbitrary. The 4000-person cap, that is an arbitrary number. The size of the hotel quarantine, that’s arbitrary. The way that hotel quarantine is done is changeable.
“I think a little bit of compassion is what is needed here to look after the lives of Australians, and that also means protecting us here in Australia from the virus.
“So don’t take what I said as not being supportive of hotel quarantine. It is the one most successful measure that protected the country from the virus. When it goes wrong – like was horribly demonstrated in Victoria – the effects are terrible.
“We need the border restrictions. We do need the hotel quarantine. But the government can look after Australians at the same time.”
He conceded that the fortnight locked up in a hotel “can feel a little like a prison”.
“But it’s something that’s been brought in very quickly, without a lot of time. As we know, it takes government an awful long time to do most things. But there is no doubt there is an opportunity for the government to do more,” he said.
Dr Khorshid also suggested the government could do more to reach out to Australians stuck overseas with mental health services.
Mr McCormack got a chance to respond. He was asked why the government won’t simply increase the caps on the number of people who can come back.
“We have allowed the premiers to actually give us the number that they felt comfortable with, that they could manage and maintain, while making sure that integrity of the quarantine system was what it needs to be so that we don’t get more community transmission,” Mr McCormack said.
The next questioner asked whether the government had gone too far with its coronavirus restrictions, “with Australia essentially resembling a North Korean style dictatorship rather than a democracy”.
“Kristina Keneally, is it unfair to describe Australia like a North Korean dictatorship?” Macdonald asked.
“I can understand, particularly for Melbourne right now who are doing it tough, it is oppressive,” she said.
“We have all been saying it, but it needs to be said again – our hearts go out for them, for the situation they’re in.
“I don’t think it is a fair comparison, no. It’s not a valid comparison.”