03 March 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Chris Bowen, welcome.

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Evening Patricia. Good to be with you.

KARVELAS:So these powers have not been used yet but they would allow for large gatherings to be banned, people to dob in their neighbours, forced quarantine and treatment. They do sound rather extreme. Do you see them as extreme?

BOWEN:Well they are powers that exist under the Act and the Biosecurity Act allows the Director of Biosecurity who happens to also be the Chief Medical Officer to declare a disease, a listed disease, a listed human disease. He actually did that on January 21. It joins five other diseases which have previously been listed. You're right that the powers, these particular powers arent used very often, haven't been used before other powers of course under Biosecurity Act used. The Biosecurity Act is based on a bill that we actually introduced in office and this Government renewed that bill and passed that bill with our support. I wouldn't expect Patricia that these powers would be used lightly. Well to put it more clearly I'm sure they would not be used lightly and they would be used in limited circumstances in the vast majority of cases. So the Director of Biosecurity, again the Chief Medical Officer has these powers that could be used at a geographically specific location if there was an outbreak of the disease in a particular place or a particular building that can apply to particular people. And they're really designed to be used if they are needed in extreme circumstances. So I have no quarrel with the Attorney-General raising the prospect. As I said this was listed as a human disease under the Biosecurity Act back on January 21st. That was the right thing for the Chief Medical Officer to do, to give himself these powers going forward and I'm sure the Chief Medical Officer who is also the Director of Biosecurity would implement them appropriately.

KARVELAS:Well this is why I was at pains to make the point that they exist but haven't been used yet but the Minister did say this morning to my colleague Fran Kelly that it's likely that they'll be used.

BOWEN:Well that's a matter for him to explain. Obviously we would hope that it's not necessary that they be used but they would be used by the very senior official Dr Murphy under advice. I'm sure he would consult with his State and Territory colleagues. I don't think it's likely that they're going to be used in a general way across the board affecting all Australians at once. But it's it is distinctly possible that theyre used to deal with a particular location, a particular event, a particular incident in dealing with this coronavirus.

KARVELAS:Labor offered the Government bipartisan support for the 2015 Biosecurity Act but what checks and balances does the legislation contain?

BOWEN:Well as I said it's actually based on a Biosecurity Bill that was introduced by the last Labor Government which didn't pass before the 2013 election. The Act is actually an updating of the old Quarantine Act. Of course there's always been powers you know since the Quarantine Act passed I think in 1908 the Government and the various senior Government officials have had serious powers. Often more Patricia to manage risk of pests and diseases entering with a more agricultural focus of course. But of course in the modern era it was appropriate to update those powers again.

They are applied by the Director of Biosecurity who is by definition also the Chief Medical Officer and they are designed to being implemented carefully temporarily and in extreme circumstances. And I think most Australians facing this health challenge knowing that we are facing this health challenge, that needs to be seen proportionately and in context but it is a very significant challenge around the world. I think the response so far by the Chief Medical Officer and his State and Territory colleagues has been a good one and has seen the number of cases in Australia be lower than you might otherwise expect. And that's why we've provided bipartisan support to the institution of the Chief Medical Officers working together because that is as it should be.

KARVELAS:It's unclear who the final arbiter of a decision like placing an entire apartment building under quarantine or forcibly detaining people or cancelling an AFL game would be. Do we know?

BOWEN:As I understand Patricia these powers are held by the Director of Biosecurity who is the Chief Medical Officer

KARVELAS:and ultimately has the power to make that decision?

BOWEN:That's my understanding. That's correct.

KARVELAS:Does it need more oversight power because the law Council says there needs to be more checks for controlling this.

BOWEN:I think Patricia know when we are through this issue there'll be appropriate opportunities to review the response across the board including the legislative framework. Including our response more broadly and whether we need to change our institutions. Whether we need a Centers for Disease Control for example. I think the time will come to have that conversation and to check and see what has worked and what hasn't and what needs to be refined. But at this stage as we enter this significant challenge the appropriate thing for us to do is to engage constructively with the Government of the day which we're doing. I don't think Australians need to see political ping-pong about this issue. Where I see constructive suggestions for the Opposition to make I have made them and will continue to make them. Where I see things I think the Government is doing wrong I'll point that out but I will also not just criticise for the sake of it and I will also engage very productively and constructively with the Government because I think that's what Australians would want a constructive Opposition to do. We've been engaging with the process through the Chief Medical Officer and the State and Territory colleagues. We've been in the situation where wherever I have received a briefing and have had the reasons for a decision taken so far and I've seen the logic for that. I've supported that both publicly and privately and I'll continue to do so where appropriate.

KARVELAS:We've seen more infections in fact 13 cases of coronavirus have now been confirmed in New South Wales. Are you concerned by the rising rate in the spread today?

BOWEN:Well I agree with the advice thats being given that we now need to prepare not for if more infections will come to Australia but when and managing that. And that is that is the situation that we're facing. The travel bans have been put in place for China and Iran have been the right decision but it was never the case that we could isolate ourselves completely from this virus and we do need to prepare for more diagnoses going forward. And we do need to put in place the things that are being put in place through the pandemic plan. I think that is, that is right now we need to again see this in context. While some of the modelling about the numbers of people who might be infected is very concerning we also need to remember that 80 per cent of cases will be mild based on all the evidence we've seen so far and in fact that's part of the challenge because a case can be so mild that you don't know you have it. You can be infectious but not know you have it because youre feeling slightly unwell perhaps but not really feeling sick and still going about your business and that is one of the challenges. That's one of the differences to the virus as we've seen in recent years like SARs which you see a large percentage of the people very severely impacted. So this is a significant health challenge. It will have challenges going forward. There are risks going forward. That's why I'm making constructive suggestions to the Government as we go about how to manage those risks. I've had discussions with the Government for example and based on the advice of some of our MPs like Warren Snowdon the Member for Lingiari and Linda Burney the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians about how we might prepare best remote communities that are already overcrowded. What happens if the virus gets into one of those? I've provided that feedback to the Government very constructive leaders say We think this needs to be a focus. We can we make these suggestions and I'll continue to do so on that and other matters.

KARVELAS:If you're just tuning in this is RN Drive. Im Patricia Karvelas and our guest is the Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen. The RBA has cut interest rates to a new record low to boost the economy which has obviously taken a huge hit from the coronavirus. In fact it cites the coronavirus as a reason for this decision. How effective do you think that will be?

BOWEN:Well let's not say it's all down to the coronavirus. I don't for one second

KARVELAS:segment to mention it quite a few times in their decision.

BOWEN:I don't. If you'd just let me finish the sentence. I don't for one second deny that the Coronavirus has an economic impact but let's not pretend that the economy wasn't already tanking before the bushfires and before coronavirus and in reality we are dealing with these challenges from a position of economic weakness and the Reserve Bank also today indicates that wages growth is not expected to pick up for some time despite all the rhetoric of the Government about wages growth and about how its the next train to leave the station that we've been hearing now for years despite every single Budget getting the wages projections wrong.

This Government has no plan when it comes to wages, no plan when it comes to economic growth. When they're now talking about an accelerated depreciation. Well Labor went to the last election with a policy for an investment guarantee, accelerated depreciation regime. Josh Frydenberg just dismissed that out of hand arrogantly and said it wasn't necessary. Well now we've got businesses calling for exactly that policy, that upfront deduction, accelerated depreciation for investment. We said it would be necessary to spur investment then. The Government said Nothing to see here. Economic growth is strong. They were wrong. We now have interest rates at record lows, much lower than during the Global Financial Crisis, the biggest economic crisis we've seen since the Great Depression and down to very very low levels indeed and people are right to say and the Reserve Bank itself has previously said sometimes these reductions in interest rates aren't all that effective but they're the only game in town at the moment because the Government appears to have absolutely no plan when it comes to wages, to economic growth and to investment.

KARVELAS:Just finally Johnson and Johnson has been ordered to pay almost $2.6 million in damages to three victims of its pelvic floor mesh. Do you think that's a sufficient amount in damages in your view?

BOWEN:Well it's not for me to comment on whether a court has made the right decision when it comes to damages other than to say Patricia that this is very welcome for the women who've been through so much for so long. And this is if you like part two as I understand of a class action, a large number of women received compensation last year. This payment goes to a much smaller number of women who've been very severely impacted. There was a Senate inquiry into these products in recent years. The Government, the Federal Government issued an apology which we very much welcomed at the time. They accepted 12 of the 13 recommendations of the Senate inquiry which I also welcome again. Again, these women have been through so much and it's a very substantial pay out today. And it just, it does show the seriousness of the issue and and the appropriateness of the process that was undertaken through the class action.

KARVELAS:Chris Bowen, Thanks for coming on.

BOWEN:Thanks Patricia. We didn't even get to sports rorts but there's so many Government scandals for you to cover I'm sure you will cover that.

KARVELAS:Well actually we are speaking tonight to Andrew Probyn our political editor a little later about what's been revealed to that Senate estimate.

BOWEN:Theres been a lot revealed including decisions open and shut made during the caretaker process which is a complete abrogation of responsibility and tradition. And the Prime Minister's Office personal involvement during the caretaker transition period. So this is a rolled gold scandal and Scott Morrison just shrugs his shoulders like it's going to go away. News for him: it's not.

KARVELAS:Chris Bowen, thank you.