16 May 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks for coming today. I'll deal with a couple of matters before taking your questions.

Firstly, we're seeing the beginning of the easing of restrictions, which of course, is a very welcome thing. We have a long way to go, though, I think most people understand that, that there is still considerable risk. We all need to be careful. Governments are being appropriately cautious in removing the restrictions step by step. But the fact that many Australians can now for the first time, go to a cafe or go to a restaurant is a very welcome thing not only for them, but for the restaurants and cafes, and for the other businesses which are reopening. So step by step sticking together. We will get through this but there's considerable risk yet to go.

The second matter I'll deal with is yesterday, the Government made a mental health announcement in relation to COVID-19 and the transition out of it. Of course, any mental health announcement like that is a welcome one. However, the Australian Psychological Association, Headspace, and many others have pointed out that a fair dinkum announcement would involve extending the number of free Medicare consultations from 10 to 20, at least as a temporary measure, as the Government did in relation to bushfires, and as Labor has previously suggested. So I welcome the announcement in relation to mental health. But I would call on the Government to continue to work with mental health professionals and consider extending the Medicare mental health plans from 10 consultations to 20 as so many experts have pointed out is so necessary. We've had 600,000 Australians lose their jobs. The mental health impact of this crisis has a long way to go. And for many people 10 consultations simply won't be enough.

The final point I'll make before answering questions is that we started to see the elective surgery restrictions being lifted. And again, of course, that's very welcome. Included in elective surgery is dental work. Now what is very necessary is the Government to renew the National Partnership Agreement with the states in relation to dental for our most vulnerable Australians. This runs out on 30 June this year. This will be just six weeks away, the Government needs to fix this set up from the first of July onwards, those Australians who rely on public dental can continue to access public dental.

We already have very big waiting lists for public dental. We already have huge delays for people to get their teeth fixed. We already have thousands and thousands, up to 70,000 avoidable hospitalisations because people haven't been to the dentist. We're already have 2 million Australians delaying or avoiding dental care because they can't afford it. We can't afford to put more pressure on the dental system coming out of this crisis. It's urgent that Greg Hunt and the Federal Government, negotiate with the states a new National Partnership Agreement on public dental and get it implemented from the first of July onwards. We'll continue to call for that. We'll continue to hold the Government to account. Australians deserve world class, first class, public dental. They certainly won't have it without a National Partnership Agreement.

Happy to take questions from the telephone.

JOURNALIST: In regards to China and the comments made by US Ambassador Arthur Culvahouse who has accused China gross negligence, obsessive secrecy and brazen dishonesty in terms of the handling of the pandemic. What do you make of that analysis? Do you agree? And where does this put Australia given the US is a strategic ally?

BOWEN: Well, Ambassador Culvahouse is entitled to put his position in the position of United States, we put the position of Australia. The position of Australia is that, with the bipartisan position between the Government and the Opposition is that a an independent, thorough inquiry, looking forward to avoid any mistakes that have been made in the past would be a very useful exercise. We regard that is a pretty unremarkable suggestion by the Government. And it's one that we support, it would require considerable diplomacy, considerable effort to get that and the more work that's being done with other governments to get it the better. Whether they those governments be the United States, China, or the EU.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

BOWEN: Look, I'm going to leave Ambassador Culvahouse to his own comments and to defend those comments. I can only speak from an Australian perspective and the perspective of the alternative government of Australia to say we support a sensible, forward looking inquiry. So that if there is another pandemic mistakes the past, wherever they were made, can be avoided

JOURNALIST: With the elective surgery green light being given are you concerned about the backlog of cases during the restrictions?

BOWEN: Oh, look, there's no doubt that this will take some time to work through the backlog. I'm confident that states and territories will work with private hospitals with the Federal Government to do so. This was a necessary delay on elective surgery, it was something sensible to put in place. Of course, we don't have room for any further hospital funding cuts in relation to elective surgery going forward. But the fact of the matter is, I think most Australians will understand that this has been a delay, a necessary one, and let's get through the backlog as soon as is sensible.

JOURNALIST: About the restrictions that are easing and jobs coming back into the economy. We've seen some analysis from Treasury that says that step one, you'll say 98,000 jobs in the food industry coming back. And then by step three, that'll total with all the other industries 850,000 How confident are you that these numbers are correct? And after Job Keeper ends, do you think that businesses will be able to rehire their staff or the fact that there's been a gradual easing and not enough revenue coming into their businesses they will just say not can't do it, and it's back to square one?

BOWEN: Well, I think that every business will handle it in their own way and will do what they think is best for their staff and their business and their customers. The fact of the matter is, undoubtedly we will see some level of economic return to normalcy, but it will take some time. And we don't agree with the Prime Minister's analysis that everything will just snap back into its old arrangements, that the economy will just snap back automatically. We know that's not going to be the case. And I think the Prime Minister was wrong to say it would be the case. This has just as it has in the health space, it's going a long way to go in the economic space as well. The ramifications will be felt for a long time yet, and there will need to be sensible measures in place to support businesses through that to support individuals through that. And if the Prime Minister thinks on a magic day, everything's going to snap back to the old ways. I think he's wrong about that.

JOURNALIST: What do you think needs to happen and do you think there needs to be more of a focus on rebuilding the economy?

BOWEN: Oh, look, I think we have to do both. I think that we've always said that the best economic response is the best best health response. ie the sooner we get through the health crisis, the better and more quickly, the economy can return to more normal levels of activity that remains the case. It remains the case we need to be cautious as we lift restrictions, but it also remains the case that the support implies for business and individuals will continue to be necessary for some time yet, and there won't be a possible snap back where one day we'll wake up and everything's back to normal and everything can go back to normal.

JOURNALIST: While Australia will support this European Union motion it seems at the World Health Assembly. There's been a number of outspoken backbench government MPs this week from Concetta Fierravanti Wells. George Christensen we now see he's personally writing his own letter. He's asking the ambassador to appear before a parliamentary inquiry and labelling China as a country full of bullies. Is that sort of backbench commentary helpful to what Australia is trying to achieve (inaudible)?

BOWEN: No, it's not and the problem is that we have a missing Foreign Minister. I mean, this Government policy of an independent inquiry is getting more sensible support from the Labor Party than it is from the Government itself, and you've got a Foreign Affairs Minister who called for the independent inquiry in one interview, to the best of our knowledge hadn't reached out to our allies and friends to get support for that position when it was announced. And since then we've seen a vacuum from the Government, a lack of leadership, a lack of explanation, and has been filled by people like George Christensen, who are more interested in a cheap headline and appealing to their public profile than they are to a sensible conversation, a sensible contribution to what is a diplomatically sensitive approach, a sensitive task. We want to see this inquiry, but it will require sensible diplomacy and sensitive approaches, and we are not going to see that from the likes of George Christensen. He's more interested in a headline, and he's in making a serious contribution to the Foreign Affairs debate in this country.

Okay. Thanks for your time, everyone.