19 May 2020

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Thanks very much for your time. Do you see this as a big win for the Australian Government helping drive to get this COVID-19 independent inquiry up and support it?

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Good morning, Tom. This is a very sensible move, which we have supported from the beginning an inquiry, an independent international inquiry into the response to COVID-19. It's unremarkable and sensible. And so of course, we welcome the progress. We provided bipartisan support from day one. We've made the point that it needs to be sensitively handled, diplomatically handled, it's not held by Liberal and National Party backbenchers falling over themselves to outdo themselves with rhetoric, but the sensible measures that have been put in place, the sensible inquiry is one that we would strongly support

CONNELL: In terms of any sort of issue with you have with how the relationship is going, though. On the Chinese side, you've got the Chinese Government having resisted this inquiry, the Ambassador having threatened Australia economically, before it even had support from the rest of the world. Ministers not returning phone calls and now, tariffs on barley, citing the Murray Darling Basin scheme, which is nowhere near barley, where it's actually growing. I mean, surely your main issue right now should be how the Chinese Government is managing things?

BOWEN: Well, as I said, we have provided bipartisan support to sensible measures from Government ministers, we've sought not to overly politicised and I don't think the relationship with China is helped when it's dragged through the Australian domestic political debate. And we have not politicised the fact for example, that Ministers Littleproud and Birmingham have had trouble getting return calls because they're trying their best. We have said, this is a body blow to the barley farmers in Western Australia in particular, it's a terrible body blow. And so sensible measures that the Australian Government puts in place, try and get this fixed will have our full bipartisan support. We're not going to drag this through the domestic political debate as some LNP backbenchers seem determined to do to try and sort of, you know, outdo themselves on tough language. This is a very sensitive, difficult time in one of our most important bilateral relationships, particularly important economic relationship. It should be handled sensitively by Government and Opposition. And certainly we're doing that.

CONNELL: There must be some concern given the scope of this health and economic crisis. The Chinese Communist Party was so resistant initially to this inquiry.

BOWEN: Oh, well look the important thing is the inquiry is now but by all reports are going to get underway. I think there's still a lot of detail to be worked through. Look, there's plenty of people around the world who could look back. And I think will look back and say things could have been done better. We've said we've supported from the outset, a sensible measured forward looking inquiry to learn the lessons not about blame apportionment, to learn the lessons and better prepare the world next time, get better communication channels through the World Health Organisation, potentially better transparency going forward when these things arise. Because the sooner we all know about it, the better. But that's the important thing Tom, this is not some sort of, shouldn't be seen as some sort of international geopolitical move in a chess game about power. Some seem to think it, it should be seen, and certainly the prism we sit through is a sensible, unremarkable. Ideally, a process to make sure that the World Health Organisation is working as best as it can. The constituent members, including China are participating as well as they can, and that the response next time is as good as it possibly can be. That's the sensible measured approach it's not some sort of chest beating exercise to who can prove they're tougher on China. That doesn't get us anywhere. We should stand up for our values, stand up for our interests, and we should do so with a proper diplomatic and sensitive approach.

CONNELL: When you say forward thinking though, to do with this review, if it's found out or if it's believed that there was a suppression of information whistleblowers for example, were stopped from coming forward by the Chinese Government. Don't we need to know that to try to avoid that happening next time?

BOWEN: Sure. No, I'm not saying calm Tom to be very clear, please don't misinterpret, that this is not going to look through what's happened here. But it can't be about some sort of international blame apportionment exercise. This is all their fault, not our fault sort of exercise. It's about saying, Well, what worked here? What could have been done better? What communications were in place to ensure, was everybody transparent at all points in the process? That's, that's what we need to get to the bottom of as an international community. That's how this inquiry can best add value going forward, so that all nations are better informed about how various countries and about how the WHO is best placed to deal with pandemics in the future. Sure, learn the lessons from this one. Absolutely. do so with a view to improving the situation so that this doesn't happen again. I mean, a pandemic will happen again at some point. What we can do as nations and as policymakers is ensure that our preparedness and our response is as good as it possibly can be.

CONNELL: New South Wales are set to fast track the full face to face learning their full return to school saying there will be some outbreaks. Are you comfortable with that decision and the language used by the Premier?

BOWEN: Look, I am I think the Premier's across the board have been doing a good job in managing a gradual return to more normal arrangements, including in schools. It's been unfortunate that some have again sought to politicise this Tom and criticise Daniel Andrews at the federal and state level. I'm not going to criticise Gladys Berejiklian, on the contrary, I think she and her Government are handling this as best they can. Every state is at a different point in the crisis and can make their own value judgements going forward about how and when to manage school return and other returns. As a New South Wales parent of two high school kids I'm pleased to see that the school will be returning I've done as most New South Wales parents have done is followed the advice and guidance of the Premier at each step, I think that's been the appropriate thing to do. And this is a welcome step. Of course, there's risk. I think the governments across the board, at the state and territory level are managing that risk. And I think that's a good thing.

CONNELL: Yeah, I'm sure a lot of parents are cheering on that return albeit I'm sure they love their children very much, just sometimes a little bit less often in terms of hours in the household. You're also raising concerns about dental.

BOWEN: It's about the kids, making sure that the kids get the best education possible and managing that. That's the criteria I think all parents would want to see put in place.

CONNELL: Yeah, I know, that's very important as well. And just finally, you've been raising concerns about dental agreements between the Commonwealth and the states due to expire on June 30. Are you actually saying you believe this is going to suddenly abruptly end from the Commonwealth or just calling for some certainty here?

BOWEN: Well, it will abruptly end. That's the current situation unless Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt step in. The fact of the matter is the agreement runs out at the end of June. There is no extension. They've got to sign a new deal. I mean, it's been the case for Prime Ministers since Paul Keating, that these arrangements are renegotiated and rolled over. It would be a extraordinary backward step. If this Federal Government the Morrison Government was to walk away from their responsibilities on public dental. They can't just watch the hands and say it's a matter for the states. There's been these agreements in place since Paul Keating was Prime Minister. 580,000 Australians have relied on the National Partnership Agreement to get dental care over the last three years. We've got dental waiting lists for public dental across the various states and territories that are too long as it as it is. Let alone if this agreement expires without renewal, they'll get worse.

We have 70,000 hospital admissions every year due to dental problems that'll get worse if this agreement isn't extended, more pressure on a hospital system when they can least afford it. It's a no brainer, Tom. This deal should be signed. It should be signed very quickly, very soon. It runs out in six weeks time. And if the Federal Government walks away from this, we will hold them to account for it every single day going forward, because this is a core responsibility of the Federal Government. Dental health is a core part of the health system and Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt have responsibilities here.

BOWEN: Well, we'll keep an eye on it. No decision seemingly made as yet but Chris Bowen thanks for your time.