08 May 2020

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Let's go live to the Shadow Health Minister now, Chris Bowen. He joins us. Thanks so much for making the time this morning, Minister Bowen, Mr Bowen I should say.


JAYES: Yeah, I'm sure you would.

BOWEN: Chris will do just fine.

JAYES: Okay, let's start with Chris. Now, is now the time to be lifting restrictions based on the health advice as you see it?

BOWEN: I do think there's a case for the National Cabinet to be working these issues through and moving cautiously and appropriately as they've been doing. We have a long way to go. We know the risk of a second wave, we know the risk of community transmission going undetected. We've seen the figures uptick in recent days, in terms of the numbers of people affected every day, infected every day. But nevertheless, of course, everybody wants to try to be back at work everybody wants Australia as soon as it's safe to do so, to be returning to more normal levels I think a staged and cautious approach that governments are applying is appropriate, but that will involve inevitably, certainly easing as we go. So we look forward to the further announcements today.

JAYES: Mental health is of a huge concern. I know it has been a focus of yours. And I would say, Minister Hunt as well. What are the experts telling you?

BOWEN: Look, I think that obviously there are ongoing issues even before this crisis, which were exacerbated by the bushfires crisis. There's been, as you say, an increased focus on mental health, all through politics. I think one of the things that we have to do is sort of separate individual responses to this crisis, I know we are expecting further announcements, and no doubt, they will be things that we can welcome. But more broadly, we've seen the Productivity Commission review in to mental health, we're expecting that final report shortly. And of course, there are calls for reforms to be made. So one of them is for example, improving and increasing the access to counselling through mental health care plans at the moment you get 10 visits. There's a strong case to be looking at, say expanding that to 20 visits more broadly as has been done in bushfire areas which we recommended to the Government and the Government adopted, that could be adopted more broadly going forward.

JAYES: Are discussions underway on increasing that cap to 20?

BOWEN: Look, certainly there's been strong calls for it. And, you know, counsellors and psychologists have made it very clear to me that in many cases 10 is not enough. 10 sessions is not enough to see somebody through their problems, their issues that need to be, they need to be helped with and certainly an expansion to 20 would be something that I'm sure the Government will be looking at, and we would very much welcome them looking at.

JAYES: It's such a difficult area because counselling doesn't even really scratch the surface when it comes to some of the problems in the area of mental health. We've seen a spike in suicides experts say it could get a lot worse. Should we be considering something a little bit more drastic?

BOWEN: Well, I've said consistently, Laura, that we need a complete step change, a revolution, not an evolution when it comes to mental health. This will take some time to work through we need to see the Productivity Commission final teport, we need to see the Government respond to that. But look, I agree with you if it's tinkering around the edges, if it's a few more Headspace centres here or a little bit of a policy change there, that won't cut the mustard. We do have a unique opportunity here to change the national conversation around mental health. There is I think, political will, from all quarters to do so. The question will be not though political will it'll be action at the end of the day. And certainly when we see a sensible step will welcome it very, very warmly and when we think more should be done, we'll take those policies to an election and seek to do more.

JAYES: The COVID safe app also in your portfolio area cannot be made compulsory. But would you support or have a problem with employers encouraging strongly employees to download the app or perhaps retailers or business owners and strongly encouraging their patrons to do so?

BOWEN: It's got to be voluntary in in deed and in spirit, Laura, we can't have a situation where employees lean on people to do something that I feel comfortable with. Look, we support the app. I've downloaded it. I think Labor MPs have been very supportive, more supportive than perhaps other political parties like the National Party, of the app. And so we want to see it work. But it must be it must be voluntary in spirit as well as in letter. We can't have councils or other employers insisting that their employees download it can't be a condition of entry to anywhere. We've also raised technical concerns through the COVID-19 committee chaired by Katy Gallagher, and the Government has said that they are taking those concerns on board and have fixes. But it's not just the take up rate. And we need 40 per cent of Australians taking it up. But it's also how effective it is, you know, there are issues about how well it runs when it's in the background on different iOS operating systems. There's concerns, deep concerns that have been raised with me by the diabetic community about how it interacts with glucose monitoring apps, on phones, etc. These are all issues that the Government really does need to take on board and ensure that it's working properly. We know that no data has yet been shared with any State Health officials. So it's not yet in effect, operating in that sense. But Australians, you know, have shown that we're all prepared right across the country to do what it takes to come together to beat COVID-19. But the app has got to be effective in reality, as well as in theory.

JAYES: You like others, no doubt would be turning your attention to the economic recovery in general. What does Labor need to change in its policy platform before the next election?

BOWEN: Oh, look, Laura, there's an ongoing process here. As you'd expect, no party goes through a term without reconsidering its approach and every election is different and every election is under very different circumstances. Circumstances facing the Australian people in 2021, or 2022, will be very different to previous elections and our policies need to be modern up to date and reflective of the challenges and opportunities of the time.

JAYES: I happen to know that you are a policy thinker, and I wouldn't believe a moment that you haven't thought of so policies that perhaps need to be implemented on the other side of this.

BOWEN: Of course. Absolutely. And I'm doing that in my portfolio -

JAYES: Will you share those?

BOWEN: With my Shadow Cabinet colleagues through the process that have been set up, absolutely. I will share them with my Shadow Cabinet colleagues and when they've been through all the necessary policy development processes, costings and rigorous analysis, then, Anthony Albanese and the team will release them and I look forward very much to being part of that process and making relevant announcements.

JAYES: I just want to ask you one last thing about Kristina Keneally flagging really an Australia first policy when it comes to migration on the other side of this much of it makes sense, but a lot of this was suggested by Tony Abbott and others about a year ago and that was met with you know, claims of racist dog whistling how is this different?

BOWEN: Oh, look, Kristina has made it clear and of course the Labor Party makes it clear that immigration will be important part of our economic and our social future that we celebrate loudly and proudly multiculturalism and everything that it has given to Australia and everything it can give to Australia in the future. I regard Australia together with Canada as the two most successful multicultural nations in the world. And, of course, it's also our view and the Governments says it's their view, that the temporary migration program must be clearly focused on genuine skill shortages and genuine labour market shortages. And whereas not focused on those then it needs reform. And that's what Christina was saying. The Government sort of says they've done that. I think Kristina is flagging that that's perhaps an ongoing project. But of course, the Labor Party will always stand proudly and loudly in favour of multiculturalism and a strong immigration program.

JAYES: Chris Bowen, thanks so much for your time this morning.

BOWEN: Laura I understand it is your last day before leaving us for parental leave. So all the best to you and to Alex and I'm sure everything will go swimmingly and look forward to seeing the pictures in the not too distant future, of your new arrival.

JAYES: Appreciate it. Yes. Pretty hard to hide at this point, Chris. Thank you.