RN Drive

Release Date: 
20 March 2020

Patricia Karvelas: Ken Wyatt, welcome.

Ken Wyatt: Hi, it's great to be with you Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Indigenous health leaders are urging you to create these special zones so that communities are looked after, particularly in the Northern Territory, these isolation zones to be patrolled by police or the army. This is all in a move to prevent COVID 19 devastating remote communities. Is that something you're prepared to do?

Ken Wyatt: Well, what we're doing is we're working with the various state and territory governments, and I notice that Ben Wyatt has just placed a sanction around all Indigenous remote communities in Western Australia under their emergency powers, and that's quite a strong approach. And I notice that Michael Gunner as the Chief Minister has also been very proactive. But each morning my Agency and I teleconference and work through many of these issues. And the key messages is the isolation of those communities, limiting the number of people moving in and out and fundamentally having only essential services go in. But my message to community has been if you go into Alice Springs, for example, from a remote community, then you really need to isolate for two weeks so that if you have been exposed, you do not pass it on to others within the community. So we're looking at a range of strategies, and certainly whilst the Army was effective in the bushfires I think this is a very different context given that many of the health professionals within the ADF are also in the reservist forces, and the mainstream systems will need them given the growing need for qualified people to provide that level of intervention in the different settings across Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: You mentioned Western Australia, but of course, the Northern Territory is a different example, and the Northern Territory emergency intervention is a good example of what the Commonwealth can do. Are you exploring these isolation zones with the Northern Territory government, is that something you're in talks about?

Ken Wyatt: My Agency have been discussing with their counterparts some of the options that are available, including flights not going in to communities, so there are a number of options that are being explored at the moment. But exclusion zones will be a given in the sense that we want communities to isolate and we will assist communities to do that.

Patricia Karvelas: But using the Army or police is obviously much more labour intensive and involves coordination. Is that something that you're also contingency planning for?

Ken Wyatt: I think we'll look at what emergency powers each chief minister or minister for indigenous Australians and the chief medical officers with the relevant health ministers, for example, the honourable Natasha Fyles, as to the strategies that they want to put into place and we will work with them in partnership. It is critical that states and territories work very closely with the Commonwealth as we're seeing demonstrated through the National Cabinet being led by Prime Minister Morrison, and certainly the premiers and the sense I'm getting out of subsequent Cabinet meetings is there is a strong commitment for all of us to focus on protecting Indigenous people in remote and isolated communities. But we've got to turn our minds to crowded housing in capital cities as well.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, you mentioned crowded housing in the cities or in built-up areas. Talk me through what you're working on in terms of planning for Indigenous people in other areas that aren't remote.

Ken Wyatt: We're looking at what services are available, the role of the Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations, but equally other services that will need to be provided. But the most important element, Patricia, is the level of communication, certainly around the hygiene of not handshaking, washing your hands and keeping that social distance. If you're in a crowded house, that's very hard but certainly presenting health services if there is an issue.

Patricia Karvelas: Now, the closure of Uluru National Park is under consideration, that's according to the CEO of the Central Land Council. Is that something you think should be explored?

Ken Wyatt: Look, I think all options are on the table and we're working through those, as I said, we now teleconference every day at 11:00 and we consider any options that are put to us. Any options that my regional managers and local managers bring back into the mix of conversation. And certainly Ray Griggs is leading that from an agency perspective, and I'm working with the relevant ministers within our own government, but certainly ministers at state and territory level.

Patricia Karvelas: The Northern Territory government has said basically that it is prepared, possibly, to close its borders. That's essentially what's happened in Tasmania, but it's a territory, so it's a bit more complicated. What do you think of that proposal? Because, of course, even in a place like Darwin, there are many Indigenous Australians.

Ken Wyatt: And there is, and there's already been a move to relocate people back to their community. So those who appear to be homeless in the territory are being assisted to return to their community to reduce that impact locally. But the quarantining of people, which is what Tasmania are fundamentally doing, is a very logical and reasonable step to say to anybody you must be quarantined and you must quarantine yourselves. Now, in the territory that option is alive and well and that's certainly something that the Chief Minister can exercise.

But one of the challenges we'll have is where there's large funerals and there's a cultural obligation where people will be tempted to attend that funeral and then return to their community. So we've got to look at some strategies around that as well, Patricia.  So, we're canvassing all the options, including supply chains, both medication and food, logistics, and how do we get support into community where an outbreak may occur? And I would rather be in a remote community now because I think they're much more isolated than we are in capital cities.

Patricia Karvelas: Very briefly, Minister, before we end - the 2020 Close the Gap campaign report has been released today, and it's warned that only systemic reform will make up for the harrowing failure of the last 12 years of government policy on Closing the Gap. It seems to me closing that gap is ever more important as we now deal with the Corona virus. Are you still working to deadline on changing those targets?

Ken Wyatt: Yes, we are. And whilst we're focussing on COVID 19 we're also continuing with business as usual. And this means finalising the targets and then looking at what systemic commitment and change must occur at all levels in order for us to close those gaps. We have to do things differently. [inaudible] Closing the Gap, led by Tom Calma and then endorsed by Prime Minister Rudd, was a great way forward, but we collectively have not seen the systemic reform that would help achieve those gaps and close them.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thanks for your time.

Ken Wyatt: Thank you very much, Patricia.