May 07, 2021

LIAM BARTLETT, HOST: You might recall just over 12 months ago – it was in April last year – there was a televised press conference involving the Federal Government, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, and a Chinese Ambassador to Australia. In fact, I think it was the last time that we saw a Chinese official share a stage with an Australian Government official. Anyway, that’s by the by. This conference was to announce a deal between Twiggy’s Minderoo Foundation and a Chinese company BGI Genomics to supply the Federal Government with 10 million coronavirus testing kits. Now at the time, and I may have misinterpreted this announcement, but I was of the opinion that this action was a philanthropic gesture by Twiggy who had oiled the wheels and made a magnanimous gesture to help keep his fellow citizens safe.

Now clearly that impression was wrong because it now transpires that Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt purchased almost five million of those testing kits from the Minderoo Foundation at a cost of $189 million. Now Minderoo says that was the cost price, it didn’t make any profit, it was simply reimbursed by the Government and that price also included some training for staff and the establishment of some laboratories. However now two million of those five million tests are about to expire. The expiry date is almost up, and they will be thrown out.

The Opposition claims it’s a total waste of taxpayers’ money and joining us is Labor’s spokesperson for Government Accountability Pat Conroy. Pat, good morning.


BARLETT: I’m alright. When those tests expire Pat, how much do you think goes down the drain with them? Have you got an accurate figure on that?

CONROY: Well if you think - five million tests cost us almost $200 million, you’d have to think about $40 million of taxpayers has been wasted in a most appalling manner. And that’s $40 million that’s obviously desperately needed to get people in work or help our healthcare system or our aged care system.

BARTLETT: When you say wasted, I mean Minister Hunt says that at the time the world was facing a shortage of these tests and three of the five million that they’ve used have helped save lives. I mean that’s a fair call isn’t it?

CONROY: Oh look I am definitely not criticising the Government for ordering tests. There are still huge question marks over whether these were the right tests. So they originally ordered 10 million, the Government hasn’t answered the question about why they only got five million given that 10 million was supposed to cost $320 million. Secondly, most States, every State except for Victoria rejected using the tests because it used a completely different technology to the technology that the public health labs were used to using. So there’s a real question about whether these were the right tests in the first place.

And then the two million tests that will expire - I’ve been very strong in asking well why aren’t we sending these to countries that are in a middle of a pandemic right now? Why aren’t we shipping these to India or even Papua New Guinea our nearest neighbour where they’re in the middle of a pandemic, where they have a real shortage of testing kits? Why is this Government letting $40 million go down the gurgler by letting these two million test kits just expire on the shelf?

BARLETT: Well that’s a good question, have you had any answers to those questions?

CONROY: No, we just hear radio silence. But we saw on Twitter a couple of days ago the Government bragging about sending plane loads of equipment over to India, and that’s the right thing to do, I certainly applaud it, but why weren’t these tests on it given they all expire on May 25 so in less than three weeks’ time? So there are some real questions about why these tests were ordered in the first place, and why they’re being allowed to expire. And let’s not forget the fact that Minister Greg Hunt allowed himself to be used for a propaganda set piece for the Chinese Communist Party Government as part of this process. So this entire saga of events is pretty dubious I’m afraid to say.

BARTLETT: Well are you saying they failed to do their due diligence and completely rushed into it because, what, because of the situation with the virus or because of a relationship with the Minderoo Foundation and Andrew Forrest? I mean how do you read it?

CONROY: Well there are multiple ways of reading it. I think the most common sense one is that they panicked. They panicked, and there was a shortage of tests, and here comes along Twiggy Forrest offering these tests. And you’re right to pick up on everyone understood at the start that this was a donation from the Minderoo Foundation and then we find out that the Government has actually agreed to pay $320 million for the 10 million tests.

I think the Government panicked, they seized this, they reckoned that it was a good media opportunity to have a good press conference and that’s symbolic of this Government that’s very good at press conferences. But ultimately questions were being asked about whether these were the right tests. These BGI tests aren’t tests that the public health labs of every State Government except for Victoria use, and I think that’s one of the real reasons we’ve got so many unused tests on the shelf.

BARTLETT: Well the Government says it still has an option, there’s still an option in the deal to purchase more from Twiggy if they need it. I don’t know whether – do we assume that Minderoo has five million leftover or can secure five million if it needs it?

CONROY: I’d hesitate to speculate but this is symptomatic of this whole issue which is it’s shrouded in secrecy. We just hear these words from Minister Hunt’s office when the media has its temerity to ask him questions. This was not an open tender process. Presumably Minderoo Foundation just lobbed up in Hunt’s office and said ‘we’ve got 10 million tests here if you give us $320 million’. That’s not the way normal Governments operate.

Now we were in the middle of a pandemic, so Governments were scrambling to find solutions. For example, in my neck of the woods I had manufacturers building ventilators within 10 days for the NSW hospital system. So people scrambled, I certainly should give them allowances for that, but this just smacks of policymaking on the run where we are wasting at least $40 million on tests that can’t be used.

BARTLETT: It also must be said that last April was pretty testing times Pat. You know we can’t expect the Minister to have had perfect hindsight at the time, can we?

CONROY: Absolutely not, and that’s why I think allowances were made for the initial announcement. Questions were raised about whether these were the right tests, but I think everyone was operating in the spirit of goodwill. And that’s why at this point my main criticism is not that the tests were ordered in the first place although I think there’s legitimate questions there, but why haven’t we found an alternate use for these tests? Why aren’t we shipping them to India or Papua New Guinea or Fiji right now to help with the pandemics there where we know there’s a shortage of tests, we know in three weeks’ time these tests will be useless, why aren’t we giving them away to nation’s that desperately need that assistance? We’ve got RAAF jets that are idle right now that should be bringing Australians home, and why not on the way over use these test kits?

BARTLETT: Alright, well thank you very much for joining us this morning. We will have to leave it there Pat.

CONROY: Not a problem, have a great morning.

Click here to listen to the interview.