It was supposed to be a light-hearted aside in praise of the can-do approach of Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. But an anecdote by British Prime Minister David Cameron during his address to Parliament has inadvertently shed light on the Abbott government’s much-criticised path to committing health workers to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
The government offered to send doctors and nurses to Sierra Leone more than three weeks before informing the public.
During his speech, Mr Cameron recalled running into Ms Bishop at a summit in Italy.
“Only last month, your Foreign Minister strode across the room towards me … I wondered for a moment whether I was heading for what I’m told we now need to call a shirt-fronting,” he said.
“But, no, Julie, who is a great friend of Britain, said that Australia would add 100 beds to our Ebola treatment facility in Sierra Leone. Typical Australia, always there with action not words – add 100 beds.”
The Italian summit Mr Cameron referred to was the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan on October 16/17, more than three weeks before the government announced it would take over responsibility for a 100-bed British hospital in Sierra Leone.
In the intervening period, Ms Bishop, government ministers and Prime Minister Tony Abbott stressed that no offers of assistance had been made because of the need to agree a deal for medical help for any Australian volunteer who contracted Ebola.
On October 27, 10 days after Mr Cameron said Ms Bishop had pledged Australian assistance, Health Minister Peter Dutton told ABC directly no decision had been made on sending help.
“The government has not taken a decision in relation to health workers and sending them overseas. If we have an announcement to make we’ll make it in due course,” he told the AM program.
A day before, Mr Dutton had labelled Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek “hysterical” for her calls to send personnel immediately.
The Ebola treatment hospital in Sierra Leone, to be managed by Australian company Aspen Medical, was announced by Mr Abbott on November 5.
Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said Mr Dutton’s statement raised questions.
“If this commitment was decided in mid-October, as David Cameron has today suggested, the Foreign Minister should explain why the Minister for Health said no decision had been made as late as October 27,” she said.
“Was the Health Minister unaware the Foreign Minister had made this commitment?
“Why, in the week following did the Health Minister continue to make a series of increasingly bizarre attacks on Labor for calling on the government to do what the Foreign Minister had already committed Australia to doing?”
Ms Bishop said: “The government made the announcement following the decision taken by the National Security Committee of cabinet. The government was, of course, in prior negotiations with the UK to co-ordinate Australia’s efforts in Sierra Leone.”
Mr Dutton said in a statement: “There are no inconsistencies between the governments. There were ongoing talks between the governments throughout this period.”
Source: Sydney Morning Herald