Natalie Barr, Seven, Sunrise

NATALIE BARR: New South Wales Health authorities have confirmed two cases of the new Omicron COVID variant. It was detected in passengers who flew in from southern Africa hours before border rules changed. The discovery of the strain has triggered concern around the world as countries begin suspending travel from that area. For more, we’re joined by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon. Good morning to you, gents.

BARNABY JOYCE: Morning, Nat. Good morning, Joel.

NATALIE BARR: Barnaby, two confirmed cases of this Omicron, as we’re calling it. Should Australia follow Israel? They’ve shut out everybody – all international visitors – for two weeks.

BARNABY JOYCE: We’ll see what they say, but I think there’s three big issues here, Nat. You’ve got to accept – whether society socially accepts it – whether you can economically pay for it and whether the pathology of it you can live with it. I mean, this is a variant, there’ll be other variants after that. I hear Moderna is already out there trying to use mRNA to develop a new vaccine for it. I think as we go forward we’ll be prudent, we’ll be making sure we make the right precautionary checks, but variants will keep going through Omega and all the way through. This is the world as we go forward.

NATALIE BARR: Yeah, Joel you’ve got two schools of thought here, I guess. Some people saying are we acting quickly enough, are we shutting down quickly enough, but businesses are going, “Hang on a second. We are on our knees here in a lot of areas. We can’t just have a knee-jerk reaction.” What do you think?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Yeah, that’s right, Nat, the business community has called on the government, or governments plural, to hold their nerve, and I think that’s absolutely the right call. I mean, these are early days. None of us know enough about this new variant yet to be very determined on our decision-making. But, look, you know, we are approaching if not at herd immunity now, and I think it’s time that – I mean, we just can’t afford anymore lockdowns. It may be necessary to have some restrictions on international entry, but our economy cannot take any more lockdowns. We need to learn to live with coronavirus.

NATALIE BARR: I guess this other issue, it came out of Africa where less than 10 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. In neighbouring PNG, it’s as low as two per cent. Barnaby, what can Australia be doing about that?

BARNABY JOYCE: We are doing it. We are sending vaccines over there. We’re trying to also work with their health authorities. It’s not as if we’re blind to it. PNG, as you would expect, is very difficult turf, and you also have other issues such as in Africa – comorbidities. I was reading the papers like the rest of us on issues such as AIDS also being prolific there. So there’s real problems for these countries. We’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to be safe in our country as best we can. We’ll never be perfectly safe, we just do as best we can, and also assist especially our near neighbours. That’s what we’re doing. It’s not just Papua New Guinea, we’re also making sure we assist Indonesia and Timor Leste and the Pacific Islands around us. We want to make sure we can do our bit. We can only do our bit if we’re economically strong. That’s why we’ve got to look after the books and stay economically strong because you can’t show compassion if you haven’t got the cash.

NATALIE BARR: Joel, also hotel quarantine, you know, it’s already here, it’s already in a lot of other countries. Do we re-implement hotel quarantine in the big states, in New South Wales and Victoria, to try and stem this?

BARNABY JOYCE: Well, again, there’s a lot we don’t yet know about this new variant. I see the Chief Health Officer is standing up at a media conference this morning, and people will be watching that with great interest. But I’d like to think hotel quarantining is behind us. It played an important role at the time. It wasn’t without its problems. And, again, as we approach herd immunity, if we’re not already there I think we need to take a more open approach to living with the virus and allowing our economy to continue to recover.

NATALIE BARR: Okay. Let’s talk about this world-first legislation, Barnaby.

BARNABY JOYCE: Yes.

NATALIE BARR: To crack down on social media companies, crack down on these trolls that, you know, so many people, including yourself, have been the victim of. How concerned are you that Facebook might pull the plug to Australia again over this in response?

BARNABY JOYCE: Not just me. There are so many parents out there who’ve had the experience of, especially daughters who get trapped by troll who just torment them and persecute them. We’ve got to do our bit in this nation, and we are. I’m so proud of the work that is happening within the Coalition. We’ll see where the others go. I believe the Labor Party will probably support it. But the Greens are already showing problems on it. How ridiculous. We are making a stand and other nations will make a stand. If Mr Zuckerberg wants to just pull the plug, bye. Good luck, mate. See you later. I don’t care. There’ll be an Australian who’s a very good software programmer who’ll write the code for an alternative platform and then they can become a billionaire and maybe they can live in Australia and pay their proper amount of tax. Whatever you want to do, Mr Zuckerberg, do it. The world is going to change. We’re going to live in democracies, not Zuckerbergacies, and we’re going to have the proper rule of law. They’re shutting down the fourth estate. They’re trying to put you out of business. Their advertising revenue is stripping out of you, and they’re not the investigatory fourth estate. In many instances, they’re just a parasite that lives off the back of these wild, dirty innuendos, never backed up with fact. What’s the purpose of them anyhow? Why do they destroy people? They do destroy people’s lives. We spend billions of dollars on mental health and then social media in some instances comes out and completely flaunts it.

NATALIE BARR: Yeah.

BARNABY JOYCE: Let’s do something about it.

NATALIE BARR: Exactly. And they keep saying they can’t shut down the trolls.

BARNABY JOYCE: What a load of rubbish.

NATALIE BARR: Well, exactly.

BARNABY JOYCE: If they can write the code to make themselves billions dollars, they’ve got the competency to write the code to say look for some words like people persecuting people, calling them profane words and say, “Let’s pull that aside, let’s see what’s going on there”. They can do it. They choose not to.

NATALIE BARR: Joel, are you going to support these laws?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, we haven’t seen the detail yet, Nat, but I’m very hopeful that the government has a proposal that can work. We have to stop the weaponisation of these social media platforms, the bullying, the vilification, the defamatory commentary has to end. The platforms, the owners, have to take responsibility. They are publishers in the same way as our newspaper and our television stations are publishers, and they have to take responsibility. If they’re not prepared to do it on their own bat, then governments will have to move, and, of course, that will have my support and I think the support of the Labor Party.

NATALIE BARR: Yeah.

BARNABY JOYCE: Yeah, spot on, Joel. Let’s boot this one out of the park. Let’s do it.

NATALIE BARR: Exactly. And also the individual Australians who are bullying online. They have to take responsibility, too.

BARNABY JOYCE: Yeah, well this is where we’ll find them.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Absolutely.

BARNABY JOYCE: All these people calling themselves Dr Rooster 123, we’re actually going to find out who you are. You’re not Dr Rooster 123, you know, you’re Bill Smith.

NATALIE BARR: Exactly.

BARNABY JOYCE: And Bill Smith, you’re going to be in a world of trouble because that’s what we want. Let’s deal with it.

NATALIE BARR: We’re coming for you.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Yep, yep, let’s flush them out.

NATALIE BARR: Thanks very much. See you next week.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Thanks, team.

BARNABY JOYCE: You’re welcome.