‘Gutless’: Premier grilled over virus misinformation by ABC host

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·5-min read

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has endured a testy and awkward interview after struggling to deflect questions about the spread of coronavirus misinformation by a federal government MP.

Speaking to ABC Breakfast Wednesday, the state leader was at pains to avoid criticising those in her own party who stand accused of undermining the public’s trust in Australia’s coronavirus measures and impending vaccine rollout.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure over his refusal to condemn government backbencher Craig Kelly who continues to post debunked coronavirus treatments and other virus conspiracies on social media.

Berejiklian followed suit when pressed by ABC journalist Michael Rowland, after the premier alluded to those in the community who oppose receiving the vaccination.

“Speaking of those people, Craig Kelly has spent months questioning if a vaccine is needed, he's been promoting all these weird and wacky unproven medical treatments, he described mask wearing as child abuse,” the ABC Breakfast host said.

“Is it time for the Prime Minister to pull him into line?”

The NSW Premier was at pains to avoid the line of questioning. Source: ABC TV
The NSW Premier was at pains to avoid the line of questioning. Source: ABC TV

Like the PM, the premier sought to avoid the uncomfortable issue.

“Oh, look, I just focus on what I need to focus on,” she replied.

When pressed, Berejiklian said she advocated for people to follow advice “based on science and fact”.

“My view is all of us should always follow the health advice. We have experts appointed and serving in positions which have kept all of us and Australia safe to this point in time,” she said.

“OK, but he’s not following the advice. What should the consequences be?” Rowland shot back.

“Aah, he’s not in my team,” Berejiklian responded.

The presenter continued: “He's a fellow member of the New South Wales Liberal party. You're a Premier, he's a backbencher. You have more stripes than him. What do you say to him?”

The NSW premier continued to duck the issue saying: “I'm not going to add anything further to what I said. Please ask me other questions”.

“You don't have a view on the misinformation he's spreading?” Rowland asked.

The terse standoff continued as the NSW leader staunchly avoided criticising her Liberal Party colleague.

“I think I have answered the question twice already,” she said.

“OK, I'll take that as a no,” Rowland said.

Interview response labelled ‘gutless’ amid wave of criticism

Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly has one of the biggest and most engaged social media followings of any Australian politician, The Guardian reports.

His page routinely posts right-wing conspiracies including disproven US election stories, unfounded coronavirus remedies and debunked climate change denialism.

When repeatedly pressed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (who in 2018 intervened to save Kelly’s position in the government) has refused to criticise his minister’s falsehoods, citing “free speech”.

The Prime Minister’s office declined to answer questions put to it Wednesday by Yahoo News Australia on the issue.

Craig Kelly posts disputed coronavirus remedies and debunked climate change science on Facebook. Source: AAP/Facebook
Craig Kelly posts disputed coronavirus remedies and debunked climate change science on Facebook. Source: AAP/Facebook

On social media, the reaction to the Berejiklian interview was scathing with many criticising the premier’s reticence to rebuff the coronavirus misinformation.

“On accountability & corruption, [Gladys Berejiklian] is a BIG FAIL. That was good questioning,” wrote former UTS Journalism professor Wendy Bacon.

“She comes across as super shallow.”

One Twitter user referred to the response as “gutless” while another invoked the maxim: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

NSW opposition leader Jodi McKay was among the many to offer criticism of her political rival.

“This is a dereliction of responsibility by the Premier. Craig Kelly is a NSW MP spreading dangerous misinformation about the health crisis and no one with the power to shut him down is doing so,” she Tweeted.

Federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese also called out the Prime Minister.

“It’s on all of us in leadership positions to call out misinformation. Craig Kelly has been peddling conspiracy theories about vaccines and coronavirus. It’s reckless and downright dangerous. It’s well past time for his boss, the PM, to pull him into line,” he said.

NSW Covid restrictions to be eased from Friday

In the same interview, Berejiklian flagged an easing of Covid-19 restrictions in NSW by the end of the week, after the state recorded nine straight days with zero local transmission of the virus.

“We'll be having those discussions and getting the advice today. I'm hoping to make an announcement by the end of the week,” she said, speaking before the weekly NSW crisis cabinet meeting today.

On Wednesday afternoon, the NSW premier announced the easing of some restrictions, coming into effect from Friday.

The cap on household guests will be lifted from five to 30 while 50 people will be allowed to gather for outdoor events.

Masks are expected to remain mandatory in certain circumstances. Source: AAP
Masks are expected to remain mandatory in certain circumstances. Source: AAP

As many as 300 will be allowed to attend weddings and funerals, with the one person per 4-square-metres rule remaining for such events, as well as in places of worship and hospitality venues.

Masks will remain mandatory on public transport as the government encourages workers to return to the office.

“People will feel safer if there's masks on public transport,” Berejiklian told the ABC earlier.

NSW Health remains concerned about low testing numbers after just 7819 tests were done in the latest 24-hour period.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard said Wednesday restrictions will likely stay in place for longer if the testing numbers don’t rise.

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