ABC RN Breakfast: Pfizer

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
RADIO INTERVIEW
ABC RN BREAKFAST
13 JULY 2021

Topic: Australia’s relationship with Pfizer

Fran Kelly
The Morrison government has flatly rejected suggestions that former prime minister Kevin Rudd helped accelerate the arrival of much needed Pfizer doses to Australia. The former PM lobbied the company’s Global Chairman last month in a bid to speed up the delivery of Pfizer jabs, which will begin to arrive in much bigger numbers from next week. But Health Minister Greg Hunt says the revised contracts were signed with the pharma giant regardless of Kevin Rudd’s intervention.

Greg Hunt
I had a little chuckle when I saw the story. I respect that individuals will sometimes take initiatives and we welcome and thank them. But did it make a difference? No.

Fran Kelly
That’s Health Minister Greg Hunt refusing to refer to Kevin Rudd by name referring to a story that was broken by the ABC’s Laura Tingle. Kevin Rudd, welcome back to RN Breakfast.

Kevin Rudd
Gidday Fran, good to be on the programme.

Fran Kelly
Kevin Rudd, I use a man who got Pfizer faster to Australia?

Kevin Rudd
Of course not. I was simply asked by members of the Australian business community, particularly those in the United States, to do what I could to try and accelerate the delivery of Pfizer to Australia, given that there had been, in the view of those business leaders, a completely botched set of negotiations between the Australian Government and Pfizer in the second half of last year. And I think that view was confirmed last night on the 7.30 Report if you looked at the interview between Laura Tingle and John LaMattina, the former Pfizer president.

The bottom line is, I was just doing my bit. What material affect it had at the end of the day, I don’t know and we’ll probably never know. But the bottom line is some progress has been achieved and that’s what’s important for the people of Australia who are dealing with the under-supply of vaccines in this country.

Fran Kelly
I’ll come back to that. But when you say that businessmen, these are Australian businessmen in US? Am I correct?

Kevin Rudd
That’s correct.

Fran Kelly
Who are they? Do we know them? Can you tell us?

Kevin Rudd
No, I can’t because they don’t wish to be named. If they do wish to self-identify, they will. I don’t invent these things. And frankly, I would never have picked up the phone to the head of Pfizer unless I’d been approached by senior corporates who had already tried through their own intermediaries with Pfizer senior management to open the door on what plainly, if you look at Norman Swan’s reporting, was an extraordinary botched set of negotiations the middle of last year.

Why are Australian corporates unwilling to put their hand up and identify themselves by name? Well, you know, the Morrison Government has a habit of punishing people, whether you’re an academic, whether you’re a business leader, or anybody else who dares to speak out either against Morrison or his Murdoch backers. That’s the bottom line.

Fran Kelly
And when you say a botched set of negotiations, what did the businessmen relay to you because we have heard that Pfizer had described the approach by Australia back in the middle of last year as rude, dismissive and penny-pinching. What else? How were the businesspeople describing it to you as they were hearing it from Pfizer? What was Pfizer’s beef?

Kevin Rudd
Again, this is as referred to me by senior Australian business leaders in the United States. And they had obtained much the same report of those early contacts between the Australian government — as I understand it now at First Assistant Secretary-level within the Department of Health — on trying to secure a Pfizer deal. They found the Australian attitude rude, dismissive, etc.

And this stands in stark contrast, as I was advised, of the approach taken by other heads of government around the world led by the Prime Minister of Israel, who spoke to the head of Pfizer some 17 times, I’m advised. And the head of Pfizer has also been in discussions with the president of the United States, the Canadian Prime Minister, Ursula von der Leyen of the European Union. As I said, it would have been far better if these things were simply handled by Mr Morrison at that senior political level. I was simply doing my small bit when asked to by Australian business.

And to go back to your earlier question, Fran, did it materially help at the end of the day, I’m in no position to judge, but I thought it was the right and positive constructive thing to do, given the lockdowns currently in place in New South Wales, given the problems we’ve got with Pfizer supply right across this country.

Fran Kelly
Well, the Health Minister is clear. He says your intervention didn’t help at all, Pfizer’s put out a statement saying, basically indicating you had no role in the actual contractual agreements. Are you embarrassed by that statement from Pfizer, given that this story is out now about your involvement?

Kevin Rudd
Not at all. I simply did what was the right thing to do. Let’s just retrace some of the facts here.

Firstly, in my approach to the Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, I made it absolutely explicit I was not acting on behalf of the Australian government or in a negotiating capacity and that, furthermore, I was simply doing so as an Australian citizen concerned about his country.

Fran Kelly
Sorry, but what was the response from the chair of Pfizer, Albert Bourla at that? Was he surprised you were acting as an unofficial emissary for Australia?

Kevin Rudd
I don’t want to characterise his response because Pfizer has an ongoing, large-scale commercial relationship with the Australian Government. I understand that and I respect it. But what I was about to go on to say is that, far from freewheeling on this, I then texted Mr Morrison himself several hours before speaking to the Chairman and CEO of Pfizer and said, I’ve got this call coming up, is there anything I should or should not say? Mr Morrison then responded, although his response didn’t come in until after I’d had the call —

Fran Kelly
What was the PM’s response to your text?

Kevin Rudd
Again, I don’t want to characterise that.

Fran Kelly
Did he welcome it?

Kevin Rudd
It was a civilised response, as has been, in fact, my attitude to dealing with him on this matter overall.

At the end of the conversation with the Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, I then simply dictated a quick letter to Mr Morrison saying: this is what’s happened, this is what unfolded in the conversation, emphasising again and again in the letter that I was not acting as an intermediary on behalf of the Australian Government; simply using my good offices to the extent that they existed to try and advance the supply of Pfizer to Australia. In response to my letter, which I then sent to Mr Morrison, on the same day, the 30th of June, he sent back a simple note saying, ‘thank you’. So that was it as far as I was concerned, that was my contribution.

The bottom line is, I’m just glad that we’ve had some bring-forward of the Pfizer deliveries to the long-suffering Australian people. And for Mr Hunt, rather than him having a chuckle about all of this, frankly, he needs to get real about his job. And frankly, if he had any sense of self respect, he’d resign as health minister for presiding over what Malcolm Turnbull has described as the biggest failure of public policy in this country’s recent history.

Fran Kelly
You heard that quote from Greg Hunt there, the Health Minister has, as you say, had a chuckle when he heard about this. The inference was that when they received your letter that you sent to the Prime Minister, they amongst themselves said, ‘oh, yeah, how long will it take for this to get out?’ In other words, they believed you would leak this to try and seek some applause or whatever, for having helped to negotiate this deal for Australia, which they say you didn’t do. Did you leak this letter? And if so, why, knowing that would embarrass the Prime Minister?

Kevin Rudd
No, I did not. And secondly, I was approached by the ABC and then confirmed to the ABC the content of my dealings with the Prime Minister on this matter. I wasn’t about to misrepresent the nature of my dealings with the Prime Minister when approached by the ABC about this matter frankly. When was that? On Saturday or Sunday from memory. And remember, the Australian Government had already made great fanfare of its own announcement about its own great work on the previous Friday in a front-page splash for the ‘Australian’ newspaper.

I go back to the basic point here. Both what Pfizer has said publicly and what Mr Hunt apparently is now saying is that, quote, I had no role in the contractual negotiations with Pfizer, unquote. That is absolutely right, because that’s what I made plain to the CEO of Pfizer in my conversation with him. And that is what I actually reflected in black and white in my correspondence back to the Australian Prime Minister.

Bottom line is they are presiding over a very botched set of arrangements as far as vaccine rollout in this country. And if I was Prime Minister at the time, and I needed to call upon the good offices or interventions of other Australians, either in the corporate community, former prime ministers or whomever, I would welcome that, rather than try and you know, rub people’s noses in it.

Fran Kelly
The leaking of this letter, if it wasn’t you, it’s been leaked, do you understand it would only have been leaked to try and embarrass the Prime Minister and the Health Minister, embarrass the government? Do you regret the leak?

Kevin Rudd
There are legitimate questions. I’m actually in the business of transparency about all this. The bottom line is, rather than the government thinking that they’re presiding over some huge public policy success here, everyone listening to your program this morning — or virtually all of them — would conclude and agree with Malcolm Turnbull that this is a massive public policy failure.

A legitimate debate therefore Fran about how it came about, that Australia did not secure multiple sources of vaccine supply from the middle of last year through to the end of last year, is a legitimate matter for debate. Secondly, the fact that you then have senior Australian corporates engage former prime ministers and others to try and accelerate the delivery of Pfizer in this country is something which points back to the failure of public policy in the first place.

As I said, other heads of government were on the phone to the Pfizer team very early on in order to secure vaccine supply for Australia. As others have said, if Mr Morrison can find time to make 55 telephone calls to secure Mathias Cormann’s position as head of the OECD, then surely he could have spared a few phone calls to the head of Pfizer to ensure that the long-suffering people of Australia had proper access to vaccine supply. These are legitimate matters in the public debate.

Fran Kelly
The Prime Minister and the Health Minister have said repeatedly since your letter was made public that they have had a numerous conversations directly, the Prime Minister directly to the head of Pfizer in Australia, Anne Harris, and the Health Minister on a regular basis, that this was all work going on, it was all basically tied up even before you were having this conversation with Albert Bourla. So they were having conversations. Does that surprise you, given what you heard from the businesspeople?

Kevin Rudd
Well the Prime Minister and Mr Hunt, who can answer to the Australian people about their success or otherwise in delivering effective vaccine supply to this country, including from Pfizer.

Fran Kelly
But I’m talking about relations with Pfizer. I mean, did you get any indication from Albert Bourla, as I asked before, that he was surprised he hadn’t had conversations with the Prime Minister, that he was surprised it was a former prime minister speaking with him. And did he give you any indication that he was going to take your requests on board?

Kevin Rudd
As far as my conversation with Mr Bourla is concerned, I don’t intend to characterise them in this interview. The simple reason is Pfizer is a corporation with very large commercial arrangements with the Australian Government for which the decision-maker is Mr Hunt. Therefore, I’m not going to drop them into it in terms of the content of Mr Bourla’s conversations with me.

What I can accurately reflect to you, Fran, is why I became engaged in this in the first place. If you have serious people from the Australian business community with their own contacts with the Pfizer network saying: there’s a major problem here; we are at the back of the queue; we’re not at the front of the queue; it is a race in terms of getting the vaccine out to Australians; and the bottom line is these negotiations in their judgement ‘had been botched; I acted on that basis. And therefore I did what I could in order to advocate the interests of my fellow countrymen and women, and to try and get an earlier supply.

Only Mr Hunt and Mr Morrison at the end of the day, and their officials, if they were going to be honest about it, would ultimately settle these facts on the table in terms of the precise sequence of conversations when they occurred, etc.

At the end of the day, Fran, I’m not concerned about that. What I want is to see is accelerated delivery of the vaccine to Australians. They need it, it’s undersupplied now; that’s why I got engaged in this.

Fran Kelly
Kevin Rudd, thank you very much for joining us.

Kevin Rudd
Thanks very much, Fran.

Fran Kelly
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd. And we have sought interviews with both the Prime Minister and the Health Minister, but they are unavailable.

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