ALP Pressured Over Latham Illness, Welcomes Indonesian Aid Package

Senator Chris Evans (ALP-WA), Acting Leader of the OppositionThe Acting Leader of the Opposition, Defence Spokesman Senator Chris Evans, faced intensive questioning today about Mark Latham’s illness. At a press conference in Perth, Evans welcomed the $1 billion assistance package to Indonesia, but was repeatedly asked about Latham and the Opposition’s leadership arrangements.

Evans confirmed that he had only found out about Latham’s recurrence of pancreatitis on assuming the acting leadership last weekend. He said most shadow ministers probably found about Latham’s illness “in the papers”.

The handling of Latham’s illness is a political mis-step for the ALP. It will add to the pressure on the party’s leadership in the aftermath of the 2004 election defeat.

This is the transcript of the press conference given by the Acting Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chris Evans.

EVANS:

Firstly, on behalf of the Labor Party I’d like to welcome today’s announcement by the Prime Minister of the aid package to Indonesia. We think it is a very important initiative. Labor strongly supports the size and strength of the aid package and while we await briefings on the details our initial reaction has been positive and we’re keen to support the Government in providing whatever assistance it can to Indonesia and other countries affected by this terrible tsunami. And as I say we’ll have more to say when we see the details, but Labor welcomes the package and is very keen to see such a strong and positive responsive from the Government and we are supportive in whatever way we can in ensuring that aid reaches those affected by the terrible tsunami. On the other matter, I’d just like to say that there has been some interest in Mark Latham’s illness. Mark has suffered a recurrence of his pancreatitis problem. He’s on annual leave, away on leave but he’s been taken ill. I’m acting Leader this week and will continue to act in that capacity as will Jenny Macklin, on her return from leave. Mark is expected to make a full recovery. He’s waiting on some diagnostic tests and is consulting his doctors and he’s due back from leave on Australia Day and we have no reason to believe that he won’t be back by Australia Day. But it’s been a serious recurrence for him. I understand the condition is quite painful and that’s why he’s not been making any public statements. He’s been ordered by his doctors to have full rest and he’s taken those instructions. But Mark is expected to make a full recovery and we expect him back at work on Australia Day as planned.

JOURNALIST:

How long has he been ill?

EVANS:

I understand he’s been ill for about 10 days, but I don’t know the details of his condition obviously. But he was taken ill with the recurrence, as you might remember the cause of the pancreatitis was not able to be ascertained last time so he’s been having further diagnostic tests. And he’s awaiting those tests but his doctor has ordered complete rest, and that’s why he taken no part in public life. As I say, he was on annual leave anyway.

JOURNALIST:

When did you find out?

EVANS:

His office has been liaising with me for some time. The point is he was on leave anyway. I was acting Leader, but when there was some call for Mark to be publicly available we thought it best to release the information, the reason why he wasn’t appearing publicly was because of the illness. He’s obviously been, like everyone else very moved by the tragedy, but he’s under doctors orders to not take any public engagements and he’s taken that advice.

JOURNALIST:

But when were you told?

EVANS:

I was informed by his staff when I took over the Leader’s role that Mark was unwell —

JOURNALIST:

When was that?

EVANS:

I took over last weekend.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

(inaudible)

Mark was on annual leave anyway. Jenny Macklin, as deputy was acting, she’s gone on leave for a couple of weeks herself. I’m acting Leader for those two weeks but Mark is expected to make a full recovery and be back at work on Australia Day, but obviously Jenny Macklin will act in his position in the meantime and that would continue if there was a problem. But as I say, Mark’s expectation and our expectations is for Mark to return to work on Australia Day.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

My understanding is that Mark has been consulting with his doctor, having tests, but he’s resting at home. I also understand the condition is quite painful, so, as I understand it precludes you from doing a lot of things you might like to do.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

My understanding is Mark will make a full recovery and be back at work on Australia Day. I don’t expect it to have any impact, politicians like everyone else are entitled to take annual leave and unfortunately get sick on occasions, but I understand he’s expecting a full recovery and the tests (inaudible) to identify what’s causing the problem which they haven’t been able to identify as yet but once that’s done the condition should be able to be managed. So, we don’t expect any longer term problems but Mark is unwell at the moment.

JOURNALIST:

But he could have least put out a (inaudible) statement.

EVANS:

The acting arrangements were already in place, if you like. Mark was on annual leave and it’s also fair to say none of us like having our personal, medical conditions discussed in public if we don’t have to. And I would be like that (inaudible) and you’d feel like that as well. The reality is, because of the interest in Mark’s condition, we decided, well he decided to go public, but obviously people prefer to have their medical conditions kept private and be allowed to deal with them in their own way.

JOURNALIST:

I meant a statement about the tsunami.

EVANS:

The statement about the tsunami has been made by the acting Leader at the time. Jenny Macklin made a statement when it occurred. She was Leader of the Labor Party at that time and we’ve been very active in getting briefings from the department. We wrote to the Government within a couple of days offering our full support. We’ve been very keen to be kept informed. Kevin Rudd, our foreign affairs spokesman has been briefed almost on a daily basis, he’s kept me and others informed of those briefings. We’ll be seeking a more formal briefing, a more comprehensive briefing from the Government in the next couple of days, particularly on the package and the longer term implications for Australian efforts in Indonesia and I hope to have that in Canberra on Monday. But Jenny Macklin issued a statement on behalf of the Labor Party, I’ve issued a statement yesterday on the (inaudible). We also welcome and we’ll be very keen to offer bipartisan support to the Government. It’s not a time to play politics, we were very keen to support the Government to welcome the initiatives and to express the solidarity of all Australians in a serious and coordinated effort to support those victims and survivors of the Tsunami.

JOURNALIST:

Should we contribute more?

EVANS:

I think all Australians are showing a magnificent response. I think the response was overwhelming. I know within days of the event, I was on holidays in the southwest of WA and the Red Cross ladies were around there with a table, within what seemed like a day or so and I know a lot of Australians have contributed magnificently. I’m also very proud of the contribution the Australian military are making in Indonesia already in terms of water purification and hospital and medical assistance and I think all Australians are going to make a contribution and I think are very keen to do what they can. So, I think the response of the Australian community has been most overwhelming and I think a credit to all Australians.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

Most of the frontbench colleagues are on leave at this time of the year. But the point is the acting arrangements were in place and so, Mark was on leave anyway, unfortunately his annual leave has become —
JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:
I don’t’ think it’s been an issue until recently but certainly the tradition is Mark was on annual leave, that was made public, it was known and all the arrangements for acting were in place. And because of the public interest in the last couple of days, we decided to that we would, if you like, make it public that Mark was actually suffering from an illness.

JOURNALIST:

Were the frontbenchers told at the same time as the public were?

EVANS:

Certainly the issue didn’t arise until yesterday in terms of any public awareness of Mark’s illness. He, I think quite rightly, didn’t seek to make it public before then. As I say, the acting arrangements were in place, he was on annual leave. Unfortunately he got sick while he was on annual leave. I think all Australians would take the view that Mark Latham is entitled to be on annual leave as anybody else.

JOURNALIST:

So the public were told yesterday, but when were other Labor Ministers told?

EVANS:

I suspect all lot of the Labor Shadow Ministers wouldn’t have known that Mark was ill until they read about it in the papers, so it’s probably right.

JOURNALIST:

Is there any indication as to why the condition has returned?

EVANS:

The simple answer is, I don’t know, but I do know last time they were unable to identify the cause. And I think that’s the purpose of these diagnostic tests that they’re actually trying to get to understand what the cause of the recurrence of the pancreatitis is. It’s my understanding that in a large percentage of cases they actually can’t find out what the cause is and certainly, so far, Mark is unaware of what the cause is and so they’re just working their way through those issues now.

JOURNALIST:

Is it a concern for you and your colleagues that he has been very seriously ill before?

EVANS:

It’s obviously a concern when any of your colleagues are ill. As I understand it, this is not a life threatening illness, there’s no suggestion that Mark won’t be returning to work. It’s an issue that can be managed with proper care and the difficulty for Mark has been they’ve just been unable to identify the cause. Those tests are now occurring again and hopefully at the end of that there’ll be a management regime put in place that allows him to live and work with that illness and that’s as I understand what generally occurs in treatment of pancreatitis. But I don’t pretend to be an expert either on the disease or on the details of Mark’s illness.

JOURNALIST:

Inaudible

EVANS:

Mark is confident of returning to work and he’s doesn’t believe it’ll have any long term effect on his health, we expect him back to work on Australia Day as planned.

JOURNALIST:

The fact that colleagues were kept in the dark (inaudible) disunity in the Party?

EVANS:

I don’t think that it’s fair to say that colleagues were kept in the dark. I certainly don’t ring all my colleagues when I’m taken ill…

JOURNALIST:

Yes, but he is the Party Leader.

EVANS:

Well, he is but I think it’s fair to say that if you’re on annual leave and you have a medical condition (inaudible) I don’t see a need for him to ring all his colleagues or to broadcast it to the public.

JOURNALIST:

Surely a disaster of this scale should be enough to bring the Leader of the Opposition back from annual leave if he wasn’t sick, (inaudible)

EVANS:

I think, first of all you’ve got to recognise that this is initially an issue for the Government and their response. Labor has very clearly said we’ve offered bipartisan support. We supported the Government in all its initiatives and the acting Leader has made statements to make that clear and we’ve offered that support and I think that’s the way we dealt with it and I think that’s the appropriate way of dealing with it. Now, you may want to argue that Mark should come back from annual leave, that’s become a bit of an issue. Our response to that is the reason he hasn’t come back from annual leave is because he’s been unwell.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

I don’t think I understand that question.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

I think you are having a third go at the question I’ve already answered twice. The answer is Mark is expected back at work on Australia Day. He doesn’t expect any long term impact on his health as a result of this illness. He’s awaiting the results of diagnostic tests and he’ll return from annual leave as planned.

JOURNALIST:

On the aid question again, the Prime Minister described it as a donation to (inaudible)

EVANS:

Certainly Labor has always argued that the relationship with Indonesia is very important. We’ve always argued for a closer engagement with Indonesia. They are strategically and politically a very important partner of Australia in the region and so we think the Government’s response is a good one. We think it’s important that Australia responds strongly and positively to their terrible disaster and as I say we’ve tried as much as possible to support the Government in that response.

JOURNALIST:

Is it responsible to commit (inaudible)

EVANS:

I suppose in the sense that Labor has welcomed the announcement and as offered bipartisan support, it indicates that the alternative government in Australia welcomes this sort of aid. As I say we haven’t seen the detail yet but we may want to respond to some of the details, but in terms of the size and the intent of the offer from the Australian Government, Labor welcomes it and supports the general thrust.

JOURNALIST:

Do you support the deployment of troops?

EVANS:

We certainly supported the deployment of military officers into the region to provide civilian aid. We think they have excellent skills, the water purification, the medical teams, they’ve all shown their worth in previous events of this nature. East Timor, the Solomons etc, we think they’ve done a magnificent job and I think all Australians take pride in the role they’re playing in helping those people who have been so severely effected by the tsunami.

JOURNALIST:

Can I ask you your reaction to the declining university enrolments?

EVANS:

I think it’s a disgrace that at a time when we try to be the clever country that we less people going to university than we have in the past. This is something that only second time in 50 years where university enrolments have declined. I think it’s a national disgrace and while we welcome any increase in TAFE and apprenticeships, it also important that we continue to grow the number of university graduates and I think it’s a real indictment on the Government that university numbers have fallen. It’s an indictment on their federal education polices that less Australians are attending university this year than last year.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

Obviously there’s a whole range of issues that go to the funding and to the fees that students have to pay. (inaudible) there are not enough university places and their failure means less Australians are going to university than there were last year and I don’t think that’s a good sign for the Australian economy. Also for young people who are seeking to get a proper education.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

EVANS:

The two years that it’s declined have both been in the last four or five years. They’re the only occasions in the last 50 years that there’s been a decline. It’s a sign of the federal government’s policies are having a detrimental effect on a number of young Australians who want to go to university. I don’t think that’s a good thing for the future.

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