Tuesday, 22 June 2021
COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021; Second Reading
Of course I support this COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. As someone who represents a community in Victoria which has been hit by lockdowns, I support any support or financial aid being given. But I'll start my contribution by being absolutely clear: this bill shouldn't have been necessary. We have a government and a Prime Minister who had two jobs. The first was to roll out the vaccine so that everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated, starting with our most vulnerable and those who work to care for our most vulnerable and who are most likely to be exposed, and then through the population. That's so that anyone who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated.
The other was to set up fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities across this country so that we could deal with the still almost 40,000 Australians who are stranded overseas and who want to come home but can't get into their own country. This is so we can open our borders and have tourists, upon which great sections of this wonderful country rely for economic input, and foreign students. Last time I looked, education was the second-largest export in Victoria. And it would mean that Australians could travel around the world, as we love to do and are known for, and then come home again, and that our economic, social and cultural future resembled our lives before 2019. Roll out the vaccine and have national fit-for-purpose quarantine: two jobs, both of which have been botched.
On both, we hear over and over again from the Prime Minister, from the Minister for Health and from members of the government: 'Oh, it's not our fault; we're not responsible. We had a conversation with the states in national cabinet.' At one minute that's on a war footing and at the next minute it isn't meeting for weeks on end. They say: 'We had a conversation in March last year'—which is more than a year ago—'where the states agreed to use hotels for quarantine. So, I mean, it's not our fault. That's right! We did ask Jane Halton! We did ask her to do a review of hotel quarantine. And she did say in October last year that we should have fit-for-purpose quarantine. But, I mean, it's not our fault we haven't done it yet, because it wasn't that long ago. Oh, yes, that's right; it's June now.' October to June—that's, what, eight months? We could have had fit-for-purpose quarantine going around the whole country by now. Oh, but the Prime Minister says, and the Minister for Health says: 'Oh, but, Member for Macnamara, don't you remember? In our budget this year, $500 million for Howard Springs. We're amazing! We've got hotel quarantine sorted.' It's not what Jane Halton said needed to happen, and Howard Springs is not sufficient for what is needed.
And so where do we end up? With yet another leak from hotel quarantine, because no matter how hard the states work, the people who work in hotel quarantine work, the people who are quarantined in hotel quarantine work to make sure they follow all of the standards necessary, they are in hotels. Hotels were not built to be quarantine facilities. We have had 24 leaks from hotel quarantine. We saw one that came out of South Australia and came into Victoria, and my community, like the rest of Victoria, faced another two weeks of lockdown.
It's not a political argument. It's not pointscoring. It is the reality of what our communities are living through. We're looking at what's happening in Sydney—every day; day after day after day—and we're hoping that outbreak of COVID is under control. But there is one thing that we all know, and that no-one could possibly deny with a straight face, and that is: had there been a vaccine rollout where the vaccine had penetrated further into the community than—are we at three per cent of the community who have had two vaccinations yet? I think that's about what we are at.
An opposition member: It depends which state!
I'll take that interjection. That's right; it depends which state. We'd be less anxious, wouldn't we, about what's happening in Sydney at the moment, because we would know that a significant proportion of the population, let alone the people who are the most vulnerable, would have been vaccinated. They might be able to catch COVID-19, but their chances of dying from it are so much less. They might possibly spread COVID-19 if they catch it, but, again, even if that is the case—and the jury is still out on that—the people around them who have been vaccinated might have an 80 per cent chance of not catching it. And if they do catch it, it would be minor. This is what we're talking about: actual people's lives, and the anxiety that we feel either in lockdown or as we're watching the possibility of a creeping outbreak in Sydney which could put people into lockdown. That's why the vaccination is important now.
And is it any wonder that people across Australia are actually white-hot angry when they find out, through reports in the media, that we could have had something like 40 million Pfizer doses, but apparently this government decided: 'Oh, we're just going to play it a bit hardball'—that's what the reports say—'We're going to quibble on the cost. We're going to quibble about intellectual property, and we're just going to let the offer'—which it's now being reported that Pfizer gave to Australia in, what, January of last year, was it? Or this year. They said they could deliver as many Pfizer vaccinations as we needed in this country. Is it any wonder that Australians across the country are white-hot angry?
Is it any wonder that I get calls and emails to my electorate office every day from locals in Dunkley who want the Pfizer vaccination because they have an underlying health issue; because they're concerned about the mixed messages that have come out about AstraZeneca, its safety and the changing health advice that has had to come out; and because they just want to get vaccinated? Then they hear that we could have had some 40 million doses, and they hear the minister saying, 'Well, you know, we rejected that offer.' It would seem his explanation is based on medical advice, apparently. We also hear experts like Bill Bowtell suggesting that that seems a bit strange because the medical advice wasn't available at the time that the Australian government said it rejected as many Pfizer vaccine doses as we wanted. It's extraordinary. So where do we end up? We end up in a place where we don't have a proper vaccine rollout and the government has now decided that we need Operation COVID Shield. There is one thing they are good at, and that's naming operations.
The commander of Operation COVID Shield, who appears to be one of the most transparent people speaking on behalf of what's happening with the government, has said, 'Well, yes, we do have some supply issues.' And the explanation for why there hasn't been a rollout of a public health campaign encouraging people to get vaccinated is that we need to get the supply issues sorted out first. So we have a government that can't do, it would seem, the four simple things which need to be done and which the Leader of the Opposition has made absolutely clear that a Labor government would have done by now--which, if we get elected, we would do immediately: fix the vaccine rollout; build fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities across the country; have a public health campaign—every other country around the world seems to do it, and if I see the French video come up one more time on my Twitter feed I think I'm going to be able to speak French!; and manufacture mRNA vaccines in this country. These are four pretty simple things that need to be done, one would think, and need to be done soon.
But I should correct myself: it would appear that it's not that simple to fix a vaccine rollout that is in as much trouble as this one is. Perhaps with national cabinet now meeting again, the premiers will assist with getting on top of it because, of course, the increase in vaccination rates in Victoria that we've seen has been because the Victorian government has stepped up with a vaccination blitz. We shouldn't need an outbreak; we shouldn't need people having to go back into lockdown to kickstart a proper vaccination rollout. We also shouldn't have needed to drag this government, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, kicking and screaming, to finally announce some financial support for hardworking people, particularly in Victoria, who couldn't go to work because of a lockdown recently.
This package today is better than nothing, but we have a package with so many qualifications on it that there are so few people who are really going to benefit in the end. We have a package where the government announcement is that you have to be without income for seven days before you can even apply. Seven days without income for some people means not being able to pay the rent, not being able to put food on the table and not being able to take their kids to the local footy game or the local netball game. They're the lives that many people in our communities live. Seven days without work and without pay might not seem much to people who have relatively privileged and secure lives and jobs. But for so many people in insecure work and in insecure housing, seven days is a very long time, and then they have to wait for their application to be processed. Is it any wonder that most of us who represent electorates where people are working hard in low-paid jobs get calls day after day from people asking how they're going to get this assistance and is it going to be enough for them to get through? And then, of course, we have a government that insists that only the people who they want to designate as being in a hotspot will get the funding. It's a very strange situation when you're lucky in lockdown—lucky to be able to get the funding; lucky that the federal government has decided you're in a hotspot. No-one wants to be in lockdown in the first place. Imagine, then, having to just hope that there's no political reason why this federal government doesn't want to designate you as living in a hotspot—like the political opportunity, as was reported, to wedge the premiers so that they have to do what the Prime Minister wants them to do and not exercise their own judgement or use their own staff's medical advice to make decisions about lockdown. Imagine using a pandemic and lockdown as a political wedge against premiers, to try to force them to act according to your will. Imagine being the sort of Prime Minister that would do that.
Imagine announcing financial support for people in dire financial circumstances and, in the announcement, saying, 'Of course, we warn that retrospective compliance action will be taken against people if we find that it turns out they weren't eligible.' Imagine in the same breath saying, 'But if you're a megacompany, your CEO got a bonus, your shareholders got extra dividends, the company recorded a profit and you received millions and millions of dollars from JobKeeper, you can pay it back if you want to or you can keep it—it's up to you!' And imagine saying to hardworking Australians with no money and seven days of no income, 'We warn you we'll come after you if it turns out that you didn't really need as much money as you got paid,' but saying to big companies with big profits: 'That's alright. Keep those millions and millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. You deserve it.' That's the message this government is sending to people, and it's not good enough. Is it any wonder that what we hear over and over again is, 'We need to change this government'? Because we really do.