House debates

Wednesday, 1 September 2021



7:30 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] It has been a very difficult period in Victoria, in New South Wales and across the country over the last little while. We have a virus that is raging out of control, unfortunately, in New South Wales, and today was a difficult day with the Victorian Premier saying that it's unlikely that the number of people with coronavirus will come down in this state. We are almost a month into lockdown, there is huge economic pain and there are a lot of people doing it really tough, and I wanted to say thank you to each and every person who is making sacrifices on behalf of the broader community to help slow down the rate of coronavirus.

These sacrifices are so important, and we know they are important because, at the moment in New South Wales, there are hospitals that aren't taking more patients, there are limited intensive care beds and there are processes that are unfolding which are causing really difficult ethical decisions about likelihood of survival and other issues around who gets full attention and who gets the absolute best medical care. This is something in Australia that we haven't really had to think about in our lifetimes. We have an incredible healthcare system, we have universal health care. It was the great Bob Hawke who brought in our health system that enabled us to have access to high-quality health care whenever we need it, but we are in a period in this country where that is really going to be tested—probably for the first time in many of our lifetimes. We are really going to be tested as to whether or not we will have access to full care.

The most devastating and frustrating aspect of all of this is that it was entirely predictable, in that we knew that vaccinations were going to give us the best protection in order to prevent people getting sick and prevent transmission of this virus. We have been urging, since the very beginning of this pandemic, for the government to act with speed and purpose in order to manage this. Of course, we famously heard the Prime Minister say that it wasn't a race. And, more than that, more than just saying it, the actions of the federal government also treated the vaccine rollout in exactly that way—that it was never a race. And now we have only 35 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. We're not even halfway and we have most of the eastern seaboard in lockdown, there are cases constantly creeping into other states and we are in a really precarious situation with our healthcare system at the moment.

Dealing with this virus has always been a race, and at the moment the government is failing this contest and the virus is winning in Australia. The Prime Minister needs to take responsibility for that. He needs to admit his failures, because at the moment people in Victoria and New South Wales are facing dangerous days ahead because of his mismanagement of the vaccine rollout. It is so frustrating, because Victorians and Australians have done so much throughout this pandemic; they have sacrificed so much for their friends and for their families. People are tired of this pandemic, people are angry and people are exhausted. And what have we got to show? We are not even halfway to the 70 per cent threshold, where more options become available to us. That's really frustrating, and it did haven't to be like that.

Whatever the incentives are that people have in the future—not in the past; we can't change that—to get vaccinated, I know most people are going to get vaccinated because it will help them stay out of hospital and spending up to five weeks in intensive care. Some people are going to get vaccinated because they want to protect their families, their friends, their loved ones. Some people are going to get vaccinated to protect their country. Whatever the reason, we have put forward an incentive scheme to ensure we get to the 70 per cent or 80 per cent vaccination target. The Prime Minister, like he has done so many times throughout this pandemic, has played politics with that, and dismissed it because the idea came from the Labor Party. Well, there are other incentives that also need to be brought in.

If you choose not to be vaccinated, that's your choice. I can't say I agree with it or condone it. But then that also means that businesses will have a right to choose to keep you out of their businesses. It means airlines will be able to choose to keep you off their planes. It means that society will choose to separate themselves from you because of your choices—because we want to get out of this, we want to see the back of the lockdowns and we want to see our country move forward and be everything it can be. So my advice to you tonight is to get vaccinated. And thank you for all of the sacrifices that you've made so far.

7:34 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Wow, that was a solo flight for me to follow, from the preceding speaker. No, baristas in this country won't decide whether to make a latte for people based on their vaccination status; let's make that very, very clear. But this is a good opportunity, I think, to range over what the previous speaker said. Victoria admitting that in fact delta is here to stay is exactly what the dynamics have told us for a couple of weeks now; and the race is to make sure that anyone at risk of hospitalisation, serious illness or death is in the vaccinated cohort. There were plenty of people 12 months ago saying that Australia would have the benefit of watching other countries begin vaccination programs. We wanted to see more safety data. There were very good reasons for us starting in late February, and the rollout has been exceptionally good. In many cases, in places in Queensland and WA, the race is not to get a vaccine; it's to get a booking slot. There's ample vaccine; we just can't get it into arms.

I want to take you back, if I could, Mr Speaker, to 7 April, when modelling from Doherty was released by government, predicting catastrophe—and of course this wasn't true. We knew two weeks earlier that this was a finite, not an exponential, spread. We completely over-egged alpha, which led to the shocking border shutdowns and huge costs that we saw last year. If COVID is an 800-metre race and we're in the bell lap—I hope we are—we were certainly wrong-footed by delta, a completely different challenge, as we now understand. On 29 March last year I went public and said Queensland's first wave would be under control in three to four weeks. I was attacked relentlessly by Labor, but I was one day out: on 26 April, the Premier signalled her intention to raise and remove some of these restrictions.

But the modelling didn't help us, and there has been a real failure by the experts, in many cases because we had experts trying to be politicians and politicians trying to sound like experts. I claim to be good at neither, but I'm honest enough to admit that we needed a certain bit of separation. It worked early on. The romance of national cabinet worked for us last year, but it broke down with that wildcard 8 August attack on the Prime Minister and the closure of borders based on the first Melbourne lockdown. This was completely unacceptable.

The public health challenge: is there a simpler one? I see my colleague the member for Lyne in the chamber. Is there a simpler challenge than passing food and loo paper through a hotel room door? We've had Queensland using 13 of their—wait for it—1,977 hotels for quarantine. We should be supporting the hotel sector by doing more quarantine and training more public health workers, but that simply hasn't happened. We should have lent before we spent on JobKeeper. Right from the start, HECS was there to provide long-term income-contingent lending to every business who needed a hand. We wouldn't be chasing Harvey Norman today if we'd provided some lending opportunities through Single Touch Payroll so that employers could have access to that same amount of money but pay it back if it wasn't needed. And every sector turned out to be different. There'd be more dollars for delta this year if we'd had a more cautious approach and used lend instead of spend last year.

The great story one day, I think, will be how we wouldn't touch a mask 12 months ago and now you get fined for not having one. There are people like Brendon Hempel, who, at a time when our own nation's PPE task force couldn't see it, organised 250 million masks to be imported, on 9 April last year. Everyone else was worried about respirators for an alpha strain that didn't need them.

The closure of international borders and DFAT's management of it, where you self-assess how much at risk you are, failed to ask a simple question of the million Australians overseas: do you have first-degree relatives permanently based in the country you're in, with all the supports you need? The limited seats on our aircraft have been consumed by Australians pulling out passports, too often from under the mattress of convenience, having decided to come home because things look a little cheerier in Australia than in the country they chose to move to two years ago. I think that's a fair point to be made.

Case numbers have been unclear. We haven't been accurately reporting case recovery. Hospital elective surgery shouldn't have stopped, but the reality is that hospitals are so perpetually at risk of being overwhelmed they had no choice.

Lastly, we've ended zero-debt thinking, and modern monetary policy has a new lease on life, but certainly we need to rethink growth theory, the idea that we need to be bringing in a certain number of people to this country to keep the economy strong. We're bringing no-one into this country at the moment and the economy is strong. I hope that promotes in this chamber a renewed debate about populations in this country.