Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Solomon Islands, COVID-19, National Security, Digital Media Reform, Government
The events of the past week have shown us the important role that government can play in people's lives—protecting Australians' health and protecting their security. There have been a number of events where, to my mind, the government has responded rapidly and effectively to external shocks, which in other countries or other situations would have posed a real threat to our way of life. In our near neighbours of the Pacific, the Solomon Islands, unfortunately, we have seen an outbreak of unrest, which is not uncommon in the Solomon Islands. It is often between the two major islands, Guadalcanal and Malaita. This has been triggered again recently. Thankfully, we have been able to respond very quickly.
There are now 45 Australian Federal Police and 76 members of the ADF who have already arrived in the Solomon Islands to support an existing presence there. I want to thank those who have deployed and their families. They are employed by and large from the member for Herbert's seat, from Townsville. They are a rapid reaction force; they are on a short time frame in terms of notice to move, so they can deal with exactly these sorts of contingencies. When this last happened, in 2003, Australia didn't have the agreements in place to respond, or indeed the capabilities to respond as quickly as we would have liked. We then had to send in a much bigger mission, RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, which had to stay for much longer. Today, we have been able to move much more quickly to stabilise the situation there.
We have also seen the emergence of a new COVID variant, named omicron after one of the letters in the Greek alphabet. All the indications are—at least in South Africa and Botswana, where it originated—that this variant is much more contagious than other variants. It is quickly beginning to displace the delta and alpha variants in South Africa. It is not yet clear whether this variant is any more lethal or any more dangerous to human health. It is not yet clear, but it is expected that vaccines will continue to remain effective against omicron. But yet again the government has acted very quickly. We have suspended flights from South Africa and eight neighbouring southern African countries. We have put in place quarantine arrangements for any Australians or permanent residents returning from those places. We have also instituted genomic sequencing and testing for the small number of people who have arrived in Australia and tested positive for this variant.
The nature of these sorts of infectious diseases is that, in an evolutionary sense, they don't have an incentive to kill their host; they have an incentive to replicate quickly and keep their hosts alive. It may well be that omicron, while a more contagious variant, may well be a less lethal variant, which is what has happened over time with things like the common cold and the flu. The severity has lessened and the ubiquity has grown. We don't yet know what the case is with omicron but it is important that we act conservatively and take precautions, as we are doing here.
This week in parliament we have also been debating—and the committee I chair, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has also been debating—the first implementing arrangement under the AUKUS agreement. Members will be aware that this is an arrangement between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom that will allow us to acquire nuclear powered submarines in addition to cooperating in other areas. I cannot overstate the importance of this capability in the country that faces the strategic circumstances that Australia faces. Nuclear powered submarines will be a game-changer for our capability. They can operate with greater range, greater endurance, less ability to be detected, higher lethality and higher speeds.
To demonstrate the closeness of this relationship, this is only the second time in United States history that it has been willing to share nuclear propulsion technology with another country. The first time was with the United Kingdom in the 1950s. This is the second time—with Australia. This week, my committee, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, has been reviewing the implementing arrangement which allows for the exchange or sharing of naval nuclear propulsion information—classified and unclassified—to allow us to conduct the feasibility studies we need to do to determine the optimal pathway.
If you look at our performance through the pandemic—which, again, is a key purpose of government, and we have been reminded of that with this new variant outbreak—I think you have to say that, whilst challenges remain, we are in a very good position in Australia. In relation to our vaccination rate, we have over 86 per cent of the over-16 population fully vaccinated. Over 92 per cent have now had their first dose. In my own state of New South Wales, which has moved more quickly with the vaccination program, partly because of the outbreak and the lockdown earlier this year, 92.4 per cent of the over-16 population is fully vaccinated, and 94.5 per cent have now had their first dose. This means we will end up with one of the highest vaccination rates of any developed or advanced country—or indeed any country—in the world in a very short space of time. That will provide a level of protection to our public against new variants. There are also boosters available: people are now receiving their booster shots and there are many more vaccines in the pipeline.
If you look at our economy, ours is one of the few economies that is larger now than it was going into the pandemic. We've got 900,000 more jobs than we had in May last year. We've got more people in employment and we've got an economy that's larger. In fact, some of the biggest economic challenges that we're facing are ones on the supply side rather than the demand side. We've got a scarcity of labour. We've got many industries that are crying out for workers because our borders have been shut, but there's no shortage of consumer demand. We've seen that in both the consumer confidence figures and the business confidence figures. Again, our economy in Australia is the envy of much of the Western world.
If you look at how we've travelled in disease terms through this pandemic: in the United States, over 12 per cent of people—that's about one in eight—have had COVID. In the United Kingdom, it's about 11 per cent or around one in nine. Many of those have recovered; many, sadly, have not. But many of those will suffer from the effects, which are still not very well understood, of what's called long COVID, enduring symptoms like fatigue, compromised cardiac function, inability to concentrate and general lethargy.
In Australia the figure is 0.4 per cent of people who have had COVID, so that's one in 250 people. It's a fraction of what we've seen in other countries, and that's a testament to the public health measures we've been able to put in place to protect people from COVID. If we had something like the comparable death rates that we've seen in OECD countries, we would've experienced about 30,000 deaths from COVID here in Australia. Instead, we're at around 2,000 deaths, all of those indeed are tragedies, but compared to where we are with the rest of the world, I think we are in a very good place.
Lastly, I'll mention our digital media reforms which were announced this week. These are new laws which we propose to introduce soon to combat trolling on online media. I think anyone who's been on digital media—and, unfortunately, our jobs often require us to do just that—who's engaged in these worlds or anyone who's a parent who's got children who are on digital platforms and use it to connect cannot but be appalled at the level of bullying, abuse and viciousness that accompanies some of that activity. I think we all know, intuitively, a large part of it is because people hide behind the cloak of anonymity: people feel liberated to say things they would never dare to say to someone to their face or they wouldn't think to say if they were encountering someone in the street or a restaurant. Instead, on social media, they often feel they have a licence to do so because their identity can be masked. What our legislation will do is compel digital media platforms to unmask the identity of these people and so discourage them from engaging in this sort of behaviour. If the digital media platforms refuse to do so, they themselves will be held liable for the content, when and where it's defamatory.
I'm reminded of a proverb I used to hear when I travelled to Africa in my previous role when I was a government official with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Anytime you go to a think tank meeting in Africa, meet with government ministries or attend a strategic dialogue, they'd always wheel out a saying—I think it's familiar to many people here as well. The saying was this: 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' I think that proverb is a good illustration of what a government is all about. When you're here in the parliament to get things done, you need to operate as a team. If you want to pass legislation through the House of Representatives, you need to convince 75 of your colleagues to support you. It's quite easy to go fast—that is, to yell, criticise and offer solutions—but it's very hard to go far because to go far you need to go together. It means you need to cooperate with people.
Ultimately, government is about delivering for our communities. It's about keeping people safe. It's about giving people the opportunities to educate themselves, engage in livelihoods, run their own businesses. It's about giving them the freedom, and protecting that freedom, to make their own life choices. Government isn't about telling people how they should live their lives or deciding what choices they should be making; government is an enabling function to allow people to make those choices for themselves. I think we've been reminded of that this week, and the African proverb, 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,' is something I keep firmly in my mind.