Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Matters of Urgency

COVID-19: Morrison Government

3:51 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

No-one knows better than a Victorian that just wishing for the pandemic to be over will not make it over. The reality is that we are now facing the prospect of another new variant on our shores. But, at a time when we should be feeling confident about our ability to manage this new strain of the virus, Australians are again concerned—concerned because, even after two years of this pandemic, we still cannot trust this government to respond. We still cannot trust this government to deliver us through this new challenge that we're facing today, because we know how this government responds in a crisis. It is always too little too late. It's always someone else's responsibility. It's always a matter for the states.

For the past two years, Prime Minister Morrison has had just two jobs that Australians needed him to do to keep us safe: deliver a fast, speedy, effective vaccination program and deliver new fit-for-purpose national quarantine facilities. We all know what happened. We all know the story of the failed vaccine rollout. Apparently it wasn't a race, according to Mr Morrison. Apparently no-one in government needed to pick up the phone when Pfizer called. And, almost two years on, we still have no dedicated, purpose-built national quarantine facilities—no new federal quarantine facilities.

Throughout this year, in particular, Australians have paid the price. This year, 2021, was the year that Australians just did not need to go through—lockdowns, restrictions and border closures. This year, 2021, was the year of COVID that we just didn't need to have, because the Prime Minister failed to roll out the vaccines. He said it wasn't a race. He didn't pick up the phone to Pfizer. He failed to roll out the vaccines. That failure has been called by the former Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, the biggest public policy failure on record. Two years into this pandemic we are still reliant on leaky and insufficient hotel quarantine. We know that hotels were built for tourists. They weren't built to deal with this crisis. That's why we needed the government to build purpose-built quarantine facilities.

Now we can add to all of this the absolute snail's pace that this government is displaying in establishing mRNA capacity here in Australia. This is sovereign capacity that we urgently need—vaccines that we urgently need to produce right here in Australia. The success of mRNA vaccines became apparent last year in the pandemic. It became clear last year just how critical this technology would be in our ongoing fight against the pandemic. Last year everyone got this news—everyone except for Prime Minister Morrison, because we are still nowhere on delivering mRNA vaccine-manufacturing capacity in Australia. This is an absolutely essential capability that we need in order to continue to protect Australians and our regional neighbours from this virus, but this government was so slow to even announce an mRNA bid.

Since then, it has been absolutely glacial in rolling that process out. First the government said we would be making the vaccines here in 12 months. Then it became 24 months. Now it's some time in the next three years. We are still waiting for the Morrison government to announce the results of its approach to market—its belated, snail-paced approach to market—to manufacture mRNA vaccines right here. We still have no announcement, more than five months after expressions of interest closed. In that five months, and in the period before the government even announced its bid, the rest of the world has already moved. There is a global race on to attract these facilities, and this is yet another race that this government wants Australians to lose.

We know how critical this particular vaccine technology is to our ability to protect against this virus, the current variant and any future variants, but we are still waiting, waiting, waiting for this government to get its plans off the drawing board. Australian scientists, businesses and manufacturers are all ready to go. Just today, the first trial mRNA drug made in Australia was produced in Victoria. It was made in a facility in Boronia, Melbourne. It's now heading to clinical trials. This is great news. It should be great news. It would be even better news if we had in Australia the mRNA manufacturing facility that we need to actually make this a reality—the type of facility that could take Australian-made innovations like that out of the trial phase and into advanced manufacturing. But we don't, and we don't know when that is going to happen, because the Morrison government still has its plans on the drawing board. The Morrison government is holding us back from building the mRNA capacity that we urgently need. It is holding us at the back of the line in a global race. This is the track record of our federal government—always too little, too late. Always.

Australians need their government to get moving. Australians need their government to get in the race. But instead of leadership from this Prime Minister, what we have seen, particularly in the last few weeks, is just division. From the very early days of this crisis we have seen the Prime Minister prioritise politics over the best interests of the people, blaming the state premiers instead of backing them when they were making the tough calls that needed to be made to keep us safe, playing state off against state, turning his back on millions of people who were locked down in what the Prime Minister decided, divisively, to label 'the Victorian wave' of the pandemic.

And now, when we most need unity, he is playing a dangerous game of doublespeak, condemning the violent threats of protesters on one hand but then straightaway, on the other hand, saying he has sympathy with their concerns. He's playing a dangerous game that undermines the advice of the health experts—a game that could impact the critical uptake of booster shots that we need to prevent another winter lockdown. He's playing a game that undermines the unity and the goodwill displayed by millions of Australians who have done the right thing and gone and got themselves vaccinated.

We know this is not a game, that there are lives at stake, that the sacrifices of millions of Australians should not be undermined in what is a desperate scrounge for votes from this Prime Minister. But this is a government that is desperate—desperate to avoid responsibility, desperate to avoid scrutiny, desperate to save itself before anything else. They are so desperate to distract from their long list of failures that they are prepared to play footsy with extremists. We have a prime minister who refuses to unequivocally condemn the violent threats against state MPs and state premiers. He refuses to act as a leader and do the hard thing and tell the violent protesters that the crisis is not over, that there is more work to do. He refuses to tell them that, while it's difficult, we can get through this if we actually stand together. A real leader would deliver the unity we need to move forward together.


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