Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Matters of Urgency

Prime Minister

6:23 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Chisholm, I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The failure of leadership by the Prime Minister to address the behaviour of Senators Rennick and Antic, and Mr George Christensen MP, which is a risk to the health and good order of the Australian community by spreading disinformation about vaccinations and other COVID-19 public health measures; supporting anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protests and their leaders, some of whom have publicly called for the violent overthrow of state and federal governments and the murder of public servants, including members of the Australian Defence Force; standing alongside protestors who attack the social and democratic institutions which have created a successful, prosperous, multicultural Australia; and whose behaviour may encourage others to emulate them by reason of their high profile and status.

This morning I heard from Susan, an aged-care worker. Susan has been working in the aged-care sector for 17 years. She says that the facility she currently works for is at breaking point because of the pandemic and because of the government's failure to support that sector throughout this critical omicron phase.

Staff shortages mean that she finds herself solely responsible for a floor of 40 elderly people. And when two or three or four buzzers go off at the same time, as they always seem to do, she actually has to decide who she is going to help, whose needs she is going to prioritise and who is most important. She has to take responsibility. She has to make a choice. She doesn't have the option that Prime Minister Morrison gives himself time and time again, and that is to say that it's someone else's problem and shrug the responsibility off onto someone else.

I mention Susan because this morning, to meet with her, I had to go past a large crowd of people outside the parliament who are angry about lifesaving vaccinations and public health measures associated with the pandemic. This is a group of people that coalition members, members of the coalition party room and members of this Senate have been directly speaking to and encouraging for some time. It's been reported that some of the coalition party room were down there at the rally in person. Senator Rennick is reported in the media to have said that he is 'working to make sure that our children aren't vaccinated'. You would think, wouldn't you, that the Prime Minister might be concerned that members of his party room were spreading misinformation about the safety of vaccines? If not that, you'd think he might be concerned that members of his party room are addressing protests whose leaders have publicly called for the violent overthrow of state and federal governments and the murder of public servants. Apparently, he's not concerned about that, not interested in that. He's silent. It's not his responsibility and not his problem. It's a shame actually that the Prime Minister didn't meet with Susan because, if he did, he could have learned something about what it means to take responsibility and make difficult decisions.

Actually, calling out vaccine misinformation and extremism shouldn't be a difficult decision. It should be an easy choice for any leader with integrity. The reasons provided by the government for the cancellation of Novak Djokovic's visa actually spell out why it's dangerous for someone with a high profile and status to be stoking anti-vaccine sentiment. In the government's own words: 'It may encourage others to emulate him. If others were encouraged to take up or maintain resistance to vaccination or COVID-19 restrictions then that would present a problem for the health of individuals and the operation of Australia's hospital system.' They went on to say: 'His presence may lead to rallies and protests that may themselves be a source of community transmission.' They were the issues when it came to Mr Djokovic, but we have had members of the coalition party room doing all of these things and, in fact, much more.

We have had false medical claims from and distrust of science being provoked by Senator Rennick. He said, 'All the data says that they're neither safe nor effective.' What data is he referring to? He went on, on the basis of this false claim, to say, 'It is criminally negligent to roll out booster shots without any attempt at rectifying these serious safety issues first.' If distrust in science and medicine isn't bad enough, we then had Senator Antic, who has been out there peddling distrust in government. Here is a quote from Senator Antic:

Power hungry bureaucrats and a largely pedestrian media have fuelled fear in our community for two years.

On the rallies in Canberra this week, he said, 'We are with you all the way.' Mr Christensen, serial offender, went further and said:

I watched with pride over the past few days as thousands of Australians uprooted their lives and drove to the nation's capital to send a message to all politicians: we want our freedoms back!

That was an unsurprising statement in some ways. Mr Christensen gave a speech last year comparing vaccine mandates and COVID restrictions to a totalitarian regime. He then called for civil disobedience. This was at a time when protesters were constructing gallows out the front of a state parliamentary building. It comes on top of two years of Mr Christensen boosting unproven and dangerous alternative COVID treatments. During the time that Mr Craig Kelly was a member of the coalition party room, the Prime Minister stood idly by while Mr Kelly disseminated false COVID information and misinformation on social media. Facebook has taken more action against Mr Kelly than the Prime Minister.

Why hasn't the Prime Minister done anything? When asked why his government had acted on Novak Djokovic and not coalition backbenchers Mr Morrison said:

… you're conflating two different issues … In Australia, if you're an Australian, you're a citizen, you're resident and you're a citizen, you can be here and you can express your views.

What a hollow and vacuous response that trivialises the issues at stake! It also serves to minimise the Prime Minister's responsibility. The truth is, they are not merely Australian citizens, are they? They are members of the Prime Minister's party room. They are members of the government that he leads. He ought to take responsibility for their behaviour.

Deputy Prime Minister Joyce took time out from texting to say, 'What can we do?' As much as immigration minister Alex Hawke would like, he can't send any of our politicians to Serbia. Again, what a trivial response, because he's right: that's not an option for the PM. I'll tell you what the Prime Minister could do. He could publicly rebuke them. He could have called them out in a party room meeting. Calling people out in the party room happened this week and in any other week. He could have cornered them for a private conversation, like he did with Bridget Archer, when Mrs Archer had the temerity to cross the floor last year. Why hasn't he done anything like this? It's pretty obvious: it's because there is nothing in it for him. It's because, as former Premier Berejiklian allegedly wrote, the Prime Minister puts politics before people. He never takes responsibility.

But the Prime Minister's silence matters. The government's Federal Court submissions in the Djokovic matter make the point that antivaccine rhetoric can have a real impact on the health of individuals and the operation of Australia's health system. It means that people like Susan, the aged-care nurse, have even more elderly and sick patients to care for and more difficult choices to make about who they are able to care for. I tell you what, the health of our public debate matters as well. Any success that we have had in combatting this pandemic is due in no small part to the willingness of the Australian people to band together and to make sacrifices. Australians have worn masks. They have stayed home from work and school. They have rescheduled their weddings and, heartbreakingly, some of them have had virtual funerals.

The statements by some members of this coalition undermine that solidarity. They undermine faith in the science that has delivered the vaccines and the public health measures that have saved tens of thousands of Australian lives. They undermine the trust in government and in our public institutions that we will need to deal with the next pandemic or the next strain of this virus, or, indeed, the next crisis we confront as a nation.

The problem is broader than the pandemic. By encouraging and standing beside extremists, government members and senators are legitimising them. There is something qualitatively different about protests that call people traitors and that seek to dehumanise them. We've seen where that kind of politics leads in our history and in our global history, and it's not to a democratic place and it is not to a safe place. A leader of any integrity would call out the members of his own government who are spreading COVID misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, and encouraging violent protest. But where is Mr Morrison? There may be nothing in it for Mr Morrison politically, but he should use the weight of his position to defend the integrity of our public debate, because that is the right thing to do.


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