Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Vaccination, JobKeeper Payment

3:39 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services (Senator Colbeck) and the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Dodson and O'Neill today.

I wish to talk about the vaccine rollout. There's a lot of concern in the community, and that concern is centred on a number of issues to do with the vaccine rollout that has been badly handled by this government. We've had issues around overdosing, we've had issues around training and we've had issues around storage. And today, as I understand it, we've had issues with the launch of the booking system. Unfortunately, this seems to be par for the course for this government. It has been a confused, slow and uneven rollout of the COVID vaccination program across Australia and in my home state of Tasmania.

I think everyone would remember when the Prime Minister promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March this year. We know that over 160,000 vaccinations have been done, but we're a long way off four million. Senator Colbeck, in his response to Senator Dodson, did not respond at all to the question that was asked of him about the Prime Minister's commitment to Australians around vaccinations. To be completely fair to the Prime Minister, it did then morph into a commitment that four million would be vaccinated by the end of April. And then that commitment disappeared altogether. There have been commitments for six million vaccinations by 10 May and even 11 million by the end of May. If the rollout in Tasmania is anything to go by, the government is a long, long way from delivering on these commitments. The problem is that, despite months of planning, the systems to deliver the vaccine programs are still not in place.

I just want to go to the announcement that was made today and have a look at the electorate of Lyons. In Tasmania, there have been 36 GP clinics announced; in the electorate of Lyons, there have been only five. Now, Lyons contains 12 municipalities, and six of them have been left off the vaccination map. The government expects people living in the Derwent Valley, the southern midlands, Glamorgan and Spring Bay, Tasman, the central highlands and Kentish to travel considerable distances to get vaccinated—and of course that's if they can get an appointment and if the GP clinic has any available vaccine.

I've already spoken about booking through the national booking system. We've already heard the issues around the system not standing up. There have been some website errors. I hope that the system stands up to the demand and doesn't suffer from the same fate as many of the other platforms that this government has run in the past, because they don't have a very good track record. I hope it does stand up, despite the early reports this afternoon, because it simply would not be good enough for the booking system to not be able to handle the demand.

For the older people living on the Tasman Peninsula and on the east coast, their nearest GP clinics are in Sorell and St Helens, which are 90 minutes away. The government have really done a very bad job with the vaccinations rollout. They've substantially overpromised and overcommitted. They have had one issue after another. As I said, they've had the overdosing; they've had the lack of training. They really need to get their act together because people— (Time expired)

3:44 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we go again: every single day, whatever it is, there can never be any recognition from those opposite that Australia has weathered the COVID pandemic better than all major advanced nations, in both economic and health terms. It doesn't matter where we're talking. It doesn't matter if we're looking at the $267 billion that's gone directly to economic and health support for Australians—we can't talk about the $267 billion that has benefited Australians through this pandemic without hearing doom and gloom from those opposite. And as everyone around the world has experienced when their vaccine programs have launched, it's been slow and steady as the vaccine rollout starts up. That's the sensible, medical based approach that's been taken around the world. But, yet again, the Labor Party have to come in with all their complaints, all their worries, all their concerns—which we know is part of their generalised faux outrage about everything.

One moment they're calling for the vaccine to be rolled out as fast as possible, and the next they're crying out about safety. We couldn't have consistency of message! We couldn't have anything that doesn't absolutely look like hypocrisy! We've seen it this week. At the March 4 Justice we saw Tanya Plibersek and Senator Waters—with Senator Waters being shuttered away by Tanya Plibersek as Kathy Sherriff tried to address the March. But: 'No, no, no; we only want to focus on one side as we politicise this issue.' Yet again, this hypocrisy is coming through, because one minute, 'The vaccine's not happening fast enough,' and the next minute, 'We're not sure how safe it's going to be; we need to make sure those in aged care have more surety, and we're not sure about each different type of vaccine.' Yet again the hypocrisy comes through.

I think you'd have a much better time, on a general day-to-day basis, if you just eased back on the anger about everything. The faux outrage must be exhausting. I mean, you really must be tired, and I do feel sorry for you all. For all of these Australians—the 164,000 who have received vaccines—the other side of this is that we in the Morrison government have ensured that we have sovereignty over vaccines, that we're able to produce our own vaccines and have sovereignty. We will not be beholden to exports from the world once we establish the production means that we have organised for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be delivered in a sovereign way to Australians. This domestic production will start with a delivery of one million per week from late March. But no, that's not good enough over here; they're going to have to get a little outraged up there. They probably don't like advanced manufacturing very much, either, and are probably not too happy about job creation happening in this country.

We heard today, regarding JobKeeper, which opposition leader Albanese absolutely stated should be tapered out—but he's obviously a little distracted this week while he's trying to ignore a Facebook chat group—that they've changed their mind again. Living wages, handouts and subsidisation of industry are all part of your mantra. We want Australians to get back to normal life. We want pre-COVID existence to come back. We want Australians to have security in their own businesses and in their jobs. And that's going to happen through the vaccine. I'm sure you guys won't be lining up for it, as you've objected to it every step of the way. But I'm sure that, with more hypocrisy, you'll come through, because you'll be advocating confidence or whatever you're looking for as you criticise the rollout, as you criticise the safety.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I'm sure you guys won't want to get the vaccine one moment and then you'll want to get it the next, because you guys don't know which way's up, or whether it's black or it's white.

Opposition senators interjecting

No, you guys have had your say over there—

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

One minute it's not fast enough and the next minute it's not safe. The next minute you're criticising the fact that Europe won't send it over, but you're not happy about domestic production, not happy about creating jobs and keeping it onshore, not happy about securing our sovereignty. You guys are just never happy. I really think you need to get out, give each other a big pat on the back and let yourselves know it's okay to smile, that it's okay to be happy about the way Australia has performed through the pandemic. It's okay, guys! (Time expired)

3:49 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm just going to inject a dose of reality into this debate, because it was sadly lacking from the performance of Senator Hughes. It was a bit of an alternative universe that Senator Hughes tried to create there, so I won't dwell on it too much. Suffice to say, if any of those Australians out there on JobKeeper saw that performance I'm sure they would be absolutely aghast that that is what the coalition senators are talking about in this important debate. You can make things up and you can throw all sorts of accusations, but what we saw today in question time was the collision of incompetence and neglect from this government, because the questions that we put about JobKeeper and the vaccine actually go to the collision of neglect and competence of this government.

The neglect is focused on those hundreds of thousands of Australians who are going to be losing their jobs in 11 days when they cut JobKeeper. That goes to the neglect of this government. The fact is that they are prepared to sit back and basically ignore those people and let them fall onto the scrap heap, because they are not focused on those people. Then we see the incompetence—and this is the dangerous part, because the incompetence is going to have consequences. It goes to the vaccine, and we are angry about the vaccine. That's because they promised that four million doses would be done by March, and we're not going to get anywhere near that. We're also angry because their incompetence on policy solutions is going to ensure that those who rely on tourism are going to be worse off as well, which is going to make their cutting JobKeeper worse.

They try to say they've got solutions to these problems, but none of them are actually going to work. The vaccine is slow. Their policy prescriptions around tourism are diabolical and aren't actually going to fix that problem. They can't put a policy solution in place, they can't get the vaccines delivered on time and they are showing neglect for those Australians who are going to be cut off JobKeeper shortly. That will have a significant impact in Queensland. What we have seen is a level of arrogance from this government. When the Treasurer, Mr Frydenberg, travelled to Cairns and Senator Green was there waiting for him, he had no policy solution. He had no detail about what he was going to roll out for the tourism industry.

There are 172,000 Queenslanders who rely on JobKeeper, and they are going to lose their payments in 11 days. That will actually cut $83 million a week from Queensland's economy. We can't afford to fall off a cliff when this ends. International borders remain closed, and we know the reason why, but the slow pace of the vaccine rollout is actually going to ensure that those international borders are closed for longer. What has been estimated across Australia is that 100,000 people will lose their jobs. We understand that a quarter of Queensland's 40,000 tourism businesses predict that they will go bust when JobKeeper ends.

The government is acting too quickly in removing JobKeeper, and it is too slow on the vaccine rollout. There is a level of incompetence when it comes to this. Currently around 203,000 Australians have been given doses. The Prime Minister promised there would be four million doses administered by the end of March. According to news reports, we are 2.1 million doses below the required level to meet that target of four million doses. Bloomberg has a list of all countries currently vaccinating, and Australia is currently 68th by the number of doses administered—behind Rwanda, Panama and Bulgaria, amongst many others. When you look at the doses per 100 people, Australia is tracking significantly below where South Korea, the EU, the US and the UK were when they were at the same stage of their vaccine rollout. There have also been media reports about the impact of this in regional Queensland, where doctors groups have said that they are only going to get 100,000 doses each week when they have 20,000 patients. So it is not going to do the job for those who need it the most.

I've mentioned the incompetence on policy as well. The flights announcement has been a debacle from start to finish. We saw the Deputy Prime Minister unable to answer questions in the media last Sunday. They've had a few days to get their answers right on this. Again, in question time we saw the minister representing not actually provide that answer. It's no wonder that Australians are anxious about this government and their decisions. It is a mixture of incompetence and a dose of neglect, and it is the Australian people who are worse off. Unfortunately, because of the decisions that they are making, the ending of JobKeeper is going to have a devastating impact for many Australians.

3:54 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Just as Australians are again confident that the future is bright and our best days in fact lie ahead, just as confidence returns to the Australian economy and just as we get assurance that, with the delivery of the vaccine, we will move to a post-COVID world, those opposite seek to undermine confidence in both the vaccine rollout and the strength of the Australian economic comeback which is so clearly on. In December, consumption was up 4.3 per cent and business investment was up 2.6 per cent, its strongest result since 2017. Dwelling investment, driven by the government's successful HomeBuilder package, is up 4.1 per cent, its strongest quarterly increase since 2015. We're not done yet. Also in the December quarter, direct economic support from the federal government was halved. That is half the amount of borrowed taxpayer money being injected into the economy, and yet at the same time the economy grew by 3.1 per cent, the second such quarter where we achieved economic growth of more than three per cent in a quarter since 1959. It's the first time since 1959 we have achieved two such quarters at that level of growth, and 2.1 million Australians graduated off the JobKeeper program. That's because this government stands for Australian business and a prosperous economy, allowing Australians to go about their business and do what they do best.

Those opposite seek to undermine both the economic comeback and confidence in our vaccine rollout at such a critical time. Spare me the feigned indignation from over there. The JobKeeper program was always, as with everything that the government has done to stimulate the economy and shepherd it through the global pandemic, targeted and time limited. It was never intended to be permanent. Initially, the JobKeeper program was only planned for six months. Indeed, as we've heard today, the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said there would always need to be a taper. But, instead, this government extended it for 12 months and, at a cost of $90 billion, it's the single largest economic support program of any government since this nation was federated. There are 2.7 million Australians who have already had their jobs protected by the JobKeeper program, but then they graduated from that program and made their way in the world unabated. That is what this government's track record says. There were 100,000 new apprentices in the first five months of our successful JobMaker hiring credit. But we aren't done yet. As we've heard Minister Cash and the Prime Minister announce in recent days, we have expanded that program. This government is about jobs, lives and livelihoods. We have been unashamed about that.

With respect to the vaccine rollout, I'm pleased to advise the Senate that now more than 203,000 vaccines have been administered. That is a 10 per cent increase on the number of vaccinations delivered in Australia since yesterday. It's a more than 10 per cent increase in the last 24 hours. Five hundred and nine aged-care facilities and more than 45,000 of our most vulnerable Australians in aged care have received those vaccinations. That's despite the fact that we have only received 700,000 of our contracted 3.8 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses. Why? Because this government was the government that made the decision in August last year to ensure we had sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability so that, while there are countries that still find themselves in the depths of this crisis, like the UK, US and countries in Europe, where tens of thousands of people are dying every day, Australia finds itself with the capability to manufacture a vaccine right here in our own backyard.

The rollout continues as we said it would. This government was clear that in February we would commence phase 1a. When did we do that? On 22 February. The AstraZeneca program was always scheduled to commence in March and—lo and behold!—we find ourselves about to commence phase 1b with the AstraZeneca vaccine four weeks after the commencement of 1a. Already more than a thousand general practices across this nation are ready to administer that vaccine. We're increasing the capability of the vaccine program by another 4,000 general practices over coming weeks. Rural and regional Australians have been considered, with the phases not applying in those isolated communities such that travel is not a problem. This government is about lives and livelihoods.

3:59 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's interesting to hear the government talk about confidence, because in Cairns there is no confidence in this government. We know that the member for Leichhardt sits in the government party room. We know that the Treasurer and the minister for tourism visited Cairns. So maybe those three men would like to have a quiet word with the senators opposite and the members of the government party room, because in Cairns there is no confidence in this government. When they come in here and talk about how great everything is going, it shows how out of touch they are with the reality of what people in Far North Queensland are facing right now.

People in Far North Queensland are listening to the words said in this place. They heard that the government promised four million vaccines by the end of March. They also heard that we would be fully vaccinated by the end of October. Well, it took two questions from Senator Gallagher over here the other day to find out that we will not be fully vaccinated by October. Why does that matter? Why does it matter that the government made promises and are not going to meet them? Nobody forced them to make these promises. Nobody forced them to make these commitments. Why does it matter? Well, the government have also said that international travel will return in October, in line with the vaccination program. There are people in my community who are listening to the promises the government is making about delivering four million vaccines, about making sure that all Australians are fully vaccinated by October, and they are planning their financial security and economic security around these promises. That's why it matters.

In 11 days 8,000 workers in Cairns will lose JobKeeper. Cairns has the highest number of JobKeeper recipients of any postcode outside the big cities and their suburbs. I've heard the argument today from ministers answering questions that JobKeeper was always supposed to be temporary and targeted. Well, in terms of targeting, wouldn't you think that targeting JobKeeper and extending JobKeeper to one of the hardest hit communities in our country would be a good thing for this government to do? Absolutely, it would. But the government are not doing that. Instead, they've come up with some haphazard scheme—a scheme that they don't even have the details on yet. They haven't actually decided whether it's a cap, whether it's demand or what destinations will be on that list. The program to take the place of JobKeeper isn't even thought out, yet JobKeeper will be cut in 11 days.

We've heard a lot from those opposite about what Labor is saying, but the tourism operators in Cairns have made many comments since the Morrison government made its so-called aviation announcement and in the lead-up to JobKeeper. Tony Baker, the managing director of Quicksilver, said that continued government support was needed to survive:

Anything that encourages visitors is great, but we still need some form of ongoing wage subsidy.

On the federal government's aviation package, Perry Jones from Ocean Free sums up the concerns that many have: 'On 1 April if there is no-one on that boat there's no wages coming in.' Of the half-price flight scheme, he said, 'The only problem is that it doesn't mean they're going to be on my boat.'

This is what these two tourism operators are saying publicly. What they are saying privately is that they have been left behind by this government, that they have no confidence in this government to deliver the vaccination rollout in the time line that they promised. No-one forced the government to make those promises, but they can't even live up to them. These operators are saying privately that they are terrified they are going to lose their jobs and they are going to lose their businesses. It is a major concern for people who have listened to what this government has said on the promises on vaccinations—four million vaccinations by the end of March, and fully vaccinated by the end of October. This government is not delivering on its promises.

Question agreed to.