Senate debates

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Vaccination

3:58 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) 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) to questions without notice asked by Senators Kitching and Gallagher today relating to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Mr Morrison promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March. He has failed that test. Now it's the start of May, and we are only at 2.8 million. In fact the Prime Minister has failed pretty much every vaccine test that he has set himself. He promised that all of group 1a would be vaccinated by Easter. He failed that test. He promised that six million Australians would be vaccinated by 10 May. Monday has come and gone, and we're at 2.8 million. The Prime Minister has previously promised that all Australians will be vaccinated by the end of October. That seems impossible now, doesn't it? At the current rate of vaccination of 400,000 a week, we will not get there until 2023.

Weirdly, that's not what it says in the budget papers, is it? The budget papers assume that all Australians will be fully vaccinated this year. The Prime Minister is now backing away from that at a rate of knots. Yesterday he was trying very hard to distinguish, in his media appearance, between a policy setting and an assumption. That is a distinction that won't make sense to many Australians, and Senator Colbeck's answers today certainly did not make that any clearer. He spent a considerable amount of time today trying to distinguish between policy positions and assumptions and the grey zone of semantics between those ideas. But Australians actually don't need another word salad from this appalling minister, who oversaw a shambles of a response to the threat of COVID to aged-care residents. They actually just want a simple answer to a simple question: when will all of Australia be vaccinated?

It's not a moot question. It's not an unimportant question. The reason that the budget includes information—assumptions—about vaccination is that it has a real impact on Australia's ability to recover economically from the effects of the pandemic. A vaccinated Australia is less vulnerable to the risk posed when a positive case escapes from hotel quarantine. A vaccinated Australia won't have to have a widespread lockdown if community transmission is detected. A vaccinated Australian can travel, supporting vulnerable jobs in Cairns and in Launceston. That is the reality for many countries, and the Prime Minister promised us last year that we would be first in line and front of the queue for vaccines. According to analysis by the Financial Times, we're actually ranked 104th internationally in the rollout, and economists are telling us that all this delay caused by this incompetence will cost the Australian economy billions of dollars.

This is something that the Prime Minister should have and could have taken charge of personally. The Morrison government has badly mishandled sourcing vaccines, and today's announcement about sourcing Moderna vaccines is honestly long overdue. Labor has been calling for months now for the Australian government to strike a deal with Moderna for access to their state-of-the-art mRNA vaccine. That's a position that the government has consistently rejected as recently as the last few weeks. At the heart of this is the failure by Mr Morrison to take responsibility. He loves the job. He clearly loves the job. But he doesn't really like doing the work. He would rather lean on the state premiers. He wants a photo taken with them when things go right. He's nowhere to be seen when things go wrong. Just like in the bushfires, he's nowhere to be seen and unwilling to take responsibility for the things that really matter to this country, but he's always willing to point the finger, always finding someone else who is responsible for the things that have gone wrong, and he's never willing to stand up and actually take responsibility for the things that will make a difference in the lives of ordinary Australians.

The government should stop pretending that the vaccine rollout is going well. They should stop blaming other people who draw attention to the failures. They should face up to the problems they have created, because Australians and the economy are paying the price.

4:03 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I take pleasure in rising today to actually address this issue that Labor senators are raising in this place. What the government are proving is that we're ambidextrous in our ability to deal with the challenges of the supply of vaccine, our ability to connect with reality—something that we don't see much on the other side of the chamber. Professor Murphy said that it is absolutely vital for Australia to be prepared for variants of the coronavirus, and the Moderna deal which has been announced provides extra diversity and redundancy in the country's vaccine arsenal. This is phenomenal. This is great. We know that there have been supply constraints. We know that there have been issues, and it's your ability to deal with them when they arise—and that's what this government is proving: its ability to adapt, to shift, to work towards solutions. And that's what our Prime Minister and our health minister and the other great officials that are involved in negotiating terms and negotiating deals are doing to see the delivery of these vaccines.

What the Morrison government is doing is proving its ability to be ambidextrous, to modify, to adapt as the circumstances change, and Australians can make sense of this. They get that. They respect the fact that, when circumstances change, you have to shift, you have to adapt and you have to move quickly. This is what the Morrison government has done in terms of this vaccine. With the announcement of an agreement for the Moderna vaccine, which secures a further 25 million doses, the total number of doses of vaccine that are going to be available to Australians has now increased to 195.4 million. That provides us with options. If there are issues, we can shift to others. There is opportunity that has been provided here by this government.

Sadly, Labor have proven yet again their inability to adapt. They come in here with their same old and tired tactics of fear and cynicism in some misguided attempt to score some political point, but really they have no clue. All they're doing is just revealing that they don't have a clue about what Australians care about, because if they did then they would be coming in here and asking questions and inquiring about the very substantial budget statement that was delivered by the Treasurer. Labor's ability to adapt and move to where we need to go is really in question right now. It's a question that's before Labor and Labor members and people that support the Labor Party when they're looking at what Labor's position is.

What will they do with the third round of tax cuts that this government has put forward? Where's Labor's position on this? Will they be ambidextrous? Will they present themselves with the ability to move and to shift and to recognise the times that we're dealing with? Australians care about this. This is something that Australians want to see. They want to be able to take home more of the money that they earn, but there is deathly silence on that side. We're not hearing what Labor would do. Mr Frydenberg said that if the opposition leader abandoned the government's tax cuts, which would abolish the 37 per cent tax bracket, leaving earnings between $45,000 and $200,000 taxed at 30 per cent, this would create a system that was unaffordable, and we must create a stronger system. Mr Frydenberg said that the Labor Party has not said if they have committed to stage 3. Even though at the time it passed through the parliament they said that they supported these tax cuts, there has been silence from the opposition leader. There has been silence from Labor senators as they've come and hid in this place.

If they abandon stage 3, it would mean that somebody on $80,000 a year, a middle-income earner, would be $900 a year worse off. These are the issues that Australians care about. These are the issues that are front of mind when Australians are working very hard and working hard to pay their bills. They want to know: can they keep more of the money that they earn? Where's Labor's interest in the Australian people, I wonder?

4:08 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of questions from Senators Gallagher and Kitching to Senator Colbeck in relation to the failed vaccine rollout. You can see the penny dropping for senators opposite. It has been going on all week. On the other side they thought they had got away with the catastrophic bungling of the most important public health program in Australia's political history, vital for our public health, vital for the future of our economy. At the beginning of this week you could see in their faces as they came in here on the balls of their toes that they thought they'd got away with it, that the criticism had been muted. In fact what has happened is households across the country have just shrugged their shoulders because it's more of the same from the Morrison government. We've gone from, 'I don't hold a hose, mate' to 'I don't hold a dose, mate.' We've gone from broken promises, more announcements, more spin over the bushfire crisis to broken promises, more announcements, more spin and more marketing over another issue that's vital for public health, vital for the economy and vital for every household in the country. You could see it in the lacklustre tone—the excuses, the dissembling, the lack of interest, the lack of a sense of urgency—from Minister Colbeck in question time today. Just like when he had responsibility for aged care—remember, Neglect was the title of the report that made an assessment of his performance as the aged-care minister—everything that this minister touches turns to custard.

The COVID-19 pandemic, for the government, has just been a distraction from what they see as the real business of government—staying in government and looking after themselves and their mates. We've had a cycle of announcements and promises over the COVID-19 vaccine rollout that has been accelerating as the sense of crisis and failure has risen. Last year, the Prime Minister promised that Australia would be at the front of the queue for vaccination. At the beginning of this year, the Prime Minister promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March. Today, the promises and announcements accelerate, with five different positions from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and various assorted ministers.

The problem for Minister Colbeck answering questions in the Senate today is that, while he's entitled to be confused about the government's position, it's really quite a simple proposition: if you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything; you just tell the truth. Well, the truth is that Australia has vaccinated just 2,736,107 people. We are 81st in the world in the percentage of our population vaccinated. In raw terms, there are 15 countries that have a smaller population that have vaccinated more people. It's a geography lesson, really. Singapore, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Chile and Greece have all vaccinated more people and have a smaller population. Chile has six million fewer people than Australia and has fully vaccinated 16 million people in their population. Chile has fully vaccinated almost six times as many people as Australia has. How can it be that this country has performed so poorly?

There's been such wilful neglect of this basic requirement of government. This Prime Minister's not been able to grasp the nettle to do the right thing by Australians and Australian families and has left us stranded, exposed, isolated and vulnerable to future outbreaks of this virus, with a quarantine system that is fundamentally compromised. Unable to take responsibility for quarantines and vaccines, he's left Australian households at the mercy of the pandemic and a future economic crisis. (Time expired)

4:13 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Labor Party for raising this very important issue. Yes, we are still in the middle of an international pandemic, but the Labor Party continue to talk us down. They continue to talk down Australia, which has far exceeded the rest of the world in managing COVID cases and in ensuring we have best practice for testing, tracing and managing outbreaks of COVID. We have actually got through this pandemic with very low statistics.

When we talk about the actual vaccination rollout, the sense of urgency that other countries have is not experienced here in Australia. We are getting the vaccination out the door. We are entering into negotiations with companies to ensure that we've got enough vaccine, going into the future, to ensure that we can vaccinate our entire population. Importantly, in a country like Australia that is so big and so diverse and that has such a disparate population, we are ensuring that we can manage to get the vaccine out to the people on the ground in the regions where it's needed. We are utilising every possible mechanism to get the vaccine out there. We are working with our general practices. We've got over 5,000 general practices registered to be able to give vaccinations. Those general practices are throughout Australia; they are not general practices located in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. They are general practices like those in my home town of Deniliquin, where my local health clinic is giving COVID vaccinations.

We are working with the Aboriginal community controlled health services to ensure that our Aboriginal communities in some of the most remote locations in Australia are not forgotten as we manage the rollout of this vaccine. These are all things that take time to develop, but we've done that. They are all things that ensure that we are flexible and we can pivot to need. We're even working with the Royal Flying Doctor Service to ensure that people on our most remote stations have access to the vaccine. We're not focused only on where the pandemic has occurred in our cities, where we've had the majority of outbreaks. We are focused entirely on ensuring that every Australian who wants a vaccination can access a vaccination. We should be proud. Senator Ayres made the point that Australia is 81st in the world in terms of getting the vaccine rolled out. He failed to mention that our case numbers are 120th in the world. But, when you look at the number per capita, our case numbers are much, much lower than all of the countries that the Labor Party are focusing on comparing us to.

We don't want to be the next India. We don't want to be the next United Kingdom or the next USA. We want to make sure we stay ahead of the pack, so we are managing the entire pandemic. We are not focusing just on vaccinations. We know that the best way to get through this pandemic is to continue to ensure that we don't have major outbreaks, continue to work with our state partners of all political colours on their management of COVID and continue to ensure that we can manage any COVID coming to our country with returning Australians. We are working constructively through national cabinet to get the vaccine out the door. New South Wales last week opened their first major vaccination hub at Sydney Olympic Park. That has been going very successfully, with massive registrations of people, to bring forward the phases of the rollout as required, as advised by our health experts. We continue to listen to and we continue to work with the scientific community to manage this pandemic as we go.

4:18 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of questions by senators Kitching and Gallagher to Senator Colbeck. What we got in the answers today was more waffle from a government far more focused on the politics of the vaccine rollout than the delivery of it. This is something we've come to expect after eight long years of this government that has always been far, far more focused on announcements than deliveries. We've seen it time and time again. The JobMaker program was meant to create 450,000 jobs, but only created 1,100. A federal integrity commission is nowhere to be seen. There is also the $4 billion in national disaster recovery that has not been spent. But this time the government have outdone themselves.

They've outdone themselves on the 'all announcement, no delivery', because this time they haven't just bungled the delivery; they've bungled the announcements. They announced that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March, and they've failed to deliver that. It's now May and we've got about 2.8 million vaccinated. So they've tried to announce something again, and then they've failed to deliver the reannouncement. We've got five goes from five different ministers: Minister Hunt, who promised that all Australians would be vaccinated by October; Minister Tehan, who said that the goal was for all Australians to have a dose by the end of the year; Treasurer Frydenberg, who promised that every Australian would get two shots of the vaccine by the end of the year; Senator Birmingham, who said that people would still be getting vaccinated next year; and Minister Colbeck, who said that vaccinating Australians this year has never been part of the government's plans. There have been five different attempts at reannouncement from five different ministers.

I've got to give you guys credit, because we thought we had you worked out. We thought we had your measure. We thought you were all announcement, no delivery. We thought you were great at the announcements—political geniuses at that—but always failing on the delivery. But you tricked us, because you can't even announce it properly. You're not only 'no announcement, no delivery'; you can't even do the announcements properly. There have been five different positions from five different ministers, five attempts at an announcement from five different ministers. It's ridiculously hard to keep up.

The fact is that, in all these failures, the failures in delivery particularly, you're letting Australians down so very badly. It's not good enough to bungle this. It's one of your few jobs in the COVID recovery—vaccinations—and you're bungling it. It's not good enough for Australians. It's not good enough for vulnerable Australians, especially, who are still scared, who are still anxious, waiting for their vaccine. That vaccine for them is a ticket to a more normal life. It's a ticket to safety. It's a ticket to being able to go back into their community and not live with that deep-seated fear they live with every day. It's not good enough for our aged-care workers, who are going through an extraordinarily difficult time at the moment, with this anxiety on top of them. They're not all vaccinated yet. The fear they live with every day is intolerable. It's not good enough for our frontline healthcare workers, who are exhausted from this pandemic and who want to be vaccinated and are not yet vaccinated. It's not good enough for them. It's not good enough for all the Australians who need this vaccine and aren't able to get it. It's not good enough for our economy, because we know the reopening of our economy—the full redevelopment, the growth that we know we need to see in our economy—depends on jabs in arms, jabs you cannot deliver.

It's not good enough for our economy. It's not good enough for vulnerable Australians. It's not good enough for aged-care workers. It's not good enough for frontline healthcare workers. It's not good enough for any of us. So, instead of tying yourself in knots bungling announcements, and then go on and bungle the delivery of those announcements and reannouncements, which we just can't even catch up with, just do better. Do better for all Australians, who need you to do better on one of the few jobs you have. Do better for our economy. Do better for our vulnerable Australians. Do better on this vaccine rollout. Do better so that we can start getting back to normal. Do better so that people can be less anxious and less in fear. Just do better for Australia. It's about time.

Question agreed to.