Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Minister for Government Services (Senator Reynolds) to questions without notice asked by Senators Brown, Ciccone and O'Neill today relating to COVID-19 vaccinations.
The Morrison government's rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine for those living with a disability has been woeful—woeful under this minister and woeful under the previous minister. In fact—let's face it—it's almost non-existent. In Senate estimates less than a fortnight ago, it was revealed that—wait for it—355 people out of more than 22,000 people with disabilities living in residential settings had been vaccinated, despite being in the highest priority group, 1a. That's right: 1a. There has been a slight update to that figure, but it's still well below what would be rightly expected in a wealthy, relatively privileged First World country such as ours.
I was shocked when the government confirmed that they had not kept a record of how many disability workers had been vaccinated. As Senator O'Neill asked in her question, how could families possibly trust this minister to protect them? Oh, you're leaving? Really? You're leaving? You don't want to hear any of this? Really?
Deputy President, there's nothing in the standing orders which prevents that. There are conventions around that, but I suggest that, if this senator wants to apply conventions, she should start observing some herself.
No, Senator Henderson. Resume your seat. I will conclude the first matter. It is correct to say that it's not in the standing orders, but it is custom and practice, and more recently the President has drawn it to the chamber's attention that in the COVID environment, where we're not quite sure whether senators take leave or not, it is not appropriate to make reference to whether senators are in the chamber or not. Now you want a second point of order. Thank you, Senator Henderson.
One only has to look at the Hansard to understand why Senator Henderson needs to understand the standing orders and how to behave in committees.
As Senator O'Neill asked in her question, how could Australians living with a disability and their families possibly trust this minister to protect them? The NDIS looks after the welfare of the most vulnerable people in our society, and one of the most serious duties of our type of government is to look after those who are vulnerable. But that will require, of course, the most capable, the most competent and the most composed—which, as we know from Senator Reynolds, is not always the case—of the decision-makers this government can offer. The consequences of the poor leadership which we've seen from this government will be more people dying in their own faeces, more people waiting for a wheelchair and more people who have been approved for plans dying before they can avail themselves of those plans. This is a very, very serious portfolio, and Minister Reynolds, who often has trouble with her recollection, as we've seen quite a lot this year, is probably not the most competent minister to have this portfolio.
There will also be more people left behind by an uncaring bureaucracy. Let's go to the NDIA CEO, Martin Hoffman, who told Senate estimates earlier this year that Liam's death was 'a complicated matter'. That is what he said. Minister Reynolds said, 'I cannot imagine the grief that they are going through,' but what we've heard is that she hasn't understood that grief because she hasn't actually phoned the family, as she claimed she had done earlier in the year. If this scheme were managed properly, Minister Reynolds would not have to imagine the grief of the Danher family and they would not have to go through it, but this scheme is not run competently by this government.
We have seen the devastating effects of the pandemic and what the virus does when it gets loose in aged-care facilities. We should be doing everything we can to ensure a similar breakout does not happen in the equally vulnerable disabled community. This is basic stuff, but the government continues to shirk its responsibilities, whether they are constitutionally mandated or not. They are much more comfortable outsourcing risk to others, including the states, and then piling on when something goes wrong. Nowhere have they done this more than in my home state of Victoria. During the recent COVID-19 outbreak, the Prime Minister had to be dragged kicking and screaming to help in providing even the most basic support to struggling businesses and workers. This is a Sydney-centric government, and, despite the Treasurer of our nation being a Victorian, the state of Victoria was discarded on the road.
Let's go back to people who are on the scheme. You imagine them in the pandemic, cooped up for long periods inside their homes, terrified of the virus, some of them with conditions that mean they can't deal with being cooped up inside. But there has been the bare minimum of support from this cruel and heartless government. Should we really be surprised? I'm sure the minister, if she had managed to stay, has recovered from losing her previous portfolio and now understands the mess she has to fix, which was left by her predecessor, the member for Fadden. Under his reign of errors, of course, it was revealed that 1,200 Australians with disability had died over three years while waiting to be funded by the scheme. (Time expired)
I don't want to have to constantly remind senators when I've drawn their attention to the custom and practice of not making reference to whether members are in the chamber or not, to not have that same comment repeated again.
The question of vaccinations in this country in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is, of course, a very, very important series of questions, and today there have been a number of questions on this particular topic. One of the most important things we need to be doing in coming in here at this time is to do everything we possibly can to encourage Australians who are eligible right now to go out, book in a vaccination and get that done.
There is hesitancy that exists within the community—we all know it; we speak to people in the community about it—and, also, for some, there's a sense of complacency. We're probably a victim of our own success in this country, where COVID, thankfully, has evaded so many of us because of the success of the policies that have been implemented across this country, be it the policies of the Morrison government or indeed those of state governments who have also successfully managed the health pandemic. So for some there is a sense of complacency. But we have a responsibility as political leaders in this country to come into this place, take that responsibility seriously and encourage people, using the influence that we've got, to book in a vaccine and make it happen.
In my home state I've just recently become eligible to get vaccinated, so I have booked it in. As soon as I get back from this parliamentary fortnight I'm booked in on the Tuesday and I'll be getting my vaccine, my very first dose. My wife works in health care, and she has in fact had her two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. She's a healthcare worker and she took advantage of that as soon as she possibly could. We need to be encouraging more and more Australians to do that. But what we see with those opposite coming in here and asking these questions is an undermining of the confidence that's necessary to encourage Australians to get out there and make it happen.
But, thankfully, we are seeing many Australians taking up the opportunity that's before them to go and get vaccinated. Just to give you a bit of a taste of what we're seeing across the country, it took 45 days for the first million doses to be put in the arms of people across the country. It then took 20 days for the next million doses, to get us to two million people. It then took 17 days for the next million to go through and then it was 13 days. So you can see that the time it's taking is diminishing. It went from 45 days to 20 days to 17 days to 13 days and, in this last 10 days, we've seen another million doses. So we're seeing this rapidly-increasing vaccination program across the country.
But, instead of highlighting and getting behind that success, and encouraging an even further embrace of the opportunity to go and get vaccinated, we get questions from those opposite that are guided by some sort of political motivation to undermine the confidence in the system. It's disappointing when you come in here and you see that that's what's going on. We had questions on this today; whereas there actually could have been questions about the efficacy of the vaccine program, how it's impacting and what it's doing. Recently, we saw cases go through Victoria. I heard of one case where a 95-year-old gentleman, sadly, contracted COVID. But, because he had received the vaccine, he actually had no symptoms at all and he got through his case of COVID-19. But, instead of highlighting the impact that this program is having, we get questions that are seeking to actually undermine the confidence in the program, which is indeed very, very disappointing.
We're seeing Australians stepping up to the plate and doing their bit to take up the vaccine. Despite the great success that there has been across the country and the fact we don't have the prevalence of COVID in our community, Australians know that this is the best way for us to move forward as a nation and to take advantage of all the opportunities that have been created, particularly across the economy. Last night we saw the announcement of the free trade in-principle agreement. There are opportunities that abound for us as a nation, and we need to see Australians take up those opportunities by getting vaccinated. (Time expired)
It was Gandhi who made the observation that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, and I think this issue that's been identified today in the questions that have been put to Senator Reynolds just highlights our difficulty in this country. We are not treating our most vulnerable in a humane and civilised manner. We are allowing our most vulnerable to be subject to far greater risk and far greater danger than they need be.
The media reported today that the government was withholding supplies of vaccines from the states. Victoria's COVID response commander, Jeroen Weimar, said that the state government was grateful that it received an extra 500,000 vaccine doses. Hence, in question time today, the minister repudiated the ABC report. It may be asked, however: how is it that an extra half a million doses can be found so readily if more doses are being produced and imported than are being released? Whatever the accuracy of the media reports, it has become abundantly clear that the Morrison government does not understand how to respond to this pandemic. It's preparing for possible future waves of virus. If it's arguing that case, and it's sitting on a stockpile, that's not the way to go. Increasing the production and distribution of the vaccine is the answer to that, and the government should ensure that that actually happens.
It must also ensure that existing stocks are made available to people who actually need them now. No group of Australians needs to be fully vaccinated as soon as possible more than the people with disabilities and those who actually care for them. For the minister to suggest this sort of laissez-faire approach—that it's up to individuals to get it sorted out for themselves—is simply not good enough. Many people with disability have reduced immunity and are extremely vulnerable in such an environment. The government estimates that the number of people who have been fully vaccinated is some 355. That was the position they put to the estimates. That's only 1.6 per cent of people living in residential disability facilities. The government has confirmed that it just doesn't know how many disability workers have been fully vaccinated. In other words, the rollout for disabled people, especially those in residential care, is almost non-existent. To me, that constitutes a national disgrace.
The royal commission, only in May, rightly called the slow rollout for disabled people an abject failure in the vaccination program. The responsible minister at the time was Minister Littleproud, who said the figures showed that the vaccine rollout was working as it should because there were no COVID infections among people with disabilities. He was boasting about people's good luck. What he didn't say is that not being vaccinated is confining those people to their homes and forcing them to live in what amounts to permanent lockdown. Nearly four million disabled Australians are cooped up in their homes, afraid of what a continuing pandemic will mean for them. Only this government, surely, can pretend that that's an acceptable situation for a country like this.
The situation has become so bad that some organisations working in disability care have taken on the role that the government is shirking. For example, Scope Australia has taken the matter into its own hands and is opening up specialist vaccine hubs for people with disabilities. That's admirable, even heroic. But that's the job the federal government should be doing, because only the federal government has the resources to do the job properly. Scope is asking for further clarification from the government as a guide for staff who may be questioning getting the vaccine at all. You have to ask yourself: how has it come to this?
This government has been reminded many, many times that it has two jobs during this pandemic: one is the rollout and the other is quarantine. It's effectively shifted quarantine onto the states despite its constitutional responsibilities, and it's been dragging its feet in terms of the vaccine rollout itself. (Time expired)
In rising to take note of answers from question time today, first and foremost, it is important for all of us in this chamber to remember the unprecedented nature of what we as a country, as a community, as a society, have dealt with over the last 18 months. I think it can be quite easy to forget the quantum of policy response that has been required to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in a country like Australia, where we have been so fortunate in the way the pandemic has been handled. Remember, it could have been a lot worse than this.
Eighteen months ago, when COVID-19 first hit, I don't think anyone in this chamber thought that we would be in this position now, where we are rebuilding the economy and where we are developing and administering and rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine. We have to remember that 18 months ago we weren't even sure if a vaccine could be invented in that short a time frame. I can remember speaking to a few experts at the time who said that this sort of thing ordinarily takes decades. We were able to do it, of course with the help of experts around the world, in a matter of months. That is an incredibly impressive thing, and it's something that we have to keep in mind when we think about the way that all levels of government have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and the response, and the way the vaccine has been rolled out. We are doing something unprecedented and, quite frankly, completely remarkable in the current situation.
I was having a look at the news during question time. Ordinarily I would be paying attention to all the questions and answers in great detail, but I did have a quick look at one of the newsfeeds and I saw that we ticked over six million doses of the vaccine in the last few hours today. I think that is a really exciting milestone that should be celebrated.
I often come in here and happen to do take note with Senator O'Sullivan at the same time. Sometimes it's hard to find something to say after Senator O'Sullivan has made his contribution, because he is so measured and reasoned and has said all there is to say. But I will touch on a few of the points that he made around the importance of the vaccine; I think I have alluded to that already. In hitting those six million doses today, obviously there is still work to be done. There are still phases to be rolled out and there are still people out there who are yet to have a dose of the vaccine. I am one of those people; I am not quite yet anywhere near the front of the queue, I suspect, given my age, but I will be looking forward to having the vaccine when I am able to, at the young age of 31, because it is important that Australians get vaccinated.
We know that the vaccine is our best way of keeping safe from this virus and getting life more back to normal as we continue the COVID-19 recovery. I see the vaccine as a really important part of how we deal with this issue not only through a health lens but also through an economic lens. If we can ensure that as much of the population as possible gets vaccinated, then we might have some hope of getting back to living our lives the way we want. If there is one thing that I've heard resoundingly not only from Tasmanians in my local communities but also across the country more broadly in the last 18 months, it is, 'We all want to get back to normal', and I think that is entirely understandable.
In his contribution Senator O'Sullivan spoke about how rapidly the vaccination program is increasing. Again, this is a really important point. Yes, we started off slowly, but I think that the rapidly increasing rate of vaccination demonstrates that Australians have faith in our vaccine program. I look forward to seeing that vaccination rate continue to increase, because, like I say, getting as many people vaccinated as possible is key to our COVID-19 recovery. It is key to dealing with this health issue on an ongoing basis, and it is key to enabling Australians to get back to living their lives the way they did in a time before COVID-19. It is an incredibly important issue that we have discussed here in the chamber today, and I am so proud of all the efforts that our government is going to in rolling out the vaccine and ensuring that Australia can recover from the COVID-19 economic and health issues.
If you heard the contributions from those opposite during taking note of answers, you would think there's nothing wrong with the vaccine rollout. I heard Senator O'Sullivan talk about some of the questions from Labor, which we are talking about here, undermining confidence. Well, nothing would undermine the confidence of Australians more than seeing the performance of Minister Reynolds today. Nothing would undermine the confidence of Australians more than seeing the performance of Minister Colbeck over the last couple of months as well.
Sadly, I was not surprised by Minister Reynolds's performance in question time today, because I know Minister Reynolds owes her position to the Prime Minister. I think that Minister Reynolds thinks that, if you just emulate the Prime Minister's performance, that is the ticket to surviving this government. We saw a minister today in answering questions fail to take responsibility and fail to take ownership of being responsible for vaccinating those most vulnerable Australians. We have seen it from the Prime Minister down, time after time, when it comes to important issues confronting the most vulnerable Australians. If you don't take responsibility for vaccinating the most vulnerable Australians then what confidence does that give the Australian people that you're going to get it right? The vaccine rollout is too slow when you compare our performance internationally. That's something that Australians are going to have to confront over coming months.
It is disappointing that those people who work in disability care have been let down by this government. It's disappointing that those people living with a disability have been let down by this government. And it's disappointing that those Australian families and loved ones who care for a person with a disability are being let down by this government. There's a continual refusal to take responsibility for those people in aged care and those people in disability care, and it does undermine the confidence of the Australian people as a result.
On the questions that we talked about today from Senator Brown around disability-care workers, what became clear from the answers from Minister Reynolds was there is no central register. Her reason for that is that the workforce is transient. That's exactly the problem. That's where we saw the problem in aged care, particularly in Victoria. It was because people were working between various organisations as a result of the workforce. So it shows you the urgent need for having a central database so you can track who is vaccinated and where they are working as a result.
Then the minister claimed that the workforce are not required to provide proof of vaccination to their employer. Again, that's another problem that we identified. We saw what went wrong with aged care. You'd think the government would see that and act. Instead, the government saw this and are trying to avoid being responsible for it. They actually ran the other way. Rather than trying to fix these problem, they try to avoid taking any responsibility for them. Minister Reynolds looks at the Prime Minister and thinks: 'He tries to avoid any responsibility. That's the model that I'm going to replicate as a minister.' So there's no duty of care to those people that the minister is responsible for as part of her portfolio.
Then in regard to those people in disability residences, again, there was no plan. There was a refusal to commit to a date to have these people vaccinated by. Then the best the minister could do was hope that this was done as quickly as possible. So still we get the rhetoric from the government that this isn't a race. I can assure you that for those people living in disability care and for those people who have loved ones or friends in disability care they want to it be a race. They understand how important this is, particularly when the government don't get the other part of this puzzle right, which is quarantine. The government continue to avoid any responsibility for quarantine as well. So there's no wonder that Australians are frustrated but also concerned about the fact that we could get an outbreak at any second and it could have an impact on aged care or disability care. That's what concerns so many Australians.
We're being left behind internationally. The government aren't taking responsibility on these important tasks that they as the federal government have, whether it be vaccinating those people who are vulnerable or whether it be bringing in proper fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities. They continue to thumb their nose at Queenslanders in that regard. It is so disappointing that we have seen this performance from Minister Reynolds today and, again, a failure from this government to take responsibility for what the Australian people have tasked them with.
Question agreed to.