Senate debates

Thursday, 24 June 2021


COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:39 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak in support of the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. Labor will be supporting this bill, because we stand in support of workers across Australia who face lockdowns as a result of this government's gross incompetence in managing the COVID outbreaks, particularly the vaccine rollout and quarantine. Let's be really clear: the only reason this bill is necessary is the Prime Minister's failure on vaccines and quarantine. If the Prime Minister had done his job, we wouldn't be in this situation. This Prime Minister and this government began this year with two simple jobs: get the vaccine rollout happening and build purpose-built quarantine stations to keep Australians safe, to keep Australians in work, to keep our economy ticking over. They have comprehensively failed on both of those jobs, and hour by hour this situation gets worse. We know that Melbourne in recent weeks has been through more lockdowns because of breaches of hotel quarantine and because of the low rates of vaccination in the community—two jobs that the Prime Minister and this government have failed to do.

In the last few days we've seen much of Sydney all but locked down again because of breaches of hotel quarantine and because of the low rates of vaccination overseen and delivered by this government. Only in the last hour we have learned that in my home state of Queensland we now have three cases of COVID, possibly more, and, again, what is the cause? Hotel quarantine breaches and a poor vaccination rollout. The government's failures aren't just talking points, aren't just academic exercises; they have real-life consequences for Australians. We are now in a situation where, across the entire eastern seaboard, in each of the capital cities, we are facing some combination of lockdowns, restrictions, in some cases people losing their jobs and, terribly, some people actually contracting COVID. The government's failures have consequences. The consequences are not only the need to introduce the legislation and put more of the responsibility for payments on the taxpayer; they are costing people their health, they are costing people their jobs and they are costing people their movement.

We look around the world and see comparable nations like the US and the UK having vaccinated tens of millions of people, every week. Every week the US, for example, is vaccinating more people than Australia has managed in months. These are the nations we seek to compare ourselves to and they are so far ahead of us it is not funny. Again, because of the government's failures on quarantine and vaccination, Australians are paying the price. It is a very serious issue that this government is not taking seriously. Three capital cities on our eastern seaboard are facing lockdowns—or have just come out of them—with jobs lost, money lost out of the economy, people getting sick and the potential for things to get worse.

Let's look at what happened in Sydney over the last few days. The numbers started out small from one hotel quarantine breach and have escalated to a point where several council areas—several suburbs—are all but shut down, and now we're seeing it in Brisbane as well. At some point, this Prime Minister has to take responsibility for this matter. He has to take responsibility for the two jobs he had coming into this year—building purpose-built quarantine stations and getting the population vaccinated. I don't remember the exact figures but I think we're talking about, at the moment, four per cent of the Australian population being fully vaccinated—four per cent! If you did an exam and got four per cent, that would be a miserable failure; you would barely even be on the scoreboard. That is the situation the government and this Prime Minister have left our country in. Again, I can't remember the exact numbers but I think we're up to 24 or 25 hotel quarantine breaches. Probably with today's example it's higher still. How many times does this Prime Minister and this government need to see quarantine breaches and poor vaccination rates before they take control?

It is an absolute repeat of what we saw from this Prime Minister in the bushfire crisis. He didn't hold a hose then; he doesn't hold a dose now. This Prime Minister just will not take action. What have his coalition partners, the National Party, spent the week doing? Stabbing each other in the back. How do you think Australians feel when they look at this government at the moment?

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection, Senator McCarthy: total despair—and total distrust. What they see is a government that is completely focused on themselves rather than on getting Australians vaccinated and keeping them safe from COVID through quarantine stations. We know that this Prime Minister is, if nothing else, a poll-driven marketing man. Let's forget about the public health benefits of this for the moment. With every poll you look at, Australians want purpose-built quarantine stations. But we have a Prime Minister who is so belligerent, so stubborn, so focused on constructing fights with state premiers that he won't even sit down and talk about a quarantine station in Queensland.

The Queensland government has been trying for months to get this government to engage on a quarantine station, in Queensland, right next to an airport and right next to a hospital. All you ever hear from the Prime Minister is, 'There's not enough detail.' You ask, 'What detail do you need?' and he says, 'There's not enough detail.' It is absolute rubbish from this Prime Minister. He's being stubborn. He doesn't want to sit down and take control of this situation and take responsibility for what is going on and lead the country. His coalition partners, the National Party, are completely obsessed with who gets to drive in the big car, who gets the big office, who gets the biggest hat and who gets the biggest pay rise.

As our leader, Anthony Albanese, has said, it is time for this government to get focused: more jabbing, less stabbing. That's what we need from this government. They are so obsessed with stabbing each other in the back, which, let's face it, they've been doing for three years in the National Party.

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Plus photo ops.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, let's not forget the photo ops. Remember the photo op with the Prime Minister, with his Australian mask? He didn't wait to get vaccinated. He was quick out of the blocks with the V for victory sign. He had a personal victory. He got a vaccination. What about the other 96 per cent of the Australian population who can't get a vaccination because this government didn't do enough vaccine deals? The Prime Minister can travel overseas. No other Australian can. The Prime Minister can get a vaccination—two vaccinations; he is fully vaccinated—he can travel overseas, he can go and do a bit of sightseeing and he can go and have a pub crawl. You can't even have a pub crawl in Sydney, but this Prime Minister is having a pub crawl in Cornwall, overseas, half a world away. He can go and inspect the graves of his dead relatives, who've been dead for 200 years. I know Australians who can't go to the funerals of their parents and their grandparents who died last week, but this Prime Minister can do that, and of course he gets his own quarantine arrangement where he beams down, Orwellian style, into the parliament. No other Australian can get that.

It is one rule for this government and this Prime Minister and another rule for everyone else. We see it over and over again. We see this complete failure to take responsibility that is, literally, putting Australians' lives at risk and, literally, putting Australians' jobs at risk. That's because this Prime Minister is so belligerent and so stubborn, refusing to take responsibility, and Australians pay the price. It's happening in Brisbane now, it's been happening in Sydney, it's happening in Melbourne and it won't take long, I'm sure, before it starts happening in other states and territories. It is unacceptable. If there is one thing the Australian people want this Prime Minister to do, it is to take responsibility, get us vaccinated and build purpose-built quarantine stations so that we don't have to turn on the news every night to learn about the next breach of hotel quarantine, because there will be more. Jane Halton, the government's own appointee to review the quarantine system, recommended months ago that we have purpose-built quarantine, but that was just another report delivered to this government that is sitting in the bottom drawer. They know what to do. Every expert has told them what to do—get people vaccinated, sign multiple vaccine deals, roll out the vaccine and build purpose-built quarantine stations—but they continue to refuse to do it. As I say, this has consequences. Australians pay the price.

That brings us to this bill, which is about providing financial assistance to some of the victims of this Prime Minister's complete failure to do his job. I'm sure that the Victorians who will receive and have been receiving these payments are grateful for the fact that payments are being made. That is a good thing. It is another example of something that Labor had to drag this government to do. We saw with JobKeeper that they didn't want to have wage subsidies. I think the Prime Minister's quote was that it was a dangerous step. We all remember the queues outside Centrelink of people who were forced onto the dole queues because this Prime Minister was too stubborn to do wage subsidies until he was dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing it. It is the same with these payments. For days we saw Victorians locked down, losing their jobs, and the Prime Minister refusing to step up: 'Oh, it's a state responsibility. It's a local government responsibility. It's somebody else's responsibility. It's anyone else's responsibility.' He's got 10 arms running around pointing at other people rather than having one finger which puts it on him. It's his job. So Victorians, I think, will be happy that they're getting these payments, but do you know what? I reckon they'd be a lot happier if they didn't have to get them in the first place. I reckon they'd be a lot happier if they could just get vaccinated and be kept safe from hotel quarantine breaches.

This bill will provide time limited assistance to eligible workers who are unable to earn their usual income as a result of public health restrictions. It contains two parts. The first creates a special appropriation to draw funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the payment of the COVID-19 disaster payment over the next financial year. The second part of the bill creates a reporting requirement through the new National Recovery and Resilience Agency for payments through the special appropriation. Essentially, this bill guarantees that funding will be available to activate recovery payments for workers affected by lockdowns. That's why the opposition will be supporting this bill. It's something we called for well before the Prime Minister agreed to it.

What this bill doesn't do is lock in eligibility criteria for this payment, which we know from the recent COVID lockdown in Victoria left many struggling workers and families out in the cold. Labor will continue to fight to make sure that all workers hit by COVID are properly supported by this government. Supporting this bill will not change that.

We know that the Prime Minister was dragged, kicking and screaming, by the opposition and the Victorian government to provide any support to workers during this lockdown, just like this Prime Minister and this government had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to make JobKeeper payments available when COVID first hit this country. If it were up to the Prime Minister, he would have done what he has always done—blame the Labor states and then do nothing—but Australians are starting to see through this Prime Minister. The truth is that the reason were still having lockdowns and the reason why this legislation is necessary is that the Prime Minister has failed to bring this pandemic under control. He has had two jobs—the vaccine rollout and quarantine—and he has failed at both. Only about four per cent of Australia has received both doses of a COVID vaccine. We are so far back in the queue you can't even imagine seeing the front of it. Last week the government said that only one out of 11 workers were fully vaccinated. Yesterday we found out that about 15 per cent of aged-care workers have been fully vaccinated. They are priority 1a. It doesn't get any higher than priority 1a, and it's only 15 per cent of aged-care workers.

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a disgrace, and it's a high risk situation. Get with the program. Get on with it. Every other country around the world that we like to compare ourselves with is getting on with it. They've vaccinated millions of people—tens of millions of people—and we can't even get to five per cent, and Australians are paying the price. How much money has been lost from local economies because of lockdowns? How many jobs have been lost because of this government's failure? It continues to say it's not a race. It is a race, and we are coming bone miserable last. We support this bill but we really want to see the government do its job. I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

At the end of the motion, add: ', but the Senate:

(a) notes the Government has:

(i) catastrophically failed to address outbreaks in hotel quarantine, which has led to extended lockdowns in states across Australia,

(ii) botched the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which has left all Australians, but particularly aged care workers, vulnerable, and

(iii) failed to ensure that workers and businesses received the support needed in the recent Victorian lockdown,

(b) further notes this bill may not have been necessary, if not for the Government’s failure on quarantine and vaccines, both national responsibilities; and

(c) calls on the Government to:

(i) build dedicated quarantine facilities and expand existing facilities in every state and territory,

(ii) fix the vaccine rollout and expand mobile and mass vaccination clinics,

(iii) start a mass public information campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated, and

(iv) begin manufacturing mRNA vaccines right here in Australia'.

10:55 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. This bill establishes a special appropriation to allow the Commonwealth to fund the COVID-19 disaster payments. The recent two-week lockdown in Melbourne was the first following the end of the JobKeeper wage subsidy. This left many workers, particularly casual workers and those on temporary visas, without a source of income. That takes me, first off, to the fact that we are doing nothing about addressing the increasingly insecure work in this country and the fact that so many people in this country have to put together a series of casual jobs, with insecure hours, resulting in insecure wages, which leads them to being in this position where they are without income, in many instances, from the two or three casual, insecure jobs that they may have.

The government ended JobKeeper much too early, despite warnings that there would be more COVID outbreaks, particularly when you bear in mind the issue around the failure, the shambles, of the rollout program for the vaccines and the failures in hotel quarantining. Hotels are not meant for quarantining. They were absolutely essential as stopgap measures when the pandemic first hit, but we've had a significant period of time now to put in place secure, purpose-built quarantine facilities modelled on the Howard Springs approach. It's not as if Australia doesn't know what works and hasn't got the experts that have been providing expert advice on what does and doesn't work—not to mention the fact that, while the government mouths the words about aerosols and the need to improve ventilation, and says, 'Yes, we're paying attention to aerosols,' we still don't have nationally consistent guidelines on aerosols. They mouth the words but they're not doing much about it. Because of that, it was inevitable that we would have further COVID outbreaks, unfortunately.

The government very cruelly cut the JobSeeker payment, as we know. They did the right thing at the beginning. We all in this chamber said they were doing the right thing in terms of doubling the rate of JobSeeker. But in the midst of this pandemic they took that away, in a cut-by-cut process, and then pretended that they had increased JobSeeker. I say 'pretended', because it was $40 a day and now it's just under $44 a day. I challenge anybody on the government benches to try and live on $44 a day. We all know you can't, and the government know that, because they doubled JobSeeker at the beginning of the pandemic. They did the right thing. They knew people couldn't survive on just $40 a day in a lockdown, and they doubled it.

This morning I was at a breakfast about women's economic futures. Terese Edwards, the CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, very clearly articulated the benefits that that doubling had for families, particularly single-parent families, single mothers. It had a significant positive benefit. And here the government is not taking those same measures but just doing something so that they can say to the public: 'We've increased JobSeeker. Don't you worry about that. We've increased it.' Well, a measly $3 a day does not address the significant poverty that people are living in. In the middle of the pandemic, people are back to trying to survive on a payment on JobSeeker of just $44 a day.

This bill gives minimal support and does not go far enough to ensure that people who can't work or have additional costs due to lockdown are adequately supported. It's simply inadequate. It really is just plain cruelty that people on income support are denied access to this disaster payment. There's the low rates and the way it's being imposed—and I will go into more details about that in a minute—but, to add insult to injury, people on income support can't get it. We know very well that people on the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, DSP and carer payments also lose work during lockdowns and face additional costs to stay safe at home and healthy during lockdowns.

This bill also says that if people have some savings, what they call liquid assets, above $10,000 they are not entitled to any payment at all. So if you've been saving for your first home and then you found yourself without any income, through no fault of your own, the federal government says, 'Dip into your home savings and do it potentially indefinitely.' If some people drew down from their super and put it into their savings to try and get through the lockdown, they will get punished for doing something that the government encouraged them to do. In other words, they are having to dip into that to get by when, if they hadn't done that, that money would still be in their super. If they have done this, they're not going to be able to get access to this payment.

This bill needs to be fixed. It has a number of flaws. This bill needs to be fixed to ensure that people don't fall through the cracks and to ensure that people aren't left in poverty during these lockdowns. If we had an income support system in this country that gave people enough to live on and didn't condemn them to poverty, we might not have to be in this situation where the government has to make hotspot-by-hotspot refinements. If everybody had, at a minimum, an eligibility for the amount of money that they, in fact, got when JobSeeker was doubled, which the government by its own admissions knows is what Australians need to live above the poverty line, we might not need to be making such special purpose payments.

Let's fix our social security system. If the minimum wage were higher and casual work and contracting didn't leave people living hour by hour on the work that they can find, struggling to make ends meet, we might not need to have these sorts of payments quite so much. If people weren't in insecure work, if people didn't have to stitch together several casual and insecure jobs to make ends meet, we might not be in this situation. The government should look beyond asking, 'What is the very least we can do?' They need to look at what has happened as a sign of a huge problem of growing inequality in this country and growing insecure work and look at how we fix it. Instead, we have a piecemeal approach that leaves people anxious and insecure, which has a significant impact on their wellbeing.

We have already seen the huge impact that the pandemic has had on people's mental health, wellbeing and anxiety. We have seen a huge increase in the need for mental health supports, for example. Of course the pandemic is having an impact on everyone in this country, but if you literally don't know where your next dollar is coming from it has an even more significant impact on your wellbeing and mental health. We have a huge problem where we have a significant number of people who are literally living pay to pay, week to week. If they miss shifts or if they have to pay for extra services because of lockdowns, they are simply unable to make ends meet. It is critical that people who have lost income through lockdowns have access to adequate support to ensure that they can put food on the table and they can keep a roof over their heads. The criterion set by the government in the middle of Victoria's last lockdown just doesn't do it. It doesn't go far enough. Too many people have been left behind and have just been ignored.

The Greens will be moving amendments, which I have already circulated in the chamber, to fix this bill and to make it fairer. The Greens amendments will remove eligibility criteria requiring the Chief Medical Officer to declare a location a hotspot; change the eligibility criteria from more than seven days to seven days or more; remove the criteria requiring recipients to have liquid assets of less than $10,000—that's simply unfair to so many people who are saving to try and buy their own home, for example—and remove the criteria preventing people on income support from accessing the payment.

I ask the Senate to support the Greens amendments so that we can fix this bill and ensure the disaster payment is accessible to more people. This will help ensure that people are not thrown into poverty, or having to dip into their savings for a home, every time there is a lockdown. On Tuesday, we had a debate on the housing crisis in this country. We have people desperately saving for a deposit on their first home, which we know is increasingly hard to do in this country, and the government is saying, 'You use that money when there's a lockdown.' It's not their fault that a lockdown is imposed; it's the fault of the current failures in quarantine and in the vaccine program, but the government says: 'You pay for it out of the deposit you're saving for your first home.' They've struggled to put it together and they're struggling to afford a home, because of the increasingly unaffordable housing market in this country, but the government says, 'You dip into that deposit and you pay for the lockdown.' That is not fair. That is not what I would call a fair Australia. Our amendments will make this bill and the payment fairer, so that fewer people in this country are condemned to poverty and so that the COVID crisis doesn't fuel the poverty crisis in this country. We know that more and more people are falling below the poverty line. Without the Greens amendments to this payment, that will continue to happen.

We will be supporting Labor's second reading amendment. I ask the chamber to support the Greens amendments in Committee of the Whole to make this bill fair so more Australians are supported and so that we do the best we can for people if they have to go into lockdown—not the least, which is what this bill does.

11:08 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. The first part of the bill creates a special appropriation to draw funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the COVID-19 disaster payment. The second part creates a reporting requirement for payments through the special appropriations.

First, I note that this bill would not have been necessary if the government was, in fact, a competent government. The Australian people know too well that this tired, old Morrison government has mishandled the pandemic from the very outset. They have mishandled the rollout of the vaccine and they have mishandled quarantine. To this day, only three per cent of Australians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The only reason this legislation is before this place is that the Morrison government has failed to bring the pandemic under control. Whether through the vaccine rollout, hotel quarantine or cutting off JobKeeper in an ongoing pandemic, this government has failed Australian workers and it has failed Australian businesses.

We have also seen firsthand the ongoing failure of this government in cutting the supplement that was being paid to aged-care workers to prevent them from having to do what too many of them do on a day-to-day basis, and that is work across multiple aged-care homes. I might add that this government has done nothing to raise the remuneration of these frontline, hardworking, committed workers in the aged-care sector, so they gave them a supplement during the pandemic initially so that they wouldn't be forced to work across multiple aged-care homes, to try and assist with containing the pandemic. But they lifted that far too early, and what did they have to do when Victoria went back into lockdown? They had to re-engage and go back to funding that supplement.

Every Australian has felt for the Victorian community in so far as they have now had a number of lockdowns. But what we've seen from this government is an allocation of less than $3 for each Victorian who was forced into lockdown. Again, for many Victorian workers and, again, for many businesses, particularly small businesses, that was far too little, far too late. As fellow Australians, those Victorians deserve so much better from this government. Mr Frydenberg has only coughed up a fraction of the $100 million a day that the Treasury secretary warned could be lost because of this lockdown. Victorians shouldn't have to be out of pocket because they had to go into a fourth lockdown; it was not their doing. It is clearly the Morrison government's responsibility to roll out the vaccines in this country—it took them while to admit that that was actually their responsibility, particularly their aged-care minister—and they also have the fundamental responsibility for quarantine, and again they have failed in both of those.

We've heard Mr Morrison say on a number of occasions that the rollout of the vaccine isn't a race. Hello, Mr Morrison? There is not another Australian out there in the community—there might be in part of your party room—who believes that it isn't a race to roll out the vaccine. It is in fact a very important race to get ahead of the pandemic, because the pandemic is on two fronts. The first is the health outcome, and we've seen Australians die. The second is the effect on our economy, on Australian workers, on Australian jobs. Only three per cent of Australians have had both jabs and are fully vaccinated—again a failure by this government to meet its own announcement about when this rollout would be completed and they would be able to vaccinate and keep Australians safe.

Australians want to return to normality; that's what they want to do. We want visitors coming to my island state of Tasmania. Hotel workers and other people in the hospitality and the tourism sector want to know that they can go back to running their businesses and employ their workers, knowing that there are not going to be any further lockdowns. But to ensure that that happens the government should have from the outset addressed the reality that hotels are built to accommodate people on either business or holiday, as they are everywhere else in the world, but they're not actually built for quarantine in a pandemic as severe as we have now with COVID-19. And now the mutations of that are proving that hotels are in fact the worst place—in inner cities around this country—to house people who are going into quarantine. So this government again has failed to provide, around the country, purpose-built quarantine facilities. We have one such facility, and there has not been one outbreak from that centre. Surely, even the slow learners on that side of the chamber and the slow-learning Prime Minister can see that it is a failure to continue to have quarantine in our cities in hotels.

What we've seen over the course of this pandemic from those opposite is that they love to come into the chamber and blame the Victorian state government for the quarantine failures. Well, yes, there were learnings. There were learnings in relation to those people who were meant to be providing security. But those lessons around the country have been, overwhelmingly learnt by the state governments. But this government has not learnt the lesson about ensuring that Australians are kept safe while they try to roll out the vaccine—which they have bungled. It's almost like everything these people touch, they stuff. But they haven't learnt the fundamental responsibility that they have, and that is to ensure there's adequate, safe, purpose-built quarantine in this country.

What we have also seen from this government in a very important sector in this country, one where there are a lot of vulnerable Australians—the aged-care sector—is that they haven't been able to roll out the vaccines for workers in the aged-care sector. Nor have they in the disability sector, and they still don't have a reliable methodology for reporting tangible evidence on how many workers in the aged-care and disability sectors have been fully vaccinated.

I'm a proud Tasmanian and I live in the north of the state. I've had things reported back to me from my electorate office this week, and that's happening week by week. This week a gentleman from George Town, a beautiful place on the Tamar River, rang frustrated and concerned because he wants the Pfizer vaccine. He has been, as all Tasmanians have been, urged to get vaccinated, but he's reporting to my office that there is a very slow rollout and people can't access the Pfizer vaccine. That's anecdotal evidence, but it seems to me that, when you have a number of people from the same community making contact with your office, there's got to be something in it.

I also had a lady ring the office this week concerned about the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine. She too wants the Pfizer vaccine. Because this government have failed to get more Australians vaccinated in a timely manner, what we see now is people saying, 'No, I don't want AstraZeneca; I want to wait for Pfizer,' which means the whole herd immunity that we have been trying to encourage Australians to be part of is going to be delayed. We already have an issue with younger members of our community in their 20s, 30s and 40s who don't really want to have the vaccine because they're concerned that the information that's coming out to them gets changed. Even people who have had their first jab of AstraZeneca, which I have had myself, are now questioning whether they should have the second jab. That should be a major concern for this government. What we haven't seen from this government is an effective advertising campaign that is encouraging Australians to get their vaccine, to reassure them that these vaccines, whichever one it is, are safe and give you protection. There may have to be boosters—that's probably likely—like we have with the flu vaccine each year. But the reality is that, no matter where you look, this government keeps failing, at a time when we can ill afford for this government to fail.

Unfortunately, we have seen too many Australians pass away from COVID-19 over the course of the last 12 months or so. We have learnt those lessons, and, in terms of those people in residential aged care who have been vaccinated, the figures are far better than they were even a month ago. But we have still failed to ensure, for the beneficiaries of home-care packages, that the workers who are going into the homes of those vulnerable older Australians have been fully vaccinated. Again, there is no evidence that this government has any real-time data to give that reassurance to the Australian community. I have a particularly strong concern for older Australians, particularly because I come from Tasmania, where we have the oldest population. The Tasmanian community and its seniors are more vulnerable—but not that much more, I have to say. It probably equates to that of the Northern Territory community and our First Nations people.

This government has brought in this legislation primarily because they have bungled this. As I said earlier, the supplement that was being paid to aged-care workers around this country to ensure that they were not having to work across various homes—which they do because their salaries are not enough for them to provide for their families—should not have been removed until we were through with and had dealt with this pandemic. That would have been the sensible thing to do. The fact that aged-care workers, who are on the front line, can't provide for their families on their salaries is a real disgrace. They are the people who, on a day-to-day basis, give care and support to some of the most vulnerable members of our community. It's a real disgrace in this country. It's a disgrace, because this government did not support them when they were seeking to have their wages increased to enable them to provide for their families.

We have known for a long time now—since Mr Morrison has been the Prime Minister of this country and the Leader of the Liberal Party—that he is a man who is very loose with the truth. Any commitment that he gives can be taken with a grain of salt. This is a government that is driven by ego. It's a government that is driven by self-interest, and it lacks the compassion and leadership that this country so desperately needs.

11:23 am

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

I too rise to make a contribution to the debate on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. The only reason this bill is necessary is that the Morrison government has failed, on many fronts, to bring this pandemic under control, whether it's the vaccine rollout; hotel quarantine; cutting off JobKeeper, particularly to early childhood educators in an ongoing pandemic; the Australians, including children, stuck overseas; the international students not being able to come back to this country; migrant workers; or the Australians with fiances and fiancees on prospective marriage subclass 300 visas. On every single level, the Morrison government has failed in this pandemic. More than that, it steadfastly refuses to speed up the vaccine rollout, and it is completely denying that we need proper quarantine facilities. It had two jobs: rolling out the vaccine and establishing good, safe quarantine. It has failed miserably on both fronts. I think, at the moment, we're up to almost one breakout a week from hotels, which are not quarantine facilities. They are not designed for that purpose. There's a human element to every single step the government fails to take, whether it's children being stuck in India—that's not the only country they're stuck in, but that is disgraceful. Why the government simply can't act to bring those children home is beyond my comprehension. It is not a hard problem to solve and it should certainly be expedited.

I want to illustrate the damage that can be done when political parties seek to politicise this pandemic, and it's certainly not something that Labor is seeking to do. Earlier in the week the Australian Greens put forward a motion calling for holders of PMV300 visas to be exempt from the inbound travel ban. That was a good motion. Labor supported it. But those of us in this place know that motions have very little effect. They don't have an actionable outcome. What we know on this side is that, in true Greens fashion, the Australian Greens wanted to use this motion as a wedge—particularly, I suspect, against the Labor Party. So there was the usual email campaign, presumably targeted at Labor senators. The Greens had obviously indicated to their supporters that we wouldn't support this motion and that we needed prompting from voters. And, of course, it was an opportunity for Greens to gather email addresses for future propaganda purposes.

What the Greens failed to realise or completely ignored was that with this motion comes the pain being experienced by Australians with loved ones stuck overseas. Yes, sheet the blame home to the Morrison government, but realise what damage your motions do to individuals who think that because I've supported a motion somehow that forces the Morrison government to act. We know in this place it doesn't. I'm really angry about this.

Yesterday I had an email from one of those people, a woman who thanked me for supporting the email. It wasn't part of the Greens campaign; she was just grateful that I had supported that email. She said she'd searched everywhere on the internet and in the parliamentary papers to see when the action was going to take place, when her fiance who is stuck overseas as a result of the Morrison government—but rescued, apparently, by a Greens motion—was going to be allowed into this country.

I went back to her and said that I was extremely upset the Greens would be so short-sighted as to cause her further pain, to raise her hope that somehow the Greens motion in the Senate would result in her fiance being able to come down to this country. I said, 'I'm really sorry you were misled by the Australian Greens.' There's no doubt she was. She came back to me and said, 'I'm really sorry I misunderstood.' I said, 'You did not misunderstand; you were misled by the Australian Greens.'

All the Greens have done for that woman is cause her further disappointment and pain. They gave her false hope running off the back of this COVID pandemic. The Morrison government is at fault, too, because they failed to act. But, clearly, to politicise this situation in the way the Greens did, to give false hope to people with goodness knows what consequences, is a disgrace.

11:28 am

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021 and I want to associate myself with the comments made by my colleague Senator Siewert on this bill. Of course we should be providing support to people who need this, in these devastating circumstances, but, as Senator Siewert said, we should be providing it to every single person who is living here and who is facing economic and social impacts. This government has locked them out of support payments and they're living on the poverty line, and we will be moving amendments to that effect.

While it is good to see that this bill extends COVID disaster payments, we know that this government has completely failed on the vaccine rollout. And, because of this, New South Wales at this moment is on the brink of another lockdown. It's been 15 months since we first went into lockdown and there is still no plan to open our borders. There are hundreds of thousands of families who are separated; there are gut-wrenching stories everywhere. I haven't seen my mum and daughter since 2019. Seeing Prime Minister Morrison gallivanting around the UK while he dodges responsibility for the vaccine rollout and refuses to safely open borders has made the daily pain of not being able to see my family so much worse. When I shared my story of being separated from my mother and daughter for two years now, there was an outpouring of grief and anger. So many people shared with me their painful stories in response. Here are some of the most heartbreaking stories of what turning this country into so-called 'fortress Australia' has done to its people. I do want to share some of them with the senators in the chamber.

Sonia told me she:

… had to watch her father be buried via Facebook live with her mother sobbing and none of her children there to hold her (they all live in Australia). And now it's sounding like it will be another year and a half before they will be allowed to see her. She's grieving on her own when she would have such comfort being surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren.

Ro shared a painful story, but one also of the extremely cold and cruel rejection of her multiple requests for exemption to be with her family. She said:

Last year, I applied for exemption to leave Australia to help my parents as they were in Lockdown. In my exemption letter I mentioned that they didn't have anybody to help them. My exemption was rejected. My brother and I applied again and wrote to the exemption team that we are desperate to leave Australia as one of us needs to be with our parents. Again rejected. My father contracted COVID and I reapplied and begged the team to allow me to leave Australia and again our exemption was rejected. My father passed away and my mother was in his funeral alone. How can I have my mum in Australia for some time to mourn together and to offer her help and my emotional support? How can I relieve this crippling burden from myself that has taken away my functioning when government doesn't allow family reunification after horrible things that have happened to families during the corona pandemic.

Carissa said:

It's almost 2 years since I've seen my parents in the USA. They are fully vaccinated and would be overjoyed to quarantine for 3 or even 4 weeks at our home with us. This government and its supporters have zero appreciation for the empty aching feeling we experience as immigrants and the skills we contribute to this country.

Sue said:

I haven't seen my mum and dad for 4yrs due to health issues and my dad has Alzheimers and Leukemia and time isn't on my side, so being prevented from seeing them is heartbreaking.

Time isn't on my side, either. My mum is 84, and almost every day I speak to her she says her desperate wish is to see me before she dies.

Steffi said:

I am an only child and haven't seen my parents in almost 2 years. My 3 year old daughter doesn't even remember being hugged by them and thinks they only exist on screen. We are considering giving up our lives and good jobs here soon in order to be with family. This situation is mentally unbearable for so many of us. Parents are immediate family.

Chitra said:

Thank you Senator Mehreen Faruqi for raising this issue.

My mother is living alone in India for the last 18 months after my father died and I am her only child . She is fully vaccinated. I am waiting desperately to hug her and hold her but there is no date I can give her without the government putting out a plan. Let's push for the government to put forth a plan to reunite Aussie families.

Geetesh said:

Our 10 months old daughters never seen her grandparents and we are going through such emotional and difficult phase without our parents. Don't know why this government doesn't understand that parents are first in immediate family.

Laura said:

We have an 18 month old baby boy that none of our family have met they will never get to hold him as a baby! My heart is broken.

Julia said:

I can feel you, I miss my parents. My 3 year old daughter cries at every plane screaming for ger nonna and. Nonno. She said that she wants real cuddles no phone cuddles. This is cruel. I cant breath. Im constantly sad and hopeless.

There are dozens and dozens more stories, and I think it's pretty shameful for Labor senators to stand up here and say that we're politicising this issue in some way, shape or form. There are thousands upon thousands of families who have not been able to see each other, because this government and the Prime Minister have botched up the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. To Scott Morrison, I say: 'Stop dodging responsibility for the vaccine rollout. Your incompetence is preventing families from reuniting. Try to conjure up even the smallest bit of compassion and start taking seriously this country's vaccine rollout so we can safely open up our borders and families can hug and see each other again.'

11:36 am

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

I thank Senator Faruqi for reading out the accounts of some of the many thousands of Australians who are in that position. There are many people in this building who are in very similar positions. Of course, the debate about this bill occurs as my home state of New South Wales is teetering on the edge of a much broader set of public health responses. Hundreds and hundreds of people are now in isolation, with scores of infections. In the New South Wales parliament itself, a senior minister in the Berejiklian government has a COVID-19 infection. Many ministers and MPs and their staff are now in isolation. I want to send a message of solidarity and support to them, as that parliament works its way through how it should respond.

I particularly want to pay tribute to Chris Minns, the new Labor leader. He saw the responsibility, early and clearly, to act in the public interest, and he has cancelled the budget reply speech, which he was due to deliver today. That was going to be an important moment for Mr Minns to set out his vision for the future of New South Wales, as new Labor leader. It shows that he has his priorities right and the interests of the people of New South Wales in his heart, rather than being concerned with the narrow political interest. I think he is to be commended for taking that approach. In contrast, I don't believe that the Morrison government has ever really grasped its responsibility in this crisis—in public health terms, in economic terms or in social terms. Like Mr Minns, Mr Albanese and federal Labor took a constructive approach to the coronavirus crisis over the course of last year. But all the way through last year you could see that the seeds of the government's failure in 2021 were being sown by the inaction and incapacity of the Morrison government to do the things necessary to put Australia in the right position now.

Why is it, 15 months later, that there is no system of quarantine in each of the states and territories that is credible? Why is it that we are still relying upon hotel quarantine, which is a stop-gap solution? Hotels are not hospitals. There have been 24 outbreaks in hotel quarantine. Why is it that, 12 months ago, when representatives of the government met with Pfizer they lost the opportunity to secure sufficient doses to make sure that Australians had a choice of vaccines? In the United States and the United Kingdom, where variously 35 and 45 per cent are vaccinated—and it's north of that in some of the European countries—they have a series of vaccine options. The Morrison government squandered that and bet the house on one product, essentially—AstraZeneca. Pfizer was an afterthought. Now the vaccine rollout is absolutely mired in failure and unable to get past the starting gate. Still just a little bit over three per cent of Australians are fully vaccinated.

Australians deserve much credit for our progress through the coronavirus pandemic so far. The state governments, businesses and trade unions have been working together to solve problems, looking after each other, but the Morrison government itself has been entirely absent in terms of a position of public leadership. Of course, there is an alternative plan. These kind of stop-gap measures are necessary, but they are necessary because the government hasn't executed its proper responsibility. There is an alternative plan. Anthony Albanese set it out very clearly.

Senator Abetz interjecting

'Albo' to me, Senator Abetz. Firstly, get the vaccine rollout right. Get it right. Get needles into the arms of Australians across the country, make sure that we have a population that is resilient and safe, and execute the vaccine rollout safely and sensibly, like every other country. Why are we 100th in the queue? Why is Australia a global laggard instead of at the front of the queue? Let's get quarantine right, build quarantine in every state and territory and make sure that Australians can return safely. The problems that were outlined earlier this morning can be resolved by getting those two basic Commonwealth responsibilities right.

Next, let's effectively manufacture safe vaccines in Australia, build the relationship with our research facilities and make Australia a leader. Finally, let's get a public health campaign that's actually convincing. This is a Prime Minister who only understands one thing: self-promotion and advertising. That's all he understands. He has not been able to bring his instinct for advertising to advertising for public health for the safety of Australians. Have a look at the French campaign. The French campaign is about opening France up and encouraging French citizens to get vaccinated. There is no Australian equivalent. Why? It's become clear why there isn't a campaign. Despite the Prime Minister's overwhelming instinct for advertising, the reason there isn't a campaign is that it would lay bare the lack of supply of vaccines. The public officials finally told the truth earlier this week. Senator Abetz would have been listening. There will be no public advertising campaign until the government's vaccine supply failures are finally resolved. They know that, if they advertise, people will line up for vaccines, and, when they line up for vaccines, there will be no vaccines available.

Debate interrupted.