Thursday, 24 June 2021
COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to speak about the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. The government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support workers with these payments in the latest round of the COVID crisis. Casual workers in Victoria were left waiting in the last outbreak, without income and without support, until the federal government finally delivered this payment.
This government has form when it comes to leaving casual workers behind. During the pandemic, Prime Minister Morrison was pushed into a nationwide wage subsidy for Australian workers and businesses, and who did he choose to exclude? He chose to exclude thousands of casual workers, gig workers, arts and entertainment workers and more—workers in some of the hardest hit and most insecure industries. At the same time, while this government was leaving vulnerable casual workers behind, big and profitable businesses like Harvey Norman were able to pocket the JobKeeper payments, and they still don't have to repay the millions of dollars the government handed out to them. It is an absolute disgrace that the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this much-needed disaster payment.
The government also has form on excluding and punishing insecure workers. After excluding so many insecure workers from JobKeeper payments, the Prime Minister told those workers to smash open their piggy banks and raid their own super to get through the pandemic. Instead of sharing the burden equally amongst Australians, instead of helping all Australians, the Prime Minister chose to tell some of our most vulnerable people, our most insecure workers, that they needed to fund their own pandemic support.
It's no surprise, then, that when these latest COVID outbreaks happened the government took its time to support casual workers again. This government has shown absolutely no urgency during this crisis. According to the Prime Minister, on financial support for casual workers after the early end of JobKeeper—what's the hurry? The vaccine rollout—well, apparently the Prime Minister thinks it's not a race. Purpose-built quarantine facilities—well, they can wait, too. But our doors are open, according to the Prime Minister, if the states want to take responsibility for quarantine. If the states want to come up with proposals for purpose-built, open-air quarantine, the government is willing to hear those proposals.
Well, what a slow and heartless response to this COVID crisis from this government. This government should be absolutely embarrassed about the bungled vaccine rollout. They should be ashamed at the pace of the vaccine rollout in this country. Australians entered 2021 expecting a fast and efficient vaccine rollout from their government, only to be given the opposite by this federal government. I was there last winter with Victorians as we faced a winter with the virus spreading throughout our community. Really, back then, one of the only things that gave us hope was that the federal government would get itself together and be able to do a fast, efficient and effective vaccine rollout once we got through the COVID outbreaks of winter—that they would do that in 2021.
And here we are again. This time, this winter, it's not Victoria facing the crisis; it's not Victoria in imminent crisis. This time it's New South Wales, facing another winter with this virus yet again trying to spread its way through the community—a community that, because of the failings of this government, is almost entirely unvaccinated. Today only three per cent of Australians are fully vaccinated. This government should be embarrassed. They should be ashamed. We are currently millions of doses behind the government's own vaccination targets—not their first target, which got passed, and not their second target, which they threw out, but their third target. This government just keeps dropping the bar lower and lower and still missing the mark on their vaccination targets. And still, even this week, they cannot tell us when all aged-care workers will be vaccinated. They can't tell us.
This government's vaccine strategy is a complete and utter shambles. One day they're telling over-50s to go and get the AstraZeneca vaccine. The next day they're saying people can wait for a Pfizer vaccine, until the end of they year, if they're not comfortable getting AstraZeneca. Now we know AstraZeneca is safe only for those aged over 60 years. This is all because the government decided to put all its eggs in the AstraZeneca basket. This government has messed up this vaccine rollout from day one. They should have done what the experts recommended. They should have done what Labor called for, and that was to source multiple vaccine contracts right from the start.
It is Australians who are suffering because of the incompetence and bad decisions of this government. It is Australians who are suffering because of the tragic decisions of this government. Australians had to dig deep to get through the last year. They have sacrificed so much to try to beat this virus, and they should have been able to come into this year with the confidence that the Australian government had their back, that the Australian government was going to roll this vaccine out comprehensively and effectively. They have done the exact opposite. Australians should have been able to come into 2021 and see, in the middle of the year, a real plan that ensured that they would be able to beat this virus and would be safe—that people wouldn't just be going about their daily lives waiting for the next COVID outbreak to hit their community.
People of Australia should have been able to hope that we would all be vaccinated, that quarantine would now be safe. But this Morrison government has failed on both counts. They have failed Australians. They have had months and months to effectively roll out this vaccine. They have had months to get safe, national, open-air quarantine facilities up and running. Have they done either? No, they have not. Throughout this pandemic, the Morrison government has denied its responsibility for quarantine. It has failed to set up appropriate national standards for quarantine. All the while, they sit back and they critique what the state governments are doing. They critique state government responses to breaches in hotel quarantine.
Everybody knows that hotels are not fit for purpose, that hotel quarantine was okay at the start of this pandemic but, 18 months on, is a complete failure. The Prime Minister, though, doesn't see it that way. He said on hotel quarantine back in April: 'This is a system that is achieving 99.99 per cent effectiveness. It's a very strong system and serving Australia very well.' Well, 24 breaches later and it is difficult to take those statements from the Prime Minister seriously. It is difficult to take those statements as anything other than a complete abrogation of this federal government's responsibility for controlling this virus and for establishing safe and effective open-air, purpose-built quarantine facilities. With tens of thousands of infections in Australia and more than 800 tragic deaths last year, that is not a quarantine system that is serving Australians well. It is a system that is struggling to keep up. When, Australians are asking themselves, will the Morrison government get it that hotels are built for tourists, that hotels are built for short stays? Hotels are not built for virus control.
Of course, the government was told this way back in October. They were told by their own hand-picked adviser Jane Halton that they needed to build fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities. This was months ago. The Victorian government handed them a proposal for a new purpose-built quarantine facility back in April. It took the Victorian government to take on the federal responsibility of setting up safe and effective quarantine and come up with a proposal, which they presented to the federal government back in April. When did the Prime Minister finally agree to build a facility in Victoria? It was in June. This was a completely reactive decision. This was in June while Victoria was battling with new COVID outbreaks due to yet another failure in the hotel quarantine system—this time, a leak from the South Australian hotel quarantine system.
This government just doesn't think ahead. They are completely reactive. They don't plan. When they are finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to act, too often it is already too late. It is impossible for a federal government to deal with a pandemic if they have the attitude of this Morrison government. This is a government that does not believe in proactively taking charge of this emergency situation. They don't even believe that they have a responsibility for federal quarantine. If they do believe that they have responsibility for the vaccine rollout, they are showing absolutely no urgency in getting it done whatsoever.
Part of the problem with this Morrison government is that it is impossible to deal with a pandemic if you don't actually believe in taking responsibility, if you don't actually believe that it is the role of government, of your government, to keep people safe. It will be impossible for the Morrison government to deal effectively with this pandemic if they don't even believe in governing in the best interests of Australians at all. It will be impossible to deal with this pandemic effectively if the government's strategy is to wait to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do anything. It just won't work. As a result of this government's failure on vaccines, failure on quarantine and failure to take responsibility, Australians are now exposed. It doesn't have to be this way at all.
If only this government believed in taking responsibility. If only they believed in governing in the best interests of all Australians. If only they would act ahead of time, instead of reacting when it's already too late. Until this government does act, all of the hard work that Australians put in to get our country moving again is just waiting to be thrown away. It is Australians who have sacrificed so much. It is Australians who have done all of the work to defeat this virus. Unless this government starts to be proactive, unless it starts to put in place systems that keep people safe, all of the hard work that Australians have done—all of it—is going to be squandered over the course of 2021.
Labor knows that if we are to beat this virus and keep Australians safe there can be no more delays of the type that this Morrison government engages in. It is Labor that would build dedicated quarantine facilities in every single state and territory. Labor would fix this bungled vaccine rollout. Labor would start a mass public health campaign around vaccines. Where is the public health campaign around vaccines in this country, today, under the Morrison government? Labor would make it a first priority to manufacture new vaccines right here, and it is Labor's plan that is the only pathway to a real recovery that leaves Australians secure in getting on with their lives. That is the kind of leadership that Australians need. That is the kind of responsibility that Australians need. The Morrison government is offering the opposite.
I rise to speak on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. The amount of money this government has spent in response to the pandemic is truly breathtaking. It boggles the mind: more than $300 billion. It's very clear that successive Australian governments never anticipated such an event and certainly never had any kind of practical response planned. We wouldn't be in this situation otherwise.
We're talking about generations of more debt, locking in welfare dependency, massive buckets of money thrown at big businesses that didn't need anywhere near as much as they received, and workers receiving subsidised wages beyond what they were actually earning. The government had no problem chasing debts by hounding welfare recipients prior to this pandemic, but there appears to be no comprehensive plan to recover a lot of money wasted in the pandemic.
We're dooming generations of Australians to paying for these mistakes in the future. We may be a trillion dollars in the red in a few short years. We may be able to lessen this burden on our children and their children if the government forensically examine where this avalanche of funds has gone, where much of it wasn't needed, and move to recover it. This response was not thought out. It was rushed, and expensive mistakes have been made. I've heard from businesses that have received thousands of taxpayer dollars despite telling the government the money was no longer required. Some companies claiming JobKeeper have improved their earnings during the pandemic and continued to pay big dividends and executive bonuses, and all they've risked is their reputations. Why? Because JobKeeper is based on a company's revenue and not on whether the company actually needed it.
This economic response has been heavily rorted. It's been a scammer's paradise. In March, the Australian Taxation Office said it was still owed hundreds of millions of dollars from companies that rorted JobKeeper, even from companies that had agreed to hand back money to taxpayers. At the time, the ATO said it had recovered about $135 million, with only some of this money related to deliberate defrauding of JobKeeper. Shockingly, the ATO agreed not to recover about $50 million from about 12,000 businesses who had made honest mistakes. Some businesses claimed wages for employees who did not exist, in order to qualify for a taxpayer boost to their cash flow. The ATO said only one large company had been referred for potential prosecution and only a handful of others were being considered.
As early as August last year, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission confirmed to a parliamentary committee it had received COVID-19 scam referrals from nine different agencies. It noted property crime, government program fraud, identity theft linked to the stimulus, suspicious international payments and money transfers, fraudulent websites providing misleading information, unlicensed advice about JobKeeper and fraudulent claims for small business support. It also flagged concerns about the early release of superannuation, such as real estate agents encouraging tenants to use it to pay rent, credit providers advising it be used to pay off loans or fund house deposits and people being charged fees to access it. This may be only the tip of the iceberg. When the government is writing blank cheques, everyone wants a piece of the action.
The Prime Minister may say the economy can't run on government handouts forever, but we'll be paying for the response forever. In any case, the economy has been too dependent on massive government spending for too long. Australians long for a government that will get back to what it's supposed to do: govern fairly, justly and efficiently. This pandemic has instead given governments the green light to do what they couldn't do before: exert a level of control over Australian citizens not seen since the Second World War. And it's going to allow successive Australian governments to shift blame for their fiscal failures onto the pandemic for a very long time. It's inevitable. But if we get serious about investigating, auditing and recovering as much of the wasted money as possible, we can reduce the burden on future generations.
There has been talk about the vaccines. We hear from Labor, especially, that the vaccine rollout hasn't happened. The last speaker said, 'Labor would put in new vaccinations that are made here.' New vaccinations? Can I tell people that the TGA usually takes seven years for any vaccination to be trialled. We've got vaccinations with Pfizer and AstraZeneca that are only 10 months old, and we're encouraging people to take the vaccination. But new vaccines? Oh, it's alright. Just line people up and jab them. We don't even know the long-term effects of this. The TGA report on 27 May of this year stated that following immunisation there have been 210 deaths: 109 from Pfizer, a further 94 from AstraZeneca, and seven from unspecified vaccinations. This was in the TGA report—'Following immunisation, these deaths occurred.' We rely on the TGA and their recommendations, and they've backed these vaccinations. I remember when it first came out.
They may complain about Scott Morrison and how he's handled this. They may say that it's a federal issue and he hasn't handled it properly. Well, I'll tell you something. When I look at how the premiers of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia have handled this, it's absolutely ridiculous: at the drop of a hat, they close their borders and shut people down in their own states. If that's how the Labor premiers have handled it—hotel quarantine in Victoria was a rabble. That's where it all started. That's where the deaths happened in Victoria. It wasn't under the Prime Minister's watch; it was under Labor and the way that Daniel Andrews and his health ministers handled it. The hypocrites in this place blame Morrison. I have no allegiance to the coalition and I have no allegiance to the Labor Party. I have no allegiance to anyone. Let the facts stand for themselves. Criticising just because we've got an election in the air and you're trying to boost your own numbers? Is that credible? That's not what I hear in this place. You're not credible at all.
Another thing that I have a problem with is the wearing of masks. You wear a mask at the airport, but you don't wear a mask to, say, the State of Origin or other huge sporting matches. At shopping centres you don't have to wear one. Wearing a mask in an airport? It's just absolutely ridiculous. I go back to the time when this all happened and people were still flying on aeroplanes. They said: 'It's very safe on an aeroplane. The air is continually circulated. It's probably the safest place you can be.' Now, you're wearing a mask. So information has changed over a period of time and it will continue to change, because I don't think anyone really has an idea what they're talking about. This is completely new to us.
Until we have the true facts, I constantly question the number of deaths with COVID. You know, it's okay for them to say, 'They've died from it,' but it was known around the world that if you died in a car crash and you tested positive for COVID then your death would be classed as a COVID death. I remember there was one person who died in the country—I won't state which state—and it was classed as a COVID death. But it was known that it wasn't a COVID death; it was actually suicide. But we had to keep it as that because it would upset the family if it got out. How much of the truth have we been told? How much of a fear factor has gone on here with this COVID? That's what I question.
Now, you can't tell me an autopsy was done on all these people to find out exactly the cause of death, because if you were over a certain age and you tested positive for COVID, that was a COVID death. The fearmongering is unbelievable, what's gone on. I can see the problems in other countries around the world with COVID deaths. Yes, it has been a pandemic. We don't have a pandemic here in Australia because, overall, we have to say, it has been handled very well, when we look at other countries. I will say, based on what's happened in the Labor states and the shutdowns, especially Victoria under a Labor premier, I may not always agree with or like the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, but—I tell you what—I'm glad he's in control and not a Labor Prime Minister, as in Albanese. How would they have dealt with the whole pandemic?
About the vaccines, I've said to people, 'I'm not an anti-vaxxer; I'm pro-choice.' I say to people: 'Go out and do your research. Understand what you're doing; have an understanding of what you may be putting into your body.' Because I can tell you, I don't believe it's been thoroughly researched. We don't know the complications that are going to happen further down the track. Another thing happening these days is you can have your vaccine, but guess what? It doesn't stop you from being locked up into quarantine. They're still insisting that you be locked up. What about all the people in Victoria who have had the vaccination? Why were they locked up for days on end still? If it's safe to have the vaccination, what's the purpose? You're still going to be locked up. You still have to go and quarantine. You still have to wear your mask. And you're supposed to be safe. So to say in here, 'Vaccinate everyone in the country. You will be safe,' safe from what? The vaccine reduces the symptoms you may get but it doesn't stop you from actually getting COVID. These are the facts that people need to know so they can make a well-informed decision of whether or not they want to have the vaccine.
I've put it on the record that people probably should take medical advice. I'm not a doctor. Take the advice from the doctors, because there are people who have respiratory problems, heart problems, and they probably may need to have the vaccine. We've seen healthy people in their 50s, only just recently, die after having their vaccination shot for COVID. They didn't think once they got that jab in their arm they'd be dead within a few days, possibly the next day. They trusted the government, they trusted our health bureaucrats, and I don't think they've been advised correctly. As I said, I'm not a doctor. I just want people to be well-informed before they actually go and get this vaccination so they know what the impact may be on them. The medical profession is saying that, in relation to the numbers of people who have died, vaccination will help other people. Well, it really doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to them, because it's not their loved one. It's not their wife, their child, their husband, their brother, their sister. That's why it doesn't matter to them. They don't care. I think it's very important that we advise the people correctly on which way to go with having this.
We don't know what's going to happen down the road. I heard Senator Faruqi talking about people not coming back into the country and not having time together and how it's really heartbreaking. That's happening in our own country when the borders are shut down. Daniel Andrews's family couldn't see each other, and they were only a few kilometres away. What about the woman who wanted to go to her father's funeral? She couldn't go. Even in full PPE, she couldn't go to the funeral. She had to see him after the funeral, by herself. There was a woman pregnant with twins. One of the twins died, because the Queensland Premier wouldn't allow her over the border to go to the hospital. Case after case after case, there has been no real compassion whatsoever that is reasonable and common sense. All I see is power and control of the people through this whole COVID rubbish that's been going on. You deal with the issue; you don't destroy people's lives.
As I said earlier, the hand out of money was unbelievable. When this first hit in April last year, 727,000 people on Newstart allowance got double their money. Their circumstances didn't change, not one iota, but then we doubled their money. The whole thing has been handled atrociously in so many areas, and the taxpayers and future generations are going to be paying for it for a long time to come until we can rein this back in. So, instead of criticising each other, as the leaders of this nation, I suggest you start working together for the people. This is not about an election issue; this goes far beyond that. This is about the people of Australia being looked after.
I also rise to speak on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021 this afternoon. There's been no shortage of debate in this place as well as in the other place on the COVID-19 pandemic that's currently before us, not just here in Australia but right around the world. We have heard contributions in this place, including the one that we just heard, from senators who are trying to put forward, rightly or wrongly, their own thoughts on ways we can overcome the crisis that we are facing, not only economically but also the health crisis that every state government and the Commonwealth government are trying to handle right now. But, I must say, for senators to come into this place and say that it's not about the politics and to claim that they're not a doctor but still provide that medical advice, all I say to people is that, if you're listening to today's debate, always take the advice of your GP. At the end of the day, we're trying to facilitate the best vaccinations that we can give the Australian people through their GPs and the many vaccination programs right around the country. If anyone were listening to the contribution from Senator Hanson, I would urge them to talk to their doctors. At the end of the day, their doctors are the best place to have that discussion. All we can do here, in parliament, is support our experts, whether they be in the Department of Health or whether they be the state governments, who are doing a very good job of trying to manage the situation that is COVID.
We know that the New South Wales government might be entering a period of uncertainty, just like the Victorian government, in my home state. The state governments have to manage the situation. I take exception to some of the contributions that were made earlier, suggesting that somehow it was the Victorian government that started this pandemic here in the country. Quite frankly, if it weren't for the cooperative work, the good work, by all premiers to ensure that we locked down Australia to protect our citizens, we wouldn't be in the position that we are today. Look right around the world, and you will find that Australia is now the envy of the world. Why? Because our state governments have taken the hard decisions, the right decisions, to protect their citizens.
It's good to see the Commonwealth finally come to the table and start to work with the various state governments, whether they're Labor or Liberal, in making sure that Australians do have freedom of movement. And I know there are lockdowns. There are lockdowns, and they may be an annoyance for some. But, quite frankly, I would rather be in lockdown than having thousands of people dying every single day, and that is what is happening right around the world.
Speaking on the bill that is currently before the chamber, the only reason that this legislation has become necessary is this government's many failures to bring the pandemic under control. Whether it's been the rollout of the vaccination program, the lack of a national quarantine program or even cutting off the JobKeeper payments early, there are a number of issues that the Labor opposition has been asking this government to consider for some time. The government has finally agreed to support a number of people who are currently in need of support where there is a lockdown. I understand that $500 a week has been offered to people who are engaged in paid employment who lose more than 20 hours a week and $325 a week offered for people who are engaged in paid employment who lose less than 20 hours a week.
In Victoria, this is very important. Currently we're facing quite substantial issues, and many Victorian workers and small businesses need support from their federal government. They've had support from the state government, and it is now time that support is offered by the federal government. I would say to you, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, that, unfortunately, the support is a little bit too little and a bit too late, but it is good to see that the government has finally come to the table. But, out of the $1 trillion deficit that the government have racked up in the last budget, the Treasurer has only managed to find $100 million to support Victorians—the many small businesses and the many workers who are in need of financial assistance. Looking at this bill, the government will have the discretion to ensure that this payment is on offer only where there is one week of lockdown in a month, and that is what's been assumed as part of its budget costings.
The failure of this government to deliver a successful vaccine rollout and a secure quarantine program is hurting not just businesses and workers but also consumers, and people do want to help ensure that there is a speedy economic recovery. At the end of the day, once the economy's back on track and we are able to reopen and have a successful, growing economy, all workers can go back to their offices and their factories and can carry on with normal life.
But it is imperative that we are actually all getting vaccinated, and that is ultimately the key here. The reason why we encourage people to get vaccinated is that, once we do get to a certain level—whatever that level is, and I've heard figures of around 70 per cent to 80 per cent—we'll then be able to avoid lockdowns. But that situation won't occur until the federal government starts to find other providers of vaccines. It's not good enough that they've come in here and said, 'Yes, we've got some contracts for COVID vaccines.' It's taken them some time to actually land deals with many vaccine providers right around the world. Yes, we've got AstraZeneca and Pfizer, but where are the others? Where are the others? I've had many meetings this week, with multiple groups, and it looks promising. It looks like we'll have a lot more vaccines by the end of the year, but these discussions should have occurred 18 months ago. They should have occurred 18 months ago. It seems like the government has taken the cheap and easy option: 'We'll just go with one or two providers who'll give us a vaccine, and everything will be fine.' But that hasn't actually been the case.
We are not on our way to the government's target of having everyone vaccinated with one dose by the end of the year. It looks very much like it may not be till the middle of next year, which is quite disappointing because the sooner we can get a certain level of people vaccinated the sooner we can start opening our economy and not be in a situation where state governments have to run our national economy. Unfortunately, the federal government—through the national cabinet process—hasn't been able to deliver nationally consistent rules on having a quarantine program in place.
Having said all that, it should be no surprise that we've had to have Channel 9 and others roll out a national campaign in terms of public awareness of the vaccine program, to provide access to straightforward information on who is eligible and who is not. That point is really important because, if you keep shifting the goalposts of who is eligible for which vaccines, you then start to undermine the system. That is something that we are trying very hard to avoid. Unfortunately the government has its press conference one week, and that will change with the information that is provided to the Australian public. We really do need this government to make sure that there is a national campaign that is rolled out as soon as possible, because, the sooner we provide the Australian people with the confidence that the vaccination program is safe, the sooner we can increase the number of people who are eligible to receive a vaccination.
We've even had the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners raise concerns, saying that new targeted advertising campaigns are desperately needed to tackle vaccine hesitancy. We heard earlier from other senators in this place about the unease that a number of people have with finding the appropriate jab for themselves. I cannot stress enough the fact that they should go and speak to their local GP. Make an appointment today. If you're listening to the Senate here, please go and speak to your GP. Make that appointment and have a good chat to them about the risks of having the vaccine jab.
At the end of the day, we want to be talking about other issues as well—how we can better put investment in health and education and grow our economy. But, until we can get the vaccination rates up, it is going to be very difficult for this government to get out of the mess that they've created. But let's also not forget that JobKeeper—and the government finally came to the table with the JobKeeper support payments—
Senator Ruston interjecting—
I'll come on to that, Senator Ruston. Let's also not forget that it did take a while for the government to come to the table and offer many people that support that was desperately needed, especially in my home state of Victoria. The state government, through the Acting Premier, has also been calling on this government for a couple of days this week to come to the table to clarify where the vaccines are for the many disability workers and aged-care workers in terms of getting priority for groups 1a and 1b. We still haven't been able to get any clear answers from the relevant ministers in this place or, I believe, in the other place to date. I would just urge the government to please listen to the contributions that are being made here in this place today. Please get on with finding more vaccines, because, the sooner we can get more people vaccinated, the sooner we can open up the economy and move on to bigger and better things.
First of all, I'd like to thank senators who have made a contribution to this debate on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. I thank them very much for that contribution. The bill appropriates from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the purposes of making the COVID-19 disaster payment during the 2021-22 financial year. The bill also provides that the National Recovery and Resilience Agency will report on the COVID-19 disaster payment in their annual report. Australians are a resilient people, but sometimes they need support in difficult times. The appropriation ensures that the COVID-19 disaster payment will be available and fully funded should additional lockdowns occur, and of course we hope they won't. I commend the bill to the Senate.