Senate debates

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Vaccination

3:02 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services (Senator Colbeck) and the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Keneally and Watt today relating to COVID-19 vaccines.

We all know that Australia and the world are currently in the grip of the worst pandemic we have seen in the world for decades. Australians are being asked to make huge sacrifices right now, particularly those in lockdown areas in Sydney and South-East Queensland but also the millions of other Australians who are suffering economic, mental health and other harm as a result of the pandemic and the government's failure to do its job with vaccines and quarantine.

But, despite the fact that Australians are making huge sacrifices, day after day and night after night we see members of this government running active disinformation campaigns on various social media platforms. The chief offenders, of course, are the member for Dawson, Mr Christensen, and two senators in this chamber, Senator Canavan and Senator Rennick, who day after day and night after night are spreading anti-science, anti-mask and anti-lockdown messages—all sorts of disinformation designed to confuse Australians, to make them doubt the science and to make them doubt the public health orders and the advice that is being given. They do this completely unrestrained by any member of their own government. Earlier this year, this government encouraged the private sector to put in place a voluntary code of conduct on disinformation on social media. But, day after day and night after night, we see members of this government actively promoting disinformation about COVID on a range of social media platforms, and they do this without any action being taken by their own government, which not only has a code of conduct about disinformation on social media but is out there every day encouraging Australians to all do the right thing because we are all in this together.

In question time both today and yesterday, we quoted a couple of examples of Senator Rennick sharing articles that undermine TGA approved COVID vaccines—vaccines which his own government is encouraging Australians to take up. Mr Christensen is promoting views and arguing in social media that we should not be mandating the wearing of masks and we should not be condoning lockdowns, and day after day we see Senator Canavan arguing on social media that we should 'end the lockdowns', amongst many other things.

When these facts are put to Senator Birmingham, representing the Prime Minister, and he is asked what action the government will take, that is the one question that Senator Birmingham will not answer, because the truth is that neither he nor the Prime Minister—nor, for that matter, any member of this government—will take any action against their rogue backbenchers, who are out there running an active disinformation campaign in the Australian public. It's a campaign designed to confuse people, to make people doubt the public health advice that is being given and to run against the government's own policies.

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

Senator Watt, please resume your seat. Senator Rennick?

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order: could Senator Watt please be more specific and point out which bit of information is actually disinformation, rather than just casting general aspersions?

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

Senator Rennick, points of orders need to be about the standing orders. That's a debating point. Senator Watt.

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

I've already done that, only about 30 seconds ago, if Senator Rennick would care to look back at it. Three times today Senator Birmingham was asked what action the Prime Minister would take about the disinformation campaign that is being run by three members of this government. Three times he wouldn't answer that question, and that is because this government is not going to take any action against any of these members who are out there spreading disinformation about COVID. How can we expect Australians to do the right thing and to follow the public health advice that this government is encouraging them to follow when the government's own members of parliament are out there spreading anti-mask, anti-lockdown, anti-science, anti-vaccine views, day after day after day, with complete impunity and with a complete lack of action from anyone in this government? So it's okay for Mr Morrison and other ministers to be out there encouraging, ordering, demanding that Australians do the right thing, but they do nothing about the fact that their own government members are out there encouraging Australians to do exactly the opposite.

Why won't this Prime Minister act on his rogue backbenchers? There are only two possible reasons. One is that he's too scared they will withdraw support for his government and not vote for the government's actions, and he's not prepared to stand up to them. The other, which is probably worse, is that this is a deliberate strategy from this government to court far-right extremist and conspiracist views while attempting to position itself in the middle ground. It's a disgrace. (Time expired)

3:07 pm

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

I think it's quite remarkable for Senator Watt to stand up here and talk about a handful of examples of people who are spreading misinformation or disinformation. These people are backbenchers, whereas the chief health officer of Senator Watt's own state has been key in turning people off vaccinations. Jeannette Young has been saying of 18-year-olds—the age group that is now recognised as being superspreaders because they get minimal symptoms, they are active and they need to work—that she would rather see them get COVID than get AstraZeneca. If you want to address misinformation, how about you look in your own team as well.

For Labor to get up here today—what else has happened today? Let's just think for a minute. I'm not focused on what Mr Christensen, the member for Dawson, is putting on his social media. I'm not focused on what Senator Rennick is putting on his social media.

Senator Watt interjecting

No-one is, so why are you concerned, Senator Watt? What I am more interested in is what else has happened today. We had a significant Closing the Gap statement this morning, but Labor are more concerned about trying to score cheap political points on the vaccination rollout than actually focusing on something significant, something that means a lot to a significant portion of our population. Maybe it's because Labor are concerned that, even though they initiated the closing the gap process, which is welcome—it is a great process, born of the best intentions—to date, the process hasn't been achieving our goals. That is why our government brought together a new 10-year agreement, signed by all Australian governments. So it is not just within the purview of the Commonwealth; the Coalition of Peaks and the Australian Local Government Association are also involved, and over 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have been involved in the process. Finally, instead of a top-down approach, we are actually involving the people most impacted by this vital policy area.

Today, Labor care only about vaccinations. Well, on this remarkable day, let's talk about the vaccination of the Indigenous population. As at 4 August, we have vaccinated over 146,000 people who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. They've received at least one dose. That's 25 per cent of the eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged 16 and over. Eleven per cent of their population have received a second dose. This is quite an achievement when you consider that, earlier on in the vaccination rollout, this population was one of the most vaccine-hesitant populations.

I commend the efforts of the Aboriginal health services, which have gone to great lengths to educate and communicate with their communities and get these vaccinations into their arms. I commend the work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which has been out and about in 88 of our most remote communities and has delivered nearly 10,000 doses of vaccine. However, I come back to the overall health overview for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, because this is a very important part of closing the gap. We know that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have worse health outcomes, but our Closing the Gap statement today is supported by more than $1 billion in targeted investment to close the gap across multiple areas, including nearly $300 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services.

Let's focus on what matters. Let's focus on what's real. Let's stop focusing on backbenchers' social media and start focusing on what matters.

3:12 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The pandemic is, of course, one of the great crises that have been facing our society, and I think that, internationally, it's reshaping the way in which we live. Today, when Minister Colbeck indicated that the government acknowledges that it has challenges in terms of its capacity to provide sufficient supply for what it acknowledges to be the key to finding solutions to this pandemic, in terms of supply and the logistics of vaccines, I think he was underestimating the difficulties that the government has brought upon itself. It strikes me that the government has mismanaged this crisis at every level. From the very beginning of the crisis, the government has sought, effectively, to present this as a challenge to take political advantage and has sought to play favourites with the states. It has sought to underestimate the capacity of Australians to deal with the truth in regard to this matter. It has failed to acknowledge the importance of our own manufacturing capacity. It has failed to deal, in any real way or with any understanding of the international questions, with the pharmaceutical industry. It has failed to come to grips with the basic questions of the major health crisis faced in this pandemic. In fact, we had this protracted debate about whether or not we should concentrate on the economics of the country versus the health of the country, and that has been played out through the government's attempt to blame one state over another and, of course, its attempt—and failure—to deal with the personalities involved with this matter.

I'm particularly concerned that we have not been able to develop our own manufacturing capacity. While I acknowledge how important it is for AstraZeneca, for instance, to be able to make vaccines in Australia, I find it extraordinary that the government is not able to provide us with even the most basic information on the supply contracts it engaged in on that matter, claiming, of course, that national security is involved. When under freedom of information the ABC sought details of the supply contract for AstraZeneca they were told that the provision of such contracts would present a major risk to the national security of the country, despite the fact that the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico and Brazil have taken an entirely different approach to the provision of basic public information about those supply contracts.

It doesn't excuse the failure of the government to deal with the fundamentals providing sufficient vaccines for the people of this country. We saw for instance its lackadaisical attitude to the provision of different types of vaccines and the catastrophe that emerged around the provision of the Pfizer vaccines. We saw the minister's attempt to duck and weave about his direct engagement with Pfizer. Rather than it being, as he tried to imply, just a matter of low-level public servants who were the bunglers in regard to the contract arrangements, industry sources highlighted through the ABC that the minister himself had been rude, dismissive and penny-pinching when it came to dealing with the senior management of Pfizer. A former Pfizer global president of R&D, John LaMattina, underscored this point about how unfortunate it was that Australia had failed to secure the necessary supplies of Pfizer vaccine because of the government's failure to understand basic elements of supply chains and basic elements of how the pharmaceutical industry worked globally, which was made worse by the minister's direct assault upon individuals within the company. I find it extraordinary that the government has tried to duck and weave and been unable to deal with even basic issues around the mRNA vaccine production facilities when it should have been moving much more quickly to deal with these fundamental questions.

It's not too late. There is of course still time for us to be able to develop the necessary sovereign capability to ensure that we can protect this country and we can ensure that the people of this country can enjoy the benefits of modern science and modern manufacturing processes. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

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

Whilst Senator Watts had a lot to say about potential misinformation today, it's not the first time that Senator Waters focused on this. Indeed, in estimates only two months ago, the senator was giving air to an article:

… which refers to a public health England preprint study in the UK that found that both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines were only 33 per cent effective against the Indian variant three weeks after the first dose.

So at the same time that this government was getting on with the business of rolling out the vaccine, of protecting lives and livelihoods, Senator Watt was scaremongering and undermining the effectiveness of our vaccine rollout in this parliament. Professor Kelly said she had read the article. She said she is always wary of preprint articles:

A preprint article means it has not gone through the usual peer review process that is required. We've found … all through the COVID-19 pandemic … that many of those articles have … proven to be false.

When it comes to talking, in fact, lecturing this chamber, about spreading misinformation, I won't take it from Senator Watt.

On the very real questions of sovereign vaccine manufacturing that Senator Carr raised today, this is a government that has a story to tell of which all Australians can rightfully be proud. Not only was Australia the first country in the world to close its international borders at the onset of the pandemic, it took the decision in August 2020 to ensure we had sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability in this nation.

It's worth noting that mRNA vaccines had never received widespread approval for use in humans before COVID-19 was affecting the world in 2020. mRNA vaccines are at the cutting-edge of medical science. Australia has, in fact, asked for proposals from local manufacturers to ensure that we develop this capability here in Australia. Other nations have done the same. Singapore, for instance, has started the process of developing mRNA vaccine manufacturing capability and expects it to be up and running in 2023. So, whilst we've received a dozen proposals that are in the process of being assessed, the best advice the government has is that it's between one and three years from concluding that sort of arrangement to the vaccine-manufacturing capability being a reality.

We hear lies and misinformation from those opposite. They are seeking to scare and frighten the Australian people at a time when they are seeking to do the right thing by themselves, to do the right thing by their loved ones and to do the right thing by their nation—to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated, as we're seeing in record numbers. Just yesterday yet again there was a new record of almost 214,000 vaccines in arms of Australians. That was without trying to bribe them, as the Labor Party have sought to do, showing that they have learnt nothing from their previous errors in government when we saw cash for clunkers, pink batts, school halls and cheques to dead people. No, they have learnt nothing from that. They have learnt nothing from eight years on the opposition bench. In trying to bribe the Australian people to do what they are doing in overwhelming numbers the opposition show that they have learnt nothing from their previous mistakes and are not fit to sit on the government bench in this parliament.

The PM has acknowledged the challenges that we have faced with this unprecedented vaccine rollout. It's the first time the nation has had to confront such a challenge. It is testament, therefore, that we have a great story to tell, having protected lives and livelihoods—a death rate that is the second-lowest in the OECD. In fact, if we had the OECD average mortality rate, some 30,000 additional Australians who are currently here would not be alive. That is the cold hard fact of the success of this government in protecting lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. In the face of the misinformation, the lies and the scaremongering of the Labor Party we will remain resolute in continuing to deliver for Australians.

3:22 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I want to speak to the questions put to Senator Colbeck and the answers he gave. I want to speak out in support of pharmacists across New South Wales, particularly in south-west Sydney, who are pleading for support from the Morrison government. They're struggling and grappling with the Morrison government's failed vaccine rollout. Today marked yet another record number of cases and deaths in the Sydney COVID-19 outbreak. There are 262 new cases and, very tragically, five deaths.

We desperately need to increase vaccination rates in hotspots, yet the Sydney Morning Heraldreported today that the vaccine rollout through pharmacies in New South Wales has fallen desperately behind. In April, 1,250 pharmacies in New South Wales were authorised to administer AstraZeneca vaccines, yet here we are in August and in this state only 314 pharmacies are now putting jabs into arms—that is, 314 pharmacies out of the 1,250 that are authorised; that is just 25 per cent. Why haven't they been able to put shots in arms? Because the vaccines aren't there.

The government did not prepare itself for this pandemic. It had opportunities this year and last year to do it—it has been almost two years now. The Prime Minister failed to secure an adequate supply of different vaccines, the Prime Minister failed to set up an adequate national quarantine system and now the Prime Minister has failed to establish an adequate vaccination scheme through our network of pharmacies. What's happened? The Pharmacy Guild of Australia, New South Wales branch, pins the blame on the federal government rollout plans. There is an existing community service obligation wholesale network with established cold chain lines which ensures the delivery of essential medicines around Australia within just 24 hours. This existing system was entirely suitable to manage the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to pharmacies. The Pharmacy Guild said this would have fast-tracked the rollout. It would enable pharmacies to access COVID-19 vaccines through this established system.

The Morrison government set up an entirely new parallel system. Now we have a situation where only 25 per cent of authorised pharmacies are receiving vaccines. Even those few pharmacies fortunate enough to receive vaccines are suffering lengthy delays. Pharmacist Mario Barone, in doing the brave and essential work of vaccinating Australians in Fairfield, the epicentre of the current outbreak, said it is taking more than two weeks for his AstraZeneca orders to arrive. It is communities in Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool and other parts of west and south-west Sydney have borne the brunt of this outbreak. They are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities in Sydney yet they are being hit hardest by the failure of the Prime Minister's rollout.

South-west Sydney has the lowest rate of full vaccinations in Sydney with just 14.6 per cent. Outer south-west Sydney is just 17.8 per cent and the outer west is just 17.9. It is the wealthiest enclaves in Sydney where vaccination rates are highest. In the eastern and northern suburbs, rates are as high as 26.9 per cent while hardworking, middle-class Australians are again being left behind by this government.

I want to quote another pharmacist, Port Macquarie based Judy Plunkett. Ms Plunkett says she is yet to receive a single vaccine dose. She said, 'It has been singularly the most frustrating thing in all of our lives for the past six months. If pharmacies were brought on in April, we could have done tens of thousands of doses by now. Every barrier has been put in front of us. Australians are sick of this government putting barriers up. It is about time the Morrison government took responsibility and gave them a helping hand.' They should be looking at a whole series of initiatives. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.