Senate debates

Thursday, 5 August 2021


Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response No. 2) Bill 2021; In Committee

11:23 am

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The chamber is considering the question that Senator Patrick's amendment be agreed to.

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to finalise my remarks. I'm really disappointed with the finance minister in regard to this. We need to understand that all of the money that has been funnelled from the taxpayer to the pockets of executives, to the wallets of investors or to the advertising companies that are engaged by Harvey Norman is money that wasn't sitting in a bank and ready to spend. This is deficit money, this is money that is to be paid for by my children and, indeed, your children, Senator Birmingham, and every senator's children and every Australian's children. That is where this money is coming from. Again, I don't begrudge any company having received JobKeeper. This bill does not seek to take any money back. It does call for the disclosure of what taxpayer money companies did receive. There will be many in the community that will look to see if there are any anomalies, and that may help in the recovery of money for our children.

11:25 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I just wish to make one point clear. Anybody who listened to Senator Patrick's entire contribution, prior to the slight interruption to debate, would perhaps forget that it was a requirement of the operation of the JobKeeper program that every dollar paid under that program was paid to employees.

Senator Patrick interjecting

Senator Patrick, I don't think I interrupted you once. I'm pointing out the facts as to how the program operated and the fact it was a requirement. Indeed, many part-time or casual employees potentially received payments in excess of what their normal wages would be. That was a requirement of the operation of the program. It's a fact, as I acknowledged, that economic conditions in some sectors recovered faster than had been anticipated at the time, but I think the way in which Senator Patrick framed a number of his remarks simply proves the point that this amendment is about being able to pursue a pattern of attacking and vilifying certain companies and, in doing so, attacking those who are providing jobs and opportunities for many Australians and who have helped in our economic recovery, which is so important to the economic future of the nation.

11:26 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In the Senate, we have the responsibility for looking after the review of the parliament. I would like to ask some questions generally, in addition to supporting Senator Patrick in his desire for accountability and transparency. How long do you expect to keep these JobKeeper payments in place? You've sought in this legislation to extend it to 31 December 2022.

11:27 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

JobKeeper itself is no longer in operation. What is in operation now is two particular streams of support. One is the COVID-19 disaster payments, which are triggered by a range of conditions being met—the Commonwealth hotspot definition being in place and restrictions by a state or territory being in place. Those conditions then result in individuals who have lost more than eight hours of work, as a result of those restrictions, being eligible for payments.

The other stream of payments is the business support payments, which at this stage are being delivered by states and territories. This bill provides a legislative underpinning for the Commonwealth to be able to deliver those payments if a state or territory has difficulty administratively being able to do so. At this stage we don't anticipate needing to do that; however, we think it is prudent to have the terms there.

The bill provides the contingency for these arrangements to operate through the remainder of this year and next year. It is not be the government's expectation that such programs would be necessary throughout that duration, but we think that it is prudent, given the uncertainties we've seen with the advent of the delta strain, to have those contingencies in place. Noting also the practical consideration of parliament being interrupted for an election at some point next year, it is logical for the timing to run for that period of time. Equally, we note that these are extraordinary measures and provisions, which is why having a clear sunset there was an important principle to bring to the legislation.

11:29 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

How much in total do you think will be spent from now until 31 December 2022?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

That is something that is very hard to estimate. I'm not in a position to put a figure on it. It does depend upon the extent to which lockdowns, or other such restrictions that trigger these sorts of payments, ultimately end up being necessary. Our hope is that they will be minimised as much as possible. The modelling work of the Doherty Institute and the evidence and science that the government is seeking to follow seek to put Australia in a position where we're able to continue to save lives and protect Australians whilst minimising the need for those restrictions as much as possible over that time line and to progressively get to a point where the restrictions that would trigger these payments become less and less likely.

11:30 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The devastation economically since March last year has not been due to the COVID virus; it has been due to government restrictions. They have been capricious and arbitrary and devastating and, at times, inhuman. Why is the federal government propping these up—because the minister just mentioned a minute ago that the total spending will depend upon lockdowns. Lockdowns in the United States, where there are 50 states, show that, between those states that have had lockdowns and those that haven't had lockdowns, there's barely any difference in COVID performance. In fact, the Governor of Florida, Governor DeSantis, apologised to the citizens of Florida after the first lockdown ended, and he ended it quickly and he hasn't had one since—and Florida is packed with aged people.

We've also seen New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro, within the last week, admit that he doesn't know what the hell is happening in his government or in New South Wales with regard to lockdowns. The World Health Organization has come out and said that lockdowns are 'a blunt instrument' that needs to be used carefully and only initially to get control of the virus. Does that mean, Minister, that state governments using lockdowns are not in control of their state? It certainly appears that way.

11:31 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

Thanks, Senator Roberts, for the questions. While I may disagree with some of the analysis underpinning his questions, they're views that are held in parts of the community and it's important that there's the ability to ask those questions openly.

Analysis shows that Australia's approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic has saved the lives of around 30,000 Australians, relative to the way it's been managed in other parts of the world. As a government we think that saving Australian lives has been worthwhile and does justify the extraordinary steps that have been taken. We know those steps have involved sacrifices by many people—sacrifices by individuals, by families, by households, by businesses—right across the country, and they have come at an enormous cost, particularly a fiscal cost. The economic cost in Australia has been real but, in part, subdued by the success of fiscal, monetary and other policy measures that have helped businesses and households through the pandemic. But the fiscal cost is real and will have a legacy to be dealt with in years to come. We acknowledge all of those realities.

Of course, in dealing with a global pandemic, we've also had to deal with the continuous uncertainty associated with that. We as a government do not know what necessarily comes next at every stage. COVID-19 was unheard of until the pandemic struck, and the delta variant was unspoken of until it was struck this year. These are different variables that we have had to respond to and that the states and territories have had to respond to as well.

But, Senator Roberts, we believe the Australian approach, at its heart, has enabled us as a country to save the lives of an estimated 30,000 Australians. Despite the difficulties felt in different parts of the country, particularly New South Wales at present, as you referenced, it is an approach that is continuing to save lives whilst vaccines are distributed across the country. The Doherty Institute modelling provides a road map that enables us to see how the progression of that vaccine rollout will get us to a position where we can, with less economically and socially harmful restrictions, manage the pandemic in the future in a way that still saves lives but doesn't have the same costs as those being felt today.

11:34 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to make it very clear that One Nation wholeheartedly endorses the saving of lives. We also want to make it perfectly clear that One Nation is about data-based, evidence-driven policy. We don't see that, and we haven't seen it in the last 18 months.

Senator Birmingham rightly pointed out that, when COVID arrived in this country, there was a lot of uncertainty. We all accepted that. I stood in this place, in this chair, on Monday 23 March 2020, and said we acknowledged the uncertainty. We'd seen tens of thousands of people dying in China, France, Italy, Spain. We knew there was uncertainty, therefore, we would wave it all through. We waved JobSeeker through; then we waved JobKeeper through. We did that. What we've seen is state governments on rampant, capricious lockdowns for political purposes, because they don't know what they're doing.

I want to highlight Taiwan. I raised Taiwan on Monday 23 March 2020. I pointed to Taiwan and said it had a fabulous testing, tracing and quarantining process. They don't lockdown everyone; they lock down the sick and the vulnerable to protect the sick and the vulnerable. Up until a few months ago, Taiwan, which has a population roughly the same as ours—24 million, not our 25 million—on a tiny island, close to China, and which had an earlier ingress of the virus, had lost seven lives. The significant thing is not only the health of their people but that their economy bubbled along without any interruption. Since then, they've had a major breakdown in quarantine and they've lost hundreds of lives, but still fewer than Australia. They've recovered very quickly. They had a quick blip, and then it went back down again. Taiwan is managing the virus; the virus is managing Australia.

The federal government is abandoning competitive federalism and now introducing, or reinforcing—it's already here—competitive welfarism. States are acting capriciously, sometimes for electoral advantage prior to an election, as was shown in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. As Mr Barilaro has admitted, they don't know what they're doing in New South Wales. We've had accusations all over the country that Premier Dan Andrews doesn't know what he's doing. Why is the federal government continuing to just spend money and let these premiers behave irresponsibly?

11:37 am

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to get a few things on the record for the Australian Greens. I can see what the government is trying to do here. It's trying to take some credit for something that they've done in the last 18 months. Because of the vaccine rollout fiasco that this country has had to endure, those opposite are trying to claim some credit. I want to get it on the record that this government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to bring in JobKeeper in the first place. Those opposite significantly resisted providing the payments that we're debating today to people in lockdowns around the country. It wasn't their first inclination to protect the vulnerable; they had to be coerced into providing these payments.

Labor have put it on record that they were early proponents of a living wage. So were the Greens. I remember Senator Cormann's very first response when the stimulus package occurred. The Greens were very vocal, saying it wasn't enough and that we needed a living-wage-style arrangement such as we've seen in other countries.

I also want to get it on record that it was the union movement, working with chambers of commerce and a number of other business groups around the country, with the Greens and with Labor, that got JobKeeper in the first place. So claim all the credit you like, and good on the government for eventually listening and bringing in this much-needed scheme. Good on you for doing that. But don't come in here and claim credit for it when you didn't want to do it and you had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, there in the first place.

In relation to exemptions or changes to these payments to make sure they are not rorted, may I also say that the Greens, in the very first COVID hearings we had and in significant correspondence to Treasury, were the first to say that we wanted to see a scheme that didn't allow for share buybacks, CEO bonuses being paid or dividends being paid by big companies that were taking JobKeeper. That was also being looked at by other countries very early on in the piece. So this is not a novel idea. This is something we've been fighting for since day one when JobKeeper was brought in. I think that's also very important to point out.

In relation to Senator Birmingham's confusing messaging here today around small businesses also being beneficiaries of JobKeeper, asking, 'Do you want to see their payments disclosed?' there's a very important reason why in the legislation we've brought forward the Greens haven't wanted to include small business. That is that partners in and owners of very small businesses often don't take a wage. They often don't take a salary or, if they do, it's very low. They rely on getting to the end of their year, if they're lucky, and making a profit and then paying themselves out of that by the end of their terms or the end of their financial year. That's why it would be very difficult and probably patently unfair to include small businesses in these payments. So I just wanted to get that on the record. This is a very important factor.

Senator Roberts is right about one thing—

An honourable senator: Just one thing.

just one thing—and that is that these JobKeeper payments and the payments we've seen today have been brought in because of lockdowns. But, unlike Senator Roberts, the Greens feel that having lockdowns quickly and rapidly is currently the best solution we have in getting on top of the pandemic and protecting the lives of all Australians. So we need to continue with this.

Australians want to see their politicians in this place working together to their advantage. They want to see us getting on top of the vaccine rollout. They want to see us getting on top of stimulus payments so they can pay their bills and pay their rent in times of hardship. They want to see this parliament acting on the homelessness crisis. They want to see this parliament acting on public housing. They want to see this parliament acting on the frightening increase that we've seen in house prices around this country during this pandemic. That's been caused by a lot of reasons. There are so many Australians out there, especially young and low-income Australians, that still haven't been able to get into the housing market. We've got, I believe, an obligation to those Australians, just like we do to everyone else in this country, to tackle inequality and try and make this a fair place to live.

11:42 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have a further question on accountability in the Senate and in parliament. On Monday 23 March 2020, I said One Nation would be waving it through. I said we'd be supporting the government because we had a lot of uncertainty facing the country. But I also said we would hold the government accountable. We expected the government to share data and come up with a detailed comprehensive plan, from start to end. We have not seen the data and we have not seen that comprehensive detailed plan.

In Senate estimates, I asked for some data and that data was given to me afterwards. I asked if the Chief Medical Officer and the Secretary of the Department of Health could verify seven components that would make up strategies for a comprehensive plan. They endorsed the seven components I listed. They endorsed all seven and said there was nothing missing and nothing there that shouldn't be there. Yet we have seen the federal government act in only one area and the state governments acting in only one area, a different area. We have seen the federal government funding that destructive action of the state governments.

Why is there no data on the virus's severity, mortality and transmissibility shared with the public? Why is it that the Chief Medical Officer and the Secretary of the Department of Health can provide me with the data that shows the COVID virus has high transmissibility but ranges from low to moderate severity? I asked them to compare it with other viruses in the past. It's low to moderate severity. Why is it that the public is not given that data? Why is it that the government is not making sure that people have doses of ivermectin, which has been proven effective already? We are talking about Australia lagging now. Other countries, like India, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, have had remarkable success with ivermectin. It's been proven effective in South America and in European countries. It has been recognised here in this country as safe. The Therapeutic Goods Administration approved it in 2013 for other diseases. We know now, from medical and scientific papers, that it is successful in treating COVID. It is cheap, it is highly successful, it is safe and it is effective. Why is the federal government not doing that? We need to stop this waste of money on lockdowns. We need to recognise there are seven major strategies for a plan, a comprehensive plan, and the federal government is blowing money on one.

Furthermore, why is the federal government not putting out data on the breakdown of the small group of people who are vulnerable? We are told it's mainly the aged. We know that this virus kills. We know that some people, including Senator Patrick here, don't even know they have it because they're asymptomatic. We know that for many people it's like a dose of the flu or a cold. We know for others it can be lingering; we know for some it can kill. But this needs a tailored approach based on data. We're not seeing that, we're just seeing buckets of money being shovelled out there. We're seeing small businesses in Queensland shut and multinationals making out like bandits because of these lockdowns. We need to see a measured response from the government, a simple, comprehensive plan with at least seven strategies.

I now come to my question on data sharing. The tax office administers this scheme. Minister, can you advise under what circumstances other government departments would need to receive this information?

11:46 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

To deal with the question at the end of Senator Roberts' contribution, the administration of business grants is, as I said in earlier remarks, currently being undertaken by different state and territory departments. In other circumstances, it's possible that administration or payment could be made through the different grants hubs—the industry grants hub or the grant and payment functions of Services Australia. So, as I described, the business grants provisions of this legislation are a contingency; they're there to enable the Commonwealth to step in, effectively. The sharing of ATO information is about ensuring that there's a level of integrity applied where such grants or payments are being potentially administered by other agencies.

11:47 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, is it the intention of the government to maintain the administrative function at the Australian Taxation Office, or are you moving this scheme to another department? If so, will the Senate have scrutiny of the move should it occur?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I refer Senator Roberts to the answer I just gave. The JobKeeper program has finished and, at this point in time, the Commonwealth are not paying business support grants directly from Commonwealth agencies to businesses. We are undertaking business support payments in a fifty-fifty cost-sharing arrangement with certain states and territories, but the distribution of those grant payments is being undertaken by those states and territories. This legislation provides a contingency, but also provides the capacity for us to help with the integrity arrangements around those payments by states and territories.

11:48 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, will this data be shared with the Department of Health to deploy a rule that recipients must be vaccinated to receive a benefit? Will you rule out tying COVID income support to vaccination status?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

The government have no intentions in relation to such linkages at present. We're delivering income support for people affected under the terms that I've outlined, and those eligibility criteria are publicly available. There is no intention to tie those income supports for COVID disruptions to vaccination status. Our message in relation to vaccines is that people should get vaccinated, first and foremost, because it could save their lives and because it could save the lives of their loved ones or the lives of their fellow Australians.

11:49 am

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do support this bill. I do not support the lockdowns, but, having locked down, we do need to provide people with assistance. I don't want to delay the passage of this bill, but I want to ask the minister a couple of quick questions. Firstly, has the government calculated the cost of each life saved from lockdowns? If so, what is that cost? How does it compare to the guidance note that is on the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's website on the value of statistical life. That guidance note says:

Willingness to pay is the appropriate way to estimate the value of reductions in the risk of physical harm—known as the value of statistical life.

That value is around $5 million. I realise it's hard to reduce things to a single number, but if we didn't do this from time to time we'd all be driving Volvos. Secondly, what is the case fatality rate of the delta outbreak in New South Wales and how does that compare to the case fatality rate of the outbreaks last year in Australia?

11:50 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Canavan. I'm not aware of modelling that attributes a cost per life lost or life saved in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia to date. As indicated before, there are incredible estimates that around 30,000 lives have been saved as a result of the approach that Australia has taken in successfully suppressing the spread of COVID relative to many other countries in the world.

I note that loss of life is not the only health impact of COVID-19. There are studies indicating longer term or ongoing health impacts for people, particularly those who have had more serious cases of COVID-19. That would add to the associated economic cost. I also note that various studies have been undertaken indicating that, in parts of the world where COVID-19 has been allowed to spread without government restrictions or the like in place, there has still been a very significant economic cost as individuals have undertaken behavioural change due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 and the threat and spread they've seen in their communities. So it shouldn't be assumed—and I know that you wouldn't, Senator Canavan—that it is the path of government restrictions imposing economic cost or no restrictions and, therefore, everything is as it would have been had COVID not existed. There are still associated costs beyond the loss of life accrued due to the spread of COVID because of those other health impacts and the behavioural changes.

In terms of comparisons of the severe health impacts and loss of life from the current spread of the delta strain in New South Wales and the Victorian outbreak of last year, it may be a little early to be able to draw accurate comparisons in that regard. I note though that the Victorian outbreak saw COVID-19 spread to aged-care facilities and resulted in significant and tragic loss of life in some of those facilities. Despite the fact that there have been some cases associated with aged-care facilities in the New South Wales outbreak to date, we're not seeing a similar pattern occur. That would seem to back international studies showing the effectiveness and efficacy of the vaccination that has occurred in those residential aged-care facilities. Vaccination appears to be providing protection against loss of life there and more generally, particularly across senior Australians. Some 80 per cent of those over the age of 70 have already had their first vaccination.

11:54 am

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I said, I don't want to delay the committee and I thank the minister for that insightful answer. I did just want to put on the record here, in fairness to the government, this government, the federal government, is not the one imposing the lockdowns. But it is an indictment of state governments that they have not been transparent about simple calculations about how much this is actually costing the Australian people, especially those poorer than most of us in this place, who have just had their income smashed, their ability to pay their bills gone, their mortgages at risk and sometimes their relationships destroyed. There's an enormous cost to these things. It's not being properly accounted for in the decision-making.

I can only do rough estimates, because the modelling and transparency is not there, but the Burnett Institute this week—I know, a group who were in favour of lockdowns—estimated that the lockdowns in Sydney have prevented 4,000 coronavirus cases. The fatality rate in Sydney has stabilised at about 0.4 per cent of cases in the last few weeks. That would mean that these lockdowns have so far prevented 16 deaths. AMP estimate the lockdowns are costing $150 million a day. At the time of the Burnett Institute modelling, the lockdown had been going on for 35 days, so AMP puts the cost at $5.3 billion for avoiding 16 deaths. The cost of lives saved is $330 million on those calculations. That is 66 times the figure that the federal government accrues to the value of statistical life in this country.

As I said before, it's very hard to reduce these things to numbers but, as someone who lives in a country area, where we do not have the same health services as everywhere else, I understand very closely how we have to sometimes make trade-offs. We have, where I live, a five-year-lower life expectancy in Central Queensland than people born in Sydney, but I realise we can't have a tier-1 hospital in Emerald and we can't have cancer units all over remote Australia. We have to make choices about how we spend and allocate public resources to health outcomes. We have to make choices. Right now, we're ignoring these hard choices at great cost, especially those of us who do have the luxury of a guaranteed income despite a lockdown occurring or not. That is a complete abrogation of our duty and of what we should be doing through this crisis, especially given we don't have to bear any of the costs of these lockdowns at all.

My final point is on fatality rates. I thank the minister; he's absolutely right about the effectiveness of the vaccines. They have clearly been effective through this latest outbreak, because that fatality rate in Sydney is running at 0.4 per cent. It has stabilised in the last few weeks; it is not increasing. It looks to be about level and consistent with fatality rates for the delta strain in other countries where vaccines are available.

Last year, of all coronavirus infections, 3.2 per cent of Australians who got infected died, so last year the case fatally rate was 3.2 per cent. During this last Sydney outbreak, it's 0.4 per cent. We hear a lot about the delta strain being more transmissible—we should run for the hills, apparently. I do not question that. This is a much more transmissible variant and it is tough to deal with for state governments. But clearly, we should also let the Australian people know that the risk of dying from this strain now is much lower. It's not the strain. I just want to be careful. It is probably not the strain; we don't really know. The epidemiologists have not made conclusions yet about the exact fatality rates of the delta strain. But now what is happening, as the minister outlined, now that our most vulnerable are vaccinated—almost everybody in aged-care homes is vaccinated—we're not seeing the same fatal outcomes as we did last year. The delta strain is different because it's killing 90 per cent fewer people than the alpha and the original Wuhan strain did last year. With that difference, why are we deciding on the same costly policy decisions as we did last year? What we're doing is fighting the last war. It's a common mistake of all governments, that we always look back and go, 'Well, that worked last time; let's do it again.'

I was supportive of the lockdowns last year; they did work. They were the right thing to do at the time. But it's a different war now, and we're applying the same costly responses despite the information and facts on the ground being totally different. We're just ignoring them because we're going along with the sheep, and the public are wanting to obsess about coronavirus cases, not leading and saying, 'This is what's happening on the ground.' And we need to make sure we do not impose undue costs, especially on people who do not have the flexibility and option that those of us have—the luxury to work from home.

11:59 am

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to say I was a bit confused by Senator Canavan's contribution there. He, of course, talks about the obvious costs of lockdown, which we all acknowledge. I don't think any of us in this place don't want to get out of lockdowns as quickly as we can. I think all Australians would agree with that. He also talked about the effectiveness of the vaccine in reducing the death rates, yet I did not hear him say in here today, 'I encourage all Australians to go out and get vaccinated.' I didn't hear him say that at all in here today. But surely that is the logical thing we should be talking about. We should be using this platform and the privilege we have as senators to encourage all Australians to go out there and get their vaccines.

If Senator Canavan wants to talk about numbers, I would refer him to both the Doherty institute report this week and the Grattan Institute report this week, which clearly modelled in extensive detail the number of deaths we would likely see in this country, even with higher vaccination rates, across different age cohorts, even outside of the most vulnerable—tens of thousands of deaths, even at 70 to 80 per cent vaccination rates. Senator Canavan might not care about those people, but I do, the Greens do and I think most senators in here do.

It's fine to come in here and talk about lockdowns. We all agree we want to get out of them as quickly as possible. The pathway is before us: get as many Australians vaccinated as possible so we can move beyond this bloody mess that is COVID and try to get back to a semblance of normality in this country. The pathway is there. Let's all get on it and do what the Australian people want us to do: do our job and be leaders.

12:01 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] COVID has had a huge impact on people's lives and businesses, and we've had to pick up the pieces and learn as we're going along. It's been impacting on the Australian community for the last year and a half. It's cost us hundreds of billions of dollars from the government propping up businesses and those who have lost their jobs, and it's still impacting to this day. We've seen state border closures.

The Prime Minister got up a little over a week ago and said, 'Your circumstances in your state will not change or be any worse than they are today.' Less than 24 hours later, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk shut down the whole state. In the south-east corner, 11 local government authorities were shut down and people are in lockdown. You haven't got any cases of COVID in a lot of these areas. It is the south-east corner, mainly in Brisbane, that's been affected by it. The Prime Minister says, 'You will not be any worse off.' Well, that didn't even last 24 hours. I say that the Prime Minister has lost control of the borders here in Australia, allowing the premiers to shut down at their whim. It has been up to the taxpayers of this nation to prop up businesses, let alone what it's doing to people mentally and the impact it's having on jobs. Businesses are going under. You talk about COVID deaths. Yes, they are occurring, but we had more deaths from the flu in one year than we have had from COVID.

The government are talking about a vaccine passport, which concerns a lot of Australians. I've had a lot of calls with regard to this. People don't want to be controlled by governments and told whether they can hold a job. I have heard from people who have applied for government jobs and are denied the job if they haven't had a vaccination. The people of Australia are concerned about having vaccinations. The fact is that the government cannot give them any guarantee about the health repercussions the vaccinations will have on them in two or five years down the track. These vaccinations have been rushed into our community for fear of the spread of a pandemic. The government can't even indemnify the people who've had the vaccinations and have died from them, but we indemnify the companies who make the vaccines and the doctors who give the vaccination. But we don't care about the people.

People need assurances. I remember that when we did medicinal cannabis for production in Australia I asked the health department whether, in the interim, they would allow it to come in from Israel and Canada until we started our own production. The answer was: 'No. It's not tried and tested in Australia. We can't allow this into our community.' It had been in Israel for 20 years. It had been proven in that country that it did not have an impact on the people. We couldn't allow that into Australia, but we are giving to people of vaccine that has been out on the market for less than 12 months. We know of people who have been affected by their vaccination.

Minister, in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars that have gone out, propping up these businesses throughout the country, which is due to the premiers whim of a hat and a few cases up and down the country, at what point are you going to actually take control, rein in the premiers and stop them locking down the borders?

12:06 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll deal with Senator Hanson's question and then quickly try to deal with one or two other matters that she raised. The question in relation to state actions around lockdowns and border controls is a reminder that we operate in a federation, where the Commonwealth and the states and territories have constitutional functions and also constitutional and legal rights. The Commonwealth has granted no additional or new rights to the states or territories during the course of the COVID 19 pandemic. They've been exercising rights that they have always held under the Constitution of Australia. Of course, those rights are subject to testing through court or other legal processes, but the Commonwealth does not act as police or a watchdog on the states and territories. They have those rights. However, through the Doherty institute modelling and the work in having that presented to national cabinet, we have sought to provide information, education and understanding and to move towards agreement and consensus around the fact that under all circumstances that are currently known and understood, as the current vaccine rollout progresses, states and territories should be able to step away from widescale lockdowns and restrictions and the use of border restrictions and move progressively to much more targeted approaches, such as the testing, tracing and isolating regimes that are envisaged in the Doherty modelling.

I will deal very quickly with the vaccine matters that Senator Hanson raised and emphasise that the vaccines approved for use in Australia—the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine—have both gone through Therapeutic Goods Administration processes in Australia—the normal TGA processes, not expedited like they were in some parts of the world—to assure Australia of safety in relation to those vaccines. The efficacy of those vaccines is proving to be very strong: having two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is estimated to reduce mortality by 92 per cent among those who contract COVID-19 and having two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is estimated to reduce by 90 per cent mortality in the event of contracting COVID-19. Both are highly effective vaccines, both are safe and both are vaccines that Australians should embrace and use.

In relation to indemnities provided to vaccine manufacturers and to those who administer the vaccines, those indemnities are not about providing money to the company or to the doctor. They are about ensuring that in the very rare instances of there being an adverse reaction to the vaccine the government will provide support for individuals who face those rare consequences. Rather than individuals having to go and sue the doctor or the company, the government will make sure that assistance is there.

12:09 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Regarding the rights of the residents, section 117 of the Australian Constitution says:

A subject of the Queen, resident in any State, shall not be subject in any other State to any disability or discrimination which would not be equally applicable to him if he were a subject of the Queen resident in such other State.

Basically, how I interpret this is that people in one state are being treated totally differently to those in another. If you're in lockdown, you are being treated differently to those in other states. You state that, in the federation, the states can do what they want to do. It is the federal government's responsibility under the Constitution to allow individuals in the states freedom of movement in their states. But in another state they're being treated totally differently to any other person. You may want to respond to that. Also, these businesses have been paid a lot of money—hundreds of thousands of dollars—and they actually have been found to be not eligible for that funding. Why has the government not pursued them to refund that money? I assume that Harvey Norman has refused to actually pay back that money.

12:11 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

Neither you nor I is a constitutional lawyer, but my very quick interpretation of section 117—I'm not sure to what extent it's being tested by the courts—is that the Commonwealth would not impose a discrimination or disability on residents of one state that is not equally applicable across all states. The decisions in relation to lockdowns and restrictions are undertaken by independent states. They have their own sovereign rights. Their limitations, in terms of legislation, are only to the extent that the Commonwealth has power in certain areas.

I have answered a number of questions in relation to JobKeeper very similar to the one that you've asked. As I've outlined to others, JobKeeper was a highly effective program at the time. As I'm sure you would recall, at the time it was put in place there was enormous uncertainty as businesses right across Australia were being forced to close their doors in every state and territory. Businesses such as the one you mentioned were having those restrictions placed upon them, and JobKeeper was put in place to provide certainty so as to avoid the standing down of staff at the time and to provide support.

Thankfully, Australia's success meant that the economy recovered faster. Some of those restrictions were eased faster and, as a result, some of those businesses didn't suffer all of the worst consequences that had been envisaged at the time. At the time it avoided and saved going into the lockdowns. The government has subsequently, through the life of JobKeeper, tightened eligibility and requirements around its operation. Following JobKeeper, we now have an even more targeted program in place to provide economic support for Australians.

12:13 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Minister, you didn't answer my question. Yes, we paid it out to keep businesses open—those people who were actually stood down from their jobs. Harvey Norman wasn't one of them. Mr Harvey has actually boasted of the fact that his biggest year ever was during the COVID year. The fact that he was paid that is proof he had a huge amount of profit, as other companies have had. You have not pursued them for a refund to taxpayers of the money that they were overpaid. Will you be pursuing this money that's owed to taxpayers?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

The companies in question were not overpaid; they were eligible under the rules of the program as they operated at the time. We tightened those rules subsequently, as I have indicated, but they were not overpaid in the terms that you put, Senator Hanson. It is correct that a number of companies have voluntarily chosen to make repayments. We welcome that. We encourage it, where it's appropriate, from companies. We think it's the honourable thing to do.

12:14 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to follow up on a question from Senator Roberts. It was a good question about the cost of the measures under this bill. I can't imagine that Treasury has not modelled a maximum cost. I can't imagine that Treasury hasn't looked at the current lockdown statements by the New South Wales government, for example, and looked at the cost associated with that particular lockdown to at least give us a minimum. Can I confirm Treasury is actually keeping a tab on this, and what are those minimum and maximum costs?

Progress reported.