Senate debates

Monday, 9 August 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19, Prime Minister

3:05 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 Finance (Senator Birmingham) and the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services (Senator Colbeck) to questions without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) and Senators Chisholm, O'Neill and Gallagher today relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and to Mr Brian Houston.

For a long time, we've known we have a Prime Minister who doesn't take responsibility, who blames others, who's full of excuses and who's addicted to secrecy and allergic to the truth. We've seen it over and over again, in car park rorts, in sports rorts and in his disappearance to Hawaii in the middle of the bushfires. Sadly, we've even seen these character flaws in relation to some of the most serious criminal allegations possible, involving sexual offences against children.

For several years it has been a matter of public record that one of the Prime Minister's closest friends, his pastor and mentor Brian Houston, has been accused of a grave crime, that of concealing evidence of child sex offences committed by his father, former pastor Frank Houston. In October 2015, the royal commission into child sexual abuse found that Brian Houston had failed to report allegations of child sexual abuse by his father and facilitated a payment to the alleged victim that he failed to disclose to the church. Despite these allegations, which are from as long ago as October 2015, the Prime Minister has showered his friend, the alleged criminal Mr Houston, with praise. Just this year, at a conference in April, the Prime Minister publicly thanked Mr Houston for his ongoing personal support. But, along the way, the Prime Minister has been his usual evasive, shifty and forked-tongued self over his intervention to have Mr Houston invited to an official event at the White House under President Trump—the same Mr Houston who has now been charged with concealing child sexual offences and who has been given a travel exemption to leave the country by Mr Morrison's government. Who can forget the Prime Minister dodging questions for months on end about his intervention for Mr Houston? The quotes, over and over, at press conferences both in the United States and in Australia—'I don't comment on gossip'; 'I don't feel the need to comment on those things'; 'I don't comment on unsourced reports'; and 'that's a matter for the White House'—even inventing national security and international relations grounds to avoid scrutiny on this legitimate topic.

In total, the Prime Minister refused to answer questions about his intervention to assist Mr Houston to attend the event at the White House 18 times. In total, the Prime Minister, his ministers and government refused to answer questions about this legitimate topic a total of 43 times. And, of course, this was all before finally, grudgingly, the Prime Minister admitted that his office had asked for Mr Houston to be invited to the event at the White House—even though he knew of the allegations against Mr Houston, which have been public for at least five years.

Why can't this Prime Minister just tell the truth? It's because he is a slippery politician who never takes responsibility and never gives straight answers. Even today, the government's discomfort with the Prime Minister was plain to see in the answers from Senator Birmingham. When asked why the Prime Minister had refused to say 18 times whether he had intervened to assist Mr Houston, Senator Birmingham responded by saying, 'I have nothing to add.' He used the national security excuse: 'Not to my knowledge.' He didn't even have an answer to when the Prime Minister last communicated with Mr Houston—that's how much Senator Birmingham knows that this topic is something the government doesn't want to talk about.

Some in the government have tried to characterise these questions, both from Labor and from the media, as an attack on the Prime Minister's religion, and nothing could be further from the truth. What it's about is the character of a prime minister who sought to invite a man accused of concealing child sexual offences to an official function at the White House. What it's about is the character of a prime minister who denied it and who dodged it and ducked it for months. What it's about is the character of a prime minister who, when finally found out, dismissed the issues involving child sexual offences as 'not that big a deal'. What it's about is a prime minister who never takes responsibility, who never gives straight answers, who blames others, who is full of excuses, who refuses to answer legitimate questions and who covers up at every opportunity—about car park rorts, about sports rorts and even about his intervention to assist a man accused of concealing child sexual offences. Australians are fast working out this Prime Minister, and they don't like what they see. (Time expired)

3:10 pm

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

I rise to speak on this debate about answers to questions without notice regarding the vaccination rollout and the COVID-19 crisis. These are incredibly important issues that our country faces, and it is a pleasure to be able to stand here and talk about what the government is doing in this regard, because we find ourselves more than a year and a half into a global pandemic that has changed the world as we once knew it. In that time, every nation and every government has faced a constantly evolving set of challenges to keep citizens safe and, as far as possible, keep the economy moving forward. When I've previously spoken in the take note debate on these issues I have focused on the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis and the way the government has had to adapt to the crisis as it's changed in the way that it has impacted on our country and on our society, and individuals within it.

No government in the world would claim to have got everything right over the last couple of years, and I think that most likely includes every government in Australia, both state and federal. But we must keep looking forward and moving towards the goals that will prevent Australians from dying and being hospitalised from this awful illness and that will allow us to reopen our economy, our small businesses and our communities. That's why it is so important that the vaccine rollout continues to ramp up and be extended to more and more Australians who are eager to do their bit and get the jab. Certainly that is what we are seeing across the country at the moment, and that is something that I think we should all be proud of. More than 13½ million vaccine doses have now been administered, and we are well over the mark of hitting more than a million doses administered every week. I think that is great news, and I'm sure many Australians are happy to hear it. A total of 4½ million vaccinations were given in July, which is more than double that achieved in May, when 2.1 million doses were administered, which I think was most likely the last time I was in here taking note on this exact same topic.

I'm pleased to say that my home state of Tasmania is leading the way amongst Australian states in getting the population vaccinated, with over 50 per cent having had their first dose, and that was certainly a milestone that I think will be celebrated in Tasmania. It is clear from the daily numbers that are coming in that Australians continue to remain eager to get the jab, and those numbers of Australians who are fully vaccinated are going to continue to climb. When I speak to young Australians about getting the vaccine, they are enthused as to when the opportunity will arise for them, whether that's waiting for Pfizer or having conversations with their GP about the possibility of getting AstraZeneca. Young Australians certainly want to do our bit to help our country get through the COVID-19 crisis and see those restrictions start to come away and a return to normal. This is exactly what we want to see.

The national plan to transition Australia's COVID-19 response has been agreed in principle at national cabinet, and that is a really important part of charting the pathway forward for us to get back to situation normal. It shifts the focus from continued suppression of community transmission to postvaccination settings focused on prevention of serious illness and fatalities where the public health management of COVID-19 becomes consistent with that of other infectious diseases. The plan consists of four phases, with the success of one stage and movement into the next determined by meeting vaccine thresholds at both a state and a national level. This is based on scientific and economic modelling conducted for the COVID-19 Risk Analysis and Response Task Force.

We as a government are undertaking a clear, methodical and science based response to COVID-19. The way we get there—getting back to situation normal, being able to ease these social restrictions and seeing the days of border restrictions and lockdowns gone—is by continuing the rollout of the vaccine, and Australians continue to show their willingness to get vaccinated against the virus. They understand that getting vaccinated isn't just about protecting themselves; in fact, it's about protecting their family and their local community. This is the only way that our lives will return to some sense of normality where extended lockdowns are a thing of the past and where we don't need to worry about interstate borders being closed at a moment's notice. We know how tough it is right now for so many Australians who are enduring lockdowns, and I certainly hope to— (Time expired)

3:15 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I am joining the Senate today from lockdown in Cairns. We have just gone into a three-day lockdown which started yesterday, due to a case of the delta variant here in Cairns. So this community knows more than most about the ups and downs of lockdowns and how they affect the local economy, and now we are in our own lockdown dealing with these issues.

It was interesting to see the questions asked by opposition senators and answered by Minister Colbeck today, because what's clear is that we have turned around and we're headed down a path that we're not coming off any time soon. We asked questions, and we expected answers, about how many Australians were in hospital, how many Australians had died and how many Australians are in ICU at the moment, and it is incredibly disappointing, and it really shows an extreme level of incompetence, that the minister was not able to answer those questions without taking them on notice. We know that there are 62 Australians in ICU and 371 Australians otherwise in hospital with COVID-19 right now. So it is galling to see members of the government stand up and talk about how successful the vaccine rollout has been, how good a job they are doing and how Australians should be happy to not be somewhere else or in another country, because we have Australians who are dying and we have Australians who are in ICU or otherwise in hospital. We have cities around the country in lockdown, businesses closing and workers losing their jobs.

It reminds me of what the government was doing last year to prepare for this vaccine rollout. We know that Australia is 35th in the OECD when it comes to vaccinations. We rank behind countries like Iceland, Chile, the UK, France, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Colombia and Mexico—behind all of those countries and more. That's where Australia's vaccine rollout is up to. But what the government did last year was roll out an advertising campaign. I'm sure a lot of senators will remember hearing members of the government talk about their comeback and how Australia was on a path of comeback. You could almost play bingo every time you heard it in a question from the government. They spent $15 million on this advertising campaign to talk about what a great job the government were doing and how Australia was about to come back from COVID-19. Yet here we are, after $15 million of advertising in papers around the country, back in lockdowns because the government failed to do its job and actually deliver the vaccines that Australians need instead of advertising about how good it is. We know that many people in the 1b phase of vaccinations still are yet to receive a vaccine. We know that aged-care workers, disability workers and, yes, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have not received the vaccine, although they are in the 1b phase.

The government are happy to take credit but are never capable of taking responsibility or accepting the blame when they are in the wrong. They're happy to advertise throughout the country telling people how good a job they've done, but they couldn't put advertising in place to tell people when their vaccination appointment would be available, because they didn't have enough vaccines to supply the country.

Finally, I want to address some of the comments from government senators about Labor talking down the vaccine program. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet when you have a look at the Facebook pages of backbench senators and people in the other place what you see is antimask, antilockdown, antivax rhetoric from this government. If the government want to talk about people who are talking down this country and talking down vaccination, they need to start with their own backbench. Nobody is going to take this government seriously on vaccination until it accepts responsibility and makes sure that its own people are doing the right thing and delivering the right message. Australians expect so much more, yet this government is failing every single test.

3:20 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

( There really have been two key moments, at least in my lifetime, that have shaped the course of history—shaped our lives, our future lives and the way we live. The first, of course, was September 11 and the impact it had upon our society and the way we go about life. Importantly, we noticed it in the way that we travelled. I remember my very first plane ride. I was 18 when I first hopped on an aeroplane. It was from Perth to Adelaide. My friend said, 'You should try to go up the front, to the cockpit, and sit with the pilot.' So we arranged for that to happen, because in those days you could do that; you could go up to the front of the plane. After September 11, of course, they put in place the necessary security protocols to deal with it. When we go through airports now there's a big change.

This pandemic, the COVID pandemic, has been another significant, pivotal moment for the world. If we'd described some of the conditions we're now living under, dealing with lockdowns and massive changes to our freedoms and the way we go about our lives, no-one would have believed it. No-one could have imagined what we're dealing with, because these are unprecedented times. These are life-changing, life-altering times for us as a society and, indeed, as a global population.

These have been incredibly challenging times, and this government has had to work with them and adapt where necessary. One of the important things, once the vaccines had been pronounced successful, somewhere back around July last year, was that this government stepped up and negotiated with the providers of the vaccines that were known at the time to be viable and to have the potential to be rolled out across Australia. We dealt with it in the circumstances at that time, negotiating with the various providers of those vaccines, including one that potentially was going to be developed and made available within Australia in partnership with University of Queensland. We found, after thorough testing of it, that that vaccine wasn't going to be viable due to testing results for HIV, which were inaccurate. Of course, that stunted the ability to roll out that vaccine. But the government adapted and moved along with those necessary changes. That is the hallmark of this government. You've got to be able to react to circumstances, to changes, and adapt so that you can appropriately see the rollout get across the country. And we are seeing the rollout take up significant pace now.

I want to draw attention to what's happening in Western Australia right now. In Western Australia, my home state, arguably we've dealt with the COVID pandemic better than anywhere else in the country and anywhere else in the world. We've experienced very few instances where we've had to lockdown. While we have had a few lockdowns, we've ultimately been able to transgress through this COVID pandemic. We've been able to see businesses thriving. The resources sector is delivering great economic returns for the country.

I think, sadly—maybe it's because of the success and we are a victim of that success—the vaccine rollout in Western Australia is the lowest in the country. I'm not blaming Western Australians. I do understand it, because when I speak to family, friends and people in the community about taking up the vaccine, and taking the opportunity to go and get it, many of them are not rushing to do it because it's not front of mind for them. It's not necessarily in their face. I want to encourage Western Australians—we've led the way in many aspects of this COVID pandemic. Let's not lose the way in not making sure that we hit those vaccine targets before Christmas. We certainly don't want to see other states beat us to it. I know that Western Australians are parochial and they'll rise to the challenge. I want to encourage you to get out there and make a booking. It's easy to do. It's simple to do. You've got the opportunity to do it and I encourage you to do it— (Time expired)

3:26 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Wasn't that an uncomfortable, although not unfamiliar, silence we had from Senator Colbeck this afternoon in question time in failing to answer what can only be called very basic, very factual questions about the vaccination rollout, about the number of people who have been impacted by COVID this year, about the deaths from COVID? It is just staggering. Senator Chisolm was asking about the number of deaths of Australians since the start of the year. He was asking about the number of Australians in ICU, and in response: silence. Silence for moments and moments and moments as once again Minister Colbeck couldn't answer the most basic of factual questions on this pandemic. These are hardly gotcha questions. It's hardly an attempt at a gotcha moment. They're basic factual questions. But an astonishing silence has come to characterise his performance in question time on this topic, his performance in this place.

We've got almost half the country in lockdown, New South Wales entering its seventh week in lockdown, my state having been locked down, Cairns going into lockdown now. What's the pathway out? What's the pathway from this government out of this mess? We know we need to get to somewhere like 70 to 80 per cent vaccination across Australia if we're going to start to see the end of lockdowns. The way the Prime Minister is patting himself on the back you would think we were close to that. But let's look at some facts. As at 7 August only just over 22 per cent of the population over 16 had had both vaccines. In South Australia that's even lower. We're not anywhere near the vaccination rate we need to be at if we're going to see an end to these lockdowns, which more than half the country are experiencing, or have experienced in recent weeks, including in my home state of South Australia. Millions of Australians have been left exposed and vulnerable to the delta strain in particular because they haven't been able to access jabs in arms. Disproportionately, younger people with much lower rates of vaccination, are often out there doing essential work—it may not be characterised as essential for the purposes of their access to vaccination, but it is essential work because it has to continue. Many of those are young people who are vulnerable to this variant. They've already suffered disproportionately, because of this pandemic, and now more so. They are desperate to see their lives return to normal, but until they have both shots of a vaccination they cannot.

The government has bungled this. The government has bungled the vaccination rollout just as they bungled hotel quarantine. Minister Colbeck stood in parliament today, not only unable to answer the most basic factual questions but he had the audacity to accuse Labor of attempting to politicise the vaccination rollout. Nothing could be further from the truth. Labor has every right to ask you questions about this rollout. That's not politicising it; that's holding you to account. That's our job. And we have to, because you've bungled it.

If you want to talk about politicising the rollout and politicising vaccines, a little self-audit of the Facebook pages of your backbenchers wouldn't go astray, because if there's anyone politicising the vaccination rollout it is not Labor senators; it is people on your own side, on your own back bench, on their Facebook pages, in the public domain—that's where the problem of politicisation is. Rather than focus on us, you should be focused on fixing the bungled vaccine rollout, the bungled hotel quarantine system and the mess we are in at the moment, where far too many Australians are standing ready and waiting to get a vaccination but are unable to access one. That's where your focus should be. That's where your attention should be. When Labor senators ask you the most basic and factual questions about where that process is up to, you should be able to answer those when you come into question time. It's the most basic level of ministerial accountability. So perhaps be able to do that before you start attacking us.

Question agreed to.