Monday, 9 August 2021
Matters of Public Importance
I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 14 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the letter from Senator Urquhart proposing a matter of public importance was chosen:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Prime Minister's refusal to take responsibility and be accountable, more concerned about passing the buck than coming clean.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers for today's discussion. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
I congratulate my colleague Senator Urquhart here in the Senate, who is doing a sterling job as the whip—a lot more than is required normally. Senator Urquhart has really hit the nail on the head in terms of one of the big concerns that people in Australia should be worried about, and that is this Prime Minister's refusal to take responsibility and to be accountable, and his displaying day in and day out, in front of that microphone that he graces with his presence, that he is more concerned about passing the buck than actually coming clean with the Australian people. It's that real talk that Senator Urquhart, for the great state of Tasmania, understands. She talks to her constituents. She understands the pain and suffering that's going on in that community. Happily, they're not locked down in COVID reality as we are in Sydney, but this is how people are perceiving this Prime Minister: a man who is incapable of telling the truth, who wants to pass the buck and who can't come clean with the Australian people.
We've seen this time after time. The Prime Minister's inability to accept responsibility for any of the failures and policy stuff-ups that have littered his three years in office is now becoming extraordinary. It's a mounting list of permanent denials and failures, and there is self-aggrandisement for his version of reality, which just doesn't match what's happening to people. He was asked about the car park rorts. What did he say? He said, 'The minister makes that decision.' And, when he's asked about the top 20 marginal seats and a list that was in his office, he makes a comment like, 'Oh, I refer to my previous comments.' A man who's telling you the truth doesn't say, 'I refer to my previous comments.' He actually tells you: 'No, I didn't see that chart. I didn't see that colour coded chart.'
This Prime Minister cannot tell the truth and is obsessed with covering up his disgraceful tracks that reveal, for those who can see it—because we're up pretty close and personal here in the Labor Party; we can see it day after day—a constant failure to actually own up to the truth and to govern with integrity. His answer to sports rorts was, 'Oh, no, that didn't happen.' Then he takes Bridget McKenzie's scalp and sits her outside for a little while, but he has brought her back into the game. Everyone knows 'sports rorts' was a rort.
Mr Morrison's answer to the alleged rape allegations in the ministerial wing: 'I've got no idea about that.' He's at the microphone, spouting off what he wants to say, but the minute he's asked a hard question this is the man who runs. He runs and hides and has the support of his entire party, who continue to accept him as leader, despite the shameful behaviour that we see. He was asked about the bushfires. He was called on to respond for Australians, and what was his response? 'Mate,' as he says, trying to be your friend, 'I don't hold a hose.' There's a lot that mate doesn't hold. He doesn't hold his role in any high esteem. Otherwise, as the Prime Minister of Australia, he would not be running from the truth. He would not be engaged in permanent cover-up. We see with this Prime Minister a craven refusal to accept even the most minute criticism of his responsibility. It is absolutely shameful and it harms the spirit of this place. Australia needs a leader with integrity, now more than ever. Instead, we have this micro-middle manager of myth, who heads out on a Friday afternoon to do a press conference in what's often described by those who have been around this place a long time as the hour when you take out the trash, hoping that people don't notice what's going on.
I've already mentioned just a couple of the rorts—the sports rorts and the alleged rape in parliament. There have been car park rorts, and there's so much more deception. But today I really want to focus on the robodebt failure, which is a disgraceful cover-up that continues to this day. Everyone knows what robodebt is, but this government and its senior advisers and senior representatives of the department tried to convey that they didn't understand what robodebt was. Everybody knows what it is. It's where this government ripped off the Australian people, creating and sending them illegal invoices. That is what happened. It's been a failure from start to finish. They tried to use terms like 'legally insufficient' to cover up the morally unthinkable—that the government would serve illegal debts on its own people. They are still trying to hide from the reality of what they did and the cover-up and the stench of what robodebt was.
For people who are listening to this debate across the country, perhaps driving in a car or maybe tilling on a machine, or stuck at home, unable to move around because of the failures of this government to roll out the vaccine in time, I want you to understand what a public interest immunity claim is. That's when the government says: 'It's not in the public interest to know what's going on. We need to keep this secret.' One of the things they wanted to keep secret was everything to do with robodebt. We know from inquiries that they knew it was illegal at least three years before they pulled up on it—at least three years. We know that the public interest immunity claim was made by the then Minister for Government Services as far back at 24 January 2020. So when the government makes this claim it means, 'We don't have to answer, because it's not in your interests to know.' They reiterated that claim again on 29 July 2020, and the minister sent a letter to the committee saying that they would not release legal advice relating to this income compliance program—that's the nice name they have for robodebt—or on a very broad range of matters related to the PII claim. The letters went backwards and forwards to the committee, dated 13 August, in response to Senate orders. So the Senate itself required the same information. That was last year, October 2020. The minister not only decided that he was going to stick with the PII claim; he expanded the claim. Then the minister went on to assert that disclosing the content of any legal advice—to the Australian people, to the Senate or to the committee that was overseeing the matter—even the date that the legal advice was given, would have the potential to prejudice the Commonwealth's ability to defend litigation. The Senate has rejected their claims, but the government don't care. Mr Morrison doesn't care. He's on for the cover-up every single time, every single day. He cannot come clean with the truth; he cannot tell the truth to the Australian people.
They said that they couldn't do anything until the class action was settled. The class action was finally settled, and that means the government actually, finally, under the jurisdiction of the law in a court, had to admit that the they had illegally sent debts to Australian people. The government acted illegally. They settled it. Some people got their money back, but lives have been lost in the middle of this and they're never coming back. And all of this terrible action by this government was covered up and continues to be covered up to this day.
The committee overseeing robodebt has tabled three interim reports on its inquiry. In two of those reports, tabled in February and September, they rejected the claims that the material should be withheld from the Australian people and recommended that the Senate itself order the government to produce the information either to the Senate or to the committee. The committee has also recommended that the Senate order the Minister representing the Minister for Government Services to attend the Senate and make an explanation of why the government continues to rely on the public interest immunity claim, which has been rejected by the Senate. The Senate adopted that recommendation on 11 February and 2 September 2020, and on 6 October the minister did come in and provide an explanation of why the government thought the cover-up was such a good idea.
I can tell you that, as of today, the robodebt black box still continues. The court case is settled. There is no reason for a PII to continue. The government needs to come clean, bring the information to the Senate as requested and stop disregarding the Senate, which oversees the government for the people of Australia. The public interest immunity claim is just another tool of cover-up by this government, which, as Senator Urquhart so wisely said, is more concerned about passing the buck than coming clean. (Time expired)
This matter of public importance is typical Labor: it's all about playing the man and not the facts. I just want to touch on Senator O'Neill's comments about the bushfires. That was one of the most egregious displays of political partisanism I've ever seen. State governments are responsible for national parks, they're responsible for fire and emergency services, and they're responsible for zoning. And can I add that in 2009, when 180 people died in Victoria on Black Saturday, you didn't see the federal coalition, who was in opposition at the time, blaming Kevin Rudd for the bushfires, because it was a state issue—all the things that deal with bushfires. Obviously these things will happen in Australia at the worst of times, when you have a dry summer, but Senator O'Neill makes a partisan political point out of this when the responsibility lies with the state governments.
Anyone who is from the bush—and I do a lot of mountain biking, hiking and all that sort of stuff through national parks—can see the undergrowth rise. In my home state of Queensland, the Queensland state government is banning beekeepers from keeping their bees in national parks. You might say: 'Big deal. What's that got to do with the management of national parks?' It's because those beekeepers keep the fire trails open. There are a lot of issues. It's well known that state governments are allowing houses to be built in flood and fire zones and it's well known that there have been cuts across all state governments. I'm not picking on sides here in terms of parties. There's been a cut to spending on fire and emergency services, especially when you consider the amount of residential development that's going on near state forests. I happen to live in a part of Brisbane where I have an open block, an acreage, but I drive back into town and I think to myself: 'If a match ever goes off here, there are those houses. I don't know why they're allowed to be there.' It's funny.
The other thing I want to pick up Senator O'Neill on is the public interest immunity point, because that's exactly what the Auditor-General said to me last week in replies to questions on notice when I asked for documentation of minutes of meetings that the Auditor-General had with staff in the department of infrastructure over the Leppington Triangle purchase. Funnily enough, he's claimed public interest immunity. He doesn't want to give me the documentation, which is a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black. At the end of the day, he's criticised the Morrison government for not keeping documentation, but he himself doesn't want to give the documentation.
Isn't an audit all about transparency? So why won't the Auditor-General come clean on his own record keeping? I've also put that question to him over the car parks. I'm looking forward to seeing if he's got any documentation he wants to hand over on that. As a senator, I sit in a house of review; a bureaucrat shouldn't be trying to cover up documentation if it exists. There's a question as to whether it exists at all. Some people might think that he didn't interview anyone from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications before he referred it to the police, given that he didn't really refer to any meetings in his audit report, nor did he refer to any meetings with the Australian Government Solicitor about the due diligence process. I've read those papers, which were released last week, and it was mentioned a number of times that there had been meetings with the Australian Government Solicitor. Don't you think the Auditor-General would have spoken with the Australian Government Solicitor? It appears that he didn't.
There's a real question of negligence when it comes to this Auditor-General. As someone who's got almost 30 years in finance, let me tell you that the audit work that he's done on the value of the Leppington Triangle was the worst work I've ever seen. Blind Freddie, or anyone who knows their accounting standards—AASB 13, paragraphs 29 to 31—knows that you have to value land at best use, regardless of intent. If you take in the valuation standards, they say you've got to consider future potential value. This stuff isn't difficult to understand.
I'll get onto the issue of the day, which is COVID. We hear that somehow the Morrison government is passing the buck. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I've got in front of me the National Partnership on COVID-19 Response, which was agreed to at the start of the COVID outbreak. On page 4, paragraph 20(a), 'Financial Arrangements', it says that the Commonwealth has agreed to: 'an upfront advanced payment of $100 million to the states to be paid on a population share basis.' Straightaway the federal government has put in $100 million to state health. On top of that, for hospital service payments, they have agreed:
The Commonwealth will provide a 50 per cent contribution for costs incurred by States, through monthly payments, for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 including suspected cases.
Given that health isn't the responsibility of the federal government—and we're constantly reminded by Labor that quarantine and vaccination isn't the responsibility of state governments—it's amazing how the states and Labor never want to acknowledge the contribution made by the federal government in helping them deal with COVID. It would be nice to get a little bit of recognition for a change from the Labor Party, rather than them playing partisan politics when we should all be working together on this. There is a gross hypocrisy if you compare the treatment of the COVID pandemic to the treatment of the swine flu pandemic in 2009. Nicola Roxon, the then health minister, was basically told by the experts to shut the country down. She ignored that advice; she said we can't shut the country down. You didn't see the coalition trying to stir up hysteria and terrify everyone for the sake of making a few political points.
I'll finish up on the overarching arrangements in the COAG agreement for state public health payments:
The Commonwealth will provide a 50 per cent contribution for costs incurred by States, through monthly payments, for other COVID-19 activity undertaken by State public health systems for the management of the outbreak.
So the Commonwealth has been making an enormous contribution to the financial costs of dealing with COVID-19, which is a state responsibility. Not only do we have a COVID crisis in this country; we have a health crisis. If you look at the health funding that's been given to state governments since the coalition came to power in 2013, it has increased from $13 billion to $26 billion. It has increased by 100 per cent in eight years. That is double-digit growth, year on year. Despite that, the state governments are saying they need more time to get their hospital systems up to speed et cetera.
You know what? It's interesting—if you go and look at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures, the decline in the number of beds per thousand people since 1980 has been shocking. In 1980 there were 6.4 beds per 1,000 people. By 2017-18, which is the last year available at the moment, it is down to 3.6 beds. In other words, if you assume that the population of Australia has increased by a little bit over double since 1980, and the number of beds has almost halved—it's down by about 43 per cent—state governments have hardly added any beds to the hospital system and the health system since 1980. This is gross underfunding by state governments.
I'll point out another thing about Toowoomba and this whole Wellcamp issue. I know Toowoomba quite well, having gone to school there and being from Chinchilla. The Toowoomba base hospital is in dire need of a $2 million upgrade. That's why we couldn't put a quarantine centre there, because there wasn't a tier 1 hospital. Now, the good people of Toowoomba deserve a tier 1 hospital, but of course the Queensland state Labor government—they've been in power for the best part of 30 years—have failed to put that $2 million into the upkeep of the Toowoomba general base hospital.
And it doesn't end there. We've got hospital ramping increasing big time. We just read in the Courier-Mail last night how a lady had to wait nine hours for an ambulance.
A government senator: Nine hours!
Nine hours. And I can relate to that, because, when my mum had a stroke in Chinchilla—after having been a nurse herself for 40 years—it took 18 hours to get her to Brisbane, 280 kilometres away.
Then there's the other issue of the closure of maternity wards. Forty maternity wards have closed in Queensland in the last 30 years under the Labor government. This is the party that claims to protect women, and yet they're shutting down maternity wards in the regions faster than the funding. But a lot of these towns are a lot bigger than they used to be.
I will finish by talking on vaccines. I've got an article here. It says the World Health Organization came out in September last year and said that they didn't expect vaccines to be available by mid-2021. They said that phase 3 of the testing must take longer because we need to see how truly protective the vaccine is and we need to see how safe it is. Once Joe Biden was elected, suddenly the vaccines were available. But the point of the matter is: with Pfizer, it's an mRNA vaccine—it is new technology. There haven't been the manufacturing hubs available to export this. Interestingly enough, I've got another article from Reuters here: 'Pfizer begins exporting US-made COVID vaccine to Mexico'—that was 29 April. In other words, the US didn't even start exporting Pfizer vaccines until late April this year, and somehow those opposite us are running around with unfounded allegations made by Norman Swan that somehow we were going to have 40 million available to us at the start of this year. How do these guys make this stuff up? So if anyone's got— (Time expired)
[by video link] What is the one job that is expected of the Prime Minister of a country? It's to be a leader, to make decisions for the good of the public and the planet and to be accountable for them—when they bring glory but also when they are bad decisions. Mr Morrison's track record is marred with not just bad decision after bad decision but, like Teflon, any notion of responsibility just slides off his back. Shirking responsibility has become an art form for this spin-over-substance Prime Minister.
We are in the seventh week of a COVID lockdown that has brought New South Wales to a standstill, to its knees. It is causing havoc in people's lives and for their livelihoods. Communities are under immense financial and health stress. They are anxious and traumatised at being separated from families due to border closures. All this because the Prime Minister of this country didn't get his act together on vaccine supply, denied the urgency of vaccination and kept giving mixed messages to the public and then couldn't even take responsibility for his botch-up and apologise properly. What arrogance!
Dodging responsibility, though, is nothing new for Mr Morrison. Who can forget his Hawaiian holiday in the middle of the worst climate induced bushfires we have experienced? And, when questioned about it, he told us: 'I don't hold a hose, mate, and I don't sit in the control room.' Utterly shameful!
And what about the sports rorts saga, where the Prime Minister consistently denied having any involvement and kept passing the buck, even after evidence of his office's involvement was revealed? Mr Morrison has not only refused the calls from tens of thousands for an independent inquiry into allegations of sexual assault but has appointed the minister against whom the allegations were made Leader of the House. Complete and utter bankruptcy! Let's be honest: Scott Morrison is not a leader, nor fit to be Prime Minister. (Time expired)
[by video link] I have been taken aback by some of the comments from government ministers and also government senators today during this MPI. It is clear that the government wants to do anything other than take responsibility for the rorting of programs, for bad administration. It shows a lack of responsibility but also a lack of respect for the Australian people and public funding. As we've seen, they have tried today to make personal attacks on the Auditor-General. We've also seen them making false comparisons between election commitments and the spending of public money. We've seen the Prime Minister and ministers refusing to answer questions about this latest car park rorts scandal. We've had ministers running away from press conferences before answering questions, and we've had the Prime Minister saying that Australians are the winners from his rorting behaviour. What we know is that this latest commuter car park scandal demonstrates that the government and the Prime Minister really couldn't care less about accountability and responsibility.
We know that the Auditor-General's report showed that 87 per cent of funded projects went to coalition held or targeted electorates. We know that none of the 47 project sites selected were proposed by the department. We know that a project selection process that included canvassing projects with Liberal MPs, duty senators and candidates was the way that the government actually selected these sites, and we know that 10 commuter car parks were not even attached to a train station. We know that at least one of the projects was ineligible for funding and that only two of the car parks have actually been completed. A $660 million taxpayer funded program to win inner-city Liberal targeted seats at the last election is what we have on our hands, and the Australian public knows this. They understand it and they are disappointed, and they are giving up on this government delivering anything other than slush funds, slogans and excuses.
The other thing that strikes me when it comes to this car park scandal, this latest scandal following on from sports rorts—and I'm sure it won't be the last one that we see—is the brazenness of the government's delivery of this project. We know that the ANAO report into administration of commuter car park projects said that the Prime Minister approved 27 urban car parks in one day and that that was eight days after the Commuter Car Park Fund was established in the budget. They established the program, and then eight days later the Prime Minister himself approved 27 urban car park projects in one day. That's great for those inner-city Liberal seats, but compare that to the funding that we're still waiting for in regional Queensland.
On 20 July 2019 the same minister, Minister Tudge, who is responsible for the commuter car park program, told people in Townsville that they had secured the Haughton pipeline funding—$195 million. That was 751 days ago. On 4 August 2020 the local member told Townsville that the Townsville City Deal money would be spent on local projects. That was 370 days ago. The Prime Minister was able to deliver these car park projects and sign off on these projects within eight days of the fund being established, but people in Townsville are still waiting for at least $145 million of funding to be announced as projects. They still don't know where that funding will go or which projects will get that funding, and not a single dollar of that money has been spent. When it comes to buying votes in Liberal inner-city seats the Prime Minister is quick to act, but when it comes to delivering on the promises that he has made to people in regional Queensland, people who gave him their votes, he's a lot slower to act.
This government is being found out as a government that is all about winning votes, delivering announcements but not actually delivering on accountability— (Time expired)
First, can I ask: would it actually be possible for someone to put forward an MPI which isn't saturated in cliches? There are only 19 words in this MPI and it's got two cliches—two cliches in 19 words. That takes some talent. It's more concerned about passing the buck than coming clean. Is it actually possible to draft something that's clear, simple and direct, that has good grammar and that people can look at and say, 'Yes, I know what that means'? This has all the hallmarks—
Senator Chisholm interjecting—
I'll give you some cliches, Senator Chisholm. It's a dog's breakfast. It's a mare's nest. I can think of some other cliches which are probably not parliamentary. I look at it and think: where is the substance? Is it missing something? There's a comma there between 'accountable' and 'more'. It's as if maybe there were meant to be some words there. Maybe those on the other side couldn't decide whether they wanted to talk about car parks, whether they wanted to talk about robodebt, whether they wanted to talk about the member for Pearce or whether they wanted to talk about something else. It's all froth, to use another cliche. There's no substance in this thing, absolutely no substance in it whatsoever. It's bereft of substance.
If I went down the main street of the area in which I'm located, in Springfield, and I asked, 'What do you think is a matter of public importance?' I don't think I would come across anyone who would say that this nonsense is a matter of public interest or public importance. It's quite the contrary. It's the sort of nonsense which gives all of us in this place a bad name—the sort of cliched nonsense that gives everyone involved in politics a bad name, and that is unfortunate. It looks like a group drafting exercise gone wrong. I'm not sure if anyone is going to come clean as to who actually drafted this. I'm not sure whether they're going to take responsibility or they're going to pass the buck. It's a good example of why Thomas Jefferson, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, was sitting in a room by himself, as opposed to being engaged in a group drafting competition.
Let's go to the substance of the resolution. It was interesting to hear all the different subjects that have been raised during the course of the debate, none of which appear in the MPI or were defined in the MPI. Car parks aren't mentioned in the MPI. The member for Pearce isn't mentioned in the MPI. Certainly the pipeline up at Townsville is not mentioned in the MPI. Of all the matters the debate has traversed in relation to this matter, none of them are actually mentioned in the text of the MPI.
Let's go to the substance, with respect to what substance there is. I think my colleague Senator Rennick hit the nail on the head—to use another cliche—that is, that this is Labor simply playing the man and not the ball, to use another cliche again. Let's see how many cliches Senator Scarr can get in his speech! You got two cliches in 19 words. Let's see how many I can get in my speech in the next six and a half minutes. There's a competition for us!
This is all about the opposition tipping a bucket—there's another cliche—in terms of their political discourse, rather than tackling the substance of the matter. It's all froth. I'll give you a quote, Mr Acting Deputy President, and you tell me—you probably can't tell me from the chair, but you might be able to tell me afterwards—whether or not this quote indicates someone who is not taking responsibility. I hope Australia is listening. Here is a quote from our Prime Minister, Australia's Prime Minister:
I take responsibility for the early setbacks in our vaccination program. I also take responsibility for getting them fixed and that we are now matching world's best rates, with more than a million doses every week.
'I take responsibility.' How can you say our Prime Minister doesn't take responsibility? There's a quote: 'I take responsibility.' How is that someone not taking responsibility? 'I take responsibility.' I just don't get it. I don't get it.
In terms of being held accountable, the Prime Minister fronts up every day this parliament is in session. He turns up at question time and gets stones thrown at him—there's another cliche, or maybe it's a metaphor—by those opposite. Bricks are thrown at him from the sidelines, and he answers. He provides answers on the record which are broadcast to the Australian people. How is that someone not being responsible and accountable? I just don't get it. If you've got a prime minister—or anyone—who says, 'I take responsibility,' then they've taken responsibility. Hold them accountable, sure, but don't say that they haven't taken responsibility when they clearly have taken responsibility, because that's disingenuous and it misrepresents the facts of the matter. Those opposite should deal with the facts of the matter as opposed to dealing with some sort of fictional set of circumstances which don't apply.
The Prime Minister has taken responsibility. He can also take responsibility for the fact that this country has, based on projections, saved more than 30,000 lives during this pandemic. He can also take responsibility for the fact that, through JobKeeper, over three million Australians were assisted through the pandemic. He can also take responsibility for the fact that one million Australians were back in work after the JobKeeper program was lifted. He can also take responsibility for the hundreds of millions of dollars of support which the federal government is providing to people in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and, indeed, all jurisdictions hit by the lockdowns which are occurring.
The Prime Minister does take responsibility. He should take responsibility and it's important that he does so, but don't act as if our Prime Minister is not taking responsibility when the clear evidence and his direct quotes are to the contrary. Let's bear in mind that throughout this pandemic the Prime Minister has taken the best technical and expert advice that has been available. He has taken the best technical and scientific advice that has been available, including with respect to the vaccine rollout program—as he should. He obtains the advice from the best sources of that advice, he considers it and then he acts upon it. And then things can come. Things can arise. Circumstances change, such as the delta variant, and then you have to respond to the changed circumstances. Those opposite don't have to respond to changing circumstances—they're always the same. In the two years and one month that I've been in this place it has always been the same—the carping negativity. It doesn't change. The circumstances change but the carping negativity never changes. It never changes. They're just throwing rocks and bricks from the sidelines, and the Australian people see that.
You could have come into this place with a well-drafted MPI and actually spoken about a matter of substance, a matter that was truly a matter of public concern. But, no, you've forgone that opportunity, and it's all about base politics saturated in cliches. What a great shame. You could have come into this place and talked about the geopolitical situation the world is facing. You could have come into this place and talked about the mental health issues this country is facing and the best way for us to do things such as address the youth suicide rate in the Somerset Regional Council. Lowood has one of the highest youth suicide rates in this country—it's an absolute disgrace. How do we address that? How do we get all the agencies working together? How do we get the public sector agencies, the non-government organisations and our whole community mobilised to address the suicide rate in places like Lowood? That's something which is of concern to the Australian public.
Infrastructure spending is something that is of concern to the Australian public. We in Queensland—and Senator Roberts will know—are all sitting there waiting for the Queensland government to actually build some effective infrastructure apart from the Cross River Rail tunnel, but all their eggs are in the same basket—there's another cliche. About three or four electorates in the whole of Brisbane are going to get trains that will be maybe 10 minutes earlier because of the cross-river tunnel. What about the rest of Queensland? That's a matter of public importance. Why is it that my home state of Queensland has the lowest infrastructure spending per capita of any state in Australia? There's a matter of public importance, Senator Chisholm. Do you know why? Because they're broke. They managed to go through the biggest mining boom the world has ever seen and end up going backwards in terms of debt. It's an absolute disgrace. They have too many media and public-relations flunkies in the Premier's department and not enough people with picks and shovels actually building things in our home state.
Let's talk about Paradise Dam. That's a matter of public importance. Instead of building a dam they're tearing down Paradise Dam. That's a matter of public importance to the people of Queensland. Any number of matters of public importance are all ignored by Labor. (Time expired)
Yes, I'm concerned with the Prime Minister's refusal—and I'm even more concerned with our federal parliament's refusal—to take responsibility and be accountable. I'm more concerned about federal parliament passing the buck and not coming clean. For almost eight decades our parliament has been the plaything of three parties: Labor, Liberal and the Nationals. COVID exposed for all to see that Australia's manufacturing has been gutted and our independence lost. Despite our mineral and agricultural wealth, we're now dependent on other nations. Subsequent mismanagement of COVID is confirming parliament's shoddy governance.
I'll read a Queensland constituent's comment that she directed to our state's Labor government: 'You told us to stay home for two weeks to flatten the curve. We did as you asked, and 18 months later we're still locked in our homes. You kept brothels open yet closed churches. You tell us you're following the science yet force arbitrary restrictions with zero basis in science. You said, "We're all in this together," as we lost our jobs and you got pay rises. You made us quarantine in small hotel rooms while making special rules for Hollywood stars. You keep Australian citizens from returning home while allowing Caitlyn Jenner into the country to film Big Brother. You refuse individuals to visit relatives interstate yet give exemptions to an entire football squad. You tell us masks are unsafe then punish people who won't wear masks. You tell us AstraZeneca is unsafe for under-60s then only unsafe for under-50s, and now you urge us all to get it, sneering at us if we hesitate to follow your ever-changing advice. Your Chief Health Officer says no-one under 40 should be injected with it. You said we can't go overseas but that you simply must go overseas to pitch the Olympics. You told us that the Black Lives Matter march was safe yet say a protest for freedom is a superspreader. Is it any wonder millions of people question everything you say and have reached breaking point?'
Enough is enough. We have one flag. We are one community. We are one nation. To serve our flag, communities and nation, federal parliament needs to change.
Well, we have here today a prime minister who won't take responsibility for anything, whether it's bushfires, whether it's sports rorts, whether it's car park rorts or whether it's the COVID quarantine situation or the rollout of the vaccines. He just will not take responsibility for any of those matters which fit fairly and squarely at his feet.
With the car parks rorting, we know the spreadsheets were in his office on the eve of the election. It was Mr Morrison, our Prime Minister, who signed off on those commuter car parks—a fund, as part of the Urban Congestion Fund, that had $4.8 billion in it to be rorted across a handful of Liberal marginal electorates. Now, if that isn't rorting on a grand scale, on an industrial scale, I don't know what is—seriously. Yet they try to shift the blame. We saw the former minister run away from media questions last week and then not answer them following that, saying he'd already answered them, when all we saw was his back as he ran quickly away from the media, who were asking the decent questions.
We've now got to the point where the Australian public has no confidence at all in what Mr Morrison or indeed his government can deliver, or when something's truthful and when it isn't. That's the appalling situation we've now got to, because there are so many rorts going on. And if it isn't rorts, it's complete bungling of the vaccine—it's hardly a rollout; it's so slow. A young friend of mine in New South Wales, where apparently we're trying to maximise doses and we're moving them around New South Wales to year 12 students as I speak, was told he couldn't get AstraZeneca until October. He's in a lockdown area and has been in lockdown for weeks. Yet we're told by the Minister for Health Aged Care and by Senator Colbeck, who represents the health minister in the Senate, that actually millions of doses are being made in Australia each week. Well, why is it that my young friend in New South Wales was told he couldn't get a dose until October? And that was because he sat on the phone for two days, going to doctor's surgery after doctor's surgery after doctor's surgery. Thankfully he's now picked up a clinic that has a few spare doses, but no thanks to Mr Morrison and his vaccine—no thanks to Mr Morrison at all.
What did we see today in this place? Labor asked questions about what is happening in ICUs and, sadly, how many people have lost their lives this year. We had the minister in this place who represents the health minister completely unable to answer those questions. I don't know anyone else who fails to do their job like this. As a long-term union official, in my view, he should have got the sack a very long time ago. Yet Senator Colbeck just keeps surviving. What is going on? The Prime Minister needs to take responsibility for what we saw today from Senator Colbeck—that silence again. How the bloke isn't embarrassed as the clock ticks down and he hasn't got the answers is beyond my comprehension. He's got 'health' in his ministerial title. I would have thought it would be an honour to be a minister in this government and to do your job properly and to have the information at hand. But, no. And Mr Morrison refuses to take responsibility for that.
This car park rort is now on an industrial scale—seriously. We've had a lot of them ready for approval apparently, and yet only two have been delivered. What a disgrace. But of course we know that the Prime Minister's got form on saying one thing when actually something else is happening. He said, 'I don't hold a hose, mate,' during the bushfires, when he wasn't even here. His office completely misrepresented the truth when they refused to say to the Australian public that he was actually in Hawaii on holidays, putting his feet up, while Australia burned. We've seen the sports rorts affair, and now we've got the car park rort. Both of those, according to the Audit Office, land fairly and squarely at Mr Morrison's feet. And, yet, he still denies any responsibility.
Remember when Mr Morrison said all Australians stranded overseas would be home by Christmas? He didn't mean Christmas this year; he meant Christmas last year. And, yet, we've got thousands of Australians stranded overseas. We've got capacity at Howard Springs and yet the Prime Minister refuses to take responsibility for quarantine, which is absolutely his responsibility.
Who could forget when Mr Morrison told Australians, over and over again: 'Don't you worry. Australia's at the front of the queue when it comes to vaccines.' What did we find? We found we were at the absolute end. We were at the bottom of the queue. How long did Mr Morrison know that before he was forced to actually tell Australians the truth? How long did he know it? Weeks? Months? Did he always know that we were never at the front of the queue? Mr Morrison is never straight with the Australian people, and his inability to take responsibility for these mistakes and mistruths is, quite frankly, dangerous. It really is dangerous.
Going back to the car park rorts and the 20 marginal electorates, it's another day, another spreadsheet and another minister denying responsibility. This time it stops right at the feet of the Prime Minister. No matter how those on the other side try to spin this, the ANAO report makes it very clear that, if it wasn't Mr Tudge when he was the minister; it clearly was Mr Morrison. This is not the Labor Party saying this about it; this is actually the independent ANAO making these statements about where those car park rorts came from. He tries to shift the blame on that or just point-blank refuses to answer the questions.
What about all of those backflips we've seen? Just days before New South Wales went into lockdown, Mr Morrison was again out claiming the gold standard in New South Wales and saying, 'The Premier in New South Wales doesn't rush to lock down.' But when New South Wales went into lockdown—and what's happening there's an awful state of affairs; it's really shocking—suddenly the Prime Minister did a complete backflip and was in favour of lockdowns and thought lockdowns were the best thing.
What about when he took the Western Australian government to court, backing Clive Palmer over millions of Western Australians—and I was one of them—who were very happy to have our borders closed? Did we get to the truth of that? Finally—and it didn't come from Mr Morrison—it came from the Attorney-General in Western Australia, John Quigley. He belled the cat when he brought out the documents that actually showed it was Mr Porter, the member for Pearce, who was absolutely backing in Clive Palmer's decision to challenge our border closure, taking us to the High Court and wasting Western Australian taxpayers' money and time. Our borders quite clearly are our business.
Suddenly we saw that other backflip and heard the Prime Minister say, 'First I thought that we should challenge the border closures and then I changed my mind.' He should get the facts and tell the truth to the Australian people right at the start. That has certainly damaged Mr Porter, never mind what else has been going on. Backing Clive Palmer on our border closures has well and truly damaged Mr Porter in the federal seat of Pearce. On and on it goes. If Mr Morrison can't be honest then it's time he left. (Time expired)
Wasn't that an interesting meander that demonstrated remarkably little understanding of the way that our federation works or indeed the interests that all Australians, including the federal government, might have in section 92 of the Constitution, which provides, among other things, that intercourse between the states should be absolutely free? For those who don't read the Constitution for fun, that means the movement of people and goods around this country should be absolutely free. To suggest that that's an indulgence that only a Western Australian is able to engage in is itself a kind of novel interpretation of the way one might think about our nation's founding document.
In any event there's no reason why our Prime Minister should be accused of just about any of the things in the speeches from those opposite. In fact, I think this is a prime opportunity to spend some time thinking about the achievements of this government in what has been a really difficult time. COVID has created some enormous hardships for many Australians, and I'm thinking of the Queenslanders who have been in lockdown for the last week—and our family was just one of many who went through that experience—the Sydneysiders and Victorians who are in a similar situation. It's an enormous hardship to be locked down, particularly for those who don't get paid on the times they don't go to work.
The actions of this government have been necessary to keep our economy alive through this time. It is opportune to reflect on the way Australia's health and economic responses have quite literally been world-leading. We have managed to avoid the kinds of COVID-19 death rates that have been seen in the UK and in the USA. In terms of the number of people who have passed away, those rates have been 50 times that experienced here in Australia. At the start of the pandemic the coalition introduced the largest economic support measure in Australian history—JobKeeper, which helped to keep 3.8 million Australians in a job. That has meant our economic performance has been vastly more resilient than that of any of the other OECD economies that have gone through this experience. We are—this is quite significant—the first advanced economy to have more people employed in the post-COVID period than there were pre COVID. Over 74,000 more Australians were in work in March 2021 compared to March 2020. That's not to take away from the fact that recent disruptions will, no doubt, have their impact, but it shows the way that this government has done what's necessary to support Australians through the economic hardship of lockdowns and we continue to do that.
There are a range of new measures in place designed to help get Australians through this period. Our supports have never been set and forget in the way that those opposite might think. The new level of the COVID disaster payments and the income support payment recognise the significant impact that the delta strain has had on communities, businesses and working people. The COVID disaster payments recognise that. We've already processed more than 1.4 million of those, paying out more than $1.33 billion to working people in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. There's an income support payment. All of this is there to help get us through the plan we are implementing to vaccinate all Australians in this country who want a vaccination. We're insistent on this being voluntary. We don't forcefully vaccinate people in this country, but we encourage it and we think it is the responsible thing for people who are in the right health condition to do. We're going to encourage people to do that and to do it in the nation's interest.
I'm going to depart from what I was going to say just to remind the assistant to the Attorney that you should not come into this place and cast doubt as to the judgement of the High Court. I will read it to you just so you are fully aware. The court found, 'On their proper construction sections 56 and 67 of the Emergency Management Act 2005 WA, in the application to an emergency constituted by the occurrence of a hazard in the nature of a plague or an epidemic, complied with the constitutional limitations of section 92 of the Constitution in each of its limbs.' I think you, as the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, should properly uphold the ruling of the High Court.
Now I will go to the fact that—back on task—the Prime Minister has been, sadly, found wanting as a national leader in response to this particular pandemic. His record of disaster is clear. Notably his unforgivable dereliction of duty during the 2019-20 bushfires. And now his disastrous failures in the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with regard to international quarantine and vaccination rollout.
We did do well in the initial stages of the pandemic because he followed medical advice. But as time went on he couldn't help but play politics. He fuelled the fires of criticism against Victoria's tough lockdown last year, whilst disastrously neglecting the establishment of a purpose-built quarantine facility. The Prime Minister saw vaccine procurement and distribution as a political opportunity for himself and his government. But in doing so he fatally miscalculated the risk management, putting all of his eggs in one AstraZeneca basket. Our nation is now paying a heavy very price for that. At every turn the Prime Minister has gone to extreme lengths to conceal his government's COVID-19 decision-making, wrapped in cabinet secrecy, commercial-in-confidence clauses and even national security claims.
We saw the absurdity of national cabinet secrecy demolished last week by the Federal Court, but the Prime Minister has arrogantly declared he will continue on as before and that is most inappropriate. He's turned out to be one of the worst Australian Prime Ministers that we've had. When things go wrong it is always somebody else's fault. His avoidance of scrutiny is pathological. He never accepts responsibility. He's a dud. He's mean-spirited. He blame-shifts. He lacks empathy. He is responsible for much of the economic and social disaster that has befallen much of our country. I hope the Australian voters recall exactly what's happened throughout his reign.
[by video link] This government and the Prime Minister have got form when it comes to being dodgy. I want to focus on rorts. We've had sports rorts. We've had the female facilities program, building swimming pools in North Sydney. We've had the community development grants going to favoured seats. Now we've got 'pork and ride'—car park corruption. I'm hoping that tomorrow the Senate is going to support my motion to set up an inquiry into the Urban Congestion Fund, including the car park rorts, because we need to get to the bottom of these murky, rotten, multilayered rorts.
The first layer of corruption with pork and ride is that it's very clear from sensible transport planning that building car parks at railway stations is a lousy way of tackling congestion. Good transport planning says that the only way to tackle congestion—to get folks off the road—is by improving and expanding public transport services, including improving bus services to stations, and improving active transport, including improving walking and cycling paths.
Then we've got the second layer of the car park corruption. It goes beyond this cock-and-bull story that, somehow, building car parks will solve congestion. There is the fact that, having decided to build car parks, they decided to build them—as the ANAO told us—in 20 marginal electorates. Going to the Prime Minister: what's worse is that it's clear this wasn't just a matter of individual ministers thinking up this strategy on their own; this was coordinated, systematic rorting across multiple programs. Given that many of these processes started shortly after Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, there is a smoking gun; his office was centrally involved in coordinating the rorts. What it looks and smells like is that his government started with a wish list of projects across multiple portfolios and then thought about how to jam them into whatever programs you could force them into.
Where has Prime Minister Morrison been on these rorts? He's nowhere to be seen. But the Australian public aren't fooled. They can see that this is corruption starting at the top—spending public money on the basis of where projects can win votes rather than on the basis of need and the proper analysis of where the money is best spent. The excuse that the other side did it too—a childish they-started-it—is no excuse. Things have got to change, and the has to start at the top, with the Prime Minister. There needs to be commitment to transparency and accountability. We need to see the colour-coded spread sheets, and there needs to be real consequences for this corrupt behaviour. We need a federal ICAC now. It's only by having an anticorruption watchdog with teeth that this type of behaviour is going to be able to be reined in.