Thursday, 12 August 2021
That the Senate—
(a) applauds the sacrifices made by the Australian people to keep each other safe;
(b) thanks the heroes of the pandemic—our scientists, doctors, nurses, aged care and disability workers, cleaners and other essential workers;
(c) joins the House of Representatives in condemning the comments of the Member for Dawson prior to question time on Tuesday, 10 August 2021 designed to use our national Parliament to spread misinformation and undermine the actions of Australians to defeat COVID-19;
(d) condemns Senator Canavan's and Senator Rennick's repeated use of their public platforms to undermine confidence in public health responses, public health institutions, and the actions of Australians to defeat COVID-19;
(e) rejects statements that 'masks don't work', 'lockdowns don't work', that lockdowns are 'doing much more damage to our love of liberty and our political system, that's the real threat to us now', descriptions of our health professionals as 'dictatorial medical bureaucrats', and that spread misinformation about Therapeutic Goods Administration approved vaccines; and
(f) calls on all parliamentarians to refrain from making ill-informed comments at a time when the pandemic represents a serious threat to the health of Australians.
Paragraph (b) of this motion thanks the heroes of the pandemic—scientists, doctors, nurses, aged-care and disability workers, cleaners and other essential workers. These Australians have shouldered responsibility and taken leadership. If only this Prime Minister could follow their example! If only this Prime Minister could refrain from his consistent pattern of making excuses and ducking and weaving! We know this Prime Minister does that whenever he's asked to take responsibility, and he has done it again when it comes to members of his own party undermining the public health messages in the face of this pandemic.
There was a very similar motion in the other place—a motion the government didn't have the courage to call a division on. In speaking to the motion our Prime Minister went to every length to avoid referring to the member for Dawson. He said, 'What I'm not going to do is engage in a partisan debate on this.' The only partisan debate is the debate within his own party. He's not willing to have the debate in his own party. The leader of the nation is not willing to take responsibility and say to members of his own party, 'You're wrong and you should stop spreading dangerous misinformation.' He did say, 'I don't support misinformation.' That's like saying you don't support cancer. He can't even be straight with people. Where was the rebuke? Where was the courage to say it was wrong? It is a spinner's way through, isn't it? Rather than the Prime Minister making it clear that what the member for Dawson was saying was dangerous and rather than the Prime Minister saying the member for Dawson should stop making these sorts of comments, we saw the Prime Minister engaging in the same old dance of ducking and weaving.
When Australia needs leadership and responsibility, Mr Morrison goes missing. He even went so far as to say—and the Leader of the Government in the Senate has said the same thing—'If others want to undermine the public health effort with misinformation, that's a matter for them.' Really—'that's a matter for them'? What weakness! This bloke can't even stare down his own party, let alone stand up for the country.
But Mr Christensen is not alone in this. We have senators in this place who are prepared to make statements which are demonstrably against the public health advice and demonstrably not in the public interest. Senator Rennick said this about public health officials who are trying to keep Australians safe: 'Our country has become a comedy of errors. Our bureaucrats are the clowns.' They're the clowns! In a Facebook post that he has since removed, he endorsed an article that undermines the TGA approval of vaccines. Remember that, when that lot there stand up and tell us, 'We're doing a great job, because we've got TGA approval for Moderna.' One of their own is undermining the TGA approval process.
Then we have Senator Canavan, and I'm sure he's waiting for this. Senator Payne, in a speech on disinformation, made this statement:
Let's be clear: disinformation during a pandemic will cost lives ...
Senator Payne would be aware, as foreign minister, of the leadership of Dr Anthony Fauci over many years and through more than one pandemic, and I'm sure she too would have been horrified last year to read that the former chief strategist to President Trump, Steve Bannon, called for Dr Fauci to be beheaded. Mr Bannon was banned from Twitter as a result, but he still has a podcast. A recent guest on that podcast said, 'Coronavirus is doing more damage to our liberties than our health,' and that guest was Senator Canavan—going on a podcast hosted by someone who has called for the beheading of one of the world's leading public health officials. There should be nothing easier than for Senator Payne to rebuke Senator Canavan, and I invite her to do that today. I invite Senator Birmingham to do the same, unequivocally, and not with the weasel words we've heard from the Prime Minister: 'It's a matter for them.'
Also, Senator Canavan has written in the Fin Review, saying that using lockdowns in Sydney to save lives was an 'unjustifiable expense'. I would like him to tell us which life saved he thinks is an unjustifiable expense. Who should sacrifice a mother or a father or a daughter or a son because their life shouldn't be saved, because it isn't precious enough to be saved? When people say, 'We should learn to live with the virus,' what they're actually saying to Australians is: 'Be prepared for some of you to die from it.' This government have to stand up to those peddling disinformation and their failure to do so demonstrates the same lack of responsibility the Prime Minister continues to demonstrate. (Time expired)
We live in the most extraordinary of times—times that none of us would have imagined possible two years ago—but they are times that we have to face as a nation, as indeed the whole world does. Has Australia got absolutely everything right all of the time through the course of managing the COVID-19 pandemic? No, we haven't, nor has any other country on the planet, but we have managed, as a nation, to perform far better than most other countries of the world. Since the start of the pandemic, we have tragically seen at least 4.3 million lives lost across the globe. That's just the recorded numbers of deaths. Here in Australia, sadly, 944 people have lost their lives. Through the course of 2021, 2½ million lives were reported as lost across the globe, and no doubt there were many unreported in many countries. In Australia, 35 have lost their lives. These are all a tragedy, but we should acknowledge the work, as this motion does, of the Australian people: our healthcare workers, our scientists, our advisers—all of them have worked to keep Australians safe.
On 1 February last year, the very moment when our government made the decision to close Australia's borders to China, and when we made subsequent decisions to close Australia's borders to Korea, Iran and Italy, and then ultimately to the entire world—those decisions were ahead of the declaration by the World Health Organization of a global pandemic. We were acting early and we were acting to protect Australians and to keep COVID at bay. And we have continued to act, in concert with the states and territories wherever possible. This year, the world has been thrown the curve ball of the delta variant. The delta variant has created enormous new challenges to countries. At all stages of the vaccine rollout, it has exacerbated challenges for nations. The reality is that we as a country have to continue to respond sensibly and practically to each of those challenges.
The responses we all make, though, are not always responses that can be completely uncontested or go without debate or challenge. The opposition routinely challenges the government in relation to policy responses, and, yes, equally, other senators and other individuals across the nation challenge some of those responses. The government urges everyone, if they're challenging responses, to do so in a way that is responsible—to make sure wherever possible that Australians hear consistent messages in relation to respect for public health orders and to the need to get vaccinated.
We know that there are real debates that exist in this country and elsewhere, and we acknowledge that individuals will use their rights to engage in those debates. In this motion, the opposition acknowledges the heroes of the pandemic, as I said before. It also responds to comments made by the member for Dawson. The House of Representatives already responded to those comments. I heard the Leader of the Opposition in this place say that the government didn't have the guts to call a division on that. That was because the government was accepting the motion. And, in relation to the member for Dawson's comments, we will accept the motion in this place too. I note the desire to focus singly on certain members of the government, rather than acknowledging that indeed debates occur outside of this place as well.
Debates occur with other candidates—for example, the way Labor's candidate for Higgins has engaged on the question of the AstraZeneca vaccine, or indeed the way in which we have seen the Queensland Premier and the Queensland Chief Health Officer undermine confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine. I can't help but note that it took until 7 June for the Queensland Premier to be vaccinated. The South Australian Premier was vaccinated on 21 February and the Western Australian Premier on 2 May at least. Why on earth don't we see the equivalent approach taken by those opposite in relation to all of those who have acted in these ways? That is why I will move an amendment to the motion by the Labor Party that ensures we send a clear signal to all who use public platforms, to all public officials and to all candidates that all should be held to the same standard to support our health officials, to support our scientists and to support our response to this global pandemic. I seek leave to move amendments to Senator Wong's motion together.
Paragraph (d), omit "condemns Senator Canavan's and Senator Rennick's repeated use of their public platforms", substitute "condemns the use of public platforms".
Paragraph (f), after "parliamentarians", insert ", public officials and candidates".
I rise to join in the comments supporting the heroes on the front line of this health pandemic—to note that the scientists, the doctors, the nurses, the aged-care and disability workers and the cleaners, those essential workers, have been absolutely paramount. They are not 'clowns', as Senator Rennick has described them. I might add that they are mostly women and they are mostly underpaid. We should be paying them more. We are all still here thanks to them sacrificing their potential safety to be on the front line.
They are putting themselves on the front line and sacrificing their own potential safety because this Prime Minister could not manage the proverbial. He has utterly botched the vaccine rollout, he has utterly failed to build quarantine facilities and he has once again utterly failed to take responsibility for anything that is actually his job as the Prime Minister. This Prime Minister cannot show leadership because he simply is not a leader. He runs away from responsibility. He doesn't hold a hose. He doesn't have a plan. He doesn't have a clue. That is the problem here. He doesn't have the guts to stand up to the science deniers—and lunatics, frankly—in his own party, many of whom are on the backbench and some of whom used to be on the frontbench.
I note with interest that the government has circulated an amendment, which the Leader of the Government in the Senate just moved, seeking to amend this motion to delete reference to Senator Canavan and Senator Rennick. They don't want these folk named. They don't want to name these purveyors of misinformation, these utterly unhinged folk who are contending that masks don't work and that lockdowns don't work. Maybe they don't even think coronavirus is real! This government wants to delete reference to them and doesn't want them named in this motion. It's nothing more than a protection racket once again from this government. There is not a badly behaved man in their ranks that they will not run a protection racket for.
We have seen it with their treatment of women and now we are seeing it with the treatment of the fringe dwellers in their party that do not understand the science, whether it's the climate science or the health science. This government doesn't want to admit to and it certainly doesn't want to discipline these people, but it needs to because these folks are doing real damage. Look at the bloke who went from Sydney to Byron because he doesn't think COVID is real and he doesn't believe in vaccinations. He has sent them into a lockdown. He is potentially endangering the lives of many people, young and old. We have now had a man in his 20s and a man in his 30s die from this virus, and I understand they weren't fully vaccinated.
Disinformation about the effectiveness of vaccination is killing people, and this government's response is to say that they don't want to specifically name Senator Canavan and Senator Rennick, who are part of the cabal of disinformation in their own ranks. It is absolutely abominable. Take some responsibility. Call out these people. Send that message to the Australian public that they are desperate to hear from their government. Show some leadership and tell them to get vaccinated. What's more, order some bloody vaccines so they can actually get the vaccine. The Australian public expect the government to run the country. If you need me withdraw the word 'bloody', I will do so, but the sentiment is clear.
This government has not taken this crisis seriously. It has been everybody else's responsibility except the Prime Minister's. He won't take responsibility to lead the nation and he won't even take responsibility to call out the fringe dwellers within his own party. I wonder why? Because he has a one-seat majority, he can't afford to pull up these dangerous fools in his own coalition. But the result is that Australian lives are threatened and, through his silence, the Prime Minister undermines the work of nurses, doctors, aged-care workers, cleaners and factory workers. His silence exposes them unnecessarily to this deadly virus.
To the Prime Minister the Greens say that protecting the lives of Australians from both COVID and climate collapse is far more important than reinforcing those dangerous and deadly world views through the parliament and the Prime Minister's silence. They should be expelled from his party and the Prime Minister should immediately call them out and distance himself from them. The lives and the safety of Australians depend upon it.
[by video link] What a political stunt this is. It was handled in the lower house. It was raised by the Labor Party and it was put to the vote. The coalition government supported Labor's motion in the lower house. So it was dealt with there to throw George Christensen under the bus. But Senator Wong has to make her stance here to actually keep the debate going. So it's a political stunt, as far as I am concerned.
Actually, Senator Wong, I feel a bit insulted that my name wasn't on the list as well, along with Senators Canavan and Rennick. I just don't understand where you are headed with all this. I know what it's like to have been thrown under the bus, because it's happened to me over the years by politicians who stand high and mighty. People who have been elected to parliament have a right to stand up and have their say and have a view, as on Kyle and Jackie O's program last week. I missed out on giving an opinion, and Kyle said: 'What the hell is happening? She is a senator. She has the right to have an opinion.' Yes, I do have the right to have an opinion and have a say, as do Senator Canavan and Senator Rennick. We all have a right to have a say.
We have been given misinformation all the way along, right from the very beginning. I don't think the health officers know exactly what they are saying, because we have one set of health officers telling us one thing and another set telling us another. The people in this nation are so confused. It has been an absolute balls-up with people. You are worrying about the health. I'm saying that it is real. I have not advised people not to have vaccinations. I have said, 'Do your research and understand what is best for you.' We have the Queensland Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, saying: 'I wouldn't recommend AstraZeneca to anyone under 40 years of age. You have more chance of dying from the vaccination than you do from COVID.' Now we're told: 'Oh, you can't say that.' Have we heard the truth about whether people have actually died from the COVID vaccination, or have they actually died with it? Where are the facts there? If you go to climate change, we've had scientists that have told us totally different things about climate change. These are things that the people in this nation are so confused about. We hear from one set of scientists a different opinion to another set on the other side.
I fully support George Christensen's comments and his right to make them, as I do any other member of parliament. I have stood true to form, even with Fraser Anning when you tried to bring this stunt in. He was a member of parliament at the time and had a right to say what he wanted to. Just because they don't fall in line with your views and ideology, everyone has to be thrown under the bus. Let the people judge us on what we say. People want to see us stand up and have that difference of opinion and debate the issues about what is happening, not shut us down because it doesn't go with your narrative and what you want us to say. A lot more members of parliament would dearly love to speak out—I've told people this—but they don't out of fear of not getting preselection or moving up the political ladder to become a minister. They're controlled. People want truth and honesty from our politicians, not leading with the political line that suits their agenda.
That is all this motion is: it's just a political stunt by the Labor Party. It was dealt with in the lower house. I blame the Prime Minister. You allowed it to happen. You allowed one of your members to be thrown under the bus by the Labor Party. Now you have to wear it in the upper house. So I'd suggest to the coalition: stand up for your members of parliament. There is nothing wrong with what they have said. There is nothing wrong with anyone questioning the system because our job, as members of parliament, is to question it—then we will find the right answers.
Over the years they've tried to shut me down about immigration, multiculturalism, even climate change, water issues—everything in Australia. I'm supposed to be shut down because I don't have a right to have those opinions. It is so important that we are allowed to voice our opinions. As I said, the people want diversity. They want debate. We want the truth. That's all people are asking for with regard to COVID.
If you're worrying about those people that may get infected, yes, delta is more contagious, but it doesn't mean it's a death sentence. You are destroying people's lives and businesses. They are going under with suicide attempts. The kids of this nation don't know what's going to happen to them. We are destroying them, and you don't even have the answers. It's about time you both worked together to give people in this country confidence about when they can get on with their lives, instead of playing your political stunts.
I rise to oppose this motion because this motion seeks to turn this house of review into a house of censorship. This motion seeks to silence people who are elected representatives of the Australian people from speaking about a particular viewpoint. That is our job. Our job is to express views and opinions. Sometimes we might even disagree with each other on those views and opinions.
God forbid that this house would be a place of debate. God forbid that we would have differences of opinion and actually argue it out respectfully and put different views. That's what this motion seeks to do. This motion seeks to make sure we all continue to get paid during the pandemic but that we don't do our job anymore, because our job here is to debate different issues. If you don't like someone's view, you've got a voice. Have an argument. Put the other perspective and convince people of the different opinion.
In her contribution, Senator Wong spoke of weakness. How weak is it that you can't even have a debate? How weak is it that, apparently, the greatest fear of Leader of the Opposition in the Senate is a 90-second statement from the member for Dawson? How is that not weak? How weak is it that she can't even stand up and have a debate and put a different view? Instead, she wants to censor and silence people.
We've been through tough times as a nation and this is a tough time. I do support the part of this motion that seeks to recognise the efforts of frontline health workers. This is a very tough time for our nation. But we've been through tougher times. During World War II, this place met. During World War II, this place had a debate about war strategy. During World War II, the Labor Party brought down an elected government, with a vote of no confidence in the other place. During World War II, the House of Commons had the Norway debate, where they debated for three days on the war strategy of the Prime Minister at the time, Neville Chamberlain, and he lost his job at the end of it. We had debates. There were leaders. And the Australian people are calling out, 'Where are the leaders today?' because all of us are, apparently, cowering because the member for Dawson spoke for 90 seconds in the House of Representatives the other day. That is a joke. That is not doing our job.
If there is one thing that has unfortunately happened during this pandemic, it is a complete lack of parliamentary accountability. We have not had accountability for the decisions that governments have made. Almost all the decisions that are being made under public health orders have not gone through this place. There has not been legislation. There has not been a committee. There have not been disallowable instruments. So all the businesses that have been shut down, and all the restrictions that have been put on people's freedoms, have happened without even a scintilla of parliamentary accountability. I think that's a big question for us post this: whether that's the right approach.
But to silence even the limited abilities of parliamentarians to try to hold to account those who are making decisions about people's livelihoods and their freedoms, and to then say even a 90-second statement can't be made? We are not doing our job. Our job is to review the decisions of government. That's what this place is meant to be. That's what this place is about. And I don't want to turn us as senators into a bunch of noddies. Many of us have been there, at the press conferences behind other people, where we just nod our heads in agreement. That's what this motion seeks to do. It seeks to turn us into a bunch of noddies, where all we do—apparently—is just stand there and nod our heads behind whatever the government or officials are saying at the time. To those that are supporting this motion, and who want to turn us into a bunch of noddies: you do not deserve the title of senator. If you want to be a senator, you've got to be willing to get into the debate. You've got to be willing to get into the fight, and sometimes your views will be held to account. Sometimes your people might disagree with your views. But have the guts and show the leadership to stand up for your opinions instead of seeking to silence others.
There is a great disconnect in this country. There is a great disconnect between what we do here and what people think and believe out in the public, and a big reason for that disconnect is that there is a pall of censorship that has come over our political discourse in the last couple of decades. And, if we support and continue that pall on our discourse, we will only widen that gap between parliamentarians and those we represent in this country. The sooner we allow ourselves to do our job and debate things again, the better for our nation. (Time expired)
Paragraph (a) and paragraph (b) of this motion today are absolutely to be commended, because the true heroes of this pandemic have been our frontline workers and our essential services workers, and I think everybody this country owes a debt of gratitude to those people—
On a point of order, as part of the informal arrangements that the managers engaged in, the government agreed to take two spots. The government have had two spots. I'd ask the manager to allow Senator Watt to speak, consistent with the arrangement she agreed to with my manager. It's a matter of courtesy.
I would have stood at the time, had the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate ceded the call to this side of the chamber; however, she was specific about who she had ceded the call to.
I think, as the manager of government business has made clear, her intention was to silence Senator Canavan. My request is the government allow, by leave, Senator Watt to speak at the conclusion of the debate.
In the interests of the chamber, I am happy to speak for a couple of minutes and then allow the remainder of the time to be ceded to Senator Watt, if that would be satisfactory to the chamber.
Thank you, Senator Ruston, for ceding your time. As this motion makes clear, we are calling on the Senate first of all to applaud the incredible sacrifices made by the Australian people and the heroes of our pandemic—the essential workers who have kept us safe. All Australians and these heroes of the pandemic have been profoundly let down by a small group of government MPs who are determined to run a constant misinformation campaign about COVID. They are also being profoundly let down by a weak Prime Minister who never takes responsibility. He never took responsibility for bushfires or for vaccines, and he's not taking responsibility for ensuring that his own members of parliament and his own senators contribute to the public debate in a way that keeps us safe.
This motion focuses on the efforts of the member for Dawson, Mr Christensen, who for many months has been waging an online COVID misinformation campaign, to build up his Facebook followers for his post-parliamentary career at the expense of the health and the economy of Australians. That has culminated this week in his infamous speech given to the House of Representatives, which I notice that Facebook has now removed from its videos because it contains harmful health information in breach of its COVID misinformation policy. Even a tech giant like Facebook, which is all about making money and, let's face it, has allowed the spread of a lot of misinformation over the years, is prepared to take action to ensure that Mr Christensen's dangerous lies are not being spread into the community, but the Prime Minister won't take action and nor will the Deputy Prime Minister.
This motion also focuses on the continued efforts of Senator Canavan and Senator Rennick, who also engage in a misinformation campaign. We all know it is about them courting far Right votes in the community and dragging them back from One Nation, which is why Senator Hanson is so upset about what's going on as well. This is a deliberate tactic from Senators Canavan and Rennick to court far Right votes to make sure that they and their government get re-elected.
I have been asking for some time why it is that the Prime Minister won't take action and won't take responsibility for the comments of his government members, and it has been made very clear today by comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister on ABC TV this morning. When asked why Mr Joyce was not prepared to take action about Mr Christensen's disinformation campaign, he said:
If you start prodding the bear, you're going to make the situation worse for us as a government, not better.
I'll say that to my colleagues, I can assure you that when you've got a thin margin, don't start giving reasons for a by-election.
Finally, someone in the government has been honest about why they are not prepared to do anything about the constant misinformation campaign conducted by Mr Christensen and by senators like Senator Rennick and Senator Canavan. It is because this government cares more about hanging onto power than about actually taking responsibility and making sure that its own members are not conducting a misinformation campaign. This government is more concerned about hanging onto its own jobs than about stopping misinformation being put into the community which is endangering people's health and the jobs and economy that all Australians enjoy. This government is more concerned about its own jobs than about the jobs of tourism workers—those on the Gold Coast, in Cairns and in every other place in the country—that are now at risk because of the poor vaccine rollout of this government, because of its failure to deliver quarantine and now because of its failure to take serious action about the efforts of its own MPs.
How can we expect the Australian people to listen to government messaging, to comply with restrictions and to take precautions if we have members of the government out there day after day encouraging Australians to do exactly the opposite? How can the government expect any of the money that it has been putting into its public information campaign to work when the campaign is constantly being undermined by its own MPs? This motion is a test for this government. It was passed by members of the government in the House of Representatives. It's clear that some members of this government won't back it when it's put to a vote in this chamber. It's clear that Senator Canavan, for instance, won't be supporting this motion, because he says that he needs to do his job. Well, unfortunately, it seems that Senator Canavan and other members of this government consider their job to be spreading disinformation, rather than actually engaging in a proper discussion and encouraging Australians to do the right thing, to protect their health, for themselves, for their families, for their communities and for the sake of the Australian economy. It is an utter disgrace that this government has allowed this misinformation campaign to go on. It's about time they took action and put other jobs in front of their own.