Monday, 23 August 2021
Matters of Public Importance
A letter has been received from Senator Urquhart:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
That after Mr Morrison stated multiple times in March 2021, in connection with the vaccine rollout, that "it's not a race", last weekend Australia experienced its highest daily COVID case numbers since the pandemic began eighteen months ago.
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.
[by video link] It is a pleasure to be joining the Senate from Cairns tonight to talk about this incredibly important issue. It is clear that we have been led down a path of complacency by the Prime Minister. 'This is not a race.' Those are the words the Prime Minister used and will be forever haunted by. In what has become the most important event of our times—at least in our lifetimes—where Australians have needed strong and effective leadership, we have been badly let down and we are all suffering the consequences. Half of the country is currently in lockdown. People are under immense stress. Workers are losing their jobs. Businesses that people have spent their entire lives building are closing their doors. Yet our Prime Minister said: 'It is not a race. It is not a competition.' He didn't just say it once; he said it repeatedly. Scott Morrison said the vaccine rollout was 'not a race' on 11 March this year, and he said it three times. He said it twice on 14 March and again on 31 March as well. Why is this phrase so important? Why did it mean so much to the Australian people? Because it led to the complacency that this government has allowed to occur, dropping our vaccine rollout down to the lowest level among OECD countries. We're now seeing, as a result, the highest daily COVID case numbers since the pandemic began, 18 months ago. We all saw those terrifying numbers in New South Wales, announced earlier today, of 818 cases. It is a dire and difficult situation for all of the residents, including my family, who live in south-west Sydney. People are dying. Children are getting sick. The burden on families and businesses is immeasurable. People are struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel, yet the government think that this is what they need to be talking about.
Scott Morrison says that he doesn't play politics with the pandemic. Yet time and time again we have seen this Prime Minister deem it unnecessary to support a lockdown in New South Wales but crucify other states for imposing restrictions in an effort to save their communities from ongoing pain. It was precisely that encouragement of the New South Wales Premier in her decision not to lock down this delta outbreak, which has caused so much damage to our economy and to our society.
The fact is that we're in this position because Prime Minister Scott Morrison failed to do his job. He failed to do two things: fix quarantine and get the vaccine rollout right. This is, in fact, a race, and it has always been a race. It has been a race for survival for so many communities and for so many people. But the stark reality of the numbers that we have seen in the last couple of days shows that Scott Morrison has failed. You only need to look at the vaccination rates of some of our most vulnerable Australians to understand this. If you're an aged-care worker, a person with a disability or an Indigenous Australian, you have been let down by this Prime Minister. The data that was released recently shows that the vaccination rates for the two states with the largest First Nations populations—New South Wales and Queensland—are sitting at critically low levels. As of last week, both were sitting at around about eight per cent, and these people were priorities under this government.
Today, we're seeing startling figures around the number of staff working in aged-care homes who are yet to be vaccinated. We know that, during the Melbourne and Victorian lockdowns of last year, aged-care workers carrying viruses into homes was devastating for so many people and so many families. This government was fully warned about needing to vaccinate aged-care workers, and yet Scott Morrison said that it was 'not a race'. Today we have reports that, in some facilities in my home town of Cairns, we have vaccination rates of aged-care workers sitting at less than 10 per cent—less than 10 per cent—after six months of the vaccine rollout under Scott Morrison. If you're an NDIS participant, chances are you haven't even had your first dose yet. Just over a quarter of NDIS participants have been fully vaccinated. First doses have only reached 44 per cent. These people, the NDIS participants that we are talking about today, were in priority phase 1A under this government, yet Scott Morrison said that it was 'not a race'.
These are groups that the federal government says are the most vulnerable and the highest priority for vaccination; otherwise, we'll never be able to open up again. But—but—Scott Morrison continued to say that this was 'not a race'. The truth is that, in times of crisis, people need a leader—someone who stands up for us, faces the tough questions and makes big calls, someone who is decisive, someone who can offer hope. Yet what we got instead with this Prime Minister was: 'It's not my job. It's a matter for the states. I don't hold a hose.' We get a Prime Minister who sits back and lets members of his own government ranks spew irresponsible drivel and misinformation about COVID-19, masks and lockdowns. It is no wonder that there is hesitancy in the community when the Prime Minister has failed to stop these people saying that masks don't work, that lockdowns don't work and that you don't need to get the vaccine.
I'm not the only one who feels so bitterly disappointed about the position that Australians find themselves in. I'm lucky enough to live in one of the best parts of the world, Far North Queensland, but our town is hurting badly, and it is a devastating sight to see. Cafes which are normally full of tourists are near empty. At this time of year, the lagoon pool on our famous esplanade is usually bustling with people, but right now it is sparsely attended. The marina is full of boats, as there simply aren't enough people to take them out. North Queensland's tourism industry is on the brink, and there are widespread fears in the industry and the community that this is the end for many operators. They survived 2020, but now they will close their doors. A local tourism leader said recently, 'The tourism industry is on its knees.' Another, who closed their doors last week after operating for 30 years, said, 'I won't be the last one.' Further down, in the Whitsundays, operators are facing a similar situation. As one Airlie Beach business suggests, their struggles are far from over and the outlook is still pretty dismal.
This has always been a race, and the Morrison government must step up and provide certainty to North Queensland businesses as they continue to struggle with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are at a crisis point now with these communities. The Prime Minister needs to face these businesses and give them a plan forward, not just a vaccination plan or a plan to end lockdowns—which we know will happen eventually, but not for some time to come. We need a plan for support, and that's what I have been calling for in Cairns and in these speeches in parliament: a wage subsidy scheme for these businesses. That is what they have been calling for.
Extraordinarily, today we've discovered that, instead of approaching the minister, the Treasurer or the Prime Minister directly for additional support, the local member, Warren Entsch, actually wrote to the state government to ask for support, saying that the support that had already been provided by the Commonwealth government was inadequate and that it hadn't gone far enough. It is pretty extraordinary when you've got a member of this government knowing that it would be better to approach the state government for support than to go and ask for it from the Treasurer or from Scott Morrison.
It is also pretty extraordinary that we're now in a situation where we know that people are going to lose their jobs yet the Morrison government has failed to deliver support for these businesses. These are people who have supported the coalition and the local member in the past, but they have been hung out to dry under this government. What these businesses and tourism operators need is a wage subsidy scheme. They need that now because of Scott Morrison's failures. They need that now because we are in lockdown and we're not going to be out of lockdown for quite some time to come. Vaccination rates are increasing, but not fast enough to save these businesses. We know how important it is for these businesses to get tourism support, yet the government has failed to deliver on wage subsidies that will actually protect jobs. The local member, Warren Entsch, said himself that the support so far from the Commonwealth government has been inadequate and falls short of what is required. So we are asking the federal government to finally step up. This is a race. It is a race to deliver support to businesses before they close their doors. It is a race to get people vaccinated.
I'm sure the good people of Leichhardt would know that their MP, Warren Entsch, is an outstanding representative who will always fight for their interests in this place and wherever he has an opportunity to advocate for their best interests. He's done that for many, many years, and I have every confidence that he will do it after the next federal election as well.
Let's have a look at this matter of public interest. The first thing I note about it is that it's backward-looking. It's talking about what was said in March 2021. We were talking about this the last two weeks of sitting, and we're back here today. It's a matter of public interest that's backward looking. It's looking at the past. It's not looking at the present. It's not looking at the future. It's playing a blame game in the past, looking at words that were uttered in March 2021. The Australian people have moved on. They're looking at today, and they want to look towards their future.
If Senator Green is interested in correspondence with the Premier of Queensland, maybe she should pick up the phone and talk to the Premier of Queensland about her comments over the past few days, and those comments of the Deputy Premier Steven Miles, which appear to suggest some sort of resiling from the national agreement that was entered into by the national cabinet. Maybe Senator Green needs to communicate with the Premier of Queensland—just as the MP for Leichhardt, my good friend Warren Entsch, has communicated with the Premier—because some of the rhetoric coming out of Queensland is disturbing. It's political and disturbing.
Let's look at the facts of where we're up to at the moment. There have been 1.8 million doses of vaccine delivered in the last seven days. I don't remember that being referred to in Senator Green's contribution to this debate. There was absolutely no recognition whatsoever as to what the current status is with respect to the vaccine rollout. There was no balanced commentary. How can someone take seriously a contribution in this place when there's a total lack of balance in the representation of what the current facts are? More than 85 per cent of over-70s are protected with a first dose of the vaccine. More than 85 per cent of that most vulnerable cohort are already protected by a first dose of the vaccine, and more than 55 per cent have received a second dose.
Going to the next cohort, more than 70 per cent of over-50s are protected with a first dose and more than 40 per cent have received a second dose. That means more than one in two of the eligible population aged over 16 are protected with a first dose. Look at the facts involved in the case, and if you want to criticise the existing government, make a contribution that's balanced, that takes into account the current situation, and then make some sort of constructive proposal with respect to moving forward. All of that was totally absent from Senator Green's contribution to this debate. It hasn't been absent with respect to the Prime Minister's contributions. While he might have said what he said in March, he also said this subsequently:
… I take responsibility for the early setbacks in our vaccination program.
So when those speakers on the other side get up, they should at least recognise the fact that the Prime Minister has taken responsibility. They should also recognise the fact he said:
I also take responsibility for getting them fixed and that we are now matching world-best rates, with more than 1 million …
Make a balanced contribution to this debate. Stop looking backwards. Move on. Look at the current situation and provide something positive for the Australian people to move forward with.
The Australian public is sick and tired of rank, base politicking on these issues. They really are. The rhetoric is just dreadful, and it continues to be dreadful. We need to come together as a civic society and deal with these issues. It should be recognised that, up to today's date, Australia has done as well as any country on the face of this earth dealing with this COVID-19 pandemic. We've done as well as any other country. Just as we're uniting as a country to assist those poor Afghanis in Kabul and provide them assistance, we've done as well as anyone. Has it been perfect? No. But there was no dress rehearsal for a one-in-100-year pandemic, so there will be mistakes. There will be things that need to be adjusted, but at least be balanced in your commentary. If you're balanced I could at least have some respect for the positive suggestions that come from the other side. Otherwise all your contributions are just tainted with that rank politicking.
The Prime Minister made some extremely positive comments today with respect to our pathway out of this pandemic. The first point he made was this: we need to live with the virus, not in fear of it. That is absolutely crucial. The fact of the matter is that we are not going to eliminate COVID in the foreseeable future. We just won't. I think, generally, the Australian people understand that, and we have to assist them to come to grips with the reality of the situation, which is well documented in the national plan—it is a plan on a page.
We're currently in the first phase, the current phase: vaccinate, prepare and pilot. The next phase, once we achieve that 70 per cent threshold, is the vaccine transition phase, which, and this is the important point, seeks 'to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality as a result of COVID-19 with low-level restrictions'. It doesn't seek to eliminate it, because that's not possible. It's not possible to eliminate it. It seeks to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality as a result of COVID-19, with low-level restrictions. Then phase C, once we hit the 80 per cent threshold of vaccinations, is 'seek to minimise serious illness, hospitalisations and fatalities as a result of COVID-19 with baseline restrictions'. Then the fourth phase, phase D, as it's referred to, is 'manage COVID-19 consistent with public health management of other infectious diseases'.
We all have to get on the same page, on the one-page national plan. We all have to be on the same page if we're going to defeat the ramifications of this virus and move forward as a united country. We need to be on the same page, and it's there in black and white for all of us to follow and to support with our community.
If there are constructive suggestions from those opposite, absolutely make those constructive suggestions. But when you do it, at least be fair with respect to assessing the current situation and with respect to Australia as a country—and I include local-level government, the states, the federal government, civic society generally and the Australian people. Be fair and balanced with respect to where we are today, instead of running our own country down. The rhetoric is quite deplorable. We're absolutely not going to get out of this crisis with this sort of rhetoric. This has to be a team game. We can't go on in lockdown indefinitely; we just can't do it. We don't have the financial resources to do it. We can't bear the mental illness that flows from these lockdowns. We're crushing people's mental health. Small businesses are being destroyed. Senator Green referred to the impact on tourism in Cairns, and she's absolutely right: there's a devastating impact in Cairns. But we absolutely have to unite behind the national plan and move forward. There's absolutely no alternative whatsoever.
As we unite behind that national plan, we need to do it with mutual respect for the views of all of those in the chamber and all of those in the community. So many people in this country are struggling on so many levels, and we need to respect and appreciate that everyone has a right to their own views in our democratic society. We need to do it with empathy, appreciating how difficult the current situation is for everyone in this country. We also need to look forward in hope, rather than backwards in bitterness. That's what people are looking to us to do—look forward in hope, not backwards in bitterness.
I know I have only a couple of minutes before we move to adjournment. I am looking to the future. I'm looking to the future of this country and to the health of our population. In order to do that, we need to get the plan right, and that plan is not right, because it does not include vaccinating. Importantly, there are no targets for young people in the national plan. The government says we're going to open up when we get to 80 per cent. But 80 per cent is actually only 64 per cent of the entire population.
Children and young people under the age of 16 are the ones who are now getting COVID in large numbers. In Victoria alone, 112 children under the age of 10 have COVID, as do 112 between the ages of 10 and 19. Today, there are over 200—I think it is—children in New South Wales, yet children are not included in our targets. Until we include children in our targets, we will not get properly to 80 per cent, and if—