Senate debates

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Vaccination

3:03 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Watt today relating to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

My home state of New South Wales is now entering its ninth week of lockdown, with record case numbers and a population suffering from nine weeks of social isolation from friends, families and everyday activities. There was one person—one person—who could have stopped this had he been effective and had he kept his promises to the Australian people. But Mr Morrison has instead failed on all of those promises.

He promised to vaccinate all people living and working in residential aged care by Easter. What have Australians actually got? More than 40 per cent of aged-care staff still haven't had their first shot! Despite making vaccines mandatory in the aged-care sector by 17 September, the government's failed rollout means that the aged-care sector—a large section of the workforce—will see these workers sacked or the government will push back its deadline again due to its complete and utter failure.

Mr Morrison's second promise? To vaccinate all Australians with a disability and all disability care workers by Easter. What Australians actually got from Mr Morrison: 26.2 per cent of 267,526 National Disability Insurance Scheme participants aged 16 or older have been double dosed and 44 per cent partially vaccinated as of 19 August. That is another appalling failure to vaccinate our most at-risk citizens.

Mr Morrison's third promise? To vaccinate four million Australians by the end of March. But what Australians actually got was 850,000 doses—not full vaccines; doses—by 6 April, just over 10 per cent of where we should have been in April.

Mr Morrison's fourth promise? To fully vaccinate all over-70s by the onset of winter. What seniors actually got was fewer than 40 per cent of over-70s were fully vaccinated by the end of the second month of winter.

Mr Morrison's fifth promise to the Australian people? To vaccinate all Australians by October. What Australia actually got was one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world and chronic, crushing lockdowns. As at yesterday, only 24 per cent of our population is fully vaccinated.

These failures, these broken promises from Mr Morrison, have implications that have radically changed the lives of those in my home state. We will look back on this period of time—life before COVID and life after—at the endurance of the ongoing failure of this government during this profoundly challenging period of our country, where promises were made and Mr Morrison and his government failed to deliver, whether that's for the residents of south-west Sydney who are locked in their homes with soldiers patrolling their streets, whether it's the aged-care worker desperate to get a vaccine and an appointment and trying to get there in time so that they don't infect the beloved members of that community that they are serving, or whether it's the First Nations communities whose communal lives and culture is profoundly interrupted by the terrifying spread of virus, especially those communities in Dubbo for whom I advocated directly to the minister for health in April. He failed to respond, and we see the context in which the wild spread of that disease is happening right now.

I warned the government. Labor has continued to warn the government, particularly about rural health failures that would harm the lives of First Nations communities across this country, but particularly in the seat of Parkes in western New South Wales.

Mr Morrison's fingerprints are all over this enormous mess, from the botched negotiations with Pfizer due to his meanness—he was offered 40 million doses in June 2020 and he said 'No, thank you;' we are paying the price for that decision—to the lack of foresight throwing all of our eggs in to one vaccine basket and the inability to effectively coordinate the rollout. This Prime Minister has hobbled the Australian economy and prolonged the health crisis with his failure to attend to detail and to take necessary care. His sole interest is political future, not the nation he pretends to lead. This has left Australians in an enduring economic, emotional health crisis, the likes of which we have never seen. (Time expired)

3:08 pm

Photo of Andrew BraggAndrew Bragg (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address the topic at hand this afternoon in the Senate, which is on the question of vaccines and the question of the management of this pandemic. It has been said that the opposition really has played their role, which we would expect, during this past 18 months that they have been in opposition—interested in politics and not interested in trying to help the Australian nation deal with an enormous economic and health shock. So, if people want to talk about what really matters when the books are written, people will look at this period and they will say that there was a relatively low level of infection, there were fewer deaths than any other comparable nation and the vaccination rollout was slower than it may have needed to be but it picked up pace pretty quickly.

The pace of the vaccination rollout right now in my home state of New South Wales—and you want to talk about New South Wales—is pretty much the fastest in the world. It's the fastest that anyone has ever seen. We're now at the stage today, having hit six million doses in my home state—which is almost 60 per cent of people having had one dose—of being 15 points ahead of some of the other states in Australia. New South Wales will be the first to real freedom. Other states can live behind their COVID curtain and try and pretend they're in some kind of hermit kingdom, but New South Wales, because of the very fast rollout in combination with Commonwealth and state government cooperation, will be the first to real freedom. People in my state will be the first people in this country to genuinely live with COVID. And that is what we have to do: we have to live with this.

Now I come to this issue that was raised in question time, where it was asserted that there were huge waiting lists for people to get vaccines in south-west Sydney. In the course of the last hour, helpfully, I've been able to check a few facts. I have spoken to a few pharmacists I know in south-west Sydney, and you can walk into a pharmacy in Bexley or Kingsgrove and you can get a shot straightaway. Labor want to pick up on the politics, because they're not interested in health outcomes. They are interested in politics—and that is their role, so we can't begrudge them that.

But the point is that we are on the way to achieving our plan's targets. We're going to get to 70 per cent. We are going to get to 80 per cent. It is going to happen. You can already see, with over 80 per cent of older Australians in some cases having already received their first dose, that this is going to happen. In a couple of months, we're going to be there. And our economic figures will still be very strong, based on all of the relevant data we have up to the moment. People will look at this period and say, 'It was a huge economic shock, it was a huge health scare, but, you know what, it was run pretty well, because few people died, there was a low level of infection and the vaccine rollout was very fast, in the end.'

Some of the more sensitive issues here are around minorities, and people want to talk about the Indigenous communities. Of course people are concerned about Indigenous communities, and far-flung and remote communities—and there are some of those in New South Wales, as there are in Western Australia. It has been very important to keep the virus out of these communities, and, overall, that has largely happened. Yes, there has been some infection, in towns like Burke and Brewarrina and Coonamble—towns that I've visited in my role as a senator—and, yes, it is clear that the facilities in those towns are not flash, and these are the last places we want to see the virus. The virus having been in some of these communities, we do need now to work closely with the elders, as is happening, to ensure that vaccines go into the arms of those Indigenous people. We do need, I think, to reflect on some of the past values here in Indigenous policy in Australia, where there's been far too much paternalism and far too much 'doing to', rather than 'doing with'—and 'doing with' is what has happened across Australia during this pandemic. The vaccination rollout has been done in deep consultation with Indigenous communities. We need to get those vaccines into arms in western and south-western New South Wales. That is happening and that is now urgent.

I think we will look back on this period as one of great concern. There has been a big price paid by small-business people and by schoolkids. But, ultimately, we are on track. This will be over in a couple of months, and we can open up. (Time expired)

3:13 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to take note of answers given by the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham, to questions asked by Senator Watt on the Morrison government's failure to hit their own self-imposed vaccine targets and vaccinate key vulnerable groups in the community. This is a government that is now in its eighth year. One need only look at some members of cabinet to realise that sometimes the length of a government is directly relevant to who in the B-team gets into cabinet. This could not be truer of the minister responsible for the dignity and peace of mind of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, Senator Reynolds. People with a disability and their loved ones depend on a capable, empathetic and engaged minister. Instead they've been saddled with a self-absorbed senator from Western Australia who has failed in her current position and who—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Kitching, there's a point of order. Senator Small?

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is a clear reflection on the minister in a personal capacity, and I consider it a breach of 193(3).

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

No, Senator Small, it was not a reflection. Senator Kitching.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I realise that, of course, Senator Small is also a senator for Western Australia. I don't wish to besmirch him, because he isn't as self-absorbed as Senator Reynolds is.

Anyway, she has currently failed in her position. She's still wallowing in self-pity—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Small.

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If the previous thing wasn't a reflection, surely calling her 'self-absorbed' is.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't believe it is, Senator Small. Senator Kitching.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

She's still clearly wallowing in self-pity, having been prised from her previous role as defence minister. In fact, you can probably still see the fingernail claw marks in the walls of the secure room from which they had to drag her. Let me break it to you, Senator Reynolds: you're not getting that role back anytime soon.

To add insult to injury, this is the second incompetent, inept and lazy minister that Australians with disabilities and their families and loved ones have had foisted upon them by the Prime Minister. They've gone from the member for Fadden to the senator for Western Australia Senator Reynolds. While her predecessor's sole qualification was that he was the Prime Minister's flatmate, I laughed disbelievingly when I heard this pathetic and negligent minister boast about what she believes are her achievements and strengths on Radio National this morning. The minister said:

Well, Fran, when I became minister, nearly five months ago, it was very clear to me that there were a number of challenges in rolling out the vaccination program—

One would think that she had some ability to see problems—

to people with serious and permanent disability, particularly those in shared residential accommodation—in over 6,000 small homes around the nation. That's for a variety of reasons, everything from consent to making sure that we provide the right environment, the right supports, to the individuals.

Then Minister Reynolds went on to say, and I really couldn't believe she said this:

As an Army logistician myself, I did what every good logistician does—

'How much are the tickets?' one has to ask—

I got an even better logistician to come in, and we set up a task force for disability vaccinations.

This panicked buffoon actually said 'logistician'. I'll come back to that. She then went into an indecipherable bureaucratic rant, in which she said:

Now, as you've said in relation to all NDIS participants who are eligible, we've also had a 300 per cent increase since I started this new approach, in June. So we've still got a way to go, but we are picking that up fast. But can I also just finally share with you disability workers—we have had an extraordinary response. In fact, since you and I last spoke about worker vaccination, in June, we've had a 200 per cent increase.

So dreadful were these numbers that she kept referring to a percentage increase and not the percentage of those actually vaccinated. If we want to look at the actual figure, it's 28 per cent [inaudible] months. That is it.

Remember this minister talking about how she cares for people with disability? 'What an honour it was to be in this portfolio,' she said—fine words, zero action. Her responses on the ABC this morning and her dislike of discussing numbers would suggest that she's not even the logistician that she prides herself on being. As she should remember, because she's already experienced it, pride cometh before a fall. This train wreck of an interview shows she's not even a good obfuscator, an attribute much valued by this government.

However, this isn't the only area in which the minister's reign of error is being felt. I received an answer to a question on notice today, No. 3926, whereby the minister revealed that complaints received by both Centrelink and Medicare—both under her watch—have steadily increased in recent months. We hear a lot about the Prime Minister shirking responsibility and not doing his job, but I'd like to add one more job to the list of things Mr Morrison will no doubt fail to do: to sack this disgraceful dud before even more people die on his government's watch. This is a message for the Prime Minister, one he'd heed if he were doing this job. He would not have this minister, who's been in for 148 days, cruelly subjecting people with a disability to her bungling. He would get a better minister, if that's what he really cared about.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Kitching. I will ask you to withdraw the last comments you made about the minister.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw.

3:19 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We know that the Leader of the Opposition in the other place, the member for Grayndler, likes a buck each way. Instead, it's taken till today for the member for Maribyrnong and the former Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, to finally recognise that Labor can't have it each way when it comes to the Team Australia moment that is getting our nation vaccinated against COVID-19. Today the member for Maribyrnong has endorsed the government's position on adopting the national cabinet endorsed Doherty institute modelling, and that is that Australia must vaccinate and then, in a compact with the Australian people, allow them to live with COVID-19. There is only one contagious disease that has been eliminated from the face of the earth in the last 200 years, so it is fanciful to suggest that anything other than a suppression and vaccination strategy—and that is the strategy of the Morrison government and, indeed, of the national cabinet—gets Australians back to what they want. It gets them back living their lives. It gets them out from under the blanket and allows them to spend their time doing the sorts of things that we know they want to do—get a job and to raise their kids and give them opportunities that they may not have had themselves.

That is the Australia that the Morrison government wants to see, and that is what our track record speaks to. Not only were we the first nation in the world to close our international border; we then set about protecting lives and livelihoods. That included, of course, the devastating economic impacts of COVID-19 in the early days and the record levels of economic stimulus that we provided on the back of that—some $290 billion of direct economic stimulus that allowed three million Australians to be supported with JobKeeper and one million to regain employment as the economy came roaring back.

However, we are not done, because we know that the vaccination rollout is the key to a post-COVID normal for this country. That is why we have seen more than the population of South Australia vaccinated in the last week alone. Whilst those opposite seek to undermine our vaccination effort, that is a higher rate of vaccination than has ever been achieved by the United States or the United Kingdom on a per capita basis. Those opposite seek to undermine Australia's vaccination program, which featured ordinary approvals of vaccines rather than emergency approvals of vaccines in the US and the UK. We know that the reason the US and the UK put their vaccines through emergency approval was that bodies were piling up in the streets. Instead, here in Australia, not only did we preserve the national economy, with Australia's unemployment rate falling below five per cent in the latest monthly figures, but we did so with a death rate that was the lowest in the OECD and comparable only with that of New Zealand. It would otherwise have meant some 30,000 additional deaths here in Australia, even if we had only suffered the average death rate in the OECD.

But do we hear a good word from those opposite about our vaccination program, our economic support and our national leadership through this once-in-a-century pandemic? No, we don't—other than from the member for Maribyrnong, who has finally realised that the time has come not to be painted into a corner and isolated from the rest of the nation as we seek to get the job done, get vaccinated and get back to living our best lives. Instead, in the eight long years they have sat opposite, the Labor Party have learnt nothing about their failures in government, with their ill-thought-out proposal for a $300 vaccination bonus being reminiscent of cash for clunkers, school halls, pink batts and other government rorts with taxpayer money. They have learnt nothing in the eight years of opposition sitting over there. They should have been listening to the Australian people, who overwhelmingly 'speak with their sleeves', rolling up their sleeves in record numbers. When it comes to those aged over 70, some 85 per cent are already protected, and 75 per cent of the over-50s are protected. When it comes to Australia's most vulnerable, 67 per cent of those in shared disability accommodation have received one dose and already 51.9 per cent have received two doses. That is the fact. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Australians are typically known for being a rather easygoing lot. We're not ones to expect a great deal. We're relaxed and, I think it would be fair to say, reasonably forgiving types. Given these generally low expectations from Australians for most things, it is really quite something to see the level of disappointment currently in the community, disappointment especially with those opposite and their ability—or rather their inability—to get on with the job and deliver the things that matter to working families. At the beginning of this year we knew that the government had two jobs. The first was to deliver the vaccine rollout and the second was to deliver a national quarantine system. Those opposite would like to talk about how great they are at this moment, but, nine months later, what we are seeing is the government playing catch-up, to be frank. They have had the whole of this year and the one previously. One would have thought that the government would throw absolutely everything at these tasks. One would have thought that the government would understand just how important it is for them just to get it right and get those jabs in arms and have Australians overseas back home with their loved ones. And yet here we are with still some of the lowest vaccination rates in the developed world and still no effective quarantine system for returning Australians.

As much as those opposite would like to ignore it, the Prime Minister and his government made some promises to the Australian people. We remember those promises, and so do those in our community. The coalition promised that stranded Australians would be home by Christmas—last Christmas that is. The coalition promised that, in the race to get vaccinated, Australians were at the front of the queue and they would be the first ones in the line to get the jabs they needed in order to get our nation and our economy back on track. But what we know now is that both these promises have been broken. Christmas came and it went, and still tens of thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas, separated from family and friends—mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, torn apart because of this government's failure. Now, eight months on from the commitment, still here we are with loved ones torn away from their homeland because of this government's failure to deliver a national quarantine system.

And here we still are, over 12 months on, with Australians waiting and waiting for the jabs that they desperately need. It is good to see finally the government playing catch-up, but we're having to also rely on vaccines from overseas countries, because we took it too slow to get our orders in with various vaccination companies. We have half a nation that is currently under lockdown—our two biggest cities in Australia and even our national capital. Residents of Sydney and Melbourne are living under curfew conditions, all because of the coalition's failure. If Australians had had access to the jabs that they needed, we wouldn't be in this mess. That's just the fact of it. If Australia had actually been at the front of the queue, as was promised, we wouldn't be in this situation. It has been absolutely clear that the only thing this government deals in is false hope. It certainly isn't outcomes, the result of orientated groups of individuals.

My question to the federal government is simply this: how much longer do we all need to wait here until you stop buck-passing to the states and address the Commonwealth's failures and the Commonwealth's responsibilities under the Constitution? How much longer will working families be facing the uncertainty of rolling lockdowns before you'll get the jabs you promised rolling out into their neighbourhoods? How much longer will this take? These are not questions asked by me but questions that come to my office every single day from people who can't get work, people who are desperate to get out there and earn a living. These are questions far too important to ignore. They're too important for you to continue to buck-pass on. I urge the government to step up to the plate, make good on your broken promises and do the job that you were elected to do.

Question agreed to.

2:59 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services (Senator Colbeck) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to the COVID-19 vaccination program.

Senator Colbeck didn't answer my question about whether children are going to be included in vaccination targets This is a very important issue, because, if children under the age of 16 are not included in our targets, it means that 80 per cent is really 65 per cent of the population. That has ramifications in and of itself about the impact of COVID in the community, in terms of the infection rate, in terms of people who catch it and, unfortunately, in terms of deaths from COVID. Importantly, we need to stop our children getting sick. It's absolutely essential that we move strongly to make sure that teenagers under the age of 16 are included in our vaccination targets, because we've seen in the latest outbreaks that children are getting the delta variant. It is absolutely essential.

I'm going to share my time with Senator Faruqi, because she wants to talk about the TRIPS waiver. My last supplementary question was about the TRIPS waiver. The minister obviously did not understand the question, because he went on and had a rant at me about my comment. It was not about Australia; it was about the TRIPS waiver so that other countries get access to vaccines—in other words, waiving intellectual property rights so that those lower-GDP countries who don't have adequate access to vaccines can get access to vaccines. That's what that question was about. It was not about Australia. My other two questions were, but that one was about vaccines around the rest of the world. Our government, the Australian government, has not supported the TRIPS waiver. Australia is one of those countries standing in the way of making sure that the TRIPS waiver is in place. I would now like to hand over the rest of my time to Senator Faruqi.

3:31 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] The Morrison government have not only botched vaccinations for people living in this country; they are also actively jeopardising the health and lives of millions of people in the Global South. The Liberal-National government have ignored the pleas of more than 100 countries for our support to temporarily lift intellectual property restrictions so poorer countries can manufacture vital vaccines, medicines, masks and ventilators. This waiver is currently being considered at the World Trade Organization, with the TRIPS council meeting again on 14 September. But, as Senator Siewert said, I don't think Minister Colbeck even knows what a TRIPS waiver is, and that is pathetic and shameful.

Till now, Australia has sided with the big pharmaceutical corporations to keep their profits intact, rather than increasing access to a life-saving treatment for people who have already been screwed over by the Global North's colonialism and neocolonialism. Now is the time to pay off some of the debt that we owe these countries and their people by making sure that they can produce vaccines at the scale and urgency that is needed. Yet this government not only has stonewalled pleas to support the TRIPS waiver but, as the Saturday Paper recently reported, is using pharmaceutical industry talking points to help other holdouts such as Germany prolong negotiations at the World Trade Organization. This government is so shamelessly supporting corporate profit ahead of the lives of people.

While refusing to support the TRIPS waiver on the one hand, on the other hand Scott Morrison has dipped into the COVAX supply, taking out 500,000 Pfizer doses, because he failed to do his job. COVAX, a donation based model for poorer countries to have access to vaccines, is already struggling to meet its funding goal, and it's not enough to meet the required demand.

So today I'm calling on the Australian government again: if you have a skerrick of decency or any sense of morality and responsibility left in you, value people's lives and provide your full-throated support to the TRIPS waiver now. There is not a second to waste. It is unconscionable to deny any country vaccine access to protect the billions of dollars of profits of pharmaceutical giants.

Question agreed to.