Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Indigenous Health

3:28 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 Finance (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Thorpe today relating to COVID-19 vaccination rates for First Nations people.

The minister would not answer the question, which was: when will all First Nations peoples be vaccinated? He danced around it but he wouldn't say, because he can't say. The rollout for First Nations communities has been dismal. It is unconscionable. First Nations people were in either phase 1a or phase 1b. They are supposed to have been vaccinated by now. Yet here we've seen a First Nations man in Wilcannia pass away due to COVID.

The government knew that if COVID got into First Nations communities it would have a devastating impact. In fact, look at the time line. In March last year Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation wrote to the Morrison government warning about COVID-19 outbreaks in western New South Wales.

In July this year, NACCHO was excluded from the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce meeting. How did that happen, when everybody in Australia knows that First Nations communities are at such significant risk? How did it happen? In August 2018, we had elders calling for vaccine supplies, for nurses to support Aboriginal medical services and for appropriate accommodation so people could quarantine. What does the government do? It sends in the Army and the police.

The letter that was written by the Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation warned about the great risk because of overcrowded housing, food insecurity, a highly mobile population, low health literacy and issues around poor health and chronic disease. These were all things I'm sure the government knew about, but they reminded the government about them to put them high on the agenda. What do we see now? We see the disaster that's happening in western New South Wales. It is unconscionable that the Prime Minister has overseen this happening and that the government overrides First Nations' wishes. We should have First Nations peoples making these decisions. NACCHO is very clear in providing the advice. The Aboriginal health organisations are very clear that they need to be in the driving seat here, because First Nations peoples must have self-determination and control over this program.

I'm told that First Nations peoples are laughing at the messaging. It is so poor. You know how you make sure you get it right? You put it in the hands of First Nations organisations. It's not as if they haven't got their own media hubs. Many communities, in fact, have their own media hubs, and they know how to communicate with their own community. Enable them to do it. Enable communities to take control of the decision-making. But what have the government done? They've excluded them. They've excluded NACCHO from crucial meetings.

Let's go back to Senator Birmingham's non-answer on targets for when we will see all First Nations peoples vaccinated. NACCHO is calling for 100 per cent vaccination of First Nations peoples or as close as you can get, acknowledging that some people can't have a vaccination due to health reasons. But we need to make sure we're aiming for 100 per cent. When will we see that happen? The Minister representing the Prime Minister could not answer that question, when we know that First Nations people are so at risk.

When Maari Ma wrote to the government, they suggested that accommodation such as motels and caravan parks could be used for quarantining. They saw, in March last year, the urgent need for these sorts of things to take place, knowing very well that we needed to make sure that there were safe places for people to go because of overcrowding. I won't take up the rest of the time talking about the appalling state of housing for First Nations peoples, because Australia knows about it. They also suggested ways to safeguard against food shortages, and we're hearing about that. We're hearing that people can't go out to make sure that they're adequately fed.

We now see that Wilcannia has the highest transmission rate in New South Wales. Shame on the New South Wales government and shame on the Morrison government that it has got to this point! They knew this could happen, and, unfortunately, it is happening now. It's a travesty that this is happening to First Nations communities, including in Wilcannia.

Question agreed to.