Senate debates

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Western Australia

3:35 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Attorney-General (Senator Cash) to a question without notice she asked today relating to COVID-19 and Western Australia.

Yesterday and today in the chamber we have heard Attorney-General Senator Cash, herself a Western Australian, say that the legal pathways that led to the High Court determining that it was reasonable for WA to have closed its borders to stop the spread of COVID-19 may have a different outcome should those same policies be tested again. 'Things have changed,' Senator Cash said, and 'When is Mark McGowan going to open Western Australia up to the rest of the country?' I am exceedingly alarmed at these remarks. Premier McGowan put it best when he said, 'The Morrison government went through the Clive Palmer experience last year and now they want to do exactly the same thing again.' What kind of message is Senator Cash trying to send to Western Australians? Senator Cash must take us for mugs.

Of course Western Australia can't live in a bubble forever. But to open up at 80 per cent and invite the virus in when this government has not provided enough vaccines for the other 20 per cent of Western Australians who might want to be vaccinated to get vaccinated is a ridiculous proposition. So if Mark McGowan rightly says, 'I'm not going to open up the borders automatically at 80 per cent,' I'm very grateful and thankful for him saying that. In fact, he fought in the negotiations in the national cabinet to ensure that Western Australia, as part of agreeing to the plan, is able to keep its border protection system in place.

It is a ridiculous notion that Western Australia should just allow COVID into the state when there are people who want to be vaccinated who will not be vaccinated by that point in time, including very vulnerable members of the community—older people, First Nations Australian and, indeed, children—due to this government's failure to roll out the vaccine and secure enough supply. But this government is instead focused on attacking premiers and chief ministers and drawing up legal schemes to force the pandemic into places where it doesn't exist already.

For the Attorney-General, the chief law officer in this country, to be openly advocating for future challenges to Western Australia's border closures is absolutely farcical. The Morrison government has spent more than a million dollars supporting Clive Palmer's failed High Court challenge. It failed, and I call on the government to move on. Yet we've heard the Attorney-General saying out of one side of her mouth that the government won't support a challenge led by Clive Palmer but, on the other hand, essentially saying that the laws are now ripe for challenging. Why won't the Attorney-General pay money to support Mark McGowan and the state government against a future High Court challenge if business wants to challenge those laws? Essentially, again, the Attorney-General is siding against the state of Western Australia.

Government Senator:

A government senator interjecting

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

It's all very well for those opposite to say, 'No, she didn't; that's not what she said.' She said: 'It is open for challenge.'

A government senator interjecting

Why then shouldn't the Attorney-General say, 'It is in the best interests of Western Australia for its borders to remain protected for the time being, until every single West Australian has had an opportunity to get vaccinated if they want to be'?

3:40 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, I think Senator Cash was pretty clear when she spoke earlier today. I'm not sure whether Senator Pratt actually was in the chamber at the time. Senator Cash did state that the government will not challenge state border closures in the High Court. That's pretty clear. Throughout this pandemic the federal government has worked constructively with premiers and chief ministers, through the national cabinet process, to ensure the safety of all Australians. The government has a solid four-step national plan to transition Australia's national COVID-19 response. That plan is based on the Doherty institute's COVID-19 modelling, utilising the economic analysis conducted by the Commonwealth Department of the Treasury. The national plan is supported by an overwhelming majority of the states and territories and has been agreed to at national cabinet on more than one occasion.

The government is clear: we will not do anything to jeopardise the staged national plan to get us out of this pandemic. What I would like to know is, what is opposition leader Mr Albanese's and the Labor Party's position? Mr Albanese has at times backed the national plan and at other times, well, a different time line for opening borders and ultimately Australia. Mr Albanese continues to have that each-way bet on the future of Australians. Instead, he should wholeheartedly support and get behind the national plan.

As I mentioned earlier, the Doherty institute examined COVID-19 infection and vaccination rates in order to determine the targets required for the national plan's staged pathway to living with COVID. The plan was put in place to provide assurance and comfort to all Australians that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the plan was agreed by national cabinet. We sought the research from the Doherty institute and have since agreed to the way forward. So, imagine the disappointment of the Australian public that we now have some premiers hesitating, stepping back from that commitment.

The open letter from the business community in national papers today really says it all. The full-page advertisement, signed by the heads of 81 of Australia's largest businesses, calls on governments across the country to work together to deliver on the plan:

As vaccination rates increase, it will become necessary to open up society and live with the virus, in the same way that other countries have done. The National Cabinet has agreed to a roadmap which provides a path out of lockdowns, with an easing of restrictions from 70% and 80% vaccination rates. We need to stay the course.

These are CEOs and managing directors such as Steven Cain from Coles Group, Steve Johnston from Suncorp, Tarun Gupta from Stockland, Peter King from Westpac, Jeanne Johns from Incitec Pivot Ltd, Tom Seymour from PwC—and the extensive and very impressive list goes on. They all understand the importance of sticking to the plan. My hope is that their plea is heard and all governments can work together to stick to the plan to enable our country to regain some semblance of normality—albeit a new norm—and allow businesses and the borders to reopen as planned. If not, jobs and businesses will be lost.

The vaccine rollout, which has also been raised, is increasing progressively each and every month: 7.3 million vaccinations were delivered in August, 4.5 million vaccinations in July, 3.4 million in June and 2.1 million in May. That is a massive increase. We're administering more than 1.9 million doses every week. Last week alone, there were nearly 1,929,000 doses, made up of 841,000 in state and territory health clinics, 50,362 in aged care and disability clinics and 1,037,000 in primary care clinics. Throughout this pandemic we have saved more than 30,000 lives, supported more than three million Australians through JobKeeper and got one million Australians back into work. With around one million Pfizer doses arriving every week, plus the additional half a million Pfizer doses secured through the doses swap with Singapore and the one million doses from Poland, our health and economic recovery is well and truly on track.

We need all states and territories to come online and make sure that we are delivering for the national plan that has been agreed and that we see a way out of this pandemic in Australia.

3:46 pm

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

The country is yearning for a man with a plan, but there's only one plan for Mr Morrison, and it's all about him—only a plan for himself and his survival. Everybody else is a casualty in Mr Morrison's plan. We have to acknowledge what he actually said. Despite a national plan, yesterday he said, 'Ultimately, everything is a state matter.'

Under the leadership of this man with many plans and no conviction, Australia has never been more divided. States that once had open borders and open commerce have had to resort to their own powers in order to protect their people. The only interventions the Prime Minister has seen fit to make in this debate are to undermine the ATAGI advice, to attack some of the premiers for taking action when he does nothing and to constantly blame everyone else for his colossal policy failures. And then, of course, he has the singular version of his interaction with New South Wales, encouraging Premier Gladys Berejiklian not to stick with the plan of a rapid lockdown, and the consequences of the Bondi failure are spreading right across the country.

There's one reason that all of this chaos is happening, and that is that Mr Morrison refuses all accountability. He shirks all the tough decisions, and he thinks only about his personal short-term political gain and not the benefit of the country. For the first time in federation, we have a head of government with whom the buck doesn't stop. As inept as Mr Abbott was and as aloof as Mr Turnbull was, can we really imagine that either of them would completely abdicate national leadership and stand up and say, 'Ultimately, everything is a state matter'?

Despite the constant leaks from hotel quarantine sites, Mr Morrison's failed to build a national quarantine facility, forcing Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to build her own. Despite promising that all Australians would be able to return from overseas for Christmas last year, the Prime Minister was still failing at the end of July this year, when there were still 38,000 Australians waiting to get back into the country. Despite section 51 of the Constitution explicitly stating that quarantine is a federal responsibility, Mr Morrison continues to do nothing to build a safe and secure facility for Australians.

I have to wonder what this national cabinet he talks about really is. If this were a man with a plan that we could trust for the country, surely he would have created a national cabinet with the leader of the government and the Leader of the Opposition. He would have encouraged premiers and leaders of the opposition to come to the table and work in the national interest. Yet he couldn't wait to establish a form of cabinet, a national cabinet, that's been critiqued as not being a cabinet and as not having its documents worthy of protection. This show of a select group of people across the country—not bipartisan—is just not delivering for the country.

Nowhere has Mr Morrison's failure been more absolute than in western New South Wales. The delta variant has ravaged Indigenous communities from Wilcannia to Walgett to Dubbo, and, tragically, last week it claimed its first Aboriginal victim. Last week, only 6.3 per cent of the Indigenous population in western New South Wales was vaccinated, despite repeated warnings to the government from me and Aboriginal health leaders. It's a long way from 6.3 per cent to the 70 and 80 per cent that this government keeps talking about. The Prime Minister's failure to secure an adequate supply of Pfizer for the disproportionately young Aboriginal populations of western New South Wales has condemned them to being locked down in their homes, or in isolation in tents, or to trying to find refuge in their own cars, separate from their family, while the deadly virus is alive and moving around their community. Mr Morrison's plan for Indigenous people was announced in March 2020. He announced that there were going to be vaccines. Here we are, in September 2021, with only 6.3 per cent of the Indigenous population of western New South Wales vaccinated. That's how useless Mr Morrison's plans are. The goal he articulates might be what Australians want to hear, but the man is incapable of delivering it.

3:51 pm

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In rising to take note of answers provided by Minister Cash in question time today, there's one point that I want to start with. It's a point that I have made a number of times in this place, in contributing to debates such as this in this chamber, and that is that there is not a single nation in the world, and not a single government, that I think would claim to have made all the right decisions when dealing with this pandemic and to have dealt with the situation absolutely superbly and perfectly. But what is important is that we learn about what works with this virus and what doesn't and that we adapt and move forward to counter the challenges that it poses to us. And we have learned, we are adapting and we are moving forward.

What doesn't do us any good during a pandemic, though, is partisan politicking, and, quite frankly, that is what we have seen here from the Labor Party today. They have not listened to the responses provided by ministers in this place. I've been here two years now and I've got used to that. They are not listening to what is being told to them in question time. They are manipulating the words of Senator Cash and turning them into something that, quite frankly, they were not. But should I be surprised? We tend to get that from them every day.

This pandemic is fast-moving and constantly evolving, and, like I said, no government has got it exactly right—or claims to have got it exactly right. It makes you ask: why is it that all Labor has to offer at this point is to go back in time to 12 months ago or 18 months ago, instead of working to ensure that everyone is on the same page and everyone is working to the national plan that was agreed by all states and territories at the national cabinet?

The coalition government is continuing with the critical work to get Australians vaccinated, keep us safe, get us back into work, keep the economy turning over, end the lockdowns and ensure that people can cross borders unrestricted. Millions of Australians are struggling with community lockdowns and border closures that prevent them from seeing their friends and their families, and it is just heartbreaking. I hear, each and every day, from people—whether they're in my home state of Tasmania or across the country—who are frustrated with the lockdowns. They are frustrated with the restrictions. They want to be able to see their family and their friends face to face, and, sadly, that is not possible at the moment. But that is why we have the national plan to get vaccination rates to 70 or 80 per cent. That will allow us to open up safely, get our kids back into school, get Australians back to work, get our economy moving again and give people the opportunity to reunite with their loved ones, who they haven't been able to see for so long.

The national plan shifts the focus from continued suppression of community transmission to post-vaccination settings focused on preventing serious illness and fatalities, where the public health management of COVID-19 becomes consistent with that of other infectious diseases. I think I said this close to 18 months ago in this place: we need to learn to live with the virus. We absolutely need to learn to live with the virus, and vaccinating Australians is a really key part of learning to live with the virus. Once we have Australians vaccinated, we will be able to get back to living our lives in a manner closer to what we all remember as being normal. Currently, over 19 million doses have been administered across the country, and, if we continue on the rates that we've been on, we should hit the 20 million mark by the end of the week. That is incredibly exciting. I'm also advised that 60 per cent of eligible Tasmanians are now protected with at least one dose, while more than 42 per cent are fully vaccinated. That is fantastic news for my home state of Tasmania and certainly a testament to the hard work of the state Liberal government, led by Peter Gutwein and supported by the Morrison Liberal team, in ensuring that we are rolling out the vaccination program locally.

Importantly, the government continues to make new arrangements and deals to secure additional doses for the nation so that we can continue with this rollout to ensure that we can get back to normal. Make no mistake: we as a government are doing everything in our power to expedite the vaccination program and progress the national plan so we can reach a point where extended lockdowns and border restrictions are a thing of the past.

3:56 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] It was indeed very refreshing to hear a member of the government benches congratulate a Labor state premier for doing a good job in dealing with the pandemic. It was very refreshing to hear Senator Cash acknowledge Mr McGowan and his incredible hard work to keep the people of his home state of Western Australia safe. It was as refreshing as a cool change in a heatwave, because the members of this government have done nothing but pile heat onto Labor state premiers during this pandemic. They have done nothing but pile on to Labor state premiers and to the people that they represent. They have done nothing but pile on to Labor state premiers, who have been doing everything they can to keep Australians safe—making the tough decisions, making the difficult calls, making those calls to keep all of us safe.

Right now Victorians, who are locked down, can only imagine what our lives would be like if Mr Morrison had spent last year doing his job instead of attacking Victorians, instead of attacking our state premier, instead of attacking the measures that were put in place in Victoria to keep us all safe. Victorians know that we would not be in the situation of being locked down yet again if the Prime Minister had only done his two jobs—rolling out the vaccine and establishing federal, dedicated, open-air quarantine facilities. If only he had secured those vaccines for the start of this year instead of saying that it's how you end the race, at the end of the year, that matters. If only he had understood the whole time that it was always a race. If only he had fronted up to his two jobs, the two jobs that Australians needed him to do: the speedy rollout of vaccinations and purpose-built quarantine. If only the Prime Minister had spent his time on that instead of spending his time attacking Victorians and funding Clive Palmer's attack on the WA government and its health response.

Instead, what we have seen from this Prime Minister is 18 months of avoiding responsibility, looking for others to blame, blaming states for lockdowns—lockdowns that were caused by his failure to build purpose-built quarantine facilities and his failure in relying on leaky hotel quarantine, hotels that were built for tourists, not to keep a virus from entering the community. If only the Prime Minister hadn't spent his time blaming the very people who really need to be vaccinated for not being able to access the vaccines! He has been blaming essential workers and Indigenous people for his failure to vaccinate those vulnerable populations.

Now, this week, the Prime Minister doesn't even try to hide his extreme aversion to taking responsibility in this crisis. He said this week that ultimately everything is a state matter. Well, we know what the Prime Minister's responsibilities are. We know who is ultimately responsible. We know who has ultimately failed on vaccines and on quarantine, and that is Prime Minister Morrison. He failed to heed the advice of his own health advisers and invest in fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities, instead claiming again and again and again that the hotel quarantine system was effective—that it was 99.9 per cent effective. Well, tell that to the 60 per cent of Australians who are locked down today. Tell that to the children who are missing school. Tell that to all of the people who have lost their jobs. Tell that to all of the people who are relying on disaster payments.

What Australians want from the Prime Minister right now is leadership. They want him to do his job. They want him to take responsibility. They want him to bring people together—not to divide us and shift blame but to take responsibility.

Question agreed to.