Thursday, 2 September 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Sport (Senator Colbeck) to questions without notice asked by Senators Keneally and Marielle Smith today relating to COVID-19 and the healthcare system.
If anyone had any doubt about how out of depth the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care is, it was on full display during question time today. The arrogance of this minister and this government in not heeding the warnings of the Australian Medical Association was clearly on display today. The Australian Medical Association are best able to look out for health professionals, to look at the crisis that our hospitals will be facing, if indeed we relax the restrictions we've had thus far to ensure that we are keeping Australians safe, by having lockdowns and being careful with how we go about managing the rollout of the vaccine. We have every reason to question this minister, but he has such a glass jaw. He hates to be questioned. This entire government hates any scrutiny. We on this side will always hold ministers of the Crown responsible for their actions. This is a minister who fails on every occasion to answer very direct questions.
The questions today went to what's happening in New South Wales in particular, but we know what will happen right across this country if the delta variant gets out of hand beyond the borders of New South Wales: a crisis like we have never seen before in this country will hit our hospitals. That is the reality. That was the warning from the Australian Medical Association. I would be taking their advice. I would not, as a minister, be suggesting that if the AMA want to talk about modelling then they should get into that business. What arrogance. What absolute arrogance. I've never heard anything like it before. It goes again to the basis of the issue we have seen since the very start of this pandemic. This Prime Minister and this minister for health have been unable to have any forward thinking. They have learnt nothing from what was happening globally. This pandemic didn't just fall out of the sky here in Australia. They had plenty of opportunity to put plans in place, but they failed to do that. They failed to provide enough vaccines, so we're now seeing that the crisis in New South Wales is getting worse, potentially, because now they want to extend the time for rolling out the Pfizer vaccine.
It's all very well for the minister to try to deflect and talk about AZ. Well, I've got to tell you, on this side of the chamber a lot of us have had AZ; we've had both vaccines. We were happy to have that. The audacity of this failed minister, to come into this chamber and suggest we are not doing what we should be doing, as citizens and as elected members of the Senate and the other place, to encourage Australians to get vaccinated—it is just outrageous. That's desperation from a minister who is out of his depth. It is unbelievable.
The Prime Minister first off said, 'We are all in this together.' Then he turned when it had been exposed that he had failed in his job and his responsibility of this country, and he now wants to lay the blame elsewhere. First off, he wanted to blame the states for all the lockdowns. Now every day, for the past month at least, we have seen those on the other side come into this chamber and try to create this illusion that they're the only people who are out there caring for people and making sure they're vaccinated. That is clearly untrue, and it is quite dishonest. Nobody in this chamber—with one exception, who sits on that side of the chamber—has been raising issues around whether or not people should be vaccinated.
It is the government's own backbench that has been putting out misinformation about vaccinations in this country—not anyone on this side of the chamber, because we are responsible, because we will always hold this government to account. For those on that side to come in here and try to shift the blame—well, the Australian people have no faith whatsoever in Mr Morrison to roll out a vaccination to keep Australians healthy and safe. (Time expired)
I just find it incredible. Today the experts Labor want us to listen to are the AMA. Previously they wanted us to listen to other experts. Continually we are told, 'Listen to the experts.' Well, we have been listening to the experts. We have been listening to the experts since day one. We've listened to ATAGI about the vaccinations. We've listened to the AHPPC about the strength of lockdowns and what we should do. We've listened to the chief medical officers. And we've listened to the Doherty institute, who are experts at modelling and looking at when would be an appropriate time to start focusing on the future. But apparently we've now got to ignore all of them and listen only to the AMA. What a ridiculous concept, because if we ignored everyone else and focused on only one sector of experts we would find ourselves in a much worse position.
We do know that, as a government, by listening to the expert advice, we have been adaptable; we have managed to pivot our approach. Yes, we have accepted as a government that the early stages of the vaccine rollout did not go to plan and that we could have done better. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. No-one could have foreseen the change in advice for AstraZeneca. No-one could have foreseen that.
Senator Keneally interjecting—
You may laugh, Senator Keneally, but had you had a crystal ball I would have been impressed, because no country in the world foresaw that change in advice. And we were not the only country that changed the advice on what groups to provide the AstraZeneca to without talking to a GP. Even ATAGI always said, 'If you are confident and comfortable and have spoken to your GP you can still take AstraZeneca,' but that was conveniently ignored by the media and by Labor. The Prime Minister reminded people that they could sit down with their GP and have the conversation, and that if they were comfortable they could take the AstraZeneca. So many people across Australia have done that because they're not feasting on the fear or the vaccine hesitancy that is being spread by people.
I am very grateful to the millions of Australians who, combined, have now had over 19 million doses of vaccine—both AstraZeneca and Pfizer, the two vaccines that are available. We are now getting over 330,000 doses a day into people's arms. It is now taking us less than four days to get a million doses into people's arms, and we are doing that while listening to the advice. We are doing that with our eyes firmly set on the advice of the Doherty institute, which tells us that we need to look to the future and that, when we get to 80 per cent vaccination rates across Australia, we will be in a position to move forward.
I want to bring to Labor's attention that this is now being acknowledged by your own side. Senator Kimberley Kitching said: 'I think we are getting to the end of the lockdown era, partly because we are doing so well on vaccinations.' Senator Kitching recognises that vaccinations are our road out. Gone are the days of COVID zero—that is not going to happen. Premier Daniel Andrews accepts that that is not going to happen. Senator Kitching accepts that that is not going to happen. We need to get these vaccinations out the door. We need to get to 80 per cent so that we can progress on our national post-COVID pathway, because this disease, unfortunately, is with us. (Time expired)
[by video link] I asked these questions in the Senate today because the public hospital system in my home state of South Australia is struggling to cope. This week we had a major incident alert issued for two South Australian hospitals struggling to cope with pressure on their emergency departments. We've had emergency doctors at the Women's and Children's Hospital who have warned that urgent action is needed before the system fails completely. Everyone in South Australia knows that ramping is at crisis point. We have had record levels of ramping in my state. Every South Australian is aware of that, and they are deeply anxious about what's going to happen if they ever need to call an ambulance. We have had code whites declared.
It is fair to say that our system in South Australia is already struggling. So what on earth happens with a further COVID outbreak? What on earth happens when our system is already under pressure? What happens in the next steps of the national plan in my state of South Australia when we're already seeing these significant issues in our hospital system?
I want to be absolutely clear: no-one in South Australia wants to be locked down again, and no-one wants to see the existing lockdowns across our country go a moment longer than they need to. We have been urging the government to do the policy work required so that we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. To get the vaccination rollout on track, speedy and effective, is what we wanted to see, and they bungled it. We wanted them to fix quarantine because hotels are built for tourists, not for quarantine. These were the things they needed to focus on to avoid the sorts of things we've seen, and on these two things the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Aged Care have deeply failed.
So it is not enough for the minister, in his answers today, to just ignore me or actually to spend his time shouting at senators across the chamber. I'm here remotely. I can't even hear the conversation going on. I want an answer to my question, Minister. I want an answer to my question, not to hear you engaging in nonsense with other senators in the chamber. It's not enough to just say, 'There will be effects.' Yes, that's the point: how are you going to handle them? What are you going to do in my state of South Australia? People are worried in my state. They are anxious because of the state the health system is in already, and we do not have a widespread outbreak of COVID in my state at the moment. We do not, and the health system is already struggling, so what happens if we do? To the federal health minister: what are you doing to ensure South Australians can be kept safe?
It's not enough for the minister to make this about Labor, and it's certainly completely unacceptable to suggest any of us are engaging in vaccine hesitancy. I'm getting my jab this week. I can't wait. I cannot wait to be vaccinated, because I want to keep my family and my community safe, and I know my colleagues feel the same. The only people peddling vaccine hesitancy in this place have come from your own backbench, so maybe grab a mirror, take a good look and get your backbench into line, instead of coming in here and accusing us of engaging in vaccine hesitancy. It is absolute nonsense. There are real issues in the healthcare system in my state—real issues in our hospital system and real issues with ramping. What's going to happen?
This isn't about trying to undermine a plan. It's not about trying to undermine a policy response. No-one wants to do that. No-one wants this to go a minute longer than it needs to. No-one wants the restrictions in my state. No-one wants lockdowns. But we do want answers. We want answers from the federal government, who are responsible for what's going on here. You're responsible for how we're going to see a path through this, and you didn't give me answers today. You didn't give us answers, and that means you didn't give South Australians answers. You didn't answer their anxieties, and you need to. People are worried because you've bungled vaccines and you've bungled quarantine, and they're worried you're going to bungle what comes next in my state of South Australia. It is absolutely unacceptable, and I hope next time I ask a question you have the decency to answer me properly. (Time expired)
I think that my friend and colleague Senator Smith from South Australia is being somewhat unfair to the minister in suggesting that the minister did not answer the question which Senator Smith put to him. I was listening very carefully, and Senator Colbeck did, in fact, answer the question.
I'll just reiterate a few of the points which Senator Colbeck made in responding to the question from Senator Smith. First, Senator Colbeck referred to the record funding which the federal government has provided to the public health system across this country since the coalition government was elected. That's on the record. The federal government has provided record funding to the public health system across each and every state in Australia, and it's disingenuous to imply otherwise. Just to underscore that, the Australian government is continuing its record investment in public hospitals, which includes funding under the 2020-25 National Health Reform Agreement and the National Partnership on COVID-19 Response, with a total investment of $135.4 billion over five years. Let me just reiterate that number—$135.4 billion.
There is no doubt that there are issues in many of our public hospitals across Australia. There's an issue, certainly, in my home state of Queensland, in terms of ambulance ramping, but I think it's a bit disingenuous to throw bricks at the federal government in that respect, because the federal government does not run public hospitals under our federation system. Those public hospitals are run by the states. And in my home state of Queensland all the objective evidence is to the effect that our public health system is not being run at an optimal level. I believe one of the reasons for that is that the Labor Party in my home state of Queensland doesn't leverage off enough the opportunity for our private sector and our public sector to work together to meet things like waiting times and ambulance ramping. It's a real issue in my home state of Queensland, and a great concern is what is going to happen as we move through the next phase of dealing with this COVID pandemic. I've got friends who have been long-term paramedics working in the Queensland Ambulance Service, and they tell me that they've never seen morale so low as it is under the current state Labor government, so there are real issues that need to be addressed. But Senator Colbeck did address those questions when he answered the questions from Senator Smith.
Senator Colbeck, as well as referring to the national funding provided by the coalition government for the public hospital services of our states, referred to the additional $6 billion in funding to support state and territory health systems to respond to COVID-19 outbreaks. So the funding has been there from the federal government, but the federal government doesn't run our public health system; those hospitals are actually run by our state governments.
The second point I'd like to make in terms of this contribution is that I think Senator Polley was quite unfair to Senator Colbeck in terms of his answers to her questions regarding aged care and the rollout of the vaccine across our aged-care services. I want to reiterate these figures. These are important figures. The vaccination rate of workers in our aged-care sector continues to increase. As at 31 August, 82.9 per cent of aged-care workers had received one dose of the vaccine. Over 82 per cent, 82.9 per cent, had received at least one dose, and over 61 per cent had received two doses. Over 61 per cent had received two doses, so the vaccination program is going well in terms of making sure our aged-care workers are fully vaccinated.
I think also, and Minister Colbeck made this point as well, it has to be recognised that the medical advice changed earlier this year, and the program had to pivot so that we weren't vaccinating aged-care residents and aged-care workers at the same time.
[by video link] Senator Colbeck's answers to these questions showed he just isn't up to it. He was smug. He was complacent. He was unaware or uninterested in key details. There was no sense of urgency, just a sense of entitlement. He was evasive. He was tricky about the politics.
You may be able to hear that there is a small construction site outside level 22 of the building that I'm in. They've just recommenced drilling, so hopefully they stop for the next 3½ minutes, or whatever it is.
The underlying problem here is that the Prime Minister made a bet that a four- or six-month delay in vaccine delivery wouldn't matter very much. It's been the most disastrous public policy failure in Australian history, the worst gamble with the worst consequences. It's not clear why the Prime Minister has failed so badly—whether it was his complacency; whether he was influenced by the naggers on his backbench, the alt-Right conspiracy theorists; whether it was his own hostility to public health and active government; or whether he just thought that somehow market forces might resolve the problem for him.
You see, when Australians are in times of crisis—in times of conflict, pandemic, natural disasters such as flood or fire, or economic shock—they look to their Prime Minister. And what have they seen throughout the three years of this Prime Minister's term? During the bushfires, he was trying to pretend that he wasn't on holidays in Hawaii. Australians have seen the blame shifting, the hyperpoliticisation, the big press conferences and announcements with no delivery, the lectures, the bullying and the conflict with his political opponents. They have seen all these things, but they have seen nothing of substance. This Prime Minister only hopes that there will still be people in the press gallery who are prepared to run his lines for him.
Australia had a golden opportunity with our geographical isolation, our strong public health system and the fact that we've had over 100 years of democratic governance. Who would have thought at the beginning of last year that the world would have been able to move so quickly to develop multiple vaccines for the coronavirus? What we required was a government that was able to take the steps to keep COVID infections low or non-existent; deliver vaccines up to the 70, 80 and 90 per cent levels that are required to keep the community safe; and then have a safe, staged opening-up. Well, this Prime Minister has bungled that opportunity. He has squandered the opportunity that Australia has had, and, as a consequence, ordinary people are now paying the price. There are long-term problems for ordinary people. There were nearly 1,300 cases in New South Wales today. There are over 1,000 cases every day. Significant parts of the New South Wales population are not vaccinated, including vulnerable parts of the population, particularly in regional Australia. Our hospitals are under pressure. There is pressure on our ICU capability. There are endless lockdowns that the Prime Minister wants to blame on the state governments rather than taking responsibility for the underlying reason for these lockdowns, which is, of course, the Prime Minister's failure to execute an effective vaccine strategy, deliver the vaccines for Australians and secure vaccine supply.
The senators opposite may choose to go on with the puerile politics of trying to defend this Prime Minister's abject failure, but we ought to be focused squarely upon it. We ought to fix it. This minister—Senator Colbeck—this government and this Prime Minister are accountable for that failure, and it's having enormously negative consequences, particularly in my home state of New South Wales. (Time expired)
Yes, I appreciate that. You, Senator Whish-Wilson, and you, Senator Roberts, are seeking the call, and you're both on remote. I would have to say, on balance, that most of the time this goes to the Greens, so there's no other way to call it. I'm calling it for Senator Roberts.
Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I reference the response by the Attorney-General, Senator Cash, to my question on freedom to protest under the body of Australian law. Senator Cash fluffed on about what is in fact a basic element of our democracy. What she seems to have forgotten is that there is an overarching principle: the right to freedom is a basic inalienable right that our body of law has been formed around. Our laws reflect our Christian heritage and should always do so. Our governing document, our national Constitution, for instance, references God in its preamble. Without being presumptuous, and while I'm not a biblical scholar or a church-goer, perhaps I should have asked myself earlier than this a fundamental question: what would God do? It turns out that the Bible is quite clear on the issue of freedom. From Galatians 5:1:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm … and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
In this epistle, Paul was urging the new churches he had founded in Galatia to stand against those who were trying to subvert the freedom Christianity had given. Paul's epistle to the faithful in Galatia could have been written today. The battle between freedom and darkness exists now, as it did 2,000 years ago. We spent 2,000 years writing a body of law to implement Christian principles, including the right to freedom. These freedoms were first enshrined in Magna Carta Libertatum—literally the 'great charter of freedoms' that the leader of the church in England at the time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in 1215.
Our Attorney-General has demonstrated not only a lack of understanding of man's laws; she has failed to demonstrate an understanding of God's laws. Being sworn in on the Bible is clearly no guarantee of believing a word of it. While eminent biblical scholars advise that the Bible is properly understood in context, how could the Attorney-General not have looked this up at any time in the five months the senator has occupied her role? Five months of widespread and sustained media and social media conversations around the right to protest and the Attorney-General, the highest law officer in the land, was missing in action. Was she not curious about what the law actually said? Let me help on that in the time remaining. Magna Carta was written in response to King John exercising his powers, using the principle of vis et voluntas, which translates as 'force and will'—the making of decisions that were above the law and then using force to create compliance, much as parliaments around Australia are doing right now. Lord Denning described Magna Carta as:
… the greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”
I looked through Magna Carta and I couldn't see the COVID exemption that allows governments to destroy human rights and do whatever they want if they can get the population scared enough to accept it. Of course, there is no exemption afforded power-mad governments and unelected bureaucrats.
In 1948, before the UN turned into the problem and not the solution, the United Nations charter on human rights declared a few things on freedom of protest that parliaments around Australia are conveniently ignoring. Article 19 says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference …
Article 20 says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Article 21 says:
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country …
This is what protesters are doing: participating in governance, exercising their right to free speech and free association. That's the very definition of a protest. These are rights that article 30 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects. It binds governments from breaching the declaration. It would appear that the Prime Minister and the premiers are seeking to wind back our right to freedom to that which existed prior to 1215, to give themselves the powers that King John used force to exercise.
Would the Attorney-General like to take another run at explaining why parliaments in Australia are not in breach of the very principles that define our legal system, the Bible and Magna Carta, reinforced by the much more recent United Nations charter on human rights? I wonder what Monica is thinking, languishing in jail with the promise that she can get out providing she renounces her membership of a political party. This is Australia in 2021. It's a disgrace. We need our freedoms back and we need an Attorney-General who understands the basics on which our freedoms are based.
Question agreed to.