Senate debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Matters of Public Importance

COVID-19: Morrison Government

3:56 pm

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

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 18 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the letter from Senator Ayres, proposing a matter of public importance, was chosen—namely:

The refusal of the Morrison-Joyce Government to publicly release the Doherty Modelling, as Australians become increasingly concerned that the previous modelling based on a small COVID outbreak does not adequately deal with how many hospitalisations, deaths, cases are now expected with revised modelling.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

The Acting De Puty President:

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 clocks accordingly.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this MPI today, for there isn't a more important issue at the moment that affects all of Australia than opening up safely from the COVID-19 lockdowns that have plagued, in particular, the south-eastern parts of Australia since June and July this year.

Senator Ayres has raised this matter of public importance because we are worried that, as the opening-up is happening, the government are being less than transparent with the information they have available to them about what will happen as part of the opening-up. How many cases of COVID-19 will occur in the community, how many of those will be serious, how many of those will end up in hospital and, indeed, what is the capacity or the preparedness of the hospital system to deal with those cases?

I've been following this pretty closely for a number of reasons; one of them is as the chair of the Select Committee on COVID-19. We have been following the reluctance of the Morrison government to make information available as early as possible to keep Australians' trust and to thank them for the sacrifices they've made over the last 20 months. We've all stayed home, we haven't seen family, we haven't gone to social occasions, we haven't celebrated birthdays, we've been apart from our loved ones when they've passed away and we haven't been able to attend funerals, and we haven't been able to travel. All of those things don't sound like much, but they have taken their toll on everybody.

Part of the trust engagement between a government and its citizens, particularly in times like these, when we are subjecting ourselves voluntarily to some really harsh restrictions on the way that we would normally live our lives, is that that trust is repaid by the provision of information about why we're doing it and what happens when those restrictions change. The Australian community have played their part in this bargain. We have done what was asked of us and we are happy for the opening-up to happen and we want it to happen safely. But the other side of the deal is that we should be advised what that means. We have stayed home to make sure our hospital system was there to care for people—not just people with COVID, but people with other conditions who required hospital resources. We have done it willingly and for the greater good. That's been a really tremendous sign that we're all in this together.

The reason we had the lockdown was to make sure those resources were available to care for those who needed it. That is still the same as we open up. As we open up and get more cases and the virus gets transmitted, what is the preparedness of the healthcare system to deal with that? We know that the government has that information. The Department of Health was commissioned in August—pretty late in the piece, if you ask me—to go around and have a look at how the hospitals were preparing for the opening up as part of the national plan. I was surprised it was that late. I read about it in the paper. I heard the health minister say that this work had been commissioned and the Commonwealth was engaging with the states and territories about what that would look like. We know they have had that document; we know that Professor Brendan Murphy has briefed national cabinet on it. We know that they know exactly what the healthcare system will look like under the various scenarios. But do we know? No. Because that information has not been shared. There may be a reason for this. But I'm suspicious because when we have sought other information we've been told it's cabinet in confidence and we can't have it.

Surely on a matter like this, where we have made so many sacrifices, we should be given the information about what our hospital system looks like now and what it will look like as we come out of the lockdown—and that means in Sydney and Melbourne, in Perth and Queensland, in regional and rural hospitals, in remote locations. We heard at the Senate committee last week that there are some places in Australia where vaccination rates remain extremely low. It is anywhere between 25 and 30 per cent below the national average in some communities—in particular, First Nations communities. And we don't have any idea what the allocation of resources is going to be in those communities or in hospitals. We know that the AMA is worried. They have released a report. They are really concerned. They have appeared before the committee really concerned about what this means. It is their members who work in the hospitals. They are seeing firsthand what is happening in hospitals. And we know right now that, even in the non-COVID states, the hospitals are pushed to their limits. We know that, in the COVID states and territories, the hospitals are operating at their limits. This is a busy time of year for any hospital, in any year, let alone when you are managing a global pandemic as well. We know that the states and territories are worried. They have tried to engage the Commonwealth on this: 'How are we going to meet this demand?'

We know that the AMA is calling for extra help in the community. I mean, most people with COVID are going to be looked after at home. I've just been through that; I know what it means. It's hard work; people are sick. Don't trivialise the virus; don't say it's nothing; don't say it's a little virus and most people get mild symptoms. People are running mini-hospitals in their homes, often with very little support. I've just been there; I've done it; it's hard. Unless you can engage your GP and have a GP come—unless you have a fabulous GP like mine, who actually helped me twice a day, every day, for 14 days as I got my family members through the worst of that virus—you are largely on your own.

So what is happening in the community? What is going to happen for primary healthcare? The Commonwealth is responsible for it. Are they doing anything? Are they supporting GPs? We heard the AMA, in evidence before my committee, say, 'They haven't spoken to us about it, and we would like them to.' That was only a month ago. We are 20 months into the pandemic and we don't have a plan for primary healthcare provision around COVID-19. Yet the Prime Minister tells us it's all fine to open up. Well, if it's all fine to open up, tell us what it's going to look like. How many people are going to be operating mini home hospitals, isolated and looking after sick people on their own? It is not normal for young, otherwise healthy people to die in their homes. That has been happening in New South Wales. I'm not trying to scaremonger here: I am just saying what is happening. We do not live in a country where we can have 30 to 40 people, otherwise healthy, die at home. We have had 500 Australians die in this third wave of the outbreak. People might try to write that off and say, 'Well, it's good; look overseas,' but that's irrelevant. Look at our experience and look at what it means as we open up. Everyone tells us there will be more cases. It will rip through the schools and the places where we have large gatherings.

It's great that we are vaccinated to the levels we are. It's absolutely fantastic. It will provide protection. But our hospitals are under enormous pressure. Why is it that we are not being told what that means? We in this country are not used to having health care rationed or not having health care available if we need it. I hope the Commonwealth has a plan to make sure that doesn't happen, but I'm not given the confidence that I need, with the knowledge that I have and the experience that I've just come through, when the Commonwealth hides this information. They will not tell us what the hospitals will look like. They will not tell us what they are doing and will do to keep people safe. They're not telling us how they're going to keep health services going.

We know people are not accessing health services as they normally would. We know cancer diagnoses are down. Screening programs are down. This is all explainable in a global pandemic sense, but what is going to happen? What is the national plan on this, and why is the Prime Minister hiding this information? It does make one believe that the only reason he's hiding this information and not providing it is that he doesn't want people to know, and that's an even more serious abrogation of responsibility. We're used to that, in a sense, but, honestly, it's the least this Prime Minister can do to pay back the work that we have all done.

4:07 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to admit that I found the MPI in its written form somewhat confusing, and Senator Gallagher has now clarified it a little bit. I thought that it had something to do with the Doherty modelling. The Doherty modelling lies at the centre of everything that we're doing, but I think I may have missed any reference that she may have made to that. We are in a process of opening up safely, and I don't accept that we are less than transparent in what we're doing. We've all made sacrifices. It has taken a personal toll on Senator Gallagher, and we're aware of that, and I'm very sensitive to that.

I have been a user of those same hospitals that Senator Gallagher was talking about, for uses other than COVID. In March of this year, when I started using them, I sent thanks both to Senator Gallagher—who was responsible, in her previous iteration, for the extraordinary cancer set-up that we have in the ACT—and to Senator Seselja, as someone who has worked in the ACT. So the hospitals are in use by others, and there will be a call on them.

There is lots of information being shared. I don't want to trivialise the virus in any way, shape or form. I would be terrified as a parent if I had to nurse any of my children through this period of time. Senator Gallagher counsels us to be careful not to scaremonger, and that's very, very important. That's why accurate information is so important. Let's get the facts and the plans right. Let's not be paranoid about this. Let's not push it too hard. Let's get it right before we release the facts.

We are in a process of suppressing the virus and delivering the vaccine. If there were something fundamentally wrong with what we're doing, we wouldn't see the results that we are seeing at the moment, which are quite extraordinary. Senator Gallagher mentioned the fact that we are vaccinating people at a quite phenomenal rate. Australia's first-dose vaccination rate is now higher than the rate in the US; it's higher than the rate in Germany; it's higher than the rate in Israel, which we all held up as being the paragon of COVID management; and it's higher than the OECD average In relation to the written MPI, about people being concerned that there may be a problem with the Doherty modelling, this must indicate that somewhere the modelling must have got it relatively right. More than 95 per cent of over 70s are protected with a first dose, and more than 85 per cent have received a second dose. Sixty-five per cent plus of the eligible population aged 16 and over are fully vaccinated—I think it's well into 68 per cent at the moment.

There is a plan, and that plan is very important and it's being run. Basic to that plan is the modelling. The modelling must be good. It's certainly better than a lot of the alarmist climate change modelling, which has failed in the recent past. On both the health and economic fronts, Australia has fared better than most countries in dealing with COVID-19. For example, over 12 per cent of people in the USA, and 11 per cent of people in the UK, have had COVID. By contrast, 0.4 per cent of Australians have had COVID. That's not to trivialise it. It is to acknowledge that someone, somewhere, must be doing something right. Of the 38 developed OECD countries, Australia has had the second-lowest number of COVID-19 cases per capita. On a per capita basis, the UK and the USA have had over 40 times the number of COVID deaths.

We say, with validity, that, if Australia had had the death rates of OECD countries, we would have had something in the order of 30,000 deaths. How can you criticise the modelling which lies at the centre of the plan if in fact we are achieving such success? While Australia has been doing it tough, and we know we've been doing it tough—we are all making sacrifices, and I acknowledge that Senator Gallagher has made a particular sacrifice, through her family—Australia's economy and its GDP have recovered to be larger than prior to the pandemic. That's extraordinary, ahead of any advanced major economy in the world. Australia was also the first advanced economy to have more people in work than prior to COVID. Nearly 900,000 jobs have been created since May last year, and our credit rating agencies and the IMF have acknowledged this very important fact, because the sacrifices that we are all making are reflected to an incredible degree in the economy of the nation.

Turning to the written form of the matter of public importance, I need to talk a little bit about the Doherty modelling. In July 2021 the Prime Minister announced an agreement to formulate a four-step national plan to transition Australia's national COVID response. Senator Gallagher asked if there was a plan. There is a plan, and we are seeing that plan on a daily basis. To support the plan—because facts are important—the Doherty institute was commissioned to undertake modelling of COVID-19 infections and vaccinations to define target levels for transition to phase B and phase C of the four-step plan. Based on the results of the modelling and the recommendations of the COVID-19 Risk Analysis and Response Taskforce, in July 2021 national cabinet agreed to transition to phases B and C when 70 per cent and 80 per cent respectively of people aged 16 and older are vaccinated. Because jurisdictions are likely to have different case counts, different numbers of COVID, a sensitivity analysis was conducted for when vaccination thresholds are met—and this is part of the modelling process that was mentioned in the written version of the matter of public importance. This assessed the initial modelling results for low, medium and high numbers of infections at different coverage thresholds with either optimal or partial test, trace, isolate, quarantine—TTIQ, as they say in the profession—and combinations of public health and social measures, or PHSM, God help us all!

This is what the MPI refers to, I think, when it refers to a 'small COVID outbreak'. That has been the sensitivity towards various levels of outbreak, and the sensitivity analysis was conduced.

The overall conclusions of the initial modelling were found to remain valid even with a higher number of infections. This is very, very relevant to the MPI. They were valid, even with a high number of infections, at the time of transition. However, at 70 per cent coverage, with medium or high seeding, and partial TTIQ, the epidemic curve shifts to the left and the peak of daily new infections is considerably higher. We know that. As optimal TTIQ—test, trace, isolate and quarantine—cannot be sustained at higher caseloads, public health and social measures are required in those situations. So, by knowing the facts, by doing the modelling and by looking at the sensitivity for various scenarios, we can vary the TTIQ and the PHSM. The sensitivity analysis, of course, has been published on the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website and the Doherty Institute site. This has cost us roughly $1½ million, as at December 2021, and an additional contract is currently being finalised for additional work for the national cabinet.

So we do have a plan and that plan is in play, is being used and is successful. Certainly, aspects of modelling have been released, particularly the sensitivity aspects of the modelling. Further modelling is anticipated to consider the public health response, including different methodologies and key indicators for the TTIQ. The impact of vaccinations and responses in key populations—including Indigenous communities, culturally and linguistically diverse populations and schools—and border measures and quarantine, and how varying these may affect the risk of importation, are being considered in great detail. I think that answers the ideas that lie in the written version of the matter of public importance.

4:17 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] You know what? I've got to pause at the beginning of this contribution to thank my fabulous new team member, Joana Partyka, for putting together some notes for me to contribute to this MPI debate this afternoon. Because, to be honest with you, if I'm left to my own devices with this particular topic I'm rendered almost mute by the deep frustration and anger that wells up inside me. Whenever we talk about what has happened in this country since the coming of the pandemic and the role of this government in mismanaging it, it is almost beyond words. Our community is so frustrated by the endless marketing spin that spews from the mouths of these ministers every time we talk about this topic. The reality of COVID-19 and the Morrison government's management of the pandemic is a reality of failure and double standards. It would be bad enough if disabled people had been left out of the pandemic plan and been actively deprioritised. It would be bad enough had the health minister failed to order the vaccine when he could have and should have. It would have been bad enough if the national cabinet had not been allowed to devolve into a squabbling rabble of politicians all trying to balance their public duties with the demands of their donors, who want to get back to business as usual because it is how they make money. It would have been bad enough had millions of dollars—tens of millions of dollars—been funnelled out of the public door into the pocket of people like Gerry Harvey through the JobKeeper scheme. Those things alone would have been enough to condemn this government in history as the woeful manager of this great crisis that it is. But they have not stopped there. They've added to this mountain of failure by failing our kids and leaving them exposed, right at the moment when we are changing the way that we manage COVID-19 in the two biggest states. The expert health panel OzSAGE has been calling on the government for weeks to fit air filtration and air monitoring systems in public schools, schools across the country, just like the filters that they have recently fitted in the New South Wales parliament. And yet the response of the state government and the response of federal government is to say no. It's yet another failure, putting Australians at risk.

4:20 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I've just travelled over 3,000 kilometres across the Northern Territory, talking to families, listening to their concerns and talking to clinicians in many of our remote clinics. I want to be able to share with the Senate what has happened and what has occurred on those travels.

But, firstly, after listening to Senator Gallagher speak this afternoon and knowing personally the impact that COVID has had on her family, it is of utmost urgency that this Senate recognises this call for the MPI in terms of the Dougherty modelling around hospitals and their capability to cope with the days, weeks and months ahead. I'm certainly very concerned in terms of the people of the Northern Territory, in particular our First Nations people.

The Morrison-Joyce government is not being transparent with Australians about how the nation's hospital systems will cope with COVID-19 cases when Australia opens up. We know that the Doherty modelling was released outlining how Australia would respond to small COVID outbreaks, but this previous modelling does not adequately deal with how many hospitalisations, deaths and cases now expected. We know that revised modelling was provided to national cabinet last month, dealing with the preparedness of the hospital system to cope with an influx of COVID-19 hospitalisations when the nation reopens.

Senator Gallagher asked for this information to be released in her capacity as chair of the COVID-19 select committee, and it was refused. The broader Australian community, and particularly our hardworking doctors and nurses who will be on the front line continuously of this additional pressure, deserve to know what they need to prepare for, because many states and territories fear their hospital systems will not cope. I'm sure I do not need to remind the Senate of the vulnerability, in particular here in the Northern Territory, when the delta strain reaches us. It is a matter of 'when', not 'if' the delta strain will arrive here. The Northern Territory government, the Aboriginal community controlled health sector, land councils, frontline workers and others have done a terrific job keeping Territorians safe during this pandemic so far, and we have seen incredibly strong leadership. We also know Australia is opening up and we can't keep delta at bay forever.

As I said, I spent the last few weeks travelling across the Northern Territory—over 3,000 kilometres down the Western Desert, the Tanami region, through places like Kalkarindji, Lajamanu and Yuelamu, through Alice Springs, over the other side on the east to Santa Teresa and back again to Hermannsburg, and then up the track to Ali Curung, to Tennant Creek, to Elliott and to Katherine. It was so important to be able to see firsthand how prepared we are here in the Northern Territory. In each place I've been talking and listening to constituents and organisations about COVID-19 and the need to vaccinate against it. That message is going around loud and clear, but we are having issues.

Every clinic I dropped into is doing their best to get the message out and vaccinate. Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation in Tennant Creek, run by general manager Barb Shaw, is doing a terrific job through public health campaigning, but they're facing incredible challenges. Anyinginyi is the Aboriginal healthcare provider for Tennant Creek as well as neighbouring town camps and nearby communities. They've been setting up pop-up clinics in town, running massive public health campaigns, doorknocking everywhere they can and heading out to surrounding communities to provide public health messaging and then returning a week later with a vaccination team. That's the preparatory work that they're trying to do—in languages that the people of that region can understand, because English is not always their first language. This is all ramping up now as they blitz the Barkly region.

With Tennant Creek being located on the Stuart Highway, there's no way they'll be able to shut down that area when delta comes. It is on a major highway and it services surrounding communities. They do have a hospital, but, like so many, they are worried about the capacity of the Tennant Creek Hospital if an outbreak occurs, and what that would mean for their population and the surrounding communities.

Tennant Creek has a population which is majority First Nations people. That means they were supposed to be vaccinated in the Morrison government's phase 1b; they are a priority group that should have been vaccinated by now. Here we are in October 2021. Remember how, in December last year, Scott Morrison stood up and assured the nation that vulnerable Australians, like those with disabilities, older Australians and Indigenous Australians, would be top priorities for the vaccine? Well, hello, empty rhetoric! Let me tell you, phase 1b is still not done despite the hard work of our Aboriginal community controlled health sector, and vaccination rates in the Barkly remain low.

Instead, changing advice around AstraZeneca, the lack of Pfizer supply recommended for the NT's younger population and a failed communication strategy have ensured the Morrison-Joyce government has failed to reach Territorians.

It was only last month that Minister Ken Wyatt finally succumbed to pressure from Labor and announced $250,000 in funding for First Nations Media Australia to produce and distribute culturally appropriate messaging on the vaccine rollout. That was in September. We had talked about it in February this year. I put questions to the federal Department of Health about what language or languages they were going to use—we have over 100 Aboriginal languages here—and what funding they were going to provide so these communities were prepared. That has now come in September; I asked about it back in February.

Health workers are on the back foot in trying to ensure accurate and factual messages reach their patients around the vaccine. It's all left a vacuum for negative messaging to take deep hold in the minds of many. What was equally disturbing was the answer to a question I put to most clinicians and the communities visited: in a worst-case scenario, how prepared is this community to cope with a COVID outbreak? The overwhelmed and exhausted faces said it all.

So I ask the Morrison government to think of those overwhelmed and exhausted faces, listen to Senator Gallagher and Labor and listen to the Australian Medical Association, and release this modelling. Even Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy, who has been working with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Sonya Bennett on the modelling, supports making the figures about hospital capacity public. He said: 'I would favour a transparent approach, but national cabinet will make that decision.'

Ask any doctor or nurse; we know that pressure on our hospitals is going to increase over the coming weeks and months. But Scott Morrison won't reveal the modelling that he commissioned about what pressure on our hospital system would actually really look like. He is keeping the modelling that he commissioned with taxpayer dollars secret from the Australian community and, importantly, from Australia's hardworking doctors, nurses and all those on the front line. We all deserve to know now what that pressure will look like so we can prepare.

We deserve a prime minister who will sit down and maturely discuss this with the state and territory governments, rather than just picking political fights with them, to make sure there's a plan to make hospitals safe and strong. That means all hospitals in regional and remote Australia, and, let me tell you, it means our hospitals here in the Northern Territory: our Alice Springs Hospital, Tennant Creek Hospital, Nhulunbuy hospital, Katherine Hospital and our city hospitals in Darwin and Palmerston. We do not have time to waste. We must be prepared, and that is what leadership is.

Instead, we have a Prime Minister who refuses to take responsibility. For Scott Morrison, every problem is someone else's fault; every crisis is someone else's responsibility. When he's called out on his failures, Scott Morrison's response is always the same: it's not my job; it's a matter for the states; I don't hold a hose. Whether it's COVID, bushfires, robodebt, aged care, car park rorts or climate change, he never shows leadership, just more spin. But Australians deserve so much more than this, and the people of the Northern Territory deserve so much more than this. Our health workers deserve much more than this. They are exhausted and they are anxious. Come on, Prime Minister. Give us the modelling. Let us prepare to fight this.

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

Order, Senator McCarthy! Senator Bragg.

4:30 pm

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

It's a pleasure to be able to rise and make some comments about this particular matter of public importance. Without questioning the sincerity of any of the prior contributors, I will try to make this statement free of any political talking points, because I think people are over the bickering. I think people are over politicians whingeing about other politicians. When they look at this period in a few years—maybe even in a few months—I think people will look at the comparative data and they will say, 'Well, Australia went into the pandemic and came out with a pretty low death rate and a pretty low infection rate compared to other jurisdictions, and the economic disruption was minimised through a huge stimulus program and, because of that huge fiscal stimulus program, there wasn't enormous, sustained loss of employment.' On those key metrics, I think people will say that Australia tracked fairly well through the pandemic.

I think they'll say that the innovation of the national cabinet was largely a success, because it enabled there to be discussion and coordination across the Australian governments. I think people have learned the hard way—if they didn't already know it—that Australia's Constitution does disperse power quite significantly. Sometimes that works; at other times it doesn't. I think people will be rightly frustrated with the restriction on movement, and state premiers and leaders of the states will be accountable to the public that elected them for their decisions. I don't seek to run a commentary on any of the states; I think there has been enough of that. There have been different approaches used.

In terms of my own state, which I represent, I think Sydney had some unique characteristics going into the pandemic. As Australia's global city and as the city that carried 85 or 90 per cent of the quarantine, it was always likely to have the sort of exposure that we saw when the delta variant slipped into Sydney. That then subsequently spread around parts of the eastern states. The first point to make is that, comparatively, I think you'd have to say that our institutions held up pretty well when you look at the key metrics. In relation to the modelling and the national plan, there is a sensitivity analysis available on the website and there are the key assumptions. That plan, you'd have to say, is working. Consistent with the broad outline of the plan, New South Wales has hit 70 per cent and 80 per cent, and it is now reopening. In fact, without wanting to date this contribution too significantly, you'd have to say that, with the case numbers coming down, it has been a pretty good example of what you would have hoped could be achieved.

People will rightly look at the major health initiatives—how the health policies were managed and deployed. When the books are written, people will look at hotel quarantine and they'll look at the vaccination rollout. Then people will look at the border policies and the like, and they will be free to make their assessments. I'm more interested in the economic policy because I think that is where, frankly, there have been some very unusual steps taken—steps that I would support. But I would say that the amount of debt that has been accrued has been justified in the sense that, if that debt hadn't been accrued, I'm not sure there would have been the sort of bounce-back that we would expect. And, following the early-1990s recession, the Treasury advice has generally been that you do need to spend a lot of money to avoid a lasting recession. And we didn't want to see, as a consequence of this huge economic shock, a generation of people unable to work again. I think that is what JobKeeper has been able to do as a wage subsidy program.

I will make a political statement here. The Labor Party attacks JobKeeper, but JobKeeper was ultimately the lifeline that kept small businesses intact. It was the program that most Australians would say got them through the pandemic. There's no question that, in many cases, people who work for the public sector or in big business have had quite a good pandemic. If you can walk into your kitchen and stick your laptop on the bench, you've probably had a pretty good pandemic compared to people in personal care sectors—beauticians, barbers or travel agents. These are the businesses that really rely on this kind of support. So, when the Labor Party attacks JobKeeper, the people who most heavily relied upon that scheme will think, 'Hang on. That scheme actually saved my business. It saved my livelihood. It was hugely successfully.'

Ninety nine per cent of the businesses which achieved the eligibility threshold for JobKeeper were small businesses. That is a fact. So, when the opposition parties talk about wanting to have some sort of a clawback mechanism for JobKeeper, what they're saying is—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

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

It has been flagged by various members of the opposition that there would be a clawback—including Ms King and Ms Kearney. The Treasury never recommended a clawback. With a clawback today, 99 per cent of the businesses that would be hit would be small businesses. In my state, these are the same businesses that have been smashed by lockdowns. They have just come out of three months of lockdowns—and the opposition parties want to hit them with a clawback, a retrospective tax. They were all eligible. So when you measure JobKeeper in terms of the quantum and type of businesses that were eligible, and what they received in terms of dollars, more than 90 per cent were small businesses. So, when you talk about clawback, you are talking about small businesses. Isn't it amazing: you want to have a debate about the economic policies that got the country through the pandemic and, at the end of it, you want to claw back from small businesses. I think it's bizarre.

The other scheme that was also very successful—which I know annoys the Labor Party no end—was the early release of super. It was very, very successful. It was about allowing Australians to have access to their own money at a time of huge economic shock. Interestingly, at the time, the only people who were against giving Australians access to their own money were of course the super funds, which Labor went along with. We had the greatest economic shock in 100 years and we were opening the Treasury and almost maxing out the nation's credit card. But the Labor Party says, 'We're not going to touch the super funds'—even though they've got $3 trillion in a government pension scheme. I think that was a successful policy. I personally would like to see some sort of permanent scheme put in place so people could access their own money, because I tell you what: I think that homeownership's pretty important to a lot of people, and low-income people, in particular, can't get a first home because they have to funnel 10 per cent into the super funds, which, of course, pay huge donations to the unions, which in turn fund the Labor Party.

So I'm sick of coming into this place and hearing all these allegations about corruption and donations. The biggest political donors in the country are the unions and the super funds. They funnel tens of millions of dollars each year into the political coffers of those opposite. It's shameful, and I really suggest that you think carefully about your long-term policy agenda, because it's not really in the interests of workers to have their money sent off to these funds, which charge high fees and basically spend all their money on political advertisements with Mr Combet's face on them and on running dodgy outfits.

4:40 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance, and I will take an approach slightly different to that of others. I just want to go to the letter to Senator Gallagher from Dr Brendan Murphy. In refusing to provide information to the Senate in relation to this, he writes:

The Australian government maintains the view that deliberations of National Cabinet should remain confidential. This includes information received by the National Cabinet. This is consistent with longstanding practice on Cabinet confidentiality.

That is an offensive comment provided to the Senate by Dr Brendan Murphy, who is trimming his political sails, because we know that this matter has been to the AAT and before Justice White. We know that national cabinet is, in fact, not a committee of the federal cabinet. Why is the executive government now taking the position that, even though a judicial officer, a justice of the Federal Court, has made a determination about the statutory meaning of the cabinet, somehow the Prime Minister can simply ignore that? Somehow the Prime Minister arrogantly pursues his quest for secrecy, and he ropes in Dr Brendan Murphy. I say to Dr Murphy, if he is listening, that that is a disgraceful position to take in terms of understanding the way our Constitution works, the way the separation of powers works and the way the roles of each of the different elements of our government—the executive, the parliament and the judiciary—work.

There's been a judicial determination as to what is a committee of the cabinet, and it is not the national cabinet, which doesn't have the necessary characteristics. Firstly, it is not a committee of the federal cabinet because it was established by COAG, not the federal cabinet. Secondly, its membership is not made up of members of the federal cabinet. Its members are actually the Prime Minister and the first ministers of each of the jurisdictions. It doesn't have collective responsibility or cabinet solidarity, because it can't, because the premiers and chief ministers of each of the different states and territories have a legal obligation to have allegiance only to their state or territory, and that was found by Justice White. A key principle of the cabinet is that, in a responsible system of government, the cabinet is responsible to a single parliament, not to nine parliaments, as is the case with the national cabinet.

The national cabinet is an intergovernmental committee. That's all it is, and it is disgraceful that the government is still adopting this principle that it is somehow something else. They've introduced a bill to try to overturn the judgement, and they can't get the numbers, even amongst their own ranks. The Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, who is sitting listening to this debate, ought to be standing up for Justice White and the ruling that he made. It was very clear. You've got government members basically saying, 'We ignore what Justice White has said.' As the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, you ought to be standing up for our judicial officers and making sure that everyone understands the role that each of the different parts of our government plays. It's a disgrace that this information has not been made public on the basis that it's cabinet-in-confidence, because it's not.

4:44 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In Tasmania, the state that I represent, the government commissioned its own modelling on the impact of COVID-19 once the state opens up. As a result of that, the government—and I might add that it's a Liberal government—has made the decision not to fully open up the state until 90 per cent of the eligible population has been vaccinated. It's quite a different plan from the rest of the country and quite a divergence from the national plan. This Tasmania-specific modelling is due to be finalised this week. That really makes me wonder what more the Tasmania Premier learnt at national cabinet that made him make this decision. He did reveal the Doherty modelling figures on likely coronavirus deaths if our island reopened at an 80 per cent vaccination rate. Over the first six months, it would result in 14,900 cases, up to 590 hospital admissions, 97 intensive care admissions and almost 100 deaths. He also made it clear that it was not an acceptable risk to take.

Our doctors, nurses and paramedics are telling us loud and clear that moving to the next stage of the national cabinet plan will put huge pressure on hospitals around the country as lockdowns are lifted in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT and borders are opened in COVID-free states like Tasmania. There is revised modelling on the capacity of health systems and hospitals to cope with an influx of COVID-19 hospitalisations as Australia reopens. It models how many cases, hospitalisations and deaths can be expected, and the Morrison government is refusing to release it publicly. Modelling for the whole country that outlines the impacts on our hospitals exists. We paid for it. Our taxes paid for it. But the Prime Minister is keeping those details secret. We have a right to know. Our hardworking healthcare workers have a right to know. Our paramedics and nurses, those working shift after shift and seemingly endless hours of overtime, have a right to know. The Australian people have a right to know.

In the last few months we've seen our hospitals, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, at breaking point. In Tasmania, even without COVID-19, our hospitals are at breaking point almost every single day. That's right. That's when the state is COVID free. We are starting to see the lag from the last 18 months because people weren't seeking treatment when they should have and, as COVID does come into Tasmania, that pressure on our health system will increase.

It is not acceptable for Mr Morrison to keep this modelling a secret and it is not acceptable for Mr Morrison simply to pretend that this is all the states' responsibility. He's done that far too often throughout this pandemic—with the vaccine rollout and with quarantine, and we could go beyond that with everything else. The culture of avoidance and secrecy that this Liberal government has cultivated has reached extraordinary heights, to the point where we're here today demanding on behalf of the people that we represent to be allowed to see the revised modelling we have paid for that tells us how or if our hospitals will cope.

I have absolute faith in the dedicated health professionals in Tasmania. Daily, they pull out all the stops. They work double shifts and more, tending to Tasmanians with their care and expertise. But, even on a good day, our hospital system is crying out for more staff and more resources. We've seen a 30 per cent increase in patients on the elective surgery waiting list and ambulance ramping at unprecedented levels. Years of underfunding in bed blocks has seen it lurch from crisis to crisis. That has left us in a position where the Premier is not prepared to commit to easing border restrictions until we are 90 per cent vaccinated. That's how worried he is about the pressure that will be brought to bear on our health system.

We all deserve to know what that pressure will look like. Then we deserve a Prime Minister who will sit down and maturely and constructively work with the state and territory governments to make sure there's a plan to keep our hospitals safe and strong. What a real leader, a real Prime Minister who understands his role, would do is constructively talk to the states and territories about what they need to cope, not play spiteful politics and play favourites. What a real leader would do is take some responsibility. What a real leader would do is not run and hide. That is what this Prime Minister is doing: running and hiding from crisis to crisis.

4:49 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I love MPIs, especially the ones we get from Labor. They make me laugh; they really do. It's like being given a dorothy dixer—although, with Senator Ayres's one today, the English, if you could call it that, took a bit of deciphering before I could understand it. But thank you, Senator Ayres, for a chance to talk on this.

Just so everyone's aware, including Senator Ayres and Senator Urquhart, the Doherty modelling has been released. I have it here and will table it, if you like. It's available on the Doherty institute's website. It's available on the government website. The one I have was revised on 10 August. I'm not sure if there's been another one since then, but 10 August seems pretty up to date. And it does talk about the effects on the health system. It talks about when we can open up safely. And, as we've seen in New South Wales and as we will see, finally, on Thursday in Victoria, vaccines are bringing down cases and are working. The national plan that was brought about on the back of the Doherty modelling is working, and we're seeing that in Victoria and New South Wales. In New South Wales, there were only 273 new cases today. In Victoria, my home state, fingers crossed it is working and it's coming down, with 1,749 cases today.

What we have seen is lockdowns in Victoria, the jurisdiction that's been locked down the longest in the whole world. The lockdowns don't work. Vaccines do. And vaccines are being rolled out. To give the Prime Minister his credit—I have his media release here from 21 February 2021, in which he said, 'The Australian government has a comprehensive plan to offer COVID-19 vaccines to all Australians by the end of October 2021'—it looks very much as though we're going to hit that date.

Those opposite should be congratulating us, but they're having a whinge about something that already exists and that they don't know anything about. Their states aren't fixing their hospital systems. The Victorian government produced its own modelling, from the Burnet Institute, which says that the significant easing of restrictions at 80 per cent will lead to 63 per cent of simulations exceeding 2,500 hospital beds. Premier Andrews last year promised us 4,000 beds. Even on the back of his own modelling, he has failed to deliver those beds. So, if any hospital system is at risk, it's the Victorian one, by the Premier's own modelling, that's damned by this.

It also says, 'High rates of symptomatic testing among people who are vaccinated could reduce the impact on the health system.' I found this incredibly interesting, because, day after day, for the whole 18 months, the Victorian testing system has lagged behind those of other states. Even just today in New South Wales, to pull out one—and we know that the testing rates in New South Wales have dropped because there are so few cases—there were over 90,000 tests in the last 24 hours. There were only 68,000 in Victoria, yet we've got more than five times the number of cases.

Those opposite should stop crying out and saying, 'We need more.' The states need to be doing more—because guess what? The Commonwealth government has already gone to them and said, 'We will invest $131.4 billion in demand driven public hospital funding to improve health outcomes for all Australians.' This is in addition to over $8 billion of health investment by the Commonwealth during the COVID-19 response. This government is doing everything it needs to do, and Australians can see that. Australians see every day how well we're responding to this pandemic. We have some of the lowest numbers of deaths in the world and we're heading towards some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, yet those opposite want to pick at little things and raise badly worded MPIs that just waste the Senate's time. Come on, guys. Get with Team Australia—that's what you're here for. We're nearly there. Roll up your sleeves.

4:54 pm

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to this matter of true public urgency. Our people are no strangers to infectious diseases to which we have no immunity. And some of the government senators speaking to this motion do have some nerve. Just yesterday, leaked secret government documents showed that our people are being infected with COVID at rates up to three times higher—Aboriginal people in this country are being infected at rates three times higher—than the rest of the population. Is that continuing the genocide that the colonial project had intentions to do 240 years ago? Is this the sophistication of genocide today or what? The government provided this data to the advisory group on COVID-19, marked as 'confidential, not to be further distributed'. This is data on black lives in this country that the government are being secretive about. If you're doing such a good job, then why don't you want people, our people in particular, to know that you're making us sicker? You're killing us, still.

Fifty years ago, when government health services were failing us badly—as usual—we took the driver's seat and set up Aboriginal health services right across this country. That was 50 years ago. We did that based on self-determination and free, prior and informed consent and holistic health. Today our services are the best in the country, and government models your services on ours, particularly health, legal aid and child care. But our services don't get the funding, do they? We're just left at the bottom of the heap, to scrape up the scraps as per usual. So, again, government is failing us, and Morrison is trying to hide the fact that his failures are putting our people at risk. In public, this government talks big on closing the gap; but, in private, they know that they are making us sicker. And, let's be honest, you don't care. We're on the bottom rung. But love a good dot paintin', don't youse!

Our people are strong and resilient, and, when we are free to choose our own path, this whole country benefits. Everyone deserves to be treated with equal respect and dignity, and Morrison ignores so many calls from our people. You have to stop the genocide in this country against the First People.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Thorpe, I would remind you to address people from the other place by their correct titles. The discussion on the matter of public importance has concluded.