Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator McCarthy today relating to federal quarantine facilities.
I do so in the context of the last few question times having had a slightly different quality, with the absence of Senators Rennick and Antic—without Heckle and Jeckle. I've missed Senator Rennick's heckling during the course of—
That is true. Thank you for reminding me, Senator O'Sullivan. I'll just remind Senator Ayres of that. Particularly during this COVID period, when it has been difficult for senators to attend this place, the agreed custom is that we don't refer to senators being here or not being here. Thank you, Senator Ayres.
I'm just worried about them. One of their offices is next to mine. The lights are on, but nobody is home. The question is: are they in witness protection, or are they voluntarily not attending? I'll leave senators to reflect on that question. Senator McMahon and Senator Canavan, the other two rebel senators, the vaccine senators—at least they've got the courage to be in here.
What I am really here to talk about is the government's failure to deal with the COVID pandemic and the government's failure to manage its quarantine responsibilities. In the face of a national crisis, some governments rise to the occasion and some governments wilt. Former Prime Minister Menzies wilted in the face of Australia's existential crisis in the Second World War. Prime Ministers Curtin and then Chifley rose to the occasion, united Australia, got the strategy right and built a postwar Australia that was the foundation for the second half of the 20th century. The Morrison government's approach to the COVID pandemic looks a lot more like Menzies's approach—and failure—to the Second World War than it does to a government that really grasps its responsibilities. In the face of the COVID pandemic, Mr Morrison has been incapable of taking action when it's required. He's certainly been incapable of taking responsibility, and he's been incapable of grasping his own role in a time of national crisis.
The failures on quarantine are of course not the only failure of the Morrison government. Its failure on delivering vaccines for Australia at the promised time, in time to avoid the Southern Hemisphere winter, have been described as the biggest public policy failure in Australian history. Mr Morrison failed to purchase the vaccines in time, and when everything went wrong—
As much as I'm enjoying my honourable friend's contribution to the chamber, I listened carefully to Senator Birmingham's response to Senator McCarthy's answer, and the question and the answer directly related to quarantine facilities, not vaccines. I ask you to bring my honourable friend back to the question and answer.
Thank you, Senator McLachlan. There was a question on quarantine and in relation to the new outbreak. So I would ask Senator Ayres—whilst this is a broad debate, I think he's probably gone broader than the question. I ask you to bring your response back to those issues. Thank you, Senator Ayres.
I certainly will. What did Mr Morrison do when confronted with these failures? He blamed the states. Blaming the states is a bit like blaming the fire brigade, when they turn up to your house, because you get a little bit wet. The pandemic took off because of Mr Morrison's failure on vaccines and on quarantine. That's why we've had almost six months of lockdowns on the east coast: failure on quarantine and failure to do his job, set out clearly in the constitution.
It's not just Labor who says that quarantine is fundamental to getting the national strategy right. Ms Halton pointed that out in her report. The responsibility is clear. This morning Ms Westacott said she couldn't understand why the federal government hadn't got this right—quarantine, vaccines. Who will Australians trust next year to deliver sufficient quarantine capability? Who will they trust to deliver booster vaccines? Well, I can tell you, you wouldn't trust this lot; that's for sure.
I take a very differing view. I, like the leader of the government, have a very firm view that our quarantine policy and implementation have been exceptional and recognised around the world for achieving great success in fighting COVID and its encroachment on our lives in this country. The government has supported over 60,000 Australians to return, including 32,000 on 212 facilitated flights that brought 32,000 people. We worked in partnership with every state across the political divide to deliver quarantine facilities so that Australians can return to the arms of their families.
As the COVID impacts have evolved, so have the government responses. The government has invested $513.5 million into Howard Springs, with the capacity for 2,000 returned travellers. That is the language and action of success. The Centres for National Resilience are under construction in Melbourne, with a capacity of 1,000; in Brisbane, a capacity of 500; and in Perth, a capacity of 500. The government's response to the COVID crisis evolves, as it should. The government is flexible in its response and committed to ensuring that Australians remain safe and also that Australians overseas can return home through a process that keeps everyone in the community safe and healthy.
The Centres for National Resilience will have an ongoing role as part of the government's national response. There is a need for purpose-built quarantine for people who are travelling to Australia from high-risk locations or who are unable to quarantine at home. These centres will provide adequate, enduring capability that will assist the Commonwealth now and into the future with health and other crises. The centres will be built and owned by the Commonwealth, and they'll be operated by the state governments. Implicit in my honourable friend's contribution, prior to mine, was a criticism of state governments. The state governments have worked in partnership with the Commonwealth. My honourable friend from the opposite side implicitly has been criticising his own state Labor governments; I do not do so.
The government is working quickly to ensure that construction of the centres is completed as soon as possible. In Victoria, we expect construction of the first 250 beds will be completed by the end of 2021 and the next 250 in mid-January, with the last 500 of a thousand beds completed in the first quarter of 2022. In Western Australia and Queensland, we are working towards construction of the first 500 beds at each site being completed by the first quarter of 2022. This capacity is in addition to the existing capacity of up to 2,000 beds at Howard Springs. The government will make further decisions, if it is necessary, as circumstances unfold.
I would like to take this opportunity, in response to the contribution of my honourable friend Senator Ayres, to say that the leadership shown by the Prime Minister has been unwavering in its commitment to the health and safety of all Australians. He has created a national cabinet, which has enabled us, as a government, to work in partnership with the states to deliver the services required—including the vaccines, as my honourable friend mentioned—to those that need them. There is an easy opportunity—well, an opportunity, for many in the community, as is their right, to criticise the government's response, but I think people need to appreciate that this government has, each and every day, to look upon new circumstances and adjust its response to meet the same. I congratulate the Prime Minister on his leadership during this time, and I look forward to it continuing into the new year as the government works extraordinarily hard to ensure that we have, and continue to have, the lowest fatality rates, the highest vaccination rates and, importantly, the strongest economy. (Time expired)
[by video link] One of the recurring themes of the COVID pandemic in Australia has been this Prime Minister's failure to act—failure to act on advice; failure to act on the facts—and nowhere more than in the area of quarantine. We have known for close to two years that construction of purpose-built quarantine facilities is vital to keeping COVID rates in Australia to a minimum, and—despite that advice; despite report after report from the government's own hand-picked expert, Jane Halton, calling for purpose-built quarantine stations—we are still yet to see a single new quarantine station built by this government anywhere in the country.
This pandemic has been going for nearly two years. This government has had ample opportunity to build purpose-built quarantine facilities which would keep Australians safe, and the emergence of the omicron variant makes very clear that this pandemic is a long way from being over. It's very clear that we need to prepare for all circumstances—including the emergence of new variants about which we know very little and which are most likely to be developing in other parts of the world and, potentially, being brought to Australia. That's why quarantine facilities are so important.
Let's just look at how the most recent delta outbreak commenced in Sydney: it commenced because we had a poorly vaccinated population because of the government's failures on vaccine rollout—a poorly vaccinated population hit by a new variant entering the community because of the government's reliance on hotel quarantine. It was the fact that people were in hotel quarantine—were being transported from airports to hotel quarantine—that led to the delta variant getting out and into the community, and, tragically, leading to the deaths of Australians in a number of states, not to mention the enormous business losses that we've seen all around the country. That's why purpose-built quarantine matters, and that's why it should have happened well before now.
It is the case, fortunately, that there are governments who are moving ahead with building quarantine stations. In my state of Queensland, the Queensland government is well advanced in getting the new Wellcamp quarantine station just outside Toowoomba completed, and all indications are that it will be built by the end of this year. But even on this one the Morrison government is nowhere to be seen. This quarantine station, which is likely to be up and running before the end of the year, will receive not a single dollar of federal government investment—yet again, it's being left to the states, to Labor states, to carry the can for a government that fails to act in an area of its responsibility. Just like aged care—another area of gross failure by this government—quarantine is a federal government responsibility. There can be no doubt whose job it is to do this, and there can be no doubt who is dropping the ball—that is, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government. The only other quarantine station that is under construction in Queensland is at Pinkenba, near the Brisbane Airport. I was alarmed to read a couple of weeks ago that the federal government is considering halving the number of places that will be available at that quarantine station. It may turn out that that is a very short-sighted decision now that we have the emergence of this new variant.
The decision by the government to temporarily extend the closure of Australia's international borders is a decision that Labor supports. We have always argued that we need to apply the precautionary principle when new variants emerge and new circumstances emerge. But that is causing real consternation in the tourism industry and the international education industry, which were both really looking forward to international borders starting to reopen. That's why purpose-built quarantine stations matter. If we are to have confidence and security about our ability to bring people, particularly international workers and international students, into our country, we need to have these kinds of purpose-built quarantine facilities around the country to provide that kind of security and make sure that new variants aren't being brought into this country.
Why is it that Mr Morrison is always so slow to act? Nearly two years have elapsed since the beginning of this pandemic and we don't have a single new quarantine station. We saw it with the bushfires, we saw it with vaccines and we're seeing it now with quarantine as well. It's always too little, too late from this Prime Minister. And he never takes responsibility, even when the Constitution says that quarantine is his responsibility.
I've been listening carefully to the contributions on the motion to take note at this time of day from Senator Ayres and Senator Watt, speaking about the government's response to the COVID pandemic. Now, I'm very proud of the Morrison government's response to the COVID pandemic. I'm very proud of Australia's response to the COVID pandemic. It must be really difficult for Labor senators to have to come in here and trot out these lines. They live in a parallel universe because their view of what Australia has done is far more pessimistic than the reality. It's actually not connected to reality at all. They're living in some sort of alternative universe here, because Australia has actually tackled and dealt with the pandemic better than practically anywhere else in the world. In fact, if we had just the average death rate from COVID of any OECD country, then over 30,000 Australians would have died in the COVID pandemic. We're not anywhere near that. Way less than 2,000, I believe, is the number of people who have succumbed to COVID since the outbreak began here.
Australia has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world. I don't know if you've seen that as well, Labor senators: we have one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world. I mean, this is phenomenal—we've got over 85 per cent double-dosed vaccination of people aged over 16 in Australia right now. And it's growing every day. This is good news. But you won't hear anyone on that side of the chamber celebrate the success that we as Australians, collectively, have achieved. You're not going to hear that, Madam Deputy President, because what do they do? They come in here—and it's really interesting, actually—
Well, Madam Deputy President, the points that were raised were in relation to the handling of the pandemic. The issue of facilities was the nature of the question and, in response to that, I think it was Senator Watt who referenced the fact that often the breakouts in transmission actually occurred as people went from the airport to a hotel facility. That's not going to change if we have a dedicated COVID quarantine centre. We still actually need to get people from the airstrip. What are we going to build—a dedicated airport? I know that's what they proposed to do in Queensland, but how many airlines are actually going to land there directly? How many are actually going to land directly into these locations? We know that's just not practical. What we need is resilience.
That's where vaccines are the obvious key, and that's what Australians have stepped up to do. Australians have stepped up to go and get vaccinated. Sadly, though, in my home state our vaccination rate hasn't kept up to pace with the rest of the country. I don't blame Western Australians for that fact. The reality is that in WA we had one of the best experiences in dealing with COVID of anywhere else in Australia and, indeed, of anywhere else in the world. So I guess there has been a lack of urgency there in Western Australia which has maybe contributed somewhat to our lower rates of vaccination. But it's interesting when we see what has happened of late, since there have been these mandatory vaccinations—
Thank you, Madam Deputy President, and I won't disagree with your ruling. The reality is that quarantine centres become less relevant as vaccinations go up. We do know that with the omicron variant we have a new challenge here. It's looking okay so far, but the reality is that the best thing Australians can do, and the best thing that travellers can do, is to go and get vaccinated. That's the best way we can prevent the spread of disease. Sure, quarantine facilities are a part of that, but let's hope that we don't actually require them going into the future because we have such high levels of vaccinations—as we do here in Australia. We have one of the highest vaccination rates, and that's a credit to all Australians, including to this government, which has procured the vaccines and helped to establish them across the country.
I know that Senator O'Sullivan was trying his best to defend the government's appalling record when it comes to building quarantine facilities. I can assure the Senate that in my home state of Victoria we're already starting to build one facility, thanks to the state government applying a lot of pressure on the feds to cough up some of the costs towards the $250-million facility. That wasn't because the coalition, the federal government, decided one day that they were going to build quarantine facilities around the country; it was led not just by Victoria but by Queensland, Western Australia and even the Northern Territory governments demanding that the Commonwealth take responsibility for what it should be ensuring, that every Australian and every noncitizen who come to this country go through some form of quarantine. That was a debate that we had 12 months ago.
As things have developed, I know that Queensland, Victoria and WA are all very keen. In my home state of Victoria we're continuing to build the quarantine facility at Mickleham, right next to our airport in Tullamarine. But a government needs to ensure—like this government, it has a responsibility—that it does everything it can to avoid any further outbreaks of this deadly disease. A responsible government would be doing everything it could to mitigate the risks from future pandemics. In ensuring that you mitigate those risks building quarantine facilities is just one of many things that this government should be doing—one of many. But we know that this government, the Morrison-Joyce coalition government, is allergic to responsibility. As I mentioned earlier, quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility under the federal Constitution. So why hasn't the coalition built dedicated quarantine facilities? Why is it being led by the various state and territory governments around the nation? Almost two years into this pandemic what we do know is that hotels aren't built for quarantine. That is why we need quarantine facilities. The Morrison-Joyce government has to build fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities right around the country—not just picking and choosing states or territories. There needs to be a national plan and that's what federal Labor, under the leadership of Anthony Albanese, has been calling on Mr Morrison and his government to do for some time now. Labor has a plan.
This government's failure on quarantine is also shown, as we've heard from other speakers, with the slow vaccine rollout, which I won't go into great detail on. But it has done a terrible job and that is the point that Labor senators have been making today: that this government has done a terrible job not just in the rollout of the vaccine but also in building quarantine facilities over the last 18 months. How much more do Australians have to suffer under this government? How much more do they have to wait for this government to finally get on and do its job? How many more lessons do they need to learn from all their mistakes? How many more outbreaks do we need to ensure that this government finally understands that we need an adequate national quarantine system?
This new omicron variant is a reminder of the pandemic. It is a reminder that this pandemic is still real. Despite a number of the restrictions being lifted right around the country, it does threaten our country. It threatens our economy because it threatens the working lives of men and women—people right around this country. For us to futureproof our economy it is important that we start to build these facilities everywhere. There are thousands of jobs to construct these facilities, thousands of jobs supporting local communities. But the Morrison government fails to listen to what the opposition has put forward in terms of its credible plan to protect Australia now and into the future. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.