Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Matters of Urgency

COVID-19: Morrison Government

3:51 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) 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 following letter has been received from Senator Kitching:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Undermining of public health by the Morrison-Joyce Government by always doing too little too late, including ongoing failure to open any new federal quarantine facilities and deliver sovereign mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity that would protect Australians and our neighbours from new variants of COVID-19, and instead pandering to anti-vax extremists for votes despite an ongoing global pandemic.

Is the proposal supported?

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

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

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

No-one knows better than a Victorian that just wishing for the pandemic to be over will not make it over. The reality is that we are now facing the prospect of another new variant on our shores. But, at a time when we should be feeling confident about our ability to manage this new strain of the virus, Australians are again concerned—concerned because, even after two years of this pandemic, we still cannot trust this government to respond. We still cannot trust this government to deliver us through this new challenge that we're facing today, because we know how this government responds in a crisis. It is always too little too late. It's always someone else's responsibility. It's always a matter for the states.

For the past two years, Prime Minister Morrison has had just two jobs that Australians needed him to do to keep us safe: deliver a fast, speedy, effective vaccination program and deliver new fit-for-purpose national quarantine facilities. We all know what happened. We all know the story of the failed vaccine rollout. Apparently it wasn't a race, according to Mr Morrison. Apparently no-one in government needed to pick up the phone when Pfizer called. And, almost two years on, we still have no dedicated, purpose-built national quarantine facilities—no new federal quarantine facilities.

Throughout this year, in particular, Australians have paid the price. This year, 2021, was the year that Australians just did not need to go through—lockdowns, restrictions and border closures. This year, 2021, was the year of COVID that we just didn't need to have, because the Prime Minister failed to roll out the vaccines. He said it wasn't a race. He didn't pick up the phone to Pfizer. He failed to roll out the vaccines. That failure has been called by the former Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, the biggest public policy failure on record. Two years into this pandemic we are still reliant on leaky and insufficient hotel quarantine. We know that hotels were built for tourists. They weren't built to deal with this crisis. That's why we needed the government to build purpose-built quarantine facilities.

Now we can add to all of this the absolute snail's pace that this government is displaying in establishing mRNA capacity here in Australia. This is sovereign capacity that we urgently need—vaccines that we urgently need to produce right here in Australia. The success of mRNA vaccines became apparent last year in the pandemic. It became clear last year just how critical this technology would be in our ongoing fight against the pandemic. Last year everyone got this news—everyone except for Prime Minister Morrison, because we are still nowhere on delivering mRNA vaccine-manufacturing capacity in Australia. This is an absolutely essential capability that we need in order to continue to protect Australians and our regional neighbours from this virus, but this government was so slow to even announce an mRNA bid.

Since then, it has been absolutely glacial in rolling that process out. First the government said we would be making the vaccines here in 12 months. Then it became 24 months. Now it's some time in the next three years. We are still waiting for the Morrison government to announce the results of its approach to market—its belated, snail-paced approach to market—to manufacture mRNA vaccines right here. We still have no announcement, more than five months after expressions of interest closed. In that five months, and in the period before the government even announced its bid, the rest of the world has already moved. There is a global race on to attract these facilities, and this is yet another race that this government wants Australians to lose.

We know how critical this particular vaccine technology is to our ability to protect against this virus, the current variant and any future variants, but we are still waiting, waiting, waiting for this government to get its plans off the drawing board. Australian scientists, businesses and manufacturers are all ready to go. Just today, the first trial mRNA drug made in Australia was produced in Victoria. It was made in a facility in Boronia, Melbourne. It's now heading to clinical trials. This is great news. It should be great news. It would be even better news if we had in Australia the mRNA manufacturing facility that we need to actually make this a reality—the type of facility that could take Australian-made innovations like that out of the trial phase and into advanced manufacturing. But we don't, and we don't know when that is going to happen, because the Morrison government still has its plans on the drawing board. The Morrison government is holding us back from building the mRNA capacity that we urgently need. It is holding us at the back of the line in a global race. This is the track record of our federal government—always too little, too late. Always.

Australians need their government to get moving. Australians need their government to get in the race. But instead of leadership from this Prime Minister, what we have seen, particularly in the last few weeks, is just division. From the very early days of this crisis we have seen the Prime Minister prioritise politics over the best interests of the people, blaming the state premiers instead of backing them when they were making the tough calls that needed to be made to keep us safe, playing state off against state, turning his back on millions of people who were locked down in what the Prime Minister decided, divisively, to label 'the Victorian wave' of the pandemic.

And now, when we most need unity, he is playing a dangerous game of doublespeak, condemning the violent threats of protesters on one hand but then straightaway, on the other hand, saying he has sympathy with their concerns. He's playing a dangerous game that undermines the advice of the health experts—a game that could impact the critical uptake of booster shots that we need to prevent another winter lockdown. He's playing a game that undermines the unity and the goodwill displayed by millions of Australians who have done the right thing and gone and got themselves vaccinated.

We know this is not a game, that there are lives at stake, that the sacrifices of millions of Australians should not be undermined in what is a desperate scrounge for votes from this Prime Minister. But this is a government that is desperate—desperate to avoid responsibility, desperate to avoid scrutiny, desperate to save itself before anything else. They are so desperate to distract from their long list of failures that they are prepared to play footsy with extremists. We have a prime minister who refuses to unequivocally condemn the violent threats against state MPs and state premiers. He refuses to act as a leader and do the hard thing and tell the violent protesters that the crisis is not over, that there is more work to do. He refuses to tell them that, while it's difficult, we can get through this if we actually stand together. A real leader would deliver the unity we need to move forward together.

4:01 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today's matter of urgency is a huge window into Labor's policy void—policy vacuum—and petty vindictiveness. So, I thank Labor for moving this motion, because it's a huge public service. On one hand, what we have seen in the motion and the first contribution to this debate is nothing short of relentless negativity. If I were an opposition senator, believing that my party was worthy of government, I'd be moving a matter of urgency saying that the government should be adopting my positive policy platform. But there is not a single word of alternative from the Australian Labor Party in the motion or in the debate thus far. All we've had is fact-devoid negativity being thrown at us.

Let's move to that which is before us. First of all, the government is accused of its 'ongoing failure to open any new federal quarantine facilities'. Well, at Howard Springs there's already a facility that I think caters for 1,000 or so. But we are, as we speak, building facilities. In Victoria, we expect that construction of the first 250 beds will be completed by the end of 2021—within a month. And this is the shallowness of the Labor Party's attack: do you know why it will only be the end of this year? Because the state Labor government's lockdown of its state delayed completion. The federal government pleaded with the state Labor government, saying, 'Please give an exemption for the building of these quarantine facilities in Victoria so that they can be ready.' But in typical Labor style, talking out of both sides of their mouths, on one hand the state Labor government says, 'No, we will not give you an exemption,' and then federal Labor uses that denial of an exemption to condemn the federal government for not building the facility. That sort of shallowness tells you everything you need to know about the Australian Labor Party and why it is not fit for office.

In Western Australia—your home state, Mr Acting Deputy President O'Sullivan—as well as in Queensland, the federal government is working towards construction of the first 500 beds at various sites being completed by the first quarter of 2022. So here we are, on the cusp of delivering all these quarantine beds and facilities that Labor are asking about, and what do they do? Instead of celebrating the quick movement and the fact that we are on the cusp of delivering them, they're telling us, 'They're not ready yet; isn't this terrible!' It's just relentless negativity, and there's no description to us, as a nation, of how they would have done things differently.

In referring to the Victorian situation, Multiplex was the company that was on track for delivery of the first 500 beds by December, which is next month. We're on the very last day of November today. The finance minister wrote to the Victorian Premier, seeking an exemption from lockdown for the Mickleham project. The Victorian government did not agree to any concessions whatsoever, and undoubtedly that is part of the coordinated Labor Party political playbook—that the state government will refuse and delay so that federal Labor can somehow take advantage of it. How shallow. How un-Australian. Sadly, how very predictable it is for Labor to engage in such stunts, but I have every confidence that the Australian people will see through it. Labor are crying crocodile tears. It is fake concern. Surely, they must know the truth about the facilities that are about to come online, and the delays occasioned by state Labor? No, they seek to airbrush all of that out of the equation.

Having dealt with the quarantine facilities, let me turn to the other aspect of the motion, the delivery of sovereign mRNA vaccine-manufacturing capacity. Wouldn't we all love it! That'd be great, wouldn't it? But there are no new end-to-end mRNA facilities that have been established, since the vaccines were approved, anywhere in the world. That was just a slight omission, I'm sure, by the Labor Party mover of this urgency matter—that nowhere in the world do such facilities exist. Yet they seek to slap the federal Liberal-National government around the chops for not having done that which nobody else in the world has been able to achieve as yet. Please, give us a break! Do not use this pandemic for such cheap political points, when you know that what you are saying to the Australian people is demonstrably false on all the evidence. I would encourage the next Labor speaker to tell us where there is that capacity anywhere in the world. If they can't, I would say to the Australian Labor Party: apologise for having brought this matter forward.

Then we have the assertion that we somehow haven't protected Australians and our neighbours. Again, let's look at the evidence. Let's look at the facts. Australia has pledged to supply up to 60 million doses to our region by the end of 2022, of which up to 15 million would go to the Pacific and Timor-Leste. We have shared over 2.3 million doses with our neighbours in the Pacific and Timor-Leste, as of 17 November. Australia has provided 1.076 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Fiji. How many more would Labor have delivered? Not a word from them as to how much has been done in this space. There have been 677,000 doses given to Timor-Leste, 213,000 doses given to the Solomon Islands, 204,000 to PNG, 100,000 doses to Vanuatu—these are all figures as of 17 November—as well as medical supplies, personal protective equipment and testing equipment. Australia has committed $623.2 million to assist vaccine procurement and rollout efforts in the Pacific and South-East Asia. Excuse me, but where does Labor get this nonsense from that we have done nothing for our neighbourhood or our region? They're demonstrably false on the figures. I would encourage the next Labor speaker to say how they would have done more, and how.

Finally, let me deal with what is so vindictive and nasty: this talk about pandering to antivax extremists. I happen to be vaccinated; I encourage people to be vaccinated. But I'm willing to accept that men and women of good faith looking at the same evidence can come to different conclusions. And do you know what? Even the very best of our judiciary in the High Court—taking the same oath of office, hearing the same evidence and applying the same law—come to different conclusions, and that is why sometimes the High Court is split 4-3. Or, for those of us who did jury trials from time to time, men and women are sworn into a jury and hear the same evidence, yet you get a split jury verdict. Why? It's because men and women of good faith applying themselves to the same situation can reasonably come to different conclusions. It's the same in the vaccination space. Respectfully, I disagree with them, but to call them 'antivax extremists' is, if you like, Hillary Clinton-esque, of the 'deplorables' that cost her the election against Donald Trump.

So the Australian Labor Party deserve to lose the next election, because what they are seeking to do is to divide the Australian society into a two-tier system of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. We on this side, whilst we have certain views about vaccination, are willing to accept that there are alternative views. This motion shows that Labor is not ready to govern.

4:11 pm

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

I rise to talk on an aspect of the vaccine rollout that flows on a little bit from what Senator Abetz has talked about but, in my view, hasn't been discussed in enough detail and certainly not without the extreme rhetoric that can sometimes be attached to both sides of this argument. It goes to where the boundaries are in relation to restrictions that are being imposed upon people who have not been vaccinated.

I just want to state my position really clearly: I am fully vaccinated, and I intend to get a booster. My view is that everyone who is medically able should get a vaccination. But I also accept that there are some people—and I've spoken to constituents who say to me: 'Rex, I'm really scared.' A woman I was chatting to the other day said: 'I'm a single mother. I'm very scared about what's going to happen. I'm not trying to be violent. I'm not trying to be extreme. I'm just worried. I'm genuinely worried about what would happen if I were to receive a vaccination.'

Again, my position is that mass vaccination has saved, and will save, lives. I also think that mass vaccination has played a key role in Australia opening up and has helped from a national and statewide health restrictions perspective. But, again, there are some questions that need to be properly asked. I don't think restrictions and exemptions—and I point out that there ought to be exemptions; there are good cases for exemptions—have necessarily been well spelt out to people, and I'm talking about restrictions and exemptions at the federal, state and local government level. We do have inconsistency around the states and the territories, right across our federation, and I don't think that is helpful. Sometimes, trying to untangle what the restrictions are, and, indeed, where the exceptions may lie, can be very difficult. Where does the legal basis for restrictions lie, and what are the limits of those legal restrictions? Those are things that we need to be talking about. They're things that we ought to understand.

I'll give another example of this: we have business entities imposing restrictions on people who haven't been vaccinated. The other day I listened to Senator Lambie's speech and I think it was one of the best speeches she's ever given. I support all the features of her speeches where she talks about never wanting someone who's unvaccinated to go into an aged-care facility and put the elderly at risk. The same would be said about children. But there are some businesses which, in good faith, as Senator Abetz talked about, are imposing restrictions. What is the legal basis for them doing so, and what are the boundaries—what are the limits of those restrictions?

I was speaking with the BCA the other day. They're quite worried about what happens when they, as employers, say to their employees, 'You can't attend work and, in fact, you may not be employed if you do not get yourself vaccinated.' The legal basis for such an indication to an employee is unclear to me, and I don't know what happens when someone who is a good worker and who is happy to do their work gets themselves into a situation where an employer says, 'I'm sorry, you have to go.' What may happen in those circumstances—what I suspect will happen in those circumstances—is that we'll end up with a matter before the Fair Work Commission. The facts will be presented, the circumstances and the law will be discussed and some decision will be made.

But there is great uncertainty right now: where are the boundaries? I think that's something which government ought to pay some attention to, to assist the community, to make it easier for the community to understand, to make the worker understand what their rights might be and to make sure that employers understand what their rights may be. There are boundaries; there may be circumstances where it's quite inappropriate to apply a restriction. I wonder about the intersection of COVID restrictions and on people who have not been vaccinated entering into a medical facility. How does that intersect with the Hippocratic oath? I don't know the answers to these questions but I think we ought to be thinking about them. I think that the government ought to put some effort into that space, to help remove some of the confusion.

4:17 pm

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

[by video link] Today I'm speaking on the urgency motion in relation to what is very clearly the government's continually dangerous and lacklustre approach to this pandemic. This week we've had the new omicron variant found in Australia and it brings into harsh focus the fact that we have a too little, too late approach coming from this government.

We've seen this for the last two years of this pandemic. We've said it time and time again, that this government had two jobs in the pandemic—two jobs: to vaccinate the country and to have a national quarantine scheme around the country. Both of these are federal responsibilities according to our Constitution—it couldn't be clearer. They're the constitutional responsibility of our federal government, and the Morrison government have failed at achieving or taking responsibility for both.

Not only have they shirked their responsibilities they've attacked state governments, like in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria, who have filled the void. They have filled the void and fought, tooth and nail, to patch up the gaps left by this federal government's shortfalls. We've been left, necessarily, with COVID lockdowns and border closures because of the lack of quarantine support by the Commonwealth and also because of slow vaccination accessibility in coming from overseas. We should have had a government that was prepared to back responsible lockdowns and border closures instead of causing division and divisiveness in the community. We saw this government side with Clive Palmer trying to tear down the Western Australian border control. Then the Prime Minister went on to say: 'I don't hold a hose, mate. It's a matter for the states. It's not a race on vaccination.' The simple fact is that the government has tried to undermine the states, including Western Australia.

At the same time Indigenous people were supposed to have been vaccinated much earlier. Instead, we now see outbreaks in remote communities in the Northern Territory. We have a vaccination gap of something like 22 per cent. This is bad enough, but when you come to Western Australia and Queensland the gap is over 30 per cent, with a national gap of some 28 per cent in vaccination rates. From the start it was well understood that remote communities are more vulnerable. From the start there should have been a plan for them to be vaccinated first. The government failed to do this. It failed to prioritise people appropriately in the vaccination rollout. Aged-care workers were supposed to be vaccinated by Easter this year. These workers are already struggling with a critical workforce shortage caused by this government's underfunding. The government failed to meet that target too.

We have had promise after promise to protect this country during this pandemic. We still see a drag on dedicated quarantine facilities in Australia. Hotel quarantine is not a sustainable solution as the Commonwealth pushes us to open up internationally. This is an outrageous dichotomy. Almost all of the leaks of COVID-19 into the general community have come from hotel quarantine. These leaks have caused devastating lockdowns across the country. This is something that the Commonwealth government has failed to take responsibility for.

Hotels were not set up for quarantine. We've been calling—again and again—on the government for the duration of this pandemic to take responsibility for quarantine and only now do we begin to see movement. Do we see this movement completed? Do we see it rolled out? Do we see federal supported quarantine facilities open and active before we open up the international borders? No. We've seen designated quarantine facilities behind schedule. Quarantine Services Australia is only now gearing up to provide quarantine for skilled workers and international students. They will be charged nearly four times what state and federal governments have charged for quarantine. This is outrageous. Trust the government to attempt to let their mates gouge profits out of students in a pandemic.

Even worse, it turns out that this fee-for-service setup is being run by friends of Scott Morrison, our Prime Minister. They were the only people approached by Home Affairs to run the quarantine system. DPG Advisory Solutions, which is led by the Prime Minister's friends David Gazard and Scott Briggs, advised on setting up the private sector quarantine service. Scott Briggs is a former Liberal Party state director, party donor and friend of the Prime Minister.

Mr Briggs is not a 'pop in cash for the raffle at the local Lib fundraiser' kind of donor. He is at the heart of the political circles of the Liberal Party and their power hub. Mr Briggs's company is a largely inactive political consultancy business that he started four years ago. Last year it was reported that his company donated $165,000 to the Liberal Party. When asked about it, Briggs and the Liberal Party denied the $165,000 donation and they declared to the Electoral Commission that it never happened. Mr Briggs also has another company—Pacific Blue Capital—which made 14 donations to the Liberal Party, worth $90,000, in 2018-19.

This is the man who recently resigned from very aggressively bidding for the $1 billion visa privatisation contract the government has recently abandoned. Perhaps the Liberal Party and the government are trying to make it up to him. He is the only one whom Home Affairs has contacted to run this privatisation of quarantine. Quite a consolation prize, isn't it? This kind of 'job for mates' approach is something that this government blatantly takes on. They blatantly deliver it. It is little wonder that because of this kind of activity the public is losing faith in our federal leaders by the day. Our nation needs answers, explanations and accountability.

What this government needs to explain to the Australian people is why it is even necessary to create a fee-for-service quarantine system run by the private sector in the first place. The need for this has not been established, especially when QSA has said that it will charge clients up to $13,750 per person for these quarantine services. Why is our government attempting to monetise the pandemic when we as a country could have been domestically manufacturing the mRNA vaccines much earlier than we look to? They've been proven to be the vaccines of the future and Australia has been behind—and contributed to their research and development. We should have the capability to produce them to protect our health, but also to secure jobs and economic prosperity.

This should not be about trying to get a job for your old mates who have given your political party a lot of money. But, no, we have a government that has taken too long to protect us from this pandemic, too long to rule out misinformation, too long to bring out information for Australians about our vaccines, too long to get those vaccines into the country. Instead, they've held up their hands—not led. Instead, they've pandered to extremists attempting to get votes. Our nation needs a government that we can trust to respond in a crisis.

4:27 pm

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

Here we are today, another MPU concocted out of thin air by the ALP that the Morrison government is undermining public health. We really should thank those opposite for these dorothy dixers that they deal up every other day. On both the health and economic front I think it's fair to say that Australia has fared better than most countries dealing with COVID. Out of the 38 OECD countries Australia has the second lowest number of COVID cases per capita. By avoiding the death rates of other OECD countries Australia has saved over 30,000 lives. While Australia has been doing it tough because of the longest lockdowns in the world, particularly in my home state of Victoria, Australia was also the first advanced economy to have more people in work prior to COVID. Nearly 900,000 jobs have been created since May last year. After last year's recession Australia's economy recovered to be larger than prior to the pandemic—the head of many advanced major economies in the world.

On the point of vaccines, on November 2020 the Prime Minister pointed out, in an announcement, that the government had ordered 135 million doses of vaccine—contrary to what those opposite have been saying. It's more than enough doses for five doses for every Australian.

On 21 February this year the Prime Minister announced that the government had a comprehensive plan to offer COVID vaccines to all Australians by the end of October 2021. I think it's safe to say that we've seen that. By the end of October we were 80 per cent vaccinated. No-one said that the rollout of the vaccine had to be a straight line. Of course it's going to ramp up. That's the way these things work. With more than 92 per cent of the eligible population aged over 16 protected with their first dose and more than 86 per cent of the eligible population aged over 16 fully vaccinated with both doses, this government is clearly in a position that it's delivering on its promises and delivering results. Our investments in our public health have put Australia in one of the best positions in the world.

I am awfully glad that Senator Kitching mentioned mRNA in her urgency motion today and I note the contributions of senators opposite about how there is no mRNA vaccine manufacturer in Australia. Well, just today, I point to an ASX announcement and to a media release from the Premier of Victoria talking about how Australia's Monash University—where I currently study—through its Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and with an Australian drug manufacturer, IDT Australia, have produced the first mRNA vaccine in Australia. That's right—the first mRNA vaccine in Australia. It is hard to imagine how those opposite missed all this, but it is very clear that here in Australia we are progressing towards manufacturing of mRNA vaccines, other therapeutics and other vaccines, not just for COVID. This is coming about because, in my home state of Victoria, we have the strongest ecosystem for medical research and manufacturing in the country. Other countries such as Singapore have announced that they are going to be building their own facilities as well and they've said that the soonest they can do it is 2023. We have a long way to go. The vaccine that is being developed in Victoria that I've just talked about is being made in quantities big enough to be able to go into phase 3 trials.

As we recover from the COVID pandemic we want to make sure that we are well placed to control our own destiny. In a more uncertain world this means that it is more important than ever to have that sovereign manufacturing capability, and we have that. We are building towards it. The Morrison government invested $3 million towards that mRNA vaccine candidate that I was talking about before. So we are very proud of our efforts in building that sovereign mRNA manufacturing capability, particularly in Victoria, my home state.

Once we have that mRNA capability, it will create the potential for thousands of associated jobs and will be a great benefit to our economy. But constructing that sovereign capability is no easy task. Such a vital and critical undertaking is a complex task. How to operate those facilities and where to operate those facilities are critical decisions for the future. Victoria has the ecosystem. We have the research scientists. We have the manufacturing capability. As those opposite would be aware, CSL in Victoria are already manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine. An mRNA manufacturing complex requires the best medical research ecosystem and support, and needs to be located in that ecosystem which has that proven pharmaceutical research capability and the workforce to be able to back it up with the skills in precision pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The reality of the situation is that there are two important elements to developing an onshore mRNA capability—that is, having the manufacturing capability and having the intellectual property and know-how. It takes time to be able to develop both of those things. The real benefit to Australia of this endeavour is to protect Australia's long-term health needs and to help grow and develop an mRNA ecosystem and industry here in Australia. You don't just do this for COVID vaccines; mRNA technology is a platform rather than just a vaccine. Work is already underway to create mRNA technology to address illnesses such as cancer, HIV, the zika virus, Epstein-Barr, as well as auto-immune disorders, cellular engineering and protein replacement therapies. This is important for Australia. It is important for the future of manufacturing and is an important part of building our sovereign capability and that is why it is essential we get this right. Our thorough, measured approach is the right one to achieve this.

The Australian government is also on track to have purpose-built quarantine facilities delivered in the north, south, east and west of Australia to ensure we maintain a robust quarantine system to bring Australians home safely and so we have the capacity to respond to future emergencies. The government's priority is the safety and wellbeing of Australians and supporting those overseas to travel here safely. The government has already supported over 60,000 Australians to return, including 32,000 on 211 facilitated flights. We invested $513 million to increase the capacity of Howard Springs to 2,000 returned travellers.

The Centres for National Resilience under construction in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth are well underway. The Centres for National Resilience will have an ongoing role as part of the government's national response to COVID-19. There is a need for purpose-built quarantine for people travelling to Australia from high-risk locations or who are unable to quarantine at home. These centres will provide adaptable, enduring capability that will assist the Commonwealth now and in response to future health and emergency crises. The centres will be built and owned by the Commonwealth, but they will be operated by the state governments. The government is working quickly to ensure that the construction of the centres is completed as soon as possible. In Victoria, my home state, we expect construction of the first 250 beds will be completed by the end of this year, the next 250 by early next year and the last 500 beds of the thousand-bed facility completed in the first quarter of 2022. In Western Australia and Queensland, we are working towards the 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.

So I think you can see that we are well and truly looking after the public's health; we're looking after their wellbeing; we're looking after their jobs; we're protecting their lives and their livelihoods. I thank the senators opposite for this motion, for me to be able to put that on the record.

4:36 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I agree that the Morrison government did too little, too late; yet I find it damned hard to agree with Labor, whose premiers have damaged our economy and our jobs. The Morrison-Joyce government has had no plan, was slow to respond and was slow at every point on the critical path. The government failed to learn lessons from other nations that were ahead of them—well ahead of them—such as Taiwan, where they protect the sick, the aged and the vulnerable, while keeping their economy and people's businesses and jobs going. The Morrison-Joyce government and state premiers have been busy on the political point-scoring, not the doing.

Queensland's Annastacia Palaszczuk is far more concerned about looking good and sounding good than doing good. Her border lockdowns and sacking of health workers have damaged families, businesses and jobs in the regions. Under Labor, Queensland's economic future is now jeopardised.

Had the Morrison-Joyce government allowed equal priority to other treatments, such as antivirals, many more Australians would have been treated and safe and the virus would be finished, as it is in other countries that are using the antivirals. Instead, the Morrison-Joyce government's reliance on only one treatment is a major risk—a provisional COVID injection that the TGA did not test and could not and will not guarantee as safe, and that concerns a hell of a lot of Australians. Yet the Morrison-Joyce government and the states have chosen to punish nearly two in every 10 Australians for not taking this unacceptable injection and the risk associated with it.

Understand us, Prime Minister: the Liberal-Nationals and the Labor-Greens are forcing a huge segment of the public into voting against you. Calling honest everyday Australians 'antivax extremists' has never been the answer—unless you and Labor believe that punishing and threatening workers with the sack is the right way. I don't. The name 'national cabinet' sounds grand yet is nothing more than a meeting of the Prime Minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers, trying to hide behind collective decision-making instead of standing up and being accountable for decisions. National cabinet is a pretend concept to protect politicians from what they are not doing and to hide their mistakes.

It's time to stop sacking workers and instead focus on jobs and the economy and on people's health and safety. Instead of looking good, let's have the people safe and healthy. One Nation will continue to stand up for all Australians, injected or not injected, for our jobs, our rights and our freedoms, and to keep Australians safe.

I want to remind senators of what the people are saying. On Friday night I attended a lively meeting in Redlands, a suburb in the south-east of Brisbane. I also attended a meeting on the Gold Coast on Saturday and a meeting in Moreton on Sunday night. I heard about the bankruptcies. I heard about a person who has built a business up and has had to sell his house to pay off the assets in the business, and his wife and daughter will now not be able to work after the 17th—because of Annastacia Palaszczuk's edict and medical apartheid. So what the hell does he do? He's one of many, many people who are very angry, and rightly so. What about the veteran up at Moreton who has physical injuries and cannot get physio anymore? She's a veteran and served the country—and now she's worried she will slide backwards physically and mentally. What about all the other veterans in the same position? This is what Scott Morrison and Annastacia Palaszczuk are doing to this country. (Time expired)

4:41 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It has been almost two years since COVID first hit Australia, and the government has failed to open up any new quarantine facilities. Mr Morrison has said it isn't a race—well, he's certainly tried to prove that! We have another new COVID strain and still no new federal quarantine facilities. Mr Morrison has been caught with his pants down yet again, but he has also pulled the Australian public's pants down.

Prolonged border closures are having a cascading effect across Australian society and the Australian economy. One essential area that is being disrupted is aged care, an area which has a massive crisis at the moment due to its very low wages and very poor working conditions. Just six per cent of residential aged-care workers have a permanent full-time job—just six per cent. There are shortages of labour across the aged-care system, and this tight labour market for those providers is causing undue havoc for the most elderly and vulnerable people.

The government says job security is a made-up issue. Well, when you have six per cent of the aged-care workforce who are full-time, then job security certainly is an issue. The other 94 per cent are casuals or precariously employed part-time subcontractors or labour hire workers. And now we have seen exploitative gig platforms like Mable replacing even part-time jobs, both in aged-care services and also in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. These undervalued workers, who are doing part-time jobs with full-time bills, are leaving the industry in droves, due to the fact that the wages are so pitifully low. Why are aged-care workers so poorly paid and insecure? Some have suggested it's because 86 per cent of them are an undervalued female workforce. This government sees aged care as being women's work—so why should they be paid a living wage? This government has the responsibility to make sure we have aged-care workers to protect and deliver for our aged population.

In relation to aged care and how it's operating now, quite clearly, there have been a number of calls by industry providers for the government to deal with the crisis of aged-care workers. I note that the minister is not listening to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which stated very clearly that there was a need for increased support. In the royal commission's Final report: care, dignity and respect, on page 211 of volume 2, the commissioners said:

We both consider that Australia’s aged care is understaffed and the workforce underpaid and undertrained.

Yet what steps have we seen from the government? They have extended student visas so that students can work in aged care for up to 40 hours. And of course all that does is take some pressure off for a moment, whilst evidence has been given time and time again about the number of shifts that aren't being covered, because people can't be retained. You get paid more working at Woolies and Coles—and no reflection on those jobs; they're important jobs, as we've seen through the pandemic—on a cash register or stacking shelves, than you get paid looking after our elderly.

For those who don't appreciate all that, imagine having responsibility for a dementia patient. I've spoken to many aged-care workers over the last 18 months, and just recently—only a matter of months ago—in Forster, workers from three different facilities. Those workers said: 'We love our job, but we have people missing shifts, we have shifts that need to be filled, we have services that can't be provided and, quite frankly, the pay is so low it's horrific. And we're dealing with dementia patients who have everything from memory loss to violence.' That's the sort of system we've seen broken down through this entire period of COVID, that's the system we've seen highlighted during the COVID period and that's the system that needs to be aggressively improved, right across the system, so that all Australians can have a better go in aged care.

4:46 pm

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Labor senators' contributions to the debate on this urgency motion remind me of a saying of a Jacobean playwright:

Of all the forms of wisdom, hindsight is by general consent the least merciful, the most unforgiving.

This government has actually shown great foresight, great anticipation of the challenges the nation was going to face and has faced with COVID affecting its population. As a result of its initiative, the government now has a proven record of dealing with COVID, and we've had one of the lowest fatality rates, highest vaccination rates and strongest economies in the world. That is success.

The motion we're debating this afternoon makes specific reference to the delivery of sovereign mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity, and I would like to bring my comments to that in particular. Honourable members of the Senate should know that no new end-to-end mRNA facilities have been established anywhere in the world since the vaccines were approved. A facility to be established in Singapore won't be online until 2023 at the earliest. And none of the submissions through an approach to the market by the government said they could provide an end-to-end facility in the near term.

In essence, this motion is criticising the government for not achieving the impossible. The government is still taking action to bring mRNA vaccine production to Australia. The government is speaking extensively to Moderna, the producer of one of only two mRNA vaccines approved for use anywhere in the world. There are other approaches to market. The reality of the situation is that there are two important elements in developing onshore capability. You have to have a manufacturing capability as well as the intellectual property and know-how. In essence, this motion, as I've indicated to the chamber, is criticising the government for not achieving the impossible. The government is doing all it can to achieve sovereign capability, and where we are at the moment is competitive with most other nations in the world. The government is not able to send off Prometheus to magically produce manufacturing plants.

Honourable members should be aware that more than 99 per cent of over-70s are protected with a first does and more than 97 per cent have received a second dose—success. More than 97 per cent of those over 50 are protected with a first dose, with more than 93 per cent having received a second dose—success. Just over 92 per cent of the eligible population aged over 16 is protected with a first dose, and more than 86 per cent of the eligible population aged over 16 is fully vaccinated with both doses—success.

So I'd encourage senators to take a more realistic approach, rather than the miserable contributions to the Senate which are dragging down the efforts of the government, which has worked collaboratively with the states—even those states which have governments of a different political persuasion—to keep Australians safe. We must remind ourselves that we have one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 of anywhere in the world. It can be estimated that this government has protected over 30,000 people from death, if we compare our rates against the OECD average.

The government is establishing a national plan to reopen. It has committed $33 billion to a vaccine rollout and it has strengthened our health system in response to the disease. Mention has been made by senators on my side of the aisle of the Howard Springs quarantine facility and the investment in new centres in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. We're beginning to establish overseas travel, although that has been paused out of an abundance of caution. Australia has fared magnificently compared with other countries, and it should be a cause for celebration in the Senate, not denigration.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the urgency motion moved by Senator Kitching be agreed to.