Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Matters of Urgency

Prime Minister

6:22 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 22 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 from Senator Chisholm was chosen:

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:

The failure of leadership by the Prime Minister to address the behaviour of Senators Rennick and Antic, and Mr George Christensen MP, which is a risk to the health and good order of the Australian community by spreading disinformation about vaccinations and other COVID-19 public health measures; supporting anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protests and their leaders, some of whom have publicly called for the violent overthrow of state and federal governments and the murder of public servants, including members of the Australian Defence Force; standing alongside protestors who attack the social and democratic institutions which have created a successful, prosperous, multicultural Australia; and whose behaviour may encourage others to emulate them by reason of their high profile and status.'

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders hav ing 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.

6:23 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Chisholm, I move:

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

The failure of leadership by the Prime Minister to address the behaviour of Senators Rennick and Antic, and Mr George Christensen MP, which is a risk to the health and good order of the Australian community by spreading disinformation about vaccinations and other COVID-19 public health measures; supporting anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protests and their leaders, some of whom have publicly called for the violent overthrow of state and federal governments and the murder of public servants, including members of the Australian Defence Force; standing alongside protestors who attack the social and democratic institutions which have created a successful, prosperous, multicultural Australia; and whose behaviour may encourage others to emulate them by reason of their high profile and status.

This morning I heard from Susan, an aged-care worker. Susan has been working in the aged-care sector for 17 years. She says that the facility she currently works for is at breaking point because of the pandemic and because of the government's failure to support that sector throughout this critical omicron phase.

Staff shortages mean that she finds herself solely responsible for a floor of 40 elderly people. And when two or three or four buzzers go off at the same time, as they always seem to do, she actually has to decide who she is going to help, whose needs she is going to prioritise and who is most important. She has to take responsibility. She has to make a choice. She doesn't have the option that Prime Minister Morrison gives himself time and time again, and that is to say that it's someone else's problem and shrug the responsibility off onto someone else.

I mention Susan because this morning, to meet with her, I had to go past a large crowd of people outside the parliament who are angry about lifesaving vaccinations and public health measures associated with the pandemic. This is a group of people that coalition members, members of the coalition party room and members of this Senate have been directly speaking to and encouraging for some time. It's been reported that some of the coalition party room were down there at the rally in person. Senator Rennick is reported in the media to have said that he is 'working to make sure that our children aren't vaccinated'. You would think, wouldn't you, that the Prime Minister might be concerned that members of his party room were spreading misinformation about the safety of vaccines? If not that, you'd think he might be concerned that members of his party room are addressing protests whose leaders have publicly called for the violent overthrow of state and federal governments and the murder of public servants. Apparently, he's not concerned about that, not interested in that. He's silent. It's not his responsibility and not his problem. It's a shame actually that the Prime Minister didn't meet with Susan because, if he did, he could have learned something about what it means to take responsibility and make difficult decisions.

Actually, calling out vaccine misinformation and extremism shouldn't be a difficult decision. It should be an easy choice for any leader with integrity. The reasons provided by the government for the cancellation of Novak Djokovic's visa actually spell out why it's dangerous for someone with a high profile and status to be stoking anti-vaccine sentiment. In the government's own words: 'It may encourage others to emulate him. If others were encouraged to take up or maintain resistance to vaccination or COVID-19 restrictions then that would present a problem for the health of individuals and the operation of Australia's hospital system.' They went on to say: 'His presence may lead to rallies and protests that may themselves be a source of community transmission.' They were the issues when it came to Mr Djokovic, but we have had members of the coalition party room doing all of these things and, in fact, much more.

We have had false medical claims from and distrust of science being provoked by Senator Rennick. He said, 'All the data says that they're neither safe nor effective.' What data is he referring to? He went on, on the basis of this false claim, to say, 'It is criminally negligent to roll out booster shots without any attempt at rectifying these serious safety issues first.' If distrust in science and medicine isn't bad enough, we then had Senator Antic, who has been out there peddling distrust in government. Here is a quote from Senator Antic:

Power hungry bureaucrats and a largely pedestrian media have fuelled fear in our community for two years.

On the rallies in Canberra this week, he said, 'We are with you all the way.' Mr Christensen, serial offender, went further and said:

I watched with pride over the past few days as thousands of Australians uprooted their lives and drove to the nation's capital to send a message to all politicians: we want our freedoms back!

That was an unsurprising statement in some ways. Mr Christensen gave a speech last year comparing vaccine mandates and COVID restrictions to a totalitarian regime. He then called for civil disobedience. This was at a time when protesters were constructing gallows out the front of a state parliamentary building. It comes on top of two years of Mr Christensen boosting unproven and dangerous alternative COVID treatments. During the time that Mr Craig Kelly was a member of the coalition party room, the Prime Minister stood idly by while Mr Kelly disseminated false COVID information and misinformation on social media. Facebook has taken more action against Mr Kelly than the Prime Minister.

Why hasn't the Prime Minister done anything? When asked why his government had acted on Novak Djokovic and not coalition backbenchers Mr Morrison said:

… you're conflating two different issues … In Australia, if you're an Australian, you're a citizen, you're resident and you're a citizen, you can be here and you can express your views.

What a hollow and vacuous response that trivialises the issues at stake! It also serves to minimise the Prime Minister's responsibility. The truth is, they are not merely Australian citizens, are they? They are members of the Prime Minister's party room. They are members of the government that he leads. He ought to take responsibility for their behaviour.

Deputy Prime Minister Joyce took time out from texting to say, 'What can we do?' As much as immigration minister Alex Hawke would like, he can't send any of our politicians to Serbia. Again, what a trivial response, because he's right: that's not an option for the PM. I'll tell you what the Prime Minister could do. He could publicly rebuke them. He could have called them out in a party room meeting. Calling people out in the party room happened this week and in any other week. He could have cornered them for a private conversation, like he did with Bridget Archer, when Mrs Archer had the temerity to cross the floor last year. Why hasn't he done anything like this? It's pretty obvious: it's because there is nothing in it for him. It's because, as former Premier Berejiklian allegedly wrote, the Prime Minister puts politics before people. He never takes responsibility.

But the Prime Minister's silence matters. The government's Federal Court submissions in the Djokovic matter make the point that antivaccine rhetoric can have a real impact on the health of individuals and the operation of Australia's health system. It means that people like Susan, the aged-care nurse, have even more elderly and sick patients to care for and more difficult choices to make about who they are able to care for. I tell you what, the health of our public debate matters as well. Any success that we have had in combatting this pandemic is due in no small part to the willingness of the Australian people to band together and to make sacrifices. Australians have worn masks. They have stayed home from work and school. They have rescheduled their weddings and, heartbreakingly, some of them have had virtual funerals.

The statements by some members of this coalition undermine that solidarity. They undermine faith in the science that has delivered the vaccines and the public health measures that have saved tens of thousands of Australian lives. They undermine the trust in government and in our public institutions that we will need to deal with the next pandemic or the next strain of this virus, or, indeed, the next crisis we confront as a nation.

The problem is broader than the pandemic. By encouraging and standing beside extremists, government members and senators are legitimising them. There is something qualitatively different about protests that call people traitors and that seek to dehumanise them. We've seen where that kind of politics leads in our history and in our global history, and it's not to a democratic place and it is not to a safe place. A leader of any integrity would call out the members of his own government who are spreading COVID misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, and encouraging violent protest. But where is Mr Morrison? There may be nothing in it for Mr Morrison politically, but he should use the weight of his position to defend the integrity of our public debate, because that is the right thing to do.

6:33 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, not just for my colleagues but for every single person in this place and, indeed, all of Australia. Western civilisation has been founded on the freedom to speak out, but Labor does not believe in free speech. Labor doesn't care about people, only ideologies that deny freedom for every parent, business owner, religious person and farmer. Surely the ability for every Australian to be fully engaged in this pandemic and its response is not only a good idea but a necessary idea for our mental health and our recovery from this situation.

This is the most left-wing Labor opposition we have seen in decades. After the last election it's lurched, if possible, even more to the left. They're quick to condemn conservative politicians for speaking out, but they're silent when those on the left support Invasion Day, anti-Christian rhetoric, shaming of conservative women and calls for quotas. How many Labor and Greens MPs support socialism, communism or violent left-wing groups such as Black Lives Matter and antifa? Do these groups get to express their views while others can't? Labor's double standards are a joke.

I don't agree with the stance taken by Mr Christensen and Senators Rennick and Antic, but I will fight every day for their right to represent those Australians who share their views, because parliament should be the one place where we can have an open and vigorous debate—where we can contest ideas. This idea that these people are calling for harm to police and politicians is truly outrageous. Those are certainly not the actions and words of these named members and senators.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of Australians have raised these issues and have marched against mandates without incident. These are everyday men, women and children, from CEOs to pensioners, pilots, nurses and teachers. They are not enemies of the state. My office has taken scores of calls from doctors, nurses, tradies, truckies, lawyers, cleaners, parents, grandparents, dairy farmers and others against mandates. I and others in this place have publicly supported that view, while Senators Rennick and Antic and Mr Christensen are showing their support in different ways.

Vaccination rates in Australia are amongst the highest in the world. Close to 90 per cent of people are getting their health advice from doctors, not from politicians. However, it was not that long ago that, in Queensland, the Chief Health Officer suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine was going to kill young people. That was the beginning of serious concern in our community over the AstraZeneca vaccine.

It is Labor who are playing politics with public health. In January 2021, the Labor candidate for Higgins, Dr Ananda-Rajah, tweeted multiple times undermining the effectiveness of—yes—the AstraZeneca vaccine. The doctor has also criticised Doherty institute director Sharon Lewin and former Victorian deputy chief health officer Allen Cheng for lacking 'any real expertise in pandemic planning or response'. As two of Australia's foremost public health experts, who have worked tirelessly to assist both the Commonwealth and state governments to respond to the pandemic and to save lives, Professor Lewin and Dr Cheng should be praised for their efforts. Indeed, this federal Labor opposition is preferencing an Independent COVID antivaxxer ahead of the Nationals in the upcoming state by-election in Monaro. The double standards are extraordinary.

To use a now-common phrase: how dare you? How dare you in Labor look down on those people who have different views to you—Australians who hold different views? How dare you smear those with genuinely held concerns and beliefs as would-be thugs and murderers? You want to deny a person's lawful right to speak and protest, because Labor is now the epitome of the new, sneering elite. The unvaccinated are a minority, but they're not the correct type of minority for Labor, so their views and concerns don't matter.

Instead of crusading against freedom, how about you get into regional Queensland and ask what's important to them? In Queensland, my great state, it has been the sort of misinformation that has been spread on social media after comments like those I've already quoted—the vaccine hesitancy about AstraZeneca—which has allowed a whole lot of views to grow up. As a federal government, our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of world-leading. We were able to stem the tide of COVID in this nation to allow time for people to become vaccinated, to save jobs and save lives, and to ensure that our unemployment rate is now down to 4.2 per cent so that Australians are able to get off social security, to have a job and to engage in the world and the life that they want. That is because the government's priority is the safety and wellbeing of all Australians. To that end, the government has spent significant money and effort in combating this misinformation. There is a COVID-19 misinformation portal for COVID-19 mythbusting on the website that corrects myths and misinformation. The Department of Home Affairs reviews and refers online misinformation about COVID-19 to social media platforms to request that it be taken down, and $116.1 million has been committed to the National COVID-19 Vaccine Campaign. We know that has been successful—look at our vaccination rates in this country. As I said at the beginning, Australians generally take their medical advice from a health professional and not from politicians, and that is a wise decision.

This misinformation that has been allowed to spread has created genuine concern in people right across this nation, and it is our responsibility to talk to them, to hold out our hand, to listen and to understand those genuine concerns and try and assist them to understand what is the best medical assistance and the best medical advice for them, for their families and for their children. That is our role. It is not in any way our role to look down on these people as somehow being wrong or stupid, and it certainly is not our role to suggest that they can't hold these views at all. That's not the sort of country we are.

As for those members and senators who have listened to those people and are trying to represent their views and ensure that they are heard in order to allow for better government planning and better government responses, that is only the right thing to do, instead of this elitist, sneering response from Labor—this 'holier than thou, smarter than you, inner city' kind of response that we in regional Australia are sick of. We're sick of feeling disconnected from Labor and we're sick of them having no understanding of our industries and infrastructure and the genuine concerns that we hold. We are the part of the nation that does the mining, grows the agriculture and has the terrific communities that we're so very proud of.

I will continue to defend the rights of Mr Christensen and Senators Antic and Rennick to support Australians right across this country who have genuine concerns and genuine misgivings. It's our responsibility to assist them—not sneer at them. (Time expired)

6:43 pm

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

I speak as a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia. It's a matter of urgency that our elected parliamentary representatives are increasingly not a reflection of the typical, everyday Australian. It's fundamental to our Australian democracy that people can demonstrate against incursions of their freedoms. I applaud any politician who has the guts, the integrity and the resolve to make a stand for the people, even if it is against their party line.

Senator Chisholm has done well to show his true self in this MOU, where he believes that only good order should reign at the expense of individual voices. Senator Chisholm clearly believes politicians ought not to use their public profile and status to represent the deep concerns of the people. Does Senator Chisholm suggest politicians use their high profile and status to be solely compliant and silent? I believe that politicians have a duty to listen to our consciences and speak out when we believe something is not in the interests of the Australian people. Senator Chisholm's urgency motion says more about his narrow Labor perspective on life than it does about the topic or about the Australian people. Personally, I'm proud to stand beside anyone who has the courage of their convictions and who is brave enough to take their unpopular stand and risk ridicule for their beliefs. I admire anyone, particularly politicians, who have not lost sight of the Australian people, our democracy, our values or our freedoms and who will stand with the people regardless of the party line. I have done so and will proudly continue to do so.

Senators Rennick and Antic, and Mr George Christensen and Mr Craig Kelly, have the mettle to stand for a broader Australia. I support their efforts to question, expose and call out the deliberate misuse and abuse of science—the fraudulent use of science—as a basis for lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Senator Chisholm's motion has demonstrated his belief that there should be only one world view held by all, and Senator Chisholm will decide what that view is no matter how far removed this groupthink is from how Australians see ourselves. The good order of the Australian community requires debate and dissent, compliance and cohesion, and, most of all, robustness and honesty. Our social and democratic institutions—failing, as they are, to protect the rights and freedoms of the people—must be robust enough to embrace a debate from the people and from politicians who represent them.

Why is there low, and declining, trust in MPs? Here is a quote from someone today: 'Declining trust in our institutions is not the problem. It is the solution.' We need to have less of the institutions. It's a sad day when any politician, whose career and life is predominantly political, thinks that his narrow world perspective has any resonance with the Australian people at large. Senators Rennick and Antic, and Mr Christensen, are fighting for the people because they themselves are of the people, having carved out independent careers from the city to the land, facing uncertainties along the way. Senator Hanson and I have this same grounding in real life. From their actions these representatives, like us, feel what the people are feeling. They know, as One Nation knows, that unnecessary lockdowns, debilitating and inhuman vaccine mandates, and an absence of longitudinal testing on vaccines is just not good enough. They know that the people deserve better and are willing to stand up for what is right.

They also talk about ivermectin—a proven, safe, effective, affordable and accessible treatment that has stopped COVID wherever it has been used properly. The government falls silent on it and actually withdrew that from the people. The real matter of urgency here is that too many Labor, Liberal, National and Greens politicians do not have the courage to stand against this attack on our freedom and basic human rights. Too many in this place stand meek and silent while businesses fail and while everyday Australians are coerced into a repeated, unproven medical experimental procedure in order to feed their families. It's time that gutless, groupthink politicians are consigned to the biowaste bin of history.

6:48 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this urgency motion. This debate is in no way a debate about free speech. Australians have free speech. It's in no way a debate about the right to protest. I've been involved in plenty of protests. This is a debate about political leadership and about whether the office of Prime Minister is going to be used for political leadership. I listened carefully to Senator McDonald, and I have to say that, until this moment, I had no idea how degraded the Nationals commitment to political liberalism has become.

Former senator Ron Boswell recognised the threat to Australian democracy that the One Nation Party posed. He fought them and opposed them right through Queensland, in this place and at the ballot box. The modern National Party just seeks to incorporate those views. It doesn't recognise the threat to Australian democracy that's posed by the kinds of views being put out there in a systematic way by Mr Christensen.

Mr Christensen, in the material that he propagates around the place, supports violent extremism. He cosies up to people who—let's call a spade a spade—are fascists. They are a threat to democracy. I had a look at Mr Christensen's website before coming in here. He caught support from some of the darkest recesses of far-Right movements overseas. He has a page on there that says 'Reject the Great Reset'. It's got references, in the usual anti-Semitic tropes used by these extremists, to poor old Mr George Soros; I don't know what he ever did to offend these people. It's the usual anti-Semitic tropes—'new world order', 'global elites'. It's the kind of terminology that, on that side of this place and in Mr Morrison's office, has become a political plaything for people who don't recognise the seriousness of the threat and don't understand their political responsibility.

This is not about free speech; people can say whatever they like. This is about whether Mr Morrison is prepared to act in the national interest, in the interests of Australian democracy and in the interests of what used to be the party that represented the liberalist trend in Australian political thinking. It has now drifted to the far Right, not become more conservative. Traditional conservatives—former leaders, former prime ministers, former Liberal leaders, former Nationals leaders—are repulsed. John McEwen would be repulsed by the ideology being propagated by this group.

In the United Kingdom a Labour MP was murdered by people professing the same ideology being propagated by Mr Christensen. More recently a Conservative MP was murdered doing their day-to-day work as a politician, because people like Mr Johnson in the United Kingdom have decided, in desperate political circumstances, that it's okay to propagate far-Right political conspiracy theories and mobilise people around those ideals to try and damage your political opponents. These things have consequences in our democracy. Nobody is arguing that people don't have the right to protest, nobody is arguing that people don't have the capacity for free speech; what we're after is political leadership.

Outside, of course, there are people who have different views. More people should listen to the science about the COVID-19 pandemic, about the important role that vaccinations must play in keeping us all safe and about the role of the public health measures. There has been enormous pain in our community as a result of the public health measures that have had to be taken, in no small part because of the failure of Mr Morrison to deliver vaccines on time, to get rapid antigen tests out there and to ensure there's personal protective equipment in aged care. These are the things that have driven the pandemic and made things harder for ordinary Australians. But what we've got out the front, which Senator Rennick and Senator Antic and Mr Christensen are urging on with all the others down there, is a group of fascists and fringe dwellers and some fixated persons. A person was arrested out there with a sawn-off rifle last week, and there are people over here, and Mr Morrison, who think that's not a problem. What does it take for the modern Liberal Party, and what passes for the National Party these days, to take these things seriously? When people assemble outside parliaments with nooses, it has consequences. It's not reasonable debate; it's a threat of violence. I saw yesterday what happened to the British Labour leader, with loops and extremists chasing him down the street. The good work of the protective services in the United Kingdom is what saved him from a very serious assault.

The truth is that Australians do not support this madness. They have voted with their feet. Well over 90 per cent have received two doses of the vaccine. Australians trust scientists, they trust healthcare professionals and they trust each other. But Mr Morrison has failed to stand up to the extremists on his own back bench, and we know why. In one of his occasional truth bombs—we had another one last week, via text—Mr Joyce made it clear why Mr Morrison won't take Mr Christensen on: it's because Mr Morrison relies upon Mr Christensen's vote over there in the House, and Mr Joyce relies upon Mr Christensen's vote in the Nationals party room. There's not an ounce of political courage or principle left in this Prime Minister—no courage and no principle. He has kowtowed to extremists and kowtowed to violent political extremism, and, as a consequence, it's become more and more prominent in the Liberal Party.

Mr Christensen still sits in the party room. He still has a vote in the caucus, and those opposite, who know this man much better than we do, have known for a very long time how dangerously off course he has gone. I've said it; I wrote to Minister Andrews in November last year, and to the Australian Federal Police, when I saw threats of political violence—direct threats—made on Mr Christensen's Telegram account. There have been crickets from Minister Andrews and crickets from Mr Morrison. They have no capacity to stand up. And what do we have revealed today? Mr Christensen is spending tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money, public money, every month—hundreds of thousands of dollars over his term in office—to propagate extremist political ideology, to make things worse and to undermine the public health message. Yet all we have here, and what I anticipate we're about to have, is some quisling defence based on free speech, as if anybody is arguing here about free speech.

We just want a prime minister who puts the national interest first, puts Australia first and puts Australian democracy first. I'm afraid we're going to have to wait for an election before we get one.

6:58 pm

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

What we're witnessing this afternoon is Labor's attempt at a tawdry reinvention of Hillary Clinton's 'deplorables'—a comment which divided United States society and saw the person who was going to be elected as the President of the United States defeated by the people because of their repulsion at this sort of politics that Hillary Clinton failed to execute and that, I predict, Labor will fail to execute with this tawdry motion. Isn't it amazing that this motion is put forward by a Queensland senator? The Queensland state Labor government was the government that sought to scare people from the AstraZeneca vaccine. Oh, there's no mention of that in the contributions—no mention whatsoever.

In the motion, if you read it in detail, you will see that these gentlemen are being condemned for even standing alongside certain people. Well, the acting leader of the opposition in this place got caught out recently, didn't she, standing alongside operatives of the Communist Party of China, that brutal dictatorship? She was standing alongside such an operative. Does the Labor Party condemn her for that? There's stony silence. Indeed, the acting leader of the Labor Party in this place—I would suggest possibly unwittingly—appointed people that have now served jail terms to her ministry and the Labor Party while she was Premier of New South Wales. How did they defend the criminally convicted Craig Thomson when he was sitting in the House of Representatives? The list of Labor debacles in this space goes on and on. One wonders how this Labor motion even saw the light of day. The lack of self-awareness in this motion is genuinely and truly concerning.

In this debate, sure, there is a narrative at the moment as to the best way to deal with COVID. Let's remind ourselves that Denmark, Sweden and Norway are not in the dark recesses of far-Right clutches but they have just determined to remove all barriers whatsoever in relation to COVID—no more mandates, no more mask wearing and no more limits on crowd numbers—based on their medical advice. 'Listen to the science' is often used as a mantra to shut others down, to cancel them. There are alternative points of view held by men and women skilled in science. Often they are quoted by my colleagues. Do we agree with them? That's not the issue. The issue is: do they have the right to put those views to the public? They do.

I'll just remind people in this place that men and women of good faith and who are highly intelligent can actually come to differing conclusions on exactly the same matters. I refer to the High Court: seven men and women who are sworn into office, who are of a high intellect and who are capable lawyers. They hear the same evidence and apply the same law, and then these seven men and women sometimes come to a 4-3 decision. Are they somehow in the clutches of some conspiratorial force? No, they are not. They are men and women of good faith who have exercised a judgement in relation to a certain matter. If High Court judges can be so divided on these matters, why can't Australian citizens be divided in relation to mandates, mask wearing or whether or not they want to have a vaccine?

That is why I have consistently been against the concept of mandates. I don't want to see a divided society. I don't want to see a two-tiered society based on those that are vaccinated and those that are not vaccinated. Those men and women who make a choice are entitled to their jobs. We are, as we speak, seeing university students in Tasmania being told, 'You cannot continue with your studies if you are not vaccinated,' as a result of which their dreams are shattered, the public is denied their expertise and, halfway through, they have a HECS debt that they were expecting to pay off after graduation. They're now being denied that opportunity but are still being left with a debt. The same applies to TAFE in my home state of Tasmania. It's completely unacceptable that apprentices should be denied the opportunity. We have a shortage of tradesmen. We have a shortage of nurses, doctors and surgeons, and they're now being denied the right to practise and be of service to the community. I happen to be pro-vaccination but antimandates, and that is a right and proper position to hold, and I will defend it most vehemently with those who have an alternative view to mine in relation to vaccination. My view has always been that in this debate we should seek to educate and not discriminate. We should seek to convince and not coerce. That is the way a civilised society and community seeks to go about a discussion. And, yes, what I would say to colleagues and others is: if you are so convinced of your position, you should have no fear of an opposite view being put to you. If anything, your counter to that view will show that your initial view is in fact correct, whereas, if you cannot counter it properly, what it informs you to do is to nuance your position to accept that that which has been countering your view has some merit to it, and you need to adjust your position.

What is most disappointing about this debate is not only Labor's hypocrisy in putting forward this motion but the relentless negativity of Labor and their failure to put forward an alternative point of view and an alternative platform. Where are they in this debate? Their big criticism is for three members of the coalition. You know what? The average Australian is not concerned about two senators and a House of Representatives member; they're concerned about the fundamentals of Australian government. Allow me to read the following list. It's why the Australian Labor Party don't want to talk real policy. We have had 1.1 million jobs created since the pandemic hit. How about a motion of congratulations in relation to that? Deathly silence from Labor. To continue: 11.5 million Australians are benefiting from tax relief, 700,000 jobs were saved through JobKeeper, 71.3 per cent of trade and exports are now covered by free trade agreements, there were 815,600 female business operators in Australia as of August 2021, 220,000 trade apprentices is a record high, there has been a 20 per cent reduction in emissions since 2005, and electricity bills are down eight per cent in the past two years. They're the sorts of things people talk about: apprenticeships for their sons and daughters and their electricity bill and how can they afford to pay it. These are the real issues, and they are what the Labor Party formerly discussed on a regular basis. But today—no, no, no. Those cost-of-living issues, those things that are actually discussed under the corrugated iron roofs of our suburbs, are no longer the matters that excite the interest of the Australian Labor Party. What excites them are political stunts and their attempts to divide our society. If anybody disagrees with their elitist view of the world, they need to be shut down.

In the moments left, how about 1,213 major transport projects supporting 100,000 jobs and over 99 per cent of homes and businesses with NBN access? Despite COVID, the Morrison government has done a fantastic job, and all that Labor can point to is some illusory view about three coalition backbenchers.

7:08 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

To quote Russell Crowe from Gladiator, Senator Abetz, the time for honouring yourself and your government will soon be at an end. Sitting here listening to the achievements of this government, I find it no wonder that Australians are so exasperated, so frustrated and so despairing at the state of politics in this country. We have maybe five days in this parliament this year; that's it. With five sitting days before, almost certainly, an election that has to be held for this august chamber by 22 May, what do we have on the agenda?

We have a government fighting culture wars, bringing in a religious discrimination bill to discriminate against transgender individuals—citizens in this country who have rights. We see in the media, making up the bulk of news stories, exchanges of text messages between senior members of the LNP, Mr Peter Dutton in the other place and the Prime Minister, and we see Mr Barnaby Joyce calling the Prime Minister a psycho and a psychopath and who knows what else. This government is just a long series of dumpster fires. This parliament has been non-stop chaos, scandal and corruption. And, in just a few months time—in fact, in less than 100 days—Australians have a chance to go to the polls and take back the power from this government.

I and many other Australians are most despairing of the fact that this chaos is distracting from so many important things and so much reform we need in this place, and from the great challenges of our time. I accept that COVID has been a very difficult few years for all of us, for all Australians and, in fact, the whole international community, and we're not out of the woods yet. But we also are still seeing a relentless assault on our environment by big corporations hell-bent on propping up their balance sheets, hell-bent on growing their earnings per share so they can keep their share prices up, and going out and exploring 80,000 kilometres of new ocean acreage for oil and gas at a time when the International Energy Agency tells us that 2021 has to be the last year of oil and gas exploration on this planet if we're to stick to 1.5 degrees of warming.

I despair when I look at my home state of Tasmania where the Tarkine is still under assault. Mining company MMG, a company that cares only about money and its own profits, wants to go into some of the most precious Gondwana rainforest left on this planet—which, according to information recently released by the Bob Brown Foundation released information is a breeding ground for the rare and endangered masked owls—and build a toxic tailings dam on a beautiful river in the Tarkine and goldmine a forest. And in Blue Derby, where mountain biking has turned that town into a transition town, so-called Sustainable Timbers Tasmania want to log right up to the mountain bike tracks, even though the reason that this place has been so successful is because of its beauty, its rareness and its geology. It is on the international map, yet we still want to log it, even after tens of millions of dollars of federal and state money have gone into investing in a different future to forestry. But we just can't let go. And we see oil and gas companies, as usual, getting the run of the roost in this place.

It will be different in three months time. I have absolute faith and confidence that Australians have had enough of the chaos and enough of the corruption and they want change. I believe that, and I believe I will be vindicated on election night. We can take this country in a new direction.

7:13 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

NE (—) (): It is interesting to listen to the contributions this evening by senators in this place. For the past two years Australians have come together to get through this pandemic. Essentially that's been the core message from the motion of Senator Chisholm: how many Australians are coming together, and have come together, to get through these very difficult and unprecedented times. However, by respecting one another and receiving advice from leaders and experts, we have kept safe our friends and families and many other loved ones throughout our various communities, which are represented in this place.

Of course there have been rules that have been difficult to follow, and there have been different rules in different parts of the country. While some directions might not have been intuitive to some of us, the vast majority of Australians have understood that defeating COVID is the core goal here. Defeating COVID is important, because if we don't then there will be other consequences that we will face. What we have seen around the world is that for those that have not been at the front of the curve there have been thousands upon thousands upon thousands of deaths every single week.

Despite the Morrison-Joyce government completely bungling the vaccine rollout, most Australians turned up to get their jab as soon as they could. That was because of many decisions that were taken by state governments, rather than by the federal government. Many of these Australians—in fact, over 90 per cent of these Australians, the vast majority of Australians—have trusted the science. They've trusted their doctors. They have trusted the many experts in the healthcare professions and they got vaccinated not just to protect themselves but to protect their loved ones. This trust is the very foundation of our society. None of us can be an expert on everything, and I don't think anyone in this place claims to be, but we do trust in others to provide us with advice and guidance on very complicated and complex issues. That's why we have departments. That's why we listen to experts. I know there are many individuals in this place and in the other place who are very sceptical about some of the advice that they receive, but, thankfully, the vast majority of us do take on advice from scientists.

Certain members of the government—and many have been outlined in Senator Chisholm's motion—have consistently undermined and attacked the information that Australians are relying on to keep them safe, and that is core to our debate today. Members of this government have used their platforms as elected representatives to spread mistruths and disinformation about vaccines and about other important public health measures. It's interesting to listen to those opposite who claim that we somehow are lecturing them. If you listened to the contributions that were made then one might have to say that it is a bit of a lecture from others to tell us that we are wrong when we point out that health experts should be taken seriously. Yes, they can be critiqued, and, yes, we should be able to question their advice, but at the end of the day, when you have multiple health experts around the country in very different jurisdictions saying the same thing, one has to ask: how can they be wrong?

These members of the government have stoked the flames of division in our communities, feeding the worst of our instincts. They have done their best to turn Australians against each other rather than unite them. Thanks to those members, some Australians now no longer trust their family doctor. If you believe some of their harmful ideas, our hardworking nurses and paramedics are all part of a worldwide conspiracy instead of being the selfless heroes most of us know they are. Instead of focusing on creating jobs and cutting bills, members of this government are detracting from the efforts of all Australians to beat this virus and get on with their lives.

7:18 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I had a fulsome speech prepared, but given the lateness of the hour I won't make it. I'll just make this point: getting vaccinated is a sensible and responsible thing to do. That's why Australians have taken up the opportunity to do that. But, I have to say, I am against mandating vaccination. In my home state we are seeing extraordinary measures being taken to coerce people to get vaccinated. As I said, it's the sensible and responsible thing to do. I myself am triple dosed, and I encourage people to do it. But you can't even go to a drive-through bottle shop in Western Australia without showing your vaccination certification. That's just a vindictive attitude, I think, that the state government have taken against Western Australians who, on the balance of all the evidence they have, have decided for themselves that they don't want that medical procedure. They're only putting themselves at risk. The data is showing that you're protecting yourself, but it's not doing much actually to reduce transmission.

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

It being 7.20 pm, pursuant to order agreed to earlier today, the debate is now interrupted.

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

The question is that the urgency motion be agreed to.