24 June 2021

Second Reading

I also rise to speak on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021 this afternoon. There’s been no shortage of debate in this place as well as in the other place on the COVID-19 pandemic that’s currently before us, not just here in Australia but right around the world. We have heard contributions in this place, including the one that we just heard, from senators who are trying to put forward, rightly or wrongly, their own thoughts on ways we can overcome the crisis that we are facing, not only economically but also the health crisis that every state government and the Commonwealth government are trying to handle right now. But, I must say, for senators to come into this place and say that it’s not about the politics and to claim that they’re not a doctor but still provide that medical advice, all I say to people is that, if you’re listening to today’s debate, always take the advice of your GP. At the end of the day, we’re trying to facilitate the best vaccinations that we can give the Australian people through their GPs and the many vaccination programs right around the country. If anyone were listening to the contribution from Senator Hanson, I would urge them to talk to their doctors. At the end of the day, their doctors are the best place to have that discussion. All we can do here, in parliament, is support our experts, whether they be in the Department of Health or whether they be the state governments, who are doing a very good job of trying to manage the situation that is COVID.

We know that the New South Wales government might be entering a period of uncertainty, just like the Victorian government, in my home state. The state governments have to manage the situation. I take exception to some of the contributions that were made earlier, suggesting that somehow it was the Victorian government that started this pandemic here in the country. Quite frankly, if it weren’t for the cooperative work, the good work, by all premiers to ensure that we locked down Australia to protect our citizens, we wouldn’t be in the position that we are today. Look right around the world, and you will find that Australia is now the envy of the world. Why? Because our state governments have taken the hard decisions, the right decisions, to protect their citizens.

It’s good to see the Commonwealth finally come to the table and start to work with the various state governments, whether they’re Labor or Liberal, in making sure that Australians do have freedom of movement. And I know there are lockdowns. There are lockdowns, and they may be an annoyance for some. But, quite frankly, I would rather be in lockdown than having thousands of people dying every single day, and that is what is happening right around the world.

Speaking on the bill that is currently before the chamber, the only reason that this legislation has become necessary is this government’s many failures to bring the pandemic under control. Whether it’s been the rollout of the vaccination program, the lack of a national quarantine program or even cutting off the JobKeeper payments early, there are a number of issues that the Labor opposition has been asking this government to consider for some time. The government has finally agreed to support a number of people who are currently in need of support where there is a lockdown. I understand that $500 a week has been offered to people who are engaged in paid employment who lose more than 20 hours a week and $325 a week offered for people who are engaged in paid employment who lose less than 20 hours a week.

In Victoria, this is very important. Currently we’re facing quite substantial issues, and many Victorian workers and small businesses need support from their federal government. They’ve had support from the state government, and it is now time that support is offered by the federal government. I would say to you, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, that, unfortunately, the support is a little bit too little and a bit too late, but it is good to see that the government has finally come to the table. But, out of the $1 trillion deficit that the government have racked up in the last budget, the Treasurer has only managed to find $100 million to support Victorians—the many small businesses and the many workers who are in need of financial assistance. Looking at this bill, the government will have the discretion to ensure that this payment is on offer only where there is one week of lockdown in a month, and that is what’s been assumed as part of its budget costings.

The failure of this government to deliver a successful vaccine rollout and a secure quarantine program is hurting not just businesses and workers but also consumers, and people do want to help ensure that there is a speedy economic recovery. At the end of the day, once the economy’s back on track and we are able to reopen and have a successful, growing economy, all workers can go back to their offices and their factories and can carry on with normal life.

But it is imperative that we are actually all getting vaccinated, and that is ultimately the key here. The reason why we encourage people to get vaccinated is that, once we do get to a certain level—whatever that level is, and I’ve heard figures of around 70 per cent to 80 per cent—we’ll then be able to avoid lockdowns. But that situation won’t occur until the federal government starts to find other providers of vaccines. It’s not good enough that they’ve come in here and said, ‘Yes, we’ve got some contracts for COVID vaccines.’ It’s taken them some time to actually land deals with many vaccine providers right around the world. Yes, we’ve got AstraZeneca and Pfizer, but where are the others? Where are the others? I’ve had many meetings this week, with multiple groups, and it looks promising. It looks like we’ll have a lot more vaccines by the end of the year, but these discussions should have occurred 18 months ago. They should have occurred 18 months ago. It seems like the government has taken the cheap and easy option: ‘We’ll just go with one or two providers who’ll give us a vaccine, and everything will be fine.’ But that hasn’t actually been the case.

We are not on our way to the government’s target of having everyone vaccinated with one dose by the end of the year. It looks very much like it may not be till the middle of next year, which is quite disappointing because the sooner we can get a certain level of people vaccinated the sooner we can start opening our economy and not be in a situation where state governments have to run our national economy. Unfortunately, the federal government—through the national cabinet process—hasn’t been able to deliver nationally consistent rules on having a quarantine program in place.

Having said all that, it should be no surprise that we’ve had to have Channel 9 and others roll out a national campaign in terms of public awareness of the vaccine program, to provide access to straightforward information on who is eligible and who is not. That point is really important because, if you keep shifting the goalposts of who is eligible for which vaccines, you then start to undermine the system. That is something that we are trying very hard to avoid. Unfortunately the government has its press conference one week, and that will change with the information that is provided to the Australian public. We really do need this government to make sure that there is a national campaign that is rolled out as soon as possible, because, the sooner we provide the Australian people with the confidence that the vaccination program is safe, the sooner we can increase the number of people who are eligible to receive a vaccination.

We’ve even had the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners raise concerns, saying that new targeted advertising campaigns are desperately needed to tackle vaccine hesitancy. We heard earlier from other senators in this place about the unease that a number of people have with finding the appropriate jab for themselves. I cannot stress enough the fact that they should go and speak to their local GP. Make an appointment today. If you’re listening to the Senate here, please go and speak to your GP. Make that appointment and have a good chat to them about the risks of having the vaccine jab.

At the end of the day, we want to be talking about other issues as well—how we can better put investment in health and education and grow our economy. But, until we can get the vaccination rates up, it is going to be very difficult for this government to get out of the mess that they’ve created. But let’s also not forget that JobKeeper—and the government finally came to the table with the JobKeeper support payments—

Senator Ruston interjecting

Senator CICCONE: I’ll come on to that, Senator Ruston. Let’s also not forget that it did take a while for the government to come to the table and offer many people that support that was desperately needed, especially in my home state of Victoria. The state government, through the Acting Premier, has also been calling on this government for a couple of days this week to come to the table to clarify where the vaccines are for the many disability workers and aged-care workers in terms of getting priority for groups 1a and 1b. We still haven’t been able to get any clear answers from the relevant ministers in this place or, I believe, in the other place to date. I would just urge the government to please listen to the contributions that are being made here in this place today. Please get on with finding more vaccines, because, the sooner we can get more people vaccinated, the sooner we can open up the economy and move on to bigger and better things.