Dr HAINES (Indi) (11:58): I rise to support the bill before the House, the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020. This bill makes an important step towards the smooth rollout of Australia’s very, very important vaccination program. Right now, drugs imported into Australia are required to have registration or a listing number on their label. With the COVID-19 vaccine, this may not always be possible—for instance, if those vaccines must be stored at extremely low temperatures, like the Pfizer vaccine. This bill amends the Therapeutic Goods Act to allow the secretary of the health department to waive this obligation so that we can import these critical life-saving vaccines and start the process of getting our lives back to normal. The removal of this impediment to the import of COVID-19 vaccines is a sensible and practical measure that puts public health and safety first.
The vaccine rollout in Australia will be delivered through hospitals, GP clinics, pharmacies and community health centres. But, if the rollout is to be successful, regional Australia will need additional support. We already have significantly fewer GPs per head of population than the cities, and these GPs are already overworked. Many people will have to travel significant distances to get to hospitals or other distribution points. Small clinics will need additional resourcing to cope with the millions of people across the nation who need to be vaccinated. This bill is important, but our vaccine rollout will need a dedicated regional focus if the promise of free and universal access to this vaccine is to be realised.
I have a deeper concern around the success of the vaccine rollout. My concern is that the government is not currently providing a clear and consistent evidence based public health message about COVID-19, largely due to the ongoing behaviour of the member for Hughes, behaviour that I believe is directly relevant to the bill before us. I was reluctant to make the following remarks today, because I have no wish to draw attention to this dangerous behaviour. But, with my background in clinical care and public health research, I felt it was my professional duty to intervene in this public debate. As a former nurse and midwife, over the years I’ve had many hundreds of conversations with new parents who hold concerns about vaccines. I know that in normal times many people harbour anxieties and reservations about vaccines; it’s not unusual. If anyone out there listening feels hesitation about the vaccine, it’s okay to feel some hesitation, but it’s important to ask the right questions of the right people.
I know from my clinical and research experience that addressing people’s concerns about their health and the health of their kids requires empathy, understanding and information that comes from evidence based medicine. That’s why the member for Hughes is so heinous in doing what he’s been doing. He’s exploiting and aggravating legitimate concerns and anxieties of Australians just to big himself up. That is not on. In place of scientific, medically sound information, he’s putting out serious misinformation. It’s appalling in a pandemic—when millions overseas have died, when the entire world has been turned upside down, when people’s lives have been disrupted so completely—to throw fuel onto the fire of people’s anxieties about their health and security, and, in the process, endanger them.
I will not waste time countering each of the spurious claims that the member for Hughes has spouted over the last year. Instead, I am asking the government to stop this dangerous behaviour. I believe that there was a private conversation this morning between the Prime Minister and the member for Hughes. Apparently, that has been released in a media release. But a private conversation and a media release are not enough; this needs to be stated publicly. If the member for Hughes is allowed to continue, then all of the good work being done—for instance, through this really important bill—will be undermined.
The government has so much to be proud of in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic: shutting down the international borders early; establishing the national cabinet; and creating economic measures, like JobKeeper, JobSeeker and the coronavirus supplement, which were critical public health measures in allowing people not to have to choose between complying with public health advice and keeping an income. All of that good work is being undermined from the inside. Yet the government is refusing to do something publicly about it.
No person in this building has worked harder over the past year than the minister for health. I have much respect for his tireless and effective work in leading our national response. That’s why I was so powerfully disappointed that, when asked to condemn the lies from the member for Hughes, the health minister only said, ‘There will be different views from different people.’ It’s why I was so shocked when, as Acting Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about the member for Hughes’s dangerous fabrications and he told people to toughen up, because facts are sometimes contentious. That’s not good enough. It’s why I was scandalised on Monday, when the Prime Minister was asked to reject the arguments put forward by the member for Hughes and he instead said that he was doing a great job in his electorate. From three of the most senior members of the government, this is reprehensible. This is not what being captain of ‘team Australia’ looks like—no, it’s not. This is capitulation to idiocy that does not befit a government which has otherwise overseen such a successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is presenting a good bill to us right now. This is a government that called COVID-19 our ‘Dunkirk moment’, and yet, when its most senior members were called upon to show leadership, they squibbed it. They’ve the spine of a jellyfish when it comes to the member for Hughes!
Even the member for Higgins, a decorated doctor in her past life and highly respected, when asked about the member for Hughes said that debate is fine and that she doesn’t follow the member for Hughes on Facebook so hadn’t seen what he’d said. I understand that she’s probably working very hard—she’s told me she has been, inside the tent—with her colleague. But it’s not enough. You need to say this publicly and give confidence to the people out there who are listening. If the most experienced medical professional in the government claims to have not even read the dangerous anti-science nonsense being churned out several times a day by one of her own colleagues, that’s not something of which to be proud. I know the member for Higgins stood up in this place just this morning, highlighting, legitimately, her expertise as a medical researcher and declaring that the government is removing all roadblocks to an effective rollout of the vaccine, but, really, all of them accept the enormous roadblock that sits in the party room.
This government has started pushing the line that the grand solution for all of this business with the member for Hughes is just to stop using Facebook for health information. The member for Hughes, though, has 90,000 followers on Facebook—50 per cent more than the Treasurer of Australia. He’s had 3.9 million interactions with his Facebook page since August. By contrast, the Australian government Department of Health has had just 605,000. There has not been a single week since August of last year where the Department of Health have had more interactions than the Facebook page of the member for Hughes. So the idea that you shouldn’t go to Facebook for your health advice is ludicrous, because in fact it’s one which all of us here—and, indeed, the government, most profoundly—subscribe to. Right now, the pinned Facebook post for the member for Higgins is a video about how the vaccine will be rolled out—a post that she has hashtagged ‘DrKatie’ and ‘health’. So that’s a curious way not to share medical advice on Facebook! When the TGA approved the Pfizer vaccine on 25 January, the Prime Minister was really quick to post a celebratory note on Facebook, as was the Treasurer, as was the Deputy Prime Minister and as was the health minister. The obvious truth is that the government does use Facebook and social media to spread health advice because they know that that’s where people get a lot of their information. This idea that Australians could just delete their Facebook accounts is a fig leaf for an inability to rein in their own renegade colleagues.
As far as I can see, the only member of the government who has even remotely called out this tommyrot is the member for Reid, one of the newest and youngest members of our parliament. She said correctly:
Freedom of speech does not equal freedom of responsibility. In a political environment shaped by COVID, the responsibility of every MP is to safeguard democracy by rejecting disinformation and fake news. We have a duty to our nation to follow the evidence and facts.
I applaud the member for Reid and thoroughly agree with her. In a single tweet, she’s shown more courage than the entire government ministry put together, and she’s shamed the Prime Minister who, instead of leadership, has prioritised political expediency above public health—because you cannot claim to kneel at the altar of medical science and yet allow a bonfire of lies to blaze on the internet, lit by the self-appointed minister for conspiracy theories, the member for Hughes. You just cannot. It is simply unacceptable. It has to be called out. It has to be called out publicly, not just in a private conversation. And it has to stop, because people are being lied to and they are being misled.
Research from the ANU in November found that just 58 per cent of Australians will ‘definitely’ get the vaccine, but almost 30 per cent—30 per cent!—are hesitant, with 13 per cent actively resistant to it. Polling published by Newspoll yesterday showed a similar result, with just 46 per cent of Australians saying they would ‘definitely’ get the vaccine, a third saying ‘probably’, 17 per cent saying they won’t and eight per cent being unsure. This is why it’s so important that we get the logistics and communication right.
The vaccine will not itself be a silver bullet to get us back to normal, but it is our only pathway back to normal. To really get to the other side of this crisis, we need something like 70 to 90 per cent of the Australian population to get vaccinated. The fact that we are only at around half of Australians saying they will definitely get the vaccine is a public policy failure that needs to be addressed urgently and it is a failure that falls directly at the feet of those who spew lies and those too afraid to stop them.
The Prime Minister is spending $24 million of public money on a vaccine information campaign yet his own backbencher is rowing in the other direction. The greatest challenge our nation will face this year, God willing, is to convince tens of millions of Australians of the truth that these vaccines are safe and effective. A clear and consistent message from our leaders is more important than ever. That’s the one thing this government appears unable right now to give Australians while the member for Hughes is allowed to run riot.
The President of the AMA, Omar Khorshid, said:
It’s really disappointing to see people who should know better getting out there and putting out just crackpot ideas on health issues.
And the vice president, Dr Chris Moy, said the member for Hughes and others are ‘torching the foundation of community health and science’. There’s now a push by organisations like the Doherty institute and the Immunisation Foundation of Australia for the parliament to pass legislation forcing social media companies to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation circulating online. So at a time when our vaccinologists and our public health experts should be focusing on the vaccine rollout, instead they are mobilising to counter the dangerous behaviour coming from, of all places, the government party room. It beggars belief. What a disgrace.
I am not a firebrand MP. I came here to be a good local representative. I have no interest in stoking political drama just for the sake of it. My remarks on this bill today are absolutely motivated by a desire for the government to succeed on this, to protect public health with the same vigour with which it’s approached the COVID-19 pandemic in general. I want to be extremely clear: if you are out there right now listening to all of this, getting confused about what vaccine works, what the side effects are or if you are feeling anxious, that’s okay. It’s not wrong to have questions. It’s not wrong to feel anxious.
Before I was a public health researcher I spent 35 years as a nurse and a midwife. I have sat with thousands of new mothers and fathers and talked with them about how to care of their babies. Many hundreds of these new parents over the years have been reluctant or anxious to get their children vaccinated. When the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine was a big issue, I had many discussions with parents to reassure them about this. The research tells us that the best way to encourage people to get vaccinated is to recognise their concerns and answer their questions. Nobody refuses a vaccine because they are trying to harm themselves or other people; they do it because they are honestly worried about the health of themselves or their family. We are all driven by the same impulse here—to protect our families and our community. But it is important to be clear: the vaccines being rolled out in Australia have been rigorously tested. These approval processes have not been rushed. They are safe. They are effective. Australia’s vaccine rollout will be voluntary, universal and free. The government is not making this mandatory. This means it is up to all Australians to choose vaccination. If we, as a country, can rally around this vaccination program and get vaccinated when we can then that is the way back to normal life.
I commend this bill to the House but it would be absurd to do so without noting that the greatest tool we have for a successful vaccine rollout is not legislation but communication. If the government is to succeed in this challenge, a challenge that the Prime Minister on Monday said was his No. 1 priority, then it has to step up and show leadership that Australians deserve and publicly call out misinformation.