THURSDAY, 20 JANUARY 2022
MARK BUTLER MP, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: There's obviously a very important National Cabinet meeting taking place later today and Scott Morrison has floated a range of ideas that he wants to take to the National Cabinet, including a bizarre proposal to allow under 18-year-olds to operate forklifts. Seriously, our hospitals are overwhelmed, aged care facilities can't get their hands on rapid tests or boosters, hundreds of them have outbreaks, supermarket shelves are empty, tragically, dozens of Australians are dying every day and Scott Morrison’s contribution to the debate is to deploy Australia’s children onto forklifts.
This shows just how out of touch this Prime Minister has become. Whether it's Scott Morrison’s thought bubbles on schools or on workplaces, all he's doing right now is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Because none of his ideas will make it easier to get a rapid test, none of them will put food on our supermarket shelves. Scott Morrison created this mess because he refused to listen to the advice he received months ago, but he has no idea how to fix it.
Before Christmas, Scott Morrison promised Australians that life would return to normal over summer, but he refused to listen to the clear advice about what he needed to do to make that happen, advice on boosters, on childhood vaccines and importantly on rapid tests. As a consequence, life in Australia around now is anything but normal.
The Morrison Government has become a Coalition of chaos divided on even the most fundamental elements of their pandemic response. This morning, Senator Rennick has strongly endorsed George Christensen’s dangerous, divisive advice to parents not to vaccinate their children. Be clear, George Christensen is a menace to Australia’s public health, particularly to Australia’s children’s public health. But he's not the only menace in this Morrison Government and they are all continuing to be valued members of Scott Morrison’s team.
Australians remember last week as he was cleaning up his mess around Novak Djokovic that Scott Morrison promised Australians there was only one set of pandemic rules in this country and they applied to everyone. But a series of his MPs continue to flout those pandemic rules with impunity.
A number of his MPs continue to flout vaccine rules that apply to millions of Australia’s nurses and doctors, police officers, teachers, aged care workers and many more. Those workers have to show they're fully vaccinated on pain of losing their job, but a number of Morrison Government MPs are not fully vaccinated, will not confirm that, but continue to attend official events as Government representatives, continue to attend Parliament and I'm sure in a couple of weeks will be welcomed back into the Government party room by Scott Morrison.
Doctors in Australia will lose their registration and their capacity to work if they provide vaccine advice that is not strictly adhering to the official health advice on vaccines, but we have Government MPs using taxpayer resources spouting dangerous information that is completely contradictory to official vaccine advice and they do that with complete impunity.
Surely you can't be a Government MP if you use Government resources to openly campaign against the Government’s own pandemic response. If Scott Morrison does not expel these MPs before Parliament resumes in February, then his promise to all Australians that everyone is covered by the same pandemic rules means absolutely nothing.
Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Parents are concerned with students returning to school and not being vaccinated. Do you share these concerns?
BUTLER: I think all Australian parents and grandparents and family members are deeply concerned that schools are due to return in the week after next in most states and we still don't have a plan to ensure that that's done safely. Scott Morrison should be able to promise all parents that their children will get at least one dose of the vaccine before school returns.
But at the current rate it is going to be several weeks before children get even their first dose. He's got no plan to give teachers access to boosters before they return to school. Nothing on ventilation, nothing on rapid testing still, and the time is ticking. Australia’s parents deserve better from their Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: And how would Labor do things differently in the same situation?
BUTLER: We’d have listened to the expert advice months ago, as far back as June in some cases, certainly in September from the AMA, the Prime Minister was advised how critically important it was to secure rapid tests. Now we hear that aged care facilities can't get their hands on rapid tests, in spite of Greg Hunt again promising today that rapid tests were flowing freely into the aged care sector. We're not confident that concession card holders will have access to the free tests that they were promised on Monday, only a few days away, because pharmacists say they've still not got the supplies they were promised from the Government.
We would have listened to the advice, we would have followed it, we would have put in place a plan to make sure that this next phase of the pandemic that we're going through, the end of lockdowns, the opening of borders, would have been done safely.
Scott Morrison refused to listen, he refused to take responsibility, and Australians right now we're paying a very high price for his failure to do his job.
JOURNALIST: NSW is considering calling on education department staff to fill in for teachers if there's shortages, should SA do the same?
BUTLER: Obviously, all of these arrangements should follow the public health advice first and foremost, and also adhere to good education policy. Governments are in a very difficult position right now because so many of those critical foundations of a safe return to school were not put in place by the Morrison Government. Deployment of vaccines, boosters to teachers, rapid tests to schools so that they can do surveillance testing, so yes, it's understandable that state governments are left scrambling to try and make sure that some return to school can happen.
JOURNALIST: So, we have National Cabinet still going and we haven't heard what they’ve agreed to in regards to schools and obviously the states run the schools, but what responsibilities does the Federal Government have here? Should it be up to the Commonwealth to provide rapid antigen tests if they're required and fix ventilation? Where does the responsibility fall?
BUTLER: A lot of the implementation of schools’ policy obviously rests with state governments, but it's crystal clear that the tools we needed to ensure a safe return to school all lie in the hands of the Prime Minister. The deployment of vaccines for children, boosters for teachers, rapid tests for schools. These are all things that the national Government does. National governments all around the world take responsibility for vaccines, securing supply of rapid tests. The Government did not do their job to make sure that states and other independent authorities had all the tools they needed to ensure kids would get back to school, which is what we all want, but they'll be able to do that safely.
JOURNALIST: You answer earlier about the News South Wales proposals to fix staff shortages in schools. You say you would follow the expert advice and there's the health and medical advice first. But do you think it is right if they will be taught by departmental staff?
BUTLER: Obviously, there are workforce shortages across a whole range of sectors aged care hospitals are dealing with it right now and I'm sure schools are going to have to confront that as well. We want kids to be able to be back at school, getting education, mixing with their peers. We want that to happen safely, but obviously school authorities, whether they're state governments, or the Independent and Catholic sector are also going to have to make arrangements to deal with these workforce shortages that are exacerbated by a lack of good rapid testing.
JOURNALIST: This morning we heard from the Health Minister Greg Hunt, he said while the government scheme for concession cardholders, free rapid antigen test starts on Monday, that will depend on the individual supply that is available in any particular outlet of pharmacies. Now pharmacies told us they can't get stock. They're being asked by suppliers to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront. What's your response to that?
BUTLER: This is just another big flashy announcement from Scott Morrison that he can't deliver on the ground. Now we've said that rapid tests should be widely available free of charge to all Australians. Scott Morrison doesn't agree.
He thinks three quarters of Australians should be left to their own devices, scrambling in a private market to try and find a test that appears almost impossible to find, and paying an arm and a leg.
He did make some sort of basic concession for a quarter of Australians, pensioners and concession cardholders, but it doesn't appear is going to be able to deliver on that. So, there's not a single Australian right now that appears to have any relief in sight to the gross shortage of rapid tests that Scott Morrison has caused.
JOURNALIST: The other issue I want to ask you about, Mr. Butler is we're seeing over the course of the next few days millions of rapid antigen tests being flown into the country. But the Government is claiming commercial in confidence on where those tests are being distributed and to who. Does there need to be greater transparency for Australians to know where these tests are going once they land in the country?
BUTLER: We need some transparency. We need straight answers from the Federal Government. There's enormous confusion around at the moment about what is happening with supplies of rapid tests. Obviously, there isn't enough supply, but private company after private company has complained that they're being told by their wholesalers that their supplies have been requisitioned by the Commonwealth Government. Now Scott Morrison flatly denied that yesterday that there had been any requisitioning, very different to the denial from the Department of Health who simply said they hadn't requisitioned all tests, but Scott Morrison has said they have not requisitioned a single test. Now that flatly contradicts the position put by private company after private company. We need some transparency. We need straight answers about that as well. Here in South Australia, there are reports that South Australian supplies have been requisitioned in the eastern states, something the South Australian Premier apparently has referred to the ACCC. South Australians would like some transparency and some straight answers from the Federal Government about that as well.
At the end of the day, Scott Morrison has failed to do his job on rapid tests. As a result, we end up in a situation in Australia that resembles The Hunger Games. This sort of clash between state governments, between the private sector and the Commonwealth Government and Australians end up paying the price for that.
JOURNALIST: Thanks Mr. Butler.
BUTLER: Thanks everyone, have a good day.