DOORSTOP: 24/1/22

January 24, 2022


There is complete chaos across Australia this morning as millions of pensioners and thousands of pharmacists discover they've been left completely high and dry by Scott Morrison. Scott Morrison promised more than 6 million pensioners and concession cardholders that they would get access to free rapid antigen tests from today, but it's just one more promise that Scott Morrison hasn't been able to deliver because he refused to take responsibility for delivering and supplying the rapid test to pharmacies in the first place. Everyone now knows how crucial rapid tests are to the fight against COVID right now. They should be free. They should be widely available to all Australians. A position that Labor has adopted, a position supported by health groups like the AMA, by business and the trade union movement. But Scott Morrison can't even deliver his own half-baked promise to supply them free of charge to just one quarter of the Australian population. 

The Government sent out the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce this morning to seek to deflect blame for this absolute debacle around rapid testing. Barnaby Joyce’s unhinged spray this morning exemplifies a Government that simply refuses to take responsibility for any of their own mistakes. A week ago, Barnaby Joyce was out blaming the Australian people for our empty supermarket shelves, accusing them of hoarding groceries with no evidence whatsoever. An accusation not supported by anyone in the industry or anyone else in government, and this morning he's being at it again, blaming the Australian people for the desperate shortage in rapid tests, throwing around wide, wild, baseless accusations that the Australian people are hoarding rapid tests. Again, accusations not made by anyone else whatsoever.

The Morrison Government caused this debacle on rapid tests in their pathetic attempt to blame the Australian people for the Government’s mistakes shows how desperate and out of touch this Government and this Prime Minister have become. But even worse, Barnaby Joyce, this morning sought to trivialise the depth of the current crisis claiming, to use his words, “people are not dying.” More than 900 Australians have lost their lives to COVID just since New Year's Day. More than 250 tragically dying in the last four days alone, each one a cherished family member, a cherished friend, a loved member of our broader Australian community. Barnaby Joyce’s cruel denial of the grief and the loss being experienced by so many hundreds of Australian families shows just how arrogant, how out of touch this Government has become. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: The Federal Government is insisting there will be enough rapid antigen tests to meet demand, saying a million more tests are due by the end of the month. Are you confident those tests will resolve the supply shortages?

BUTLER: They keep saying this. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was warned months and months ago he needed to get ahead of the game, copy what other countries were doing and organise the supply of millions and millions of rapid tests. And now he says “oh, they're coming”. We've been in this crisis for weeks and weeks now. Case numbers exploding, hospitals overwhelmed, as I said, hundreds and hundreds of Australians losing their lives and Scott Morrison, all he can say is, “they're coming.” They should have been organised months and months ago. Just like with vaccines, it was too little, too late from this Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: The Government has been suggesting that people shouldn't be wasting rapid antigen tests. Do you agree? People shouldn't be wasting them?

BUTLER: There's no evidence that people are wasting them. The Government caused this desperate shortage in rapid tests. Why don't they just take responsibility for their own mistakes instead of throwing around these baseless wild accusations that the shortage is somehow caused by the Australian people? It's been caused by Scott Morrison. He should take responsibility rather than trying to blame the Australian people for his own mistakes.

JOURNALIST: What is your take on wasting? Should they only be used when appropriate? What's your position?

BUTLER: Well, of course, and there's no evidence the Australian people are doing anything other than that. We've seen that right around the world. Rapid tests properly used, properly supplied free of charge by their government, allow people to get on with their lives. Keep going to work, keep the supply lines operating, keep schools open. This Government just didn't take the advice they were given months ago to ensure that the Australian community, Australian business had the supply of those tests that would allow us to do that, and instead what we've seen is the depth of the crisis over the Australian summer.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned hoarding before. What is your advice to the Australian public who may want to be hoarding it? Do you have any specific message for them?

BUTLER: I didn't mention hoarding, I mentioned Barnaby Joyce’s wild, baseless accusations of hoarding. No one else has made these accusations. No one else from government, no one from the health groups, no one from industry, the ACCC that's been looking at reasons for shortages and price spikes in this. Barnaby Joyce and the Morrison Government are the only ones accusing the Australian people of causing this debacle by hoarding. I have trust and faith in the Australian people’s ability to apply common sense here and to use rapid tests in a way that is sensible. There's no evidence they're doing anything other than that.

JOURNALIST: Health Minister Greg Hunt argues that the supply issues are widespread and global and this situation is not unique to Australia. Given other countries are in the same boat, is it fair to blame the Federal Government for these shortages?

BUTLER: I don't accept that other countries are in the same boat. Australians are experiencing what other countries are doing. They're watching TV, they're reading their newspapers. Many Australians have family and loved ones overseas in countries where rapid tests are readily available, they're widely available and they're free of charge and people are able to get on with their lives through this crisis, through this disastrous fourth wave because they had the tests available to them. I heard those comments by Greg Hunt, but Australia is in a unique position right now because our Government didn't do their job. Scott Morrison refused to listen to the warnings he was given back in September and refused to take responsibility and organise the tests that many other countries have had for months and months now.

JOURNALIST: Federal Labor has consistently called for increased domestic manufacturing capacity for rapid antigen tests. But the TGA has dismissed that arguing that there are domestically produced tests, but they have not yet gone through the approval process. What more then would you like to see done?

BUTLER: Back in 2020 a number of different companies approached the Government and said they were keen to set up manufacturing operations here in Australia to supply the Australian government and the Australian community with domestically manufactured rapid tests.

And their evidence, very clearly, this was back in 2020, their evidence very clearly is they could not have had less interest, a lower level of interest from the Morrison Government. We saw exactly the same story play out in relation to mRNA vaccine manufacturing here. So instead they’re manufacturing rapid tests here in Australia churning out millions and millions of tests that they had to supply to other governments because our government had no interest whatsoever. The evidence is very clear about what could have happened if we had a visionary Government that was willing to invest in Australian domestic manufacturing capability, on mRNA vaccines and on rapid testing. Instead, they sat on their hands.

JOURNALIST: Are you optimistic that rapid test supplies will even out over the coming weeks as the Government believes it will happen?

BUTLER: They've got to get better than they currently are. I mean, it is so desperately difficult to lay your hands on rapid tests anywhere in the country and when you do, you're often paying an arm and a leg for the test, so the situation can't get worse. Obviously, it's got to get better and got to get better soon, but we should not be in this situation in the first place. If the Government had listened, if they've acted we would have got through this summer in a much, much better shape.

JOURNALIST: Was it a good idea to start the free rapid test programme for concession cardholders, when supply wasn't ready? And was that fair on pharmacies?

BUTLER: Time and time again we've seen right through Scott Morrison’s Prime Ministership, including through the pandemic, he's always focused on the announcement and doesn't spend as much energy making sure that he can deliver what it is that he's announced.

How on earth do you make this announcement, we didn't support the limited nature of the announcement, but how on earth can you, as a Prime Minister make this announcement, this flashy announcement giving false hope to millions of Australian pensioners and concession cardholders and then refuse to take responsibility for arranging the supply of rapid tests to pharmacies in the first place? That's why we've got this utter chaos across Australia right now today.

JOURNALIST: Health Minister says it appears Omicron cases have peaked in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, do you share the view we're seeing the end of this wave?

BUTLER: Certainly, the case numbers are a relief for people. There is obviously a long way to go, I saw hospitalisations increased quite significantly in New South Wales this morning after coming down over the last several days. So, there is reason to hope that we've perhaps past the worst of the fourth wave, at least in New South Wales and Victoria perhaps, but there's no reason to be complacent here. I caution the Government against patting themselves on the back and being complacent about this. There is still much to do. Still only one in four primary school age children have received even their first dose of vaccine and school goes back next week. Three in four haven't even received their first dose. We still have one of the lowest and slowest rates of booster take up and rollout in the developed world. There's no programme, for example, to ensure that all teachers and school support staff have received a booster before school is due to go back next week either. And we have this rapid testing debacle that is causing chaos through the community, so of course we hope we would pass the worst, the peak of the cases, at least in the two big states but we are still way behind the rest of the developed world on so many important indicators. I urge the Government to spend less time patting themselves on the back, spending taxpayer money on TV ads, and more time on the basics.

JOURNALIST: And it appears the Prime Minister's account on Chinese social media site WeChat has been renamed and the account description changed. Is this concerning?

BUTLER: This is obviously deeply concerning. Labor would be seeking a briefing from the Government about this. This is not a partisan issue, this is something that affects the national interest in the broadest possible sense. I've seen reports that this might have happened as much as six months ago, but Labor’s not being briefed at all on this. We learned about it, as I understand it, through reading the newspapers this morning. We would want to seek a briefing from the Government about this serious allegation and we seek as far as possible to be bipartisan and supportive of the Government’s attempts to repel foreign interference in our democracy. Thanks everyone.