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Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Page: 176


Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (10:15): While Australians are rightly proud of the way that we as a nation have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us have a role to play in responding to this great challenge of our time. In large part, Australia's institutions have responded well. When I look at what has been successful in the Australian response, I look with great pride at the success of our governments, our public servants, our independent regulators and, indeed, our parliament and our political system. These institutions have served us well in the face of this extraordinary challenge. One of the institutions that Australians trust and rely on to protect them is the Therapeutic Goods Administration. This bill, the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, is designed to assist the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine throughout the nation and the role of the TGA in doing that.

The Australian community rightly expects opposition parties around the country to work constructively with governments to do all that they can to respond to this COVID-19 pandemic, and that's exactly what Labor is doing with this bill. There are some aspects of this bill that we have some concerns with, but overall the urgency of facilitating the COVID-19 vaccination campaign militates in favour of the quick passage of this bill.

This bill does a number of things. It facilitates the importation of COVID-19 vaccines to Australia. There are a number of regulatory requirements, particularly those relating to the display of Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods numbers on vaccines, that are difficult to implement with the COVID-19 vaccines. In some cases manufacturers can't put those individual numbers on because they are making doses for multiple countries. In other cases it's because the labels with these numbers can't be affixed to vaccines that must be kept at a supercold, minus-70-degree, temperature. This bill enables the Secretary of the Department of Health to waive the requirements to display the ARTG registration on certain therapies while making sure the information is still available freely elsewhere, particularly online. That's a good thing. The bill does a number of other things. It allows pharmacists to substitute medicines if certain shortages arise and it facilitates unique device identification databases for medical devices, as the member for Macarthur discussed earlier.

As I said, we might have some quibbles with aspects of this bill, but this is an important bill for the nation and the opposition is approaching it constructively. The constructive role played by the opposition in the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't mean biting our tongue when we think that the government has dropped the ball. In particular, we will hold the government to its word. When the Prime Minister says something about the way the nation is combating COVID-19, the Australian public expects that he will honour his word. As to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in particular, we want to see the Prime Minister live up to his promise, his commitment to the Australian people, that Australia is 'at the front of the queue' in the global vaccine rollout. I had a look online just before coming into the chamber today. We're at not quite 100 million doses—about 99 million doses of the vaccine have been administered worldwide—yet not a single Australian has received a vaccination. So 'at the front of the line but actually behind 100 million people' is where we are at the moment. It will be some time yet before the vaccine is actually rolled out in the Australian community. We will see then how far back in the queue we actually are, and we can compare the Prime Minister's words to his delivery.

The other thing that we will be very clear on is demanding that what has worked in Australia's response to COVID-19 is maintained by the government. What has worked is that our response in this pandemic has been based on science, and it requires political leaders to defend the science and it requires every one with a voice in our society to counter disinformation campaigns that undermine the primacy of science in our response to COVID-19.

It is particularly crucial that in the COVID-19 campaign all members of this House defend the institutions that Australians trust and rely on to protect them, particularly the TGA. Outrageously, the TGA has been the subject of a completely baseless campaign of abuse by the member for Hughes—an ongoing campaign of abuse of one of Australia's most important institutions in the middle of a global pandemic. It is outrageous, and it is not something that can be merely dismissed as the ravings of a Facebook comments guy come to life. Yes, this is happening on Facebook, but guess what? Facebook is very influential on people's decision-making in a modern world. The posts on the member for Hughes's Facebook page have been shared 10 times more than the posts of the Commonwealth Department of Health during this pandemic. They are 10 times as influential.

A particular problem is the member for Hughes's influence on the interaction and debate on Facebook—comments, shares and interactions. He regularly constitutes fully a quarter of Australian political debate on Facebook—a quarter of the total interactions Australia-wide are on the member for Hughes's Facebook page. This is not a trivial thing that can be dismissed. The member for Hughes is a one-man COVID-19 misinformation superspreader. It is extraordinary how he has enough time in the day to post the crap that goes through his Facebook page. I just had a look online. It's hard to actually keep up with it, but just in the last five days he has had 15 posts of COVID-19 misinformation. I was trying to keep count, because I did see that the Prime Minister had counselled the member for Hughes. It was reported in the media that the Prime Minister's spin doctors have been out there saying that he's had a word with the member for Hughes and he's counselled him—not sanctioned him, counselled him—and said privately, 'Please pull your head in.' Since that counselling—we saw it on 7News last night—the member for Hughes has done an interview with The Guardian; he's done an extended interview with Andrew Bolt on Sky News; he did a doorstop in the press gallery, where he accosted the member for Sydney in the middle of her doorstop; and, most tellingly, all of the member for Hughes's COVID-19 misinformation posts on his Facebook page are still up there. If the Prime Minister were serious about dealing with this COVID-19 misinformation superspreader he'd be saying to the member for Hughes: 'Take those misleading posts down. Take down the attacks that you are making on Australia's medical institutions, on our health and scientific institutions. Stop allowing this toxic, damaging garbage to be shared from your page.' But, of course, the Prime Minister is only concerned about the political problem here, not the substantive problem. He called the member for Hughes yesterday because the member for Hughes is starting to become a political embarrassment. He's not concerned about the substantive problem here of COVID-19 misinformation; he's concerned about the political problem. We know that, because you can hear the comments of the Prime Minister leading up to today, leading up to the absurd degree that the debate has gotten up to this week, enabling the member for Hughes. When asked about it previously, the Prime Minister has said, 'There's such a thing as freedom of speech in this country, and that will continue,' allowing the member for Hughes to continue his medical misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and dismissing it laughingly, saying, 'I am not going to get into what people are talking about on Facebook,' despite Facebook being the most influential medium in that demographic, in the cohort of people that are most—

Mr Howarth: A point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Gellibrand just reflected terribly on the member for Hughes when he used the word 'accosted' and he should withdraw.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): No, he didn't. There's no point of order.

Mr Howarth: When you look up the work 'accosted' he should withdraw.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Petrie will resume his seat.

Mr Howarth: It's a bloody disgrace!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member will withdraw that remark—you won't use that language in the chamber—and then you'll leave under 94(a).

Mr Howarth: I withdraw.

The member for Petrie then left the chamber.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Gellibrand is in continuation.

Mr WATTS: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. We see the protection racket by those opposite for the member for Hughes. This man is leading a one-man medical misinformation campaign during a global pandemic, and we see a protection racket by those opposite. We see the Prime Minister continuing to refuse to do what is in his power to do to stop the member for Hughes from spreading medical misinformation in the COVID-19 pandemic. He could take his committee assignment. The member for Hughes is currently, at the behest of the Prime Minister, a member of the House Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources. The member for Hughes is still an endorsed member of the Liberal Party. You would think that, during a global pandemic, a real leader, a real Prime Minister, would say, 'I do not want anything to do with someone who is undermining the vaccination campaign for COVID-19 during a global pandemic, someone who is undermining the work of our frontline doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and scientists.'

This Prime Minister is proud to stand next to the member for Hughes. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said that the member for Hughes is doing 'a great job'. Whose side is he on? Is this Prime Minister on the side of those doctors and nurses who have been so heroic in the COVID-19 pandemic? Is he on the side of the epidemiologists and the scientists? They're the ones who have been getting us through this. They're the ones giving us advice to help us through this crisis. It's the scientists who have developed these vaccines. You would call them miracles, but they are not miracles. The vaccines to protect us from this pandemic, which has cost so many lives around the world, are the product of scientific endeavour, of investment in research and of hard work. We need to be standing with these people. We need to be defending the TGA. We need to be calling out medical misinformation wherever we see it. We have seen what happened in the United States when peddlers of conspiracy theories and baseless extremism online were indulged. Those extremists and conspiracy theorists became emboldened. They started ramping up their fantasies, and they have real-world consequences.

We saw this week extraordinary degradation in the debate when the member for Hughes appeared on the podcast of Pete Evans. This man has been fined by the TGA for peddling quack COVID-19 cures during a global pandemic. This snake-oil salesman was peddling a $15,000 light machine to people who are scared in a global pandemic. He was fined $25,000 by the TGA for exploiting the fear of Australians in the middle of a pandemic. This is a man that the member for Hughes thought was a good idea to share a platform with. This is a man that the member for Hughes thought was a good idea to elevate in our public debate. This is a disgrace.

There have been no sanctions from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has not lifted a finger in the face of this COVID-19 medical misinformation superspreader. He has said not a public word about sanctions against this individual. He has taken not a single action that is within his control to stop this. It has real consequences. There is nothing more important in this country at the moment than the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. It is what will get us through the health crisis. It will be what will enable our economy to go back to something resembling normal.

Australians on the whole are sensible in the face of this. Newspoll today shows that 75 per cent of Australians have said that they will get a vaccine. But there are some reasons for concern and some reasons to think that all of us in this chamber have a special obligation to ensure public support for this vaccination campaign. About 29 per cent of Australians said, yes, they would probably get the vaccine. That 'probably' is a cause for concern. What is in that 'probably'? When you delve into the cross-tabs and look at who is most likely to have a concern you see that it is people in the 39-to-49-years-of-age demographic. This is the prime Facebook demographic. Roy Morgan stats confirm that that age demographic are the most prolific users of Facebook. They have some concerns and they're not being helped by the member for Hughes controlling 25 per cent—25 per cent—of Facebook political debate in this country.

It is time that the Prime Minister showed that he is on the side of Australian doctors, Australian nurses, Australian epidemiologists and Australian scientists—all of those Australian frontline workers who have risked their health to get us through this pandemic—because it is only by being on the side of these heroes of the pandemic that you can show that you're on the side of the Australian public. It's about time the Prime Minister showed that he's not on the side of the lunatic fringe; he's on the side of the Australian people.