MONDAY, 13 SEPTEMBER 2021
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Thank you for coming out this afternoon. It's been another very difficult day for Australia in our fight against COVID with more than 1,700 new cases and tragically seven people who have lost their lives to COVID over the last 24 hours. Labor’s condolences are extended to the family, friends and loved ones of all of those seven Australians.
Labor welcomes the fact that today, finally, Australia teenagers have access to the COVID vaccine. This will be a relief to parents and teenagers alike because teenagers have in many ways become the frontline in this disastrous third wave, accounting for as many as one third of all new cases, along with children under 12, and also bearing such a brunch of being unable to go to school in Victoria, NSW and the ACT week after week after week. This will be a relief to parents, but parents are entitled to ask, why did it take Scott Morrison so long to get to this position? In the US and Canada, teenagers have been vaccinated for the last four months. In Europe and Israel, again, three months ago they started vaccinating their teenagers. Why are we only starting this today when a country like Canada has already fully vaccinated more than 70 per cent of their teenagers? Parents also deserve an answer to the question, now having started, when will my teenager be vaccinated? Scot Morrison can’t duck that question.
Tragically, we've also learned today that over the past 24 hours, two residents of aged care facilities have lost their lives to COVID. After all that we learned last year in Victoria and NSW about the vulnerabilities of aged care, no one should be losing their life to COVID in an aged care facility. To that end, Scott Morrison promised that aged care residents, and their staff importantly, would be fully vaccinated by Easter almost six months ago now, and he dismally failed that promise. Scott Morrison’s latest promise is that all aged care workers will have had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine by this Friday - in just four days’ time. But we have learned that as many as 1 in 10 aged care workers, almost 30,000 still haven't had that single dose. Aged care is already desperately understaffed. Aged care cannot afford another failed promise by Scott Morrison. He needs today or tomorrow to outline a clear plan to guarantee continuity of care to Australia’s older members. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Do you support SA opening its borders at 80 per cent vaccination and should Labor states adhere to that target as well?
BUTLER: This is a decision taken by Steven Marshall. As we understand it there is no clear undertaking contained in the national plan about borders. This will be a matter for each and every state, and I'm sure Steven Marshall is going be able to outline the public health advice that he's received to back in that decision. All South Australians want to see the safe implementation of National Cabinet’s plan to end these debilitating, constant lockdowns, but we need to make sure it's a safe implementation, that will require our testing and tracing systems across the country to be operating at optimal levels. Already, we're seeing those systems breakdown. Scott Morrison has made no contribution to those systems other than the failed COVIDsafe app which has proved to be completely ineffective.
We also need to make sure that vulnerable groups are also not left behind: Indigenous Australians, Australians who are living with a disability, who are already vastly underrepresented in the vaccinated population. And we need an answer to the question when will our 12 to 15 year-olds be fully vaccinated as these restrictions are starting to be lifted. It's incumbent on Scott Morrison, but also on premiers like Steven Marshall, to answer those questions, to guarantee to their people that the implementation of this plan will be done safely and not recklessly.
JOURNALIST: On that issue of Liberal versus Labor states, though, it sounds like all state and territory leaders signed up at National Cabinet to adhere to this plan. But we've already seen Labor states like WA indicate they won't be reopening at that same mark. So, should Labor states get on board?
BUTLER: It's not a Labor or Liberal question. Particularly those states that are currently COVID free will be taking public health advice. I'm sure Premier Marshall has done that, about what the impact of opening borders would be at different vaccination levels. And if Steven Marshall has received that modelling then obviously it would be important for him to show the South Australian people that modelling.
JOURNALIST: John Frewen says cracking 80 per cent full vaccination will take some work. Are you concerned about SA not being able to hit that mark due to hesitancy as opposed to supply?
BUTLER: We've said supply has been the most serious challenge we've had because Scott Morrison didn't do enough vaccine deals last year. Now this month, we hope, that supply will finally catch-up with demand and we'll get beyond a position where we continue to have the slowest vaccine rollout in the developed world. But having fixed supply there are still important measures that the Morrison Government should be focusing on. Finally, they've started to initiate a good public health advertising campaign last night. We've been calling for this, along with public health experts, for months and months now. We also think that the Morrison Government should look at positive ideas for vaccine incentives, like the one Anthony Albanese outlined now several weeks ago, to really spur along that that vaccine uptake to get to 80 per cent and well beyond 80 per cent. We don't want 80 per cent to be a ceiling, we want to see the country move beyond 80 per cent as well. I think all of the overseas evidence supports what the Lieutenant General Frewen has said getting to 80 per cent is not easy and the Morrison Government should be using all the tools in the toolbox, incentive programmes, good public health advertising, as well as having finally fixed the question of supply.
JOURNALIST: And Pfizer is now available to over 60s. What does Labor make of that?
BUTLER: It's available to over 60s here in South Australia, that's all, maybe one other jurisdiction as well. Greg Hunt told people over the age of 60 in May that if they had concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine, they could wait until later in the year and get an mRNA vaccine, and he doesn't appear to have followed that promise. The promise that I know, GPs are telling me, they still hear back from older Australians. Older Australians remember that promise from the Government. It really appears now to be a state-by-state position.
JOURNALIST: What's Labor’s view on making vaccine available to 5 to 11-year-olds and how quickly should that happen?
BUTLER: Clinical trials are still underway in the United States about vaccines for under 12 year-olds. We understand those trials will be wrapped up, potentially in coming weeks, and the American Authority, the FDA, will give consideration to that trial data. If they then approve a vaccine for under 12s that will start to come to other countries, including Australia, for potential approval in the months after that. We've said, obviously we need to wait and see what that data shows, see the approval process wind its way through, including with the TGA here in Australia. In the meantime what we do say is that we can't get left at the back of the queue yet again as we have with adults, as we have with teenagers, we can't have Scott Morrison put Australia at the back of the queue for our children as well. Right now, he needs to assure the Australian People that we would have a strong priority access to paediatric doses of Pfizer vaccine in the event that it has been approved. President Biden, for example in the United States, signed an agreement with Pfizer back in June that in the event that paediatric doses were approved by the FDA in the US for under 12s they would get immediate access to 65 million paediatric doses for America's children. Now has Scott Morrison signed such a deal with Pfizer? I suspect on past practice he hasn't.
JOURNALIST: I'm assuming you'd like to see him do so?
BUTLER: Of course, we've said now for weeks we need an advanced purchase agreement. That guarantees that we will get quick access to any paediatric vaccines that are approved by the TGA. There's no evidence that the Government has done that yet.
JOURNALIST: Pivoting to a different topic, Joel Fitzgibbon’s imminent retirement from politics at the next election, do you think Mr Fitzgibbon has helped or hindered Labor's electoral prospects given his vocal criticism of Labor’s climate and energy policies?
BUTLER: Joel has had a long and distinguished career as a Labor Member of Parliament, more than a quarter of a century in Parliament. That's an extraordinary career and I wish Joel and his family all the best for his future. Joel and I have enjoyed a very strong personal and working relationship. From time to time we've had our strong debates about the direction of Labor policy, but that's what makes our party strong and great. We need vigorous debates about important issues like climate change and ours has always been a debate conducted frankly, but also, respectfully, and I will miss Joel from the parliament. I think though, after 25 years, he's earnt the opportunity to move on to the next chapter of his life and I wish him all the best in that next chapter.
JOURNALIST: He made no secret of the fact that he wanted you out of the climate change portfolio. Are you glad that he is leaving politics?
BUTLER: No, I have had no problem with the debate that Joel and I had over climate change policy. I think it was an important debate to have within the Labr Party.
JOURNALIST: One of the problems that Joel has pointed out quite frequently is that he believes the party has a problem securing blue-collar workers back to its base. Is that something that you remain concerned about at all?
BUTLER: I'm no longer the spokesperson for climate change policy for the Labor Party. My job now is to talk to the Labor Party on matters of health and ageing
JOURNALIST: But you're a member of the Labor Party. Are you concerned by the fact that the that the party is struggling to either attract new blue-collar members to its base or retain existing members?
BUTLER: I think strong ambitious climate change policy that ensures that Australia takes full advantage of the enormous economic and jobs opportunity that flow from climate action is a really important part of Labor's mission and I will continue to advocate that.
JOURNALIST: Onto another topic, George Christensen, the Government backbencher is lobbying the TGA to change its rules for Ivermectin. Are you surprised the Prime Minister hasn't done more to stop him from undermining the TGA?
BUTLER: Scott Morrison always goes missing when it comes to these figures on the right wing of politics. Whether it's members of his own party room like George Christensen, members of his leadership group in the Senate like Senator Matt Canavan, or former members like Craig Kelly, Scott Morrison does absolutely nothing to rein in their deeply, deeply irresponsible venturing on things like Ivermectin or indeed vaccines as well. It's time he actually stepped up to the plate and reined in this reckless behaviour by members of his own party room.
JOURNALIST: On another topic, the text messages that many of us have received from Craig Kelly in recent weeks. Stirling Griff has previously brought legislation that would curtail the use of unsolicited text messages from politicians, like those being sent by Mr. Kelly. Would Labor consider supporting that legislation if it returned to Parliament?
BUTLER: We’ll have a look at that, I'm not going to respond to a hypothetical, if legislation is brought before the Parliament we’ll go through our usual processes of considering.
JOURNALIST: And just finally, do you support the government’s push to get missile defence technology from the US?
BUTLER: I’ll leave that to our relevant frontbenchers to respond to. Thanks everyone.