Matter of Public Importance Debate:
It is not often I get to speak on a matter of public importance because, as you know, these places are doled out to members of Parliament and my turn comes very rarely. But I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on some of these issues. I am not sure that the question itself is really a matter of public importance, but the issues that it outlines are indeed important. I cannot help but reflect on the fact that, rather than standing here doing an MPI, I could have been part of a non-government business program if the motion that I have moved before the house many, many times of a morning were taken up. We could be debating bills that private members might wish to put forward. We could be putting up notices of motion. We on this side of the house, whether we are on the crossbench or a part of the opposition, could be controlling the debate every sitting week, every Wednesday, as we have non-government business. It is just something to really think about because a question such as this promotes an incredibly adversarial debate, if you can call it that, where the parties indulge themselves continually by flinging mud at each other, by criticising each other, rather than perhaps dealing with the issues. I think it is just important to say that there are better ways of doing this. There are other ways of doing it, and there are other ways of taking up the time of this house—much more constructive ways. We are the only house in the Westminster system that does not have a non-government business program. Consider that. Consider that the Victorian Parliament has the only house that does not have a non-government business program. It is worth thinking about, and it is an issue that I really consider important and will continue to take up. But given that we have this topic, and I dare say that someone will pull me up pretty quickly if I do not move on, I have got things to say about the issues that have been raised here in this matter of public importance.
Here we are not quite 18 months into a worldwide pandemic. I well remember the day that I went up to the Federation Room when Brett Sutton and the then Minister for Health started talking about what was coming out of China. It was pretty chilling. I think we have all seen movies like Contagion and had those sorts of fears of what could happen when things go badly wrong, and I remember sitting there and Brett Sutton saying this could become a worldwide pandemic. Well, within just weeks our international borders were closed and we had cases in Australia. It all came from one case of a virus that is just so contagious, and haven’t we seen how that has played out across the world.
So within a very short time we had a national cabinet established. Now, it was pretty exciting to see that happen, because here was an opportunity to put in place a mechanism where governments could really work together in a federation to deal with something of major importance, something so serious and so dangerous to the whole of our country and indeed to the world. And it started out well. I remember in the early weeks as absolute major steps were being taken—borders closed, lockdowns occurring, all of these things happening. Again, they were really frightening for people and having an impact on everyone that they affected.
Everywhere that I would go in my community people would say, ‘Gee, the Premier’s doing a good job. Gee, the Prime Minister’s doing a good job. They’re all doing a good job’. That was really nice to hear, because it was not this adversarial, you know, ‘Who’s the winner out of this sort of situation?’. It was, ‘We’re working together to try and come up with some solutions and do something worthwhile, do something to protect our communities and deal with a situation that we have never faced in our lifetimes’. Yes, we could remember the Spanish flu. We can remember reading about epidemics. Many people will remember the polio epidemic. I remember as a child being vaccinated for that and knowing of families where members had caught that disease, that virus, and were terribly afraid. It had terrible impacts on many people. There are people in our community today who still carry the damage that polio caused to them, and throughout the world it still exists as a really terrible disease. I have travelled overseas. I recall in China seeing people just on street corners begging, people who had been so impacted by a disease such as that. So we could never at any time during this period underestimate what we were facing, and in those early times we faced it well.
The massive social upheaval that came with lockdowns and closed borders was extraordinary. People have spoken about mental health, about family violence, homeschooling, school closures, people having to work from home and people having to manage so many things all at once that they had not managed before. It was really an extraordinary change that people had to cope with. But along with that over time we have seen that there have been some really significant benefits that have arisen out of the way we had to do things. We have been able to pick out some of the good things. For instance, if you live in the country and you need to come down for a specialist appointment or for a review that often takes 3 or 4 minutes, you can now do it by telehealth. And I dare say we will never go back to having to travel say from Shepparton for 2½ hours each way for an appointment that takes a few minutes. We will have to travel for more important medical services and a range of other things, but that is just a classic example of something really positive that has come out of the massive change that has been brought about by this pandemic.
I think we have a very long way to go yet before we see any level of normality, and there is no doubt that the rollout of the vaccine is slow. It has not gone according to plan. I certainly recall very clearly that the first people to be vaccinated—this was just everywhere—were the frontline people dealing with those who had COVID, our health workers, then our most vulnerable aged people and those with a disability. Well, look, just in early May I was talking to local media about the fact that aged-care homes had many people in Shepparton to whom the vaccination had not yet even been offered. That was five months down the track of this year, when vaccinations were starting, I think it was, in February this year, and that most vulnerable group had not yet been reached. So these are really concerning aspects of it.
When I drive down the main street of Shepparton, our vaccination centre is there at the McIntosh Centre. It is open Monday to Friday from 9.00 am to 4.00 pm. Well, gee, that is helpful, isn’t it? No weekends, no after-hours vaccinations—it is not good enough. Is that because of the lack of supply or is it something else? Whatever it is, it is not good enough, and people are anxious. People are wanting to go. On the weekend that it was opened when the over-40s were allowed to go and have Pfizer, the queues were enormous. It just showed that desire that people have to get vaccinated and to protect themselves in an environment where they know this virus is not going away anytime soon. We have to find a way to live with it, and at the moment the only solution that we have to live with it is to be vaccinated. I am pleased to say I have had my first shot and am very much look looking forward to my second one.
We have been done a considerable disservice in relation to a lot of the attention that the risks associated with it have got. If you pull out a packet of any medicine that you are on and read the list of risk factors in relation to so many of those medications, you would be amazed at what they say the risks are. We all know that, but because we are treating something we choose to take those risks. I have got to say I have been very happy to rely on the experts we have. When I look at Professor Sharon Lewin, Catherine Bennett, Marylouise McLaws, these people are eminent people in our community. We are so lucky here in Australia, with a population of 26 million people, to have people like them. We have got people from the Burnet Institute and people from a whole range of institutes of excellence in this country who have given advice, and that is the advice that has been taken.