MPI: The Prime Minister

 In Parliament, Senate Speeches

Senator RENNICK (Queensland) (16:31, 9 August 2021): This matter of public importance is typical Labor: it’s all about playing the man and not the facts. I just want to touch on Senator O’Neill’s comments about the bushfires. That was one of the most egregious displays of political partisanism I’ve ever seen. State governments are responsible for national parks, they’re responsible for fire and emergency services, and they’re responsible for zoning. And can I add that in 2009, when 180 people died in Victoria on Black Saturday, you didn’t see the federal coalition, who was in opposition at the time, blaming Kevin Rudd for the bushfires, because it was a state issue—all the things that deal with bushfires. Obviously these things will happen in Australia at the worst of times, when you have a dry summer, but Senator O’Neill makes a partisan political point out of this when the responsibility lies with the state governments.

Anyone who is from the bush—and I do a lot of mountain biking, hiking and all that sort of stuff through national parks—can see the undergrowth rise. In my home state of Queensland, the Queensland state government is banning beekeepers from keeping their bees in national parks. You might say: ‘Big deal. What’s that got to do with the management of national parks?’ It’s because those beekeepers keep the fire trails open. There are a lot of issues. It’s well known that state governments are allowing houses to be built in flood and fire zones and it’s well known that there have been cuts across all state governments. I’m not picking on sides here in terms of parties. There’s been a cut to spending on fire and emergency services, especially when you consider the amount of residential development that’s going on near state forests. I happen to live in a part of Brisbane where I have an open block, an acreage, but I drive back into town and I think to myself: ‘If a match ever goes off here, there are those houses. I don’t know why they’re allowed to be there.’ It’s funny.

The other thing I want to pick up Senator O’Neill on is the public interest immunity point, because that’s exactly what the Auditor-General said to me last week in replies to questions on notice when I asked for documentation of minutes of meetings that the Auditor-General had with staff in the department of infrastructure over the Leppington Triangle purchase. Funnily enough, he’s claimed public interest immunity. He doesn’t want to give me the documentation, which is a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black. At the end of the day, he’s criticised the Morrison government for not keeping documentation, but he himself doesn’t want to give the documentation.

Isn’t an audit all about transparency? So why won’t the Auditor-General come clean on his own record keeping? I’ve also put that question to him over the car parks. I’m looking forward to seeing if he’s got any documentation he wants to hand over on that. As a senator, I sit in a house of review; a bureaucrat shouldn’t be trying to cover up documentation if it exists. There’s a question as to whether it exists at all. Some people might think that he didn’t interview anyone from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications before he referred it to the police, given that he didn’t really refer to any meetings in his audit report, nor did he refer to any meetings with the Australian Government Solicitor about the due diligence process. I’ve read those papers, which were released last week, and it was mentioned a number of times that there had been meetings with the Australian Government Solicitor. Don’t you think the Auditor-General would have spoken with the Australian Government Solicitor? It appears that he didn’t.

There’s a real question of negligence when it comes to this Auditor-General. As someone who’s got almost 30 years in finance, let me tell you that the audit work that he’s done on the value of the Leppington Triangle was the worst work I’ve ever seen. Blind Freddie, or anyone who knows their accounting standards—AASB 13, paragraphs 29 to 31—knows that you have to value land at best use, regardless of intent. If you take in the valuation standards, they say you’ve got to consider future potential value. This stuff isn’t difficult to understand.

I’ll get onto the issue of the day, which is COVID. We hear that somehow the Morrison government is passing the buck. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve got in front of me the National Partnership on COVID-19 Response, which was agreed to at the start of the COVID outbreak. On page 4, paragraph 20(a), ‘Financial Arrangements’, it says that the Commonwealth has agreed to: ‘an upfront advanced payment of $100 million to the states to be paid on a population share basis.’ Straightaway the federal government has put in $100 million to state health. On top of that, for hospital service payments, they have agreed:

The Commonwealth will provide a 50 per cent contribution for costs incurred by States, through monthly payments, for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 including suspected cases.

Given that health isn’t the responsibility of the federal government—and we’re constantly reminded by Labor that quarantine and vaccination isn’t the responsibility of state governments—it’s amazing how the states and Labor never want to acknowledge the contribution made by the federal government in helping them deal with COVID. It would be nice to get a little bit of recognition for a change from the Labor Party, rather than them playing partisan politics when we should all be working together on this. There is a gross hypocrisy if you compare the treatment of the COVID pandemic to the treatment of the swine flu pandemic in 2009. Nicola Roxon, the then health minister, was basically told by the experts to shut the country down. She ignored that advice; she said we can’t shut the country down. You didn’t see the coalition trying to stir up hysteria and terrify everyone for the sake of making a few political points.

I’ll finish up on the overarching arrangements in the COAG agreement for state public health payments:

The Commonwealth will provide a 50 per cent contribution for costs incurred by States, through monthly payments, for other COVID-19 activity undertaken by State public health systems for the management of the outbreak.

So the Commonwealth has been making an enormous contribution to the financial costs of dealing with COVID-19, which is a state responsibility. Not only do we have a COVID crisis in this country; we have a health crisis. If you look at the health funding that’s been given to state governments since the coalition came to power in 2013, it has increased from $13 billion to $26 billion. It has increased by 100 per cent in eight years. That is double-digit growth, year on year. Despite that, the state governments are saying they need more time to get their hospital systems up to speed et cetera.

You know what? It’s interesting—if you go and look at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures, the decline in the number of beds per thousand people since 1980 has been shocking. In 1980 there were 6.4 beds per 1,000 people. By 2017-18, which is the last year available at the moment, it is down to 3.6 beds. In other words, if you assume that the population of Australia has increased by a little bit over double since 1980, and the number of beds has almost halved—it’s down by about 43 per cent—state governments have hardly added any beds to the hospital system and the health system since 1980. This is gross underfunding by state governments.

I’ll point out another thing about Toowoomba and this whole Wellcamp issue. I know Toowoomba quite well, having gone to school there and being from Chinchilla. The Toowoomba base hospital is in dire need of a $2 million upgrade. That’s why we couldn’t put a quarantine centre there, because there wasn’t a tier 1 hospital. Now, the good people of Toowoomba deserve a tier 1 hospital, but of course the Queensland state Labor government—they’ve been in power for the best part of 30 years—have failed to put that $2 million into the upkeep of the Toowoomba general base hospital.

And it doesn’t end there. We’ve got hospital ramping increasing big time. We just read in the Courier-Mail last night how a lady had to wait nine hours for an ambulance.

A government senator: Nine hours!

Senator RENNICK: Nine hours. And I can relate to that, because, when my mum had a stroke in Chinchilla—after having been a nurse herself for 40 years—it took 18 hours to get her to Brisbane, 280 kilometres away.

Then there’s the other issue of the closure of maternity wards. Forty maternity wards have closed in Queensland in the last 30 years under the Labor government. This is the party that claims to protect women, and yet they’re shutting down maternity wards in the regions faster than the funding. But a lot of these towns are a lot bigger than they used to be.

I will finish by talking on vaccines. I’ve got an article here. It says the World Health Organization came out in September last year and said that they didn’t expect vaccines to be available by mid-2021. They said that phase 3 of the testing must take longer because we need to see how truly protective the vaccine is and we need to see how safe it is. Once Joe Biden was elected, suddenly the vaccines were available. But the point of the matter is: with Pfizer, it’s an mRNA vaccine—it is new technology. There haven’t been the manufacturing hubs available to export this. Interestingly enough, I’ve got another article from Reuters here: ‘Pfizer begins exporting US-made COVID vaccine to Mexico’—that was 29 April. In other words, the US didn’t even start exporting Pfizer vaccines until late April this year, and somehow those opposite us are running around with unfounded allegations made by Norman Swan that somehow we were going to have 40 million available to us at the start of this year. How do these guys make this stuff up? So if anyone’s got— (Time expired)

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