Grievance debate – COVID19 Vaccinations

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (11:31): I rise today to grieve on behalf of the businesses and workers that have been left high and dry by this Andrews Labor government in the past couple of weeks when it comes to its authorised worker vaccine mandate. This government has made panicked decision after panicked decision throughout this whole pandemic, and this is the latest one. Whether on the basis of health advice or not, it has created absolute chaos across our communities and the government has simply washed its hands and walked away. I am sure—

Members interjecting.

The SPEAKER: Order! Members on my right.

Mr D O’BRIEN: I am sure that those opposite are all there patting themselves on the back about a project that will not be finished for 50 years, but they are not even remotely focused on the issues that are affecting our business community, our workers, our employers and families throughout the state right here and now because of their decisions.

Now, I want to say from the outset that I 110 per cent support vaccination. I am double vaccinated. All of my colleagues are. We are also encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. It is absolutely our way out of this process. But we do not support the mandating of vaccinations for authorised workers, which the government announced nearly two weeks ago with no notice and with very little notice before it was to be implemented. We certainly support it for aged-care workers, healthcare workers and those who are dealing with vulnerable people, but the wider mandate, I believe, is a massive overreach, and it is more particularly the consequences of that that are playing out right now and that will play out more significantly over the next couple of weeks as those first-dose dates come up on 15 October, which is next Friday, and 22 October and then 26 November, at which point every worker on the authorised worker list will have to be double vaccinated.

I repeat again: I am absolutely encouraging everyone to go and do that. But we all know there is a cohort, and there always has been a cohort, that will resist—some of them for spurious reasons, some of them have genuine concerns, some of them are just unsure and need reassurance. However, this is having huge impacts across the community and particularly across the business community, where businesses and workers do not know where they stand. And this government has done nothing to assist those communities, to assist those businesses—those small businesses in particular—to understand what the law is, to understand what the consequences are and to understand what their rights and the rights of their workers are when it comes to being vaccinated.

I can go a little to the government’s lack of focus on these issues. In the other place last week the Minister for Employment, Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy and Minister for Small Business was asked a question:

What are you advising employers to do if staff refuse to either be vaccinated or hand over their private medical details?

There was first of course a whack for the questioner about his position. Eventually the minister did get towards answering it, and she said, I quote:

I would encourage those businesses to talk to their staff about the importance of vaccination and its relationship to that business’s ability to trade and participate in a busier and more active economy.

Again, those people who are resisting are not going to be convinced by the importance of the business’s ability to trade. She suggested that businesses should look at whether it is in their capacity to offer time off for workers to go and get a vaccination. Well, that is not the issue that is stopping them doing it—whether they have got time off or not. And then she said:

… and I would encourage them to reach out to their peak organisations for support and advice …

So this is a government that has made this enormous decision, a massive decision—

Members interjecting.

The SPEAKER: Order! There is too much audible conversation on my right. I think some people are speaking louder than they perhaps realise or are understanding. Some people have naturally loud voices, so I will just ask members to tone it down.

Mr D O’BRIEN: Thank you, Speaker, I appreciate that. The government has basically said, ‘Look, we’ve made this rule, but if you want to know what the consequences of it are for the relationship between you and your employees, you’d better go and talk to your peak organisation’. Now, many small businesses of course are not members of peak organisations, and they are struggling. And they are coming to members here—I am sure to government members as well. They are being inundated with ‘What do I do?’. For the government to just simply say it is a tiny percentage of the community, as the minister said, and that they should talk to their peak organisation is simply not good enough. The minister went on to say that she would:

… encourage them to familiarise themselves with the supports that are available through the Jobs Victoria program that I administer …

Well, the issue, Minister, is not the lack of programs for workers, it is the lack of workers. And this is a problem that was present long before the pandemic. It has gotten worse through the pandemic in part because of the caps on immigration and temporary workers, and it is certainly going to be worse because of this mandate that came in with almost no notice and with very little support from the government.

I can go through a few examples just from my Nationals colleagues. The member for Gippsland East told me of a farming enterprise where three of six workers have said, ‘We will not get the jab’. A major food producer has got 20 staff, out of nearly 500 admittedly, who are saying, ‘We simply won’t do it’. A food shop in Wangaratta has got seven out of eight employees who are refusing to get vaccinated. That business is going to have to shut down. What else can they do? Let us hope that those people see the light and it changes.

I know a Gippsland health food shop where the entire staff, including the owners, have said, ‘We will not get vaccinated; we’ll have to close the doors’. I know of farm contractors where that is certainly an issue as well. I have had dairy farmers from my own electorate call and say, ‘How do we impose this on a contractor visiting our farm?’, and I said, ‘Well, it’s the law’. They said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but this guy’s a contractor and he’s the only one in our district, in Gippsland, who can do this work’. So there are huge issues in that respect.

The member for Lowan has told me of a school in the Western District which only has six full-time teachers, three of whom are saying they will not get vaccinated. So this is not just going to be about the school and the employees; this is about the kids as well, the students who will miss out. Let us again hope that those people change their minds—but three out of six full-time teachers. There is also a cafe in the Wimmera where four out of seven staff are refusing to get vaccinated.

I am aware, too, it is not necessarily the numbers of staff in a small business. But, for example, if you think of a restaurant—and I did hear this example the other day—that employs 10 or a dozen people, where the head chef refuses to get vaccinated, what happens then? Because that puts those other people’s jobs at risk too. We have heard nothing from this government by way of support or by way of assistance for the business sector to actually deal with this.

I might just go briefly, on the question of whether this mandate was a good idea or not, to the actual advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the AHPPC, which issued advice on 1 October. It goes into quite a bit of detail about mandating vaccines, but it does say towards the bottom:

AHPPC notes that mandating vaccination for this cohort—

and it is referring to the health sector in this instance—

could have unintended consequences, including on the availability of the workforce.

Now, it does go on to say, for full disclosure:

However, the benefits of a highly vaccinated workforce will ensure minimal transmission in healthcare settings and minimise the need to quarantine and furlough staff.

We agree. We agree with that, but what the government has not done is it has not considered this health advice for the broader worker sector. Yes, the benefits of potentially losing staff are outweighed in healthcare settings, but are they really outweighed in agriculture, for example, where you might have people sitting on a header through the harvest season in a paddock on their own, hundreds of miles from anyone else? You have to consider whether the benefits of that outweigh the risks of not having all those people vaccinated. There is already a massive shortage of workers, particularly in the agricultural sector, but more broadly across rural and regional Victoria.

Again, I am not saying that people should not be vaccinated—I strongly recommend that people do get vaccinated, and I hope all those businesses right across the state are able to convince their workers or that their workers will understand that that is what they should be doing—but there are alternatives. We have been on this side calling on the government for months and months and months to introduce more availability of rapid testing, whether it is at schools; whether it is at hospitals, where it already happens; or whether it is in the hotel quarantine system, where it already happens. But if it could be used for those workers who are refusing to get vaccinated, it would solve huge numbers of problems. Now, I am not suggesting that this is an easy way out for people, but the government really should have been looking at these options to allow businesses to protect themselves, their customers and their employees without actually having to severely compromise the businesses themselves.

Rapid testing is being used around the world. There are people in the UK who take a rapid test every day before they go to work. Because it was the opposition that raised this and said it should be happening more in Victoria, I think we saw the Premier and his government dig in and say ‘Well, we’re just going to put that on the backburner’. Now it is slowly being introduced. Now they are slowly starting to look at it because they do not want for a second to give up a political advantage, which is a poor reflection on this government.

I would say too that what concerns me is the level of debate on this decision. So there has been no consideration, no answers from the Premier or any of the ministers, as to how this will be dealt with by employers and small businesses throughout the state. There has been no debate in this Parliament. For all of this, for this massive change on the authorised worker mandate to be introduced just under the public health orders is wrong. I think it should have been debated here in this chamber. Look, we may well have all supported it, but it certainly should have been debated, because this is a significant step that is going to have massive economic consequences for our region.

The other questions that many of us are getting and I am sure every member of the chamber is getting are: ‘How can we get around this? These people are saying they don’t want to get vaccinated. I’ve seen that the state of emergency ends in December, so does that mean it’s going to be over?’. Well, the government should be giving us some clarity on these questions. I believe the government have said that they are not going to extend the state of emergency under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 by legislation but they are actually going to introduce COVID-specific legislation. Well, where is it? We are into the middle of October now. There are only a couple of sitting weeks left between now and December. Where is this government legislation to actually do that? What is it going to entail? And how long will this last? We heard from New South Wales. They have said 1 December basically is pretty much freedom day. There will be no difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated in New South Wales from 1 December.

People are asking us the question, ‘How long is it going to last?’, and I am saying to them, ‘Under this government, don’t assume that it will stop, because who knows?’. We are not getting any clarity on that question, and I think the government should be providing that. It should be telling us where this COVID-specific legislation is, what it is going to cover and how long these mandates will stay in place, but more particularly to my key point, the government should be providing support and advice to businesses and to their employees to ensure they understand.

I have another question. This goes to schools as well. I look at the operations guide that was issued to Victorian government schools on 2 October. It says on page 12, towards the bottom, about authorised worker permits for onsite supervision:

On the advice of our public health team, all workers—in Melbourne and regional Victoria—on the Authorised Worker list will require their first COVID-19 vaccine dose by 18 October in order to continue working onsite, and for their children to be eligible for on-site supervision.

Now, that is for onsite supervision, presumably at a time when we still have remote learning. What the government needs to answer is: is that going to be extended when schools go back? Are kids going to be denied the opportunity to actually go to school if their parents are unvaccinated? Now, that would be a significant step far greater than anything we have done in this place or federally with respect to no jab, no pay and no jab, no play. The government needs to answer those questions.

I reiterate I am very keen to emphasise to people that they should get the vaccine. It is safe, it is effective. It is the way out. But the way the government has gone about this, issuing decrees from on high with very little notice—and I might add, it took nearly a week for the government to actually get formal directions up. We had businesses left, right and centre calling, saying, ‘How do we know how to implement this when we haven’t seen the actual regulations?’. The government has provided no support and assistance to workers and no support and assistance to businesses as to how to deal with this, and it will have significant economic consequences throughout our state, not to mention the rending of the relationships between workers and their bosses over the next couple of weeks. The government stands condemned for its failure on this issue.

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