HON PETER COLLIER (North Metropolitan — Leader of the Opposition) [1.45 pm]: I move —
That Hon Sue Ellery, Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council, be ordered, and is hereby so ordered, to lay on the table of the house not later than seven days from the day on which this order is made, on behalf of the government of Western Australia, the information and documents described below, and that such documents be tabled without excision, alteration or defacement —
Copies of all communications between 13 October 2020 and 20 October 2020 inclusive, including but not limited to letters, emails, telephone notes, text messages and file notes between any of the following relating to advice or information on COVID-19 pandemic restrictions —
(1) the Premier, Hon Mark McGowan, MLA;
(2) any staff member of the Office of the Premier or Department of the Premier and Cabinet, including contract, temporary or seconded staff;
(3) the Minister for Health, Hon Roger Cook, MLA;
(4) any staff member of the Office of the Minister for Health or Department of Health, including contract, temporary or seconded staff;
(5) the Chief Health Officer, Dr Andrew Robertson; and
(6) any staff member of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer, including contract, temporary or seconded staff.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [3.13 pm]: I, too, rise to speak to this motion. I have a few things to say. From the outset, I would like to reiterate the comments that were just made by Hon Martin Aldridge. My recollection of the Chief Health Officer’s early comments as the pandemic rolled out is that he thought we needed to learn to live with coronavirus sooner rather than later. I just want to confirm for the parliamentary record that that is also my recollection of that discussion.
I want to say from the outset that, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, I do not doubt that the government was acting in good faith in taking public health advice when trying to grapple with what we were facing. I reflect on how eager the Minister for Health’s office was to ensure that I was kept well informed. It made it very clear that I could ask any questions I liked. In fact, early on, the office was offering briefings—when I was not even looking to have briefings on the public health advice—on the thinking behind the actions the government was taking, and asking whether I had any questions or concerns and whether I needed anything resolved. That was my experience first-up. I recall having a phone link-up with my Greens health counterparts in other states in which I talked about the nature of those discussions and how transparent they were, and they indicated to me their envy that I was able to get that level of information. They indicated at that point that they would be going back to their respective health ministers to compare the level of information they were receiving with what I was receiving. I also note that around that same time, as has been mentioned, various special inquiries or oversight committees were established in other state Parliaments in order to keep an eye on what was happening with the public health advice and the various government responses to that. In South Australia, my colleague and counterpart Hon Tammy Franks chairs that inquiry on behalf of her state Parliament. I reflect on that now and wonder whether in fact we missed an opportunity. I think there was a lot of good faith occurring very early on. As a result, I for one did not feel the need to push for such an inquiry. Others in other states felt that that level of transparency was not happening, so they did push ahead. As a result, I now find myself in a situation whereby I note that my Greens colleagues in other states have a level of scrutiny of and oversight over what is happening in their state responses that I do not feel is being reflected here.
I also want to reflect on the way in which the briefings that we have been receiving have changed over the last several months. Like previous speakers, I have full faith in Dr Andy Robertson. I think that he is a very straightforward guy and he is very competent at his job. But I am aware that when I speak to him, it is always on the phone, he always has a whole bunch of ministerial people around him and I am not able to see him face to face or even via a Zoom or Teams meeting or anything else, so I miss a lot of that direct body language. I am not even able to directly observe whether he is being instructed not to respond in a certain way; I do not know. I suggest that a transparent way to speak to people is to be able to see them when speaking to them. But I have noticed that as I have started to raise issues in those meetings—issues that have been brought to my attention directly by a range of stakeholders, whether it be seafarers, the Australian Medical Association, individual doctors or even members of the public who are being treated absolutely appallingly as a result of the multiple failings of the G2G system or the appalling quarantine arrangements—I feel as though I am not getting the same level of straightforward information that I was getting and that I felt was readily available early on in the pandemic. I am alarmed by that, because the one thing I am asking of this government is that it follows the public health advice to the letter. The Greens are highly supportive of that approach. We have never criticised the government when it has followed that public health advice—ever. We will continue to support those measures and the government making hard decisions when they are heavily grounded in that professional public health advice. The concern, though, is that, particularly over the last few months, we have seen an apparent digression from that advice in the actions we are seeing in government. We do not know the degree to which that may or may not be occurring, because we are starting to see that loss of transparency.
Just as a starting point, I would really like to see our Chief Health Officer, Dr Andrew Robertson, regularly front the media unfettered in order to take and answer questions directly. We saw that with Professor Brett Sutton from Victoria, who was regularly seen on television screens. Professor Sutton was able to answer questions directly and it seemed apparent to me that there was no political interference in the way that he answered the questions coming from the media. At the very least, I would like to see that, because I have seen the Commissioner of Police front the media directly and answer a whole range of questions. I would like to see the same for the Chief Health Officer. It is concerning if that is somehow not being encouraged by government, and I do not know whether it is the case or not. Why would I suggest that that is not being encouraged? It is because of the answers that we saw from Dr Robertson to the parliamentary inquiry and the flurry of activity that emerged in the 24 hours directly afterwards. This was the only opportunity that I had seen for Dr Robertson to be asked direct questions and not have anyone around him to fetter or filter his responses. At that parliamentary inquiry, where Dr Robertson was sworn in, he came up with advice that we discovered was contrary to what we had been told by the Premier was the advice. For good reason, that raised a lot of concerns by an awful lot of people, and it raises the question of the degree of transparency around the decisions on how to best deal with the pandemic.
Two weeks is a long time in politics. We have seen an awful lot change in the last couple of weeks since this motion was first put on the table, not least that on one day The West Australian published an opinion poll that apparently said that 75 per cent of people no longer supported the hard border, and the next day we saw a change to the government’s position. I do not know whether there is a connection between the two. I would like to see the public health advice to make up my own mind, or at the very least have the Chief Health Officer front the media cameras without anybody interfering with him in order to hear what he has to say, because he is the expert and he is the one I want to hear from.
It is a fact that the pandemic is here and we will be living with it for quite a while. It is a fact that we have to have confidence that our health system and the community will be well equipped to deal with this pandemic. If the virus comes back into Western Australia, which I believe is inevitable, I, for one, will not be part of the pile-on that says, “Told you so; you shouldn’t have done this.” The public health advice has said that we should open the borders, apparently, and the public health advice that I have heard myself is that we need to learn how to best live with this virus. We have seen that states that have done this successfully have good contact tracing and health systems that are well equipped to deal with sick people as they come through. I hope we will be equally prepared. I remain concerned that we have become complacent as a community. I am guilty of that. People still come up to shake my hand and, like a goose, I still take the hand. I should not. I am also guilty of going out in public and hugging my friends when I see them. Clearly, we will have to look at winding back and getting used to a number of things as we open up as a community and allow families to be reunited and workers to be employed.
My last bit of advice to this government is do not play politics with this; please do not do that. It is too important. People’s liberties have been severely curtailed, probably for good reason. Families have been split apart, and that has caused great trauma. People have not been able to attend funerals. There has been enormous economic loss, so, at the very least, make sure that everyone is confident that the public advice is being strictly adhered to and that decisions made are in accordance with the public advice and not ever being made for any political reason, because if the government is doing that, then, frankly, it is diabolical.
Comments and speeches by various members
Question put and a division called for.
Bells rung and the house divided.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Before I announce the result of the division, it occurs to me that I need to remind members that as we are getting back to normal processes, members need to space themselves out a little so that the tellers can easily see who is voting. Perhaps, in future, if there is a large number of members on one side, members should move through a bit more.
The division, the Deputy President casting his vote with the ayes, resulted as follows —
Question thus passed.