Scott Morrison has told Australians “don’t go to Facebook” for COVID information, but again resisted calls to rein in maverick backbencher Craig Kelly’s constant spreading of virus misinformation.
“He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours,” the Prime Minister said of Mr Kelly.
“He does a great job in [his electorate] Hughes.”
But Labor’s new health spokesman, Mark Butler, slammed Mr Kelly as a “dangerous menace”, and called for the PM to muzzle the member for Hughes.
Mr Morrison spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday, delivering a scene-setting speech to outline his priorities for 2021. In the address, he reiterated Australia’s hopes to begin COVID vaccinations by the end of February and finish the program by October, as well as announcing $1.9 billion to support the jab rollout at pharmacies and GPs.
The PM also staked a slightly bolder position on climate change, saying that he wanted to see Australia become a net-zero emissions nation “as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”. But again, he stopped short of a full commitment to the net zero by 2050 goal, embraced by all of Australia’s major trading partners and allies.
The federal government last week rolled out the first phase of a $24 million advertising program aimed at reinforcing public confidence in COVID vaccines. This will include answering important questions about how they work, to allay fear or misinformation about the vaccines.
But Mr Morrison has come under fire for not addressing misinformation within his own ranks, with the likes of Mr Kelly and Nationals MP George Christensen publishing numerous posts on Facebook that question masks and COVID treatments.
Mr Kelly has been on a personal crusade to promote hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug briefly boosted by former US president Donald Trump, and ivermectin, an anti-parasitic treatment, for coronavirus. Both treatments have been repeatedly shot down by local and global health experts, including Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly and the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Despite this, Mr Morrison has repeatedly rebuffed calls for him to rebuke the backbenchers’ comments. ABC journalist Laura Tingle asked Mr Morrison on Monday why he hadn’t reined in Mr Kelly.
“We’ve been very clear to point out where you get your information from. You don’t get it from Facebook. You get it from official government websites, and that’s what I encourage everyone to do,” Mr Morrison said.
“That’s what we’re doing. And that’s what we’re investing in. Don’t go to Facebook to find out about the vaccine. Go to official government websites.”
When asked about Mr Kelly specifically, Mr Morrison said “he’s not my doctor and he’s not yours”, before adding “he does a great job in Hughes”.
The PM comment’s echoed those of then deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth, who said in 2020 that “Australians are very clear on which Kelly should be listened to and that’s [chief medical officer] Paul Kelly”.
Craig Kelly had previously claimed Dr Coatsworth had “misled” the public over hydroxychloroquine.
If Scott Morrison thinks Craig Kelly is doing such a "great job in Hughes" does that mean people in Hughes:
Should take Hydroxychloroquine?
Believe the US capitol attack was a 'false flag' operation?
Or accept his view that Ivermectin is more effective than COVID vaccines? https://t.co/hSheQn1qwr
— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) February 1, 2021
Labor’s education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek heaped scorn on the PM’s words. Mr Butler, who became the opposition’s health spokesperson in last week’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, slammed Mr Kelly for “fear mongering”.
“It is beyond time that Scott Morrison found the backbone to pull him into line,” he said.
Mr Butler also criticised Home Afairs Minister Peter Dutton, who questioned Western Australia’s approach to its hotel quarantine breakout . Mr Butler called those comments “very irresponsible”.
Elsewhere in his Press Club speech, Mr Morrison said Australia wanted to reach net zero emissions “preferably” by 2050. However, again he wouldn’t concretely commit to the target embraced by many other nations including the US, Britain, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Canada.
The PM reiterated he would not institute a carbon price to encourage lower emissions, stressing his mantra of “technology not taxes” to reach the goal.
“When we get there, whether in Australia or anywhere else, that will depend on the advances made in science and technology needed to commercially transform not just advanced economies and countries, but the developing world as well,” he said.
“Getting to net zero, whether here or anywhere else, should be about technology not taxes and high prices.”
Such rhetoric has been criticised by environmental groups, who say it is not taking an urgent enough approach to the climate crisis.
Just last week, a group of leading Australian climate scientists said the government needed to dramatically accelerate its emissions reduction targets, to meet the Paris Agreement goals and keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.
Another report said extreme weather driven by climate change could cost the Australian economy $100 billion a year by 2038.
CEO of Greenpeace Australia, David Ritter, claimed the federal government was “taking an increasingly isolationist stance on climate” that was out of step with other nations and even state governments.
“What we need now is clear-sighted leadership, and a concrete plan to get Australia to a fully renewable-powered grid by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2040. Anything less is gambling with Australians lives, and the future of this country,” Mr Ritter said.
“Instead, what we’re getting is a mish-mash of tired old energy policy and denial of the reality of the climate crisis. Australia deserves better than a hollow man mouthing empty slogans.”