The federal government has ruled out Labor’s calls to offer $300 cash handouts to encourage Australians to get vaccinated, with senior Coalition voices slamming the idea as “insulting” and a “gimmick”.
But the opposition is adamant that Australia needs “to use every tool at our disposal” to get COVID vaccine rates toward the 80 per cent benchmark for reopening under Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s four-phase plan.
“Put politics aside. This is a constructive suggestion and the government should get onboard with it,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese said.
But Mr Morrison rubbished the plan as “a thought bubble minus the thought.”
“This is a serious public health crisis, it is not a game show,” the PM said.
Late on Monday, Labor launched its calls for the federal government to pay $300 to every Australian who gets two doses of a COVID vaccine.
By Tuesday morning, Mr Albanese was on a media blitz, hitting most of the country’s main news channels on a run of 10 interviews, including Nine’s Today, ABC News, 3AW, Sky News, 2SM and ABC radio stations.
“What we’re talking about here is bringing the Australian people with us on this project,” he told Today.
“What it would do as well is it would spark conversations around the workplace, around communities. ‘Have you got your 300 bucks yet?’ is a conversation that we want. Anything that starts the conversation about the need to get vaccinated is a good thing.”
Mr Albanese said further encouragement was crucial to hitting jab targets of 80 per cent for reopening Australia. But Labor has also painted the payment as potentially a $6 billion economic stimulus.
In his own press conference, Mr Morrison said the government didn’t believe paying people was the best way to increase vaccination.
“It is very important that we continue to respect our Australians are engaging with this process. So if they do have hesitancy about vaccine, I am not going to pay them off,” he said.
“I’m going to pay a GP to sit down with them and go through their concerns, which is what I have already done. Because that is how you can alleviate their concerns.”
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the federal government’s research had shown cash payments were “unnecessary and unlikely to work”. He noted vaccination rates were rising already, as more supply became available.
“It’s clearly unnecessary in the sense that Australians are responding. They do want to get their vaccines,” Senator Birmingham told the ABC.
“Frankly, it’s a little bit insulting to the many millions of Australians who already are doing the right thing.”
Labor is proposing $300 for every fully vaccinated Australian. pic.twitter.com/akd60k6DJa
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) August 2, 2021
In a Canberra press conference, the Opposition Leader called the idea a “modest and responsible” proposal. Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers slammed the federal government’s actions that had Australia at “the arse-end” of vaccination rates in the developed world.
In response to criticism that the $300 could be a perverse incentive for people to wait to get vaccinated until a Labor government came into power, Mr Chalmers said any Australian who got two jabs, regardless of when, would get the money. It would be retrospective if Labor won government, he said.
The four-phase plan for reopening, outlined in greater depth by Mr Morrison last week, noted that phase B – which could be hit with 70 per cent of Australia’s adults fully vaccinated – would include “encouraging uptake through incentives and other measures”.
The Australian reported on Tuesday that the federal government was keener on non-financial incentives, branded “freedom incentives”, to drive vaccinations. The newspaper said that could include discounts at businesses or airline frequent flyer points.
Employment Minister Stuart Robert told Sky that incentives like cash “have been tried and ostensibly failed”.
“It’s an idea that’s been tested and hasn’t worked. And frankly, I don’t think Australians need to be enticed to get vaccinated,” he said.
Mr Robert and Nationals senator Matt Canavan called the plan a “gimmick”, accusing Mr Albanese of a “desperate attempt to get attention”.
Australia needs united support for the vaccine rollout, not expensive gimmicks that won't work.
— Stuart Robert MP (@stuartrobertmp) August 2, 2021
Senator Birmingham said, instead, he believed many Australians saw the reason for vaccination as being “to protect their health and to protect the health of their loved ones and their fellow Australians.”
On a media blitz of his own across multiple channels, Senator Birmingham said overseas nations used “targeted incentives” to drive vaccinations. He called Labor’s plan a “scattergun” that would “just splash cash everywhere”.
Labor’s $300 plan would not be means tested, and all Australians would be eligible. When asked on Sky News whether billionaires like mining boss Gina Rinehart would also get the payment, Mr Albanese responded “yes”, but said the broad-brush nature was the point.
“Overwhelmingly, what this would go to is to ordinary Australians, working Australians who are doing it really tough at the moment, and they’d spend it in their local small businesses,” he said.
“They wouldn’t save it, they’d spend it … So it’s good for our economy.”
“It’s a pity that this government says no to everything as its first response.”
Independent senator Rex Patrick criticised the “kneejerk government response” to the idea, saying it was “a much better targeted measure than Jobkeeper”.
Incentives for vaccines have been spoken about for some time, but the federal government has been reluctant to detail firm plans such as those seen in the US and Asia.
US President Joe Biden recently announced $100 incentives for Americans to get vaccinated, while sweeteners such as beer, doughnuts and even marijuana have been offered across America.
However, Therapeutic Goods Administration boss Professor John Skerritt said in June he didn’t think it was wise to offer cash payments.
Vaccine rollout co-ordinator Lieutenant-General John Frewen said large Australian businesses were keen to give vaccine incentives, but the government wouldn’t look to take up those offers until later in 2021, to help shift stubborn vaccine hesitancy.
Virgin and Qantas have offered frequent flyer points for those who get the jab.