Rogue Coalition backbencher George Christensen has again intentionally undermined his government’s vaccination campaign, ignoring medical experts and stoking further outrage by saying parents should not get their children immunised against COVID.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said anti-vaxxers had “lost the debate” in Australia, saying he disagreed with such sentiment even when it existed “in our own movement” in the Coalition.
But Mr Christensen’s latest baseless claims may see him yet again escape any punishment from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
“Scott Morrison needs to put an end to this and take responsibility for the actions of his backbenchers,” tweeted Labor’s shadow health minister Mark Butler.
Mr Christensen, the federal Member for Dawson, made the incendiary anti-vaccination comments on a podcast he hosts.
He posted the podcast link on his blog on Tuesday morning, under the headline “Do NOT vax your children!”.
In an interview with controversial American doctor Robert Malone, who has raised concerns about vaccinating children, Mr Christensen claimed the vaccination drive was “nuts”.
“I’m going to get condemned, no doubt, by the media and the rest of them, for saying to people, ‘Do not vaccinate your children’. Do not vaccinate your children. I probably could not say that clear enough,” the Coalition MP said.
The issue of anti-vaccination proponents inside the Coalition has re-emerged in recent days, after the federal government cited Novak Djokovic’s potential to stir up anti-vax sentiment as among the reasons for cancelling the tennis star’s visa.
Coalition members Gerard Rennick, Alex Antic and Matt Canavan have faced regular criticism for comments sceptical of vaccination and COVID-19 rules, while Mr Christensen was censured by Parliament following a speech in which he claimed face masks didn’t work.
On Tuesday, Mr Christensen’s podcast comments were swiftly condemned by the Opposition.
Labor senator Tim Ayres described Mr Christensen as a “far-right anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist” who was “actively undermining public health”.
Senator Nita Green claimed the Coalition MP was spreading “misinformation”.
Mr Morrison said in a statement: “I strongly disagree with the message sent out by Mr Christensen regarding children’s vaccinations. It is contrary to the official professional medical advice provided to the government and I urge parents to disregard his dangerous messages in relation to vaccines.”
Hours earlier, The New Daily contacted Mr Morrison’s office for comment on Mr Christensen’s claims.
A spokesman referred TND to Mr Joyce, as leader of the Nationals Party to which Mr Christensen belongs.
Mr Joyce’s spokesman said the Deputy PM had “spoken to Mr Christensen on numerous occasions about his remarks”, and referred TND to previous comments.
The spokesman did not respond to questions about whether Mr Joyce had spoken to Mr Christensen specifically about Tuesday’s comments.
“We’ve got anti-vaxxers, certainly, but they’re not from overseas,” Mr Joyce told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age this week.
“What can [we] do? As much as [Immigration Minister Alex] Hawke would like, he can’t send any of our politicians to Serbia.”
Mr Joyce has previously warned colleagues against “prodding the bear” by criticising Mr Christensen, which he claimed would “make the situation worse for us as a government” by potentially seeing the Dawson MP quit and force a by-election.
However, his latest comments have prompted reactions from those within the Coalition.
George Christensen’s comments are irresponsible and inappropriate.
The only advice parents should take on vaccinating their children is from a doctor.
— David Littleproud MP (@D_LittleproudMP) January 18, 2022
In a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Hunt claimed he had not seen Mr Christensen’s comments, but stressed the safety and importance of children receiving protection against COVID-19.
“Get your children vaccinated. Please bring your children forward,” he said.
“Vaccinations save lives. I would flatly, plainly disagree with anyone who disagreed with that.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 379,000 children aged five to 11 – or nearly 17 per cent of that age group – had received at least one shot of COVID vaccine.
In the 12 to 15 age group, more than 935,000 or 75 per cent had been fully vaccinated.
“We are of one voice. It is very important for children now down to the age of five to be vaccinated,” chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said.
“Please go ahead with that and listen to the experts.”
Mr Hunt, while stopping short of criticising Mr Christensen by name, claimed anti-vaxxer sentiment had “lost the debate”.
“We’re at a 95 per cent national 16+ vaccination. That’s beyond the conception of almost any commentator or observer through the course of the pandemic,” he said.
“We are pro-vaccination … wherever people have said things that are anti-vax, we disagree with them. Whether it’s people in our own movement … I disagree.”
Professor Kelly stressed that all vaccinations in Australia, including COVID jabs for children, had to pass strict and rigorous safety checks before being approved by expert medical bodies.
“We don’t have any medicines or vaccines in Australia that haven’t gone through the full process of the [Therapeutic Goods Administration], based on the evidence that’s given to them by the companies that are selling those products, as well as independent clinical trials from around the world,” Professor Kelly said.
“The second thing they look very closely at, and this is very important for the children’s vaccine, is the real-world experience of rollouts in other places. So we have the advantage of watching multiple millions of children at that age group, five to 11, get their first and second doses in the US.
“They haven’t seen a single issue in terms of severe safety signals.”