As tens of thousands of anti-mandate protesters descended on Canberra on Saturday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said their grievance is with the states, not the federal government.
He said the federal government had only ever supported mandates for aged care and disability workers, as well as health workers in high-risk situations.
“All other mandates that relate to vaccines have been imposed unilaterally by state governments,” Mr Morrison told reporters on Saturday morning.
“They have not been put in place by the Commonwealth Government … so understand their concerns about these issues,” he said.
Mr Morrison says the protesters are “speaking up for the things they feel strongly about” and asked them to follow police directions.
“Australia is a free country and they have a right to protest. I would ask them to do that in a peaceful and respectful way,” he said.
One Nation’s Pauline Hanson has visited the rally and spoken to some of the protesters in the crowd.
The protests came as the Australian Medical Association made a bid to put hospital funding on the federal election agenda.
The association says public hospitals are in “logjam”, with exhausted staff, long surgery waitlists, and emergency departments struggling to meet demand.
“Our hospitals are doing their best, but they are in logjam and it’s costing lives,” AMA emergency medicine representative Dr Sarah Whitelaw said.
Meanwhile, the commonwealth has extended its pandemic emergency measures until April 17, due to the wave of COVID-19 cases of the Omicron variant.