Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has dissociated himself from the views of his maverick backbencher George Christensen, who on Tuesday flatly rejected measures to contain COVID-19 and played down the seriousness of the disease.
“I don’t agree with him,” Joyce said. “Just because someone has a view, it doesn’t mean it’s my view.”
Joyce is personally close to Christensen.
Joyce drew on the experience of his father, who he said had been very involved in the eradication of brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis in northern NSW.
This had been done by large-scale vaccination, quarantine, prosecution of people who did not comply with measures, and explanation, Joyce told The Conversation.
“I’m not going to step away from growing up having to deal with those things at an agricultural level. This is how you deal with diseases,” he said.
In a speech delivered just before question time, Christensen asked rhetorically, “How many more freedoms will we lose due to fear of a virus, which is a survivability rate of 997 out of a 1000?”
He said masks didn’t work and lockdowns didn’t work.
“Domestic vaccine passports are a form of discrimination,” he said.
“Nobody should be restricted from everyday life because of their medical choices, especially when vaccinated people can still catch and spread COVID-19.
“Our posturing politicians, many over there [on the Labor benches], the sensationalist media elite and the dictatorial medical bureaucrats need to recognise these facts and stop spreading fear.
“COVID-19 is going to be with us forever, just like the flu and just like the flu, we will have to live with it, not in constant fear of it. Some people will catch it. Some people will tragically die from it.
“That’s inevitable and we have to accept it. What we should never accept is a systematic removal of our freedoms based on a zero-risk health advice from a bunch of unelected medical bureaucrats. Open society back up. Restore our freedoms. End this madness.”
During question time Anthony Albanese, in a neat tactical strike, moved a motion calling on all MPs to “refrain from making ill-informed comments at a time when the pandemic represents a serious threat to the health of Australians”.
The motion also condemned “the comments of the Member for Dawson prior to question time designed to use our national Parliament to spread misinformation and undermine the actions of Australians to defeat COVID”.
Albanese suggested Christensen was able to wag “the National Party dog” because Joyce was “quite happy” to let him.
Morrison was in an awkward corner. The government’s usual instinct would be to move to shut Albanese down. But that would have it effectively backing Christensen.
By the same token Morrison did not want to risk giving Christensen the big whack he deserved.
Christensen is a man who enjoys making threats, even if he doesn’t carry them out, and he is not running at the election so has nothing to lose.
If he “walked” to the cross bench the government would lose its one-seat majority. It has already lost its majority on the floor of the House when Craig Kelly, another recalcitrant on matters COVID, defected from the Liberals to the cross bench.
So the government let the Albanese motion proceed and in his reply to the Opposition Leader, the PM waved just the smallest of reproving feathers in Christensen’s direction.
After going through what had been done in the pandemic, Morrison said the government “will not support those statements, Mr Speaker, where there is misinformation that is out and about in the community, whether it’s posted, Mr Speaker, on Facebook, or it’s posted in social media, or it’s written in articles or made [in] statements. Whether in this chamber, Mr Speaker, or anywhere else”.
But he wasn’t going to “engage in a partisan debate on this. I am not, Mr Speaker, because what I know is Australians aren’t interested in the politics of COVID”.
Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch wasn’t reluctant to go in hard against Christensen.
He told the ABC: “That is the sort of nonsense that I see in protests outside my office from time to time for those with conspiracy theories”.
In the Parliament “it was resoundingly rejected right across the whole political spectrum – when the motion was put up it was supported, there was not a single dissenter”.
Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher repeatedly refused to be drawn when pressed on the ABC on Christensen’s views.
But NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean didn’t hold back, saying on the ABC that Christensen “is as qualified to talk about health policy as he is to perform brain surgery”.
Joyce wasn’t in the Parliament – he went home at the end of last week and now, with COVID in his electorate of New England, he is confined there.