Misinformation must be called out - Speech, House of Representatives


According to this morning's email update from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, there are now 103 million cases of COVID globally and there have been 2.2 million deaths. The weekly global incidence, thankfully, is down to just 3.6 million new cases. Weekly global mortality is down a little but is still at the staggering figure of 93,803 deaths.

The vaccine is coming, but in Australia's case it's coming too slowly. Globally, there have been over 100 million vaccine doses administered; in the United States, 32 million doses administered. If you look at the Our World in Data site, it has figures on the share of people vaccinated per 100. In Israel, that figure is at 36 per cent; in the United Kingdom, 13 per cent; and, in the United States, eight per cent. So other countries are getting on with the rollout.

But what is the share in Australia? Well, it's zero per cent. We are yet to begin the vaccination rollout and, far from the Prime Minister saying that Australia is ‘at the front of the queue’, we find ourselves behind most advanced nations when it comes to rolling out the vaccine. That is not the fault of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which has now approved the vaccine for administration in Australia; it is the fault of the Morrison government for failing to strike a sufficient number of vaccine deals.

Australia only has three direct vaccine deals; most equivalent health systems have five or six. It took us a full six months after other countries started signing vaccine deals in March before we secured our first vaccine deals. We signed vaccine deals with Oxford AstraZeneca and UQ-CSL on 7 September 2020. The early access agreement was to have provided 3.8 million doses of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in January and February 2021. On 7 September 2020, the health minister said on Twitter that the vaccine would be available ‘progressively throughout 2021 in Australia commencing in January’. The government failed to meet that test. In part, that's due to AstraZeneca reneging on the promise to provide 3.8 million early doses from overseas, now only sending 1.2 million by March. Australia then signed a deal with Pfizer for 10 million doses and Novovax for 40 million doses on 5 November. But it took Pfizer proactively reaching out to the government in July for the government to even commence discussions on a vaccine deal. By the time Australia signed to get doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Pfizer had already signed away one billion doses to 34 countries, including the European Union. So Australia has too few vaccine deals in place.

As the rollout happens, it will be critical that we tackle vaccine misinformation. We've already seen the challenge this can pose overseas. On Saturday, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, one of the largest mass vaccination sites in the United States, was temporarily shut down when anti-vaxxer protesters blocked the entrance to the stadium. Thankfully it didn't result in the cancellation of any appointments but it did represent an attempt to intimidate those in charge of the vaccine rollout.

Here in Australia, we should have a situation in which the entire federal parliament is standing in unity with the chief medical officers. But unfortunately, the Liberal and National parties have allowed the vocal anti-vaxxer statements of the member for Hughes to have their head. The member for Hughes has been vocal in his support for hydroxychloroquine. He stated it was safe and effective, and has referenced studies that allegedly found that hydroxychloroquine is associated with substantially reducing both death and hospitalisation in COVID-19 patients. The truth is different matter. Hydroxychloroquine looked good in observational studies but, once high-quality randomised controls were in place, it became clear it was not a desirable treatment. Its use is strongly discouraged by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which cites the results of several large-scale studies conducted by the World Health Organization, the US National Institutes of Health and Oxford University. The National COVID Clinical Evidence Taskforce recommended against the use of the hydroxychloroquine.

The member for Hughes has questioned the effectiveness of masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. He has also stated that forcing children to wear masks is causing massive physical and psychological harm, and that forcing children to wear masks is ‘child abuse’. There are two mistruths there. Firstly, children under 12 aren't required to wear masks in any state or territory. Secondly, there are multiple studies supporting the effectiveness of masks. One study of people who had the common cold found wearing a surgical mask reduced the amount of the respiratory viruses admitted in droplets and aerosols. Another study compared the coronavirus growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 US states and found that mask mandates led to a slowdown in the daily growth rate of COVID.

In the first five days after a mask mandate, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 of a percentage point compared to the five days prior to the mandate. At three weeks, the daily growth rate had slowed by two percentage points.

Then there are his attacks on the Victorian government, as the previous contributor to this debate has noted. When the Andrews government put in place measures to help stop the spread of coronavirus, the member for Hughes compared them to Nazi Germany and stated that 'tens of thousands of medical professionals around the world' had signed a declaration urging coronavirus restrictions to be lifted for non-vulnerable populations. Again, the truth is far more complicated. News organisations found that anyone could sign that declaration by claiming to be a medical professional and the list of signatories contained dozens of fake names including 'Dr IP Freely' and 'Dr Person Fakename'. Other so-called medical professionals included homeopaths, massage therapists and hypnotherapists—hardly infectious disease specialists.

We need ER, but this government is giving us The Twilight Zone. With the wild conspiracy theories spreading online, the member for Hughes could get his own gig writing a Netflix special. But his antics are anything but entertaining. His spreading of dangerous misinformation has been called out by the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly. Dr Karen Price, the President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has said it's unacceptable. But the Prime Minister has failed to act. He hasn't condemned the member for Hughes for spreading misinformation in the midst of a pandemic. He's just said people should listen to doctors.

But the simple truth is that so-called viral posts have an ability to catch fire in a way in which basic truths by medical professionals simply don't. Over the past six months, in the midst of the pandemic, Facebook posts made by the member for Hughes have been shared more than 10 times more than those posted by the Australian Department of Health. The member for Hughes's shares of misinformation amount to 847,000, compared to 79,000 from the official source. The member for Hughes is a superspreader of misinformation. Misinformation, as we well know, spreads like wildfire. It's a simple truth about the way in which social media operates. The point is that the Prime Minister should call him out, not just pick up the phone when he's having an interview with Mark Riley but actually publicly denounce the views of the member for Hughes.

The government itself is now spending $24 million promoting the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, and that campaign is itself being undermined by one of the government's own backbenchers. What do they do? Do they remove him from his committee assignments, including his position on the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources? No, nothing of the sort. Taxpayers are paying for vaccine information, and the government's own backbencher is spreading vaccine misinformation. The member for Hughes has claimed that hydroxychloroquine was being banned by our regulators as part of some anti-Donald Trump conspiracy and that it would be approved after the US election. He's supporting the view that any government that bans hydroxychloroquine is deep-state freemason controlled. He's accused Australia's chief medical officers of crimes against humanity, ominously stating 'the day of reckoning is coming', the sort of language that is used by QAnon supporters in the United States, by those who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. When the World Economic Forum unveiled its post-COVID reconstruction plan, the member for Hughes compared it to Pol Pot's Cambodian genocide.

On Monday the Prime Minister laughed off criticism of the member for Hughes and said the member for Hughes was doing 'a great job'. Doing a great job of what exactly? Is it discouraging his constituents from listening to the Chief Medical Officer? Is it encouraging his constituents to use a dangerous and unproven drug, in hydroxychloroquine? Is it encouraging his constituents not to use masks, which we know save lives? Is this the kind of 'great job' the Prime Minister thinks the member for Hughes is doing? On Tuesday, when the member for Hindmarsh tried to call out the member for Hughes's irresponsible and dangerous behaviour, he was gagged by the votes of every Liberal and National party member opposite.

When the member for Cooper tried to condemn the Prime Minister for not protecting the Australian people from misinformation, she too was gagged by every Liberal and National member in this House. When the member for Corio spoke out against the dangerous misinformation and spoke up for science, as he so often does in this place, he was gagged.

The Prime Minister is happy to gag those speaking out for truth, but he doesn't have the guts to gag his own backbencher from spreading medical mistruths in the face of the most dangerous pandemic Australia has seen in a century. And it's not just the member for Hughes. Make no mistake: if the Prime Minister were to take him on, he would also need to take on the member for Dawson, who co-authored a letter to the Queensland Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, criticising her stance on hydroxychloroquine, a letter which turned up in Queensland mailboxes -- spread house to house. The member for Hughes says that there are at least a dozen of his parliamentary colleagues that support his antiscience stance. That means that, like climate change denialism, vaccine denialism and the spreading of misinformation is rampant on the coalition backbench.

I haven't attempted in this speech to persuade the member for Hughes. I think he's a lost cause. But it is important that, as all of us in this parliament and people in the broader community speak about the importance of vaccines with those who are sceptical, we do draw on the best science. I draw the House's attention to a terrific piece by organisational psychologist Adam Grant, from the Wharton School, in The New York Times on 31 January 2021. It's called 'The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People'. He says:

Several decades ago, when treating substance abuse problems, psychologists developed a technique called motivational interviewing. The central premise: Instead of trying to force other people to change, you're better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan.

He goes on to write:

In controlled trials, motivational interviewing has helped people to stop smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, and gambling; to improve their diets and exercise; to overcome eating disorders; and to lose weight. The approach has also motivated students to get a good night's sleep; voters to reconsider their prejudices; and divorcing parents to reach settlements.

Recently, thanks to a vaccine whisperer, it has been applied to immunization. Arnaud Gagneur is a pediatrician in Quebec who encourages reluctant parents to immunize their children. In his experiments, a motivational interview in the maternity ward after birth increased the number of mothers willing to vaccinate their children from 72 percent to 87 percent; the number of children who were fully vaccinated two years later rose by 9 percent. A single conversation was enough to change behavior over the next 24 months.

It's incumbent on every member of this House to work with our medical experts to ensure that as many Australians as possible are vaccinated against COVID-19.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.