Question Time – Covid-19 Vaccination
Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:38): My question is to the Minister for Finance, Senator Gallagher. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the public release of COVID-19 vaccine contracts in South Africa, including the Pfizer contract, following a High Court of South Africa ruling. These contracts have revealed very liberal indemnity clauses, which we know from our own budget papers create an unquantifiable contingent liability.
Section 5.5 of the contract between Pfizer and the South African government states: “Purchaser further acknowledges that the long-term effects and efficacy of the Vaccine are not currently known and that there may be adverse effects of the Vaccine that are not currently known.” Can the minister confirm if the Australian contracts have the same or similar words?
The PRESIDENT: Minister Wong?
Senator Wong: I would be obliged, President, if Senator Babet could be clear on whether Minister Gallagher is being asked as finance minister or as Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, would you like to clarify?
Senator BABET: Representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care, please.
Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital Territory—Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Finance,
Minister for Women, Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Vice-President of the Executive Council) (14:39): I think the final part of your question was about a clause in the contract. Those contracts are commercial-in-confidence. I do note that, in the South African case that Senator Babet refers to, it was as a result of a decision of the High Court of South Africa where a matter was taken to court by the Health Justice Initiative seeking access to those documents that, because of the nature in which those contracts were entered into, the government was not in a position, prior to that case, to release. My advice is that those contracts are subject to commercial-in-confidence requirements, so the government isn’t in a position to release the contents of those contracts, but members will know—
Opposition senators interjecting—
Senator GALLAGHER: Well, these were contracts that were entered into under your government, Senator
Canavan, so we were negotiating those contracts, but, now that we are in government, we are bound by the requirements of those contracts. I remind people that those contracts were signed at the beginning of a pandemic where there was a lot of uncertainty about what was happening, and there were also a lot of people who were unvaccinated dying from the COVID virus.
In procuring, I don’t think Australia was any different from the arrangements that happened across the world, where governments entered into contracts with pharmaceutical companies to secure access to vaccines for their populations to ensure the populations were vaccinated against a disease that was killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world. So, no, I’m not a position to confirm that.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, first supplementary?
Senator BABET (14:41): Minister, I accept when you say that things like the pricing arrangements might be commercial-in-confidence. That makes sense. However, surely what the government acknowledged around safety and efficacy is not commercial-in-confidence and must be released to the Australian public. We do have individuals in this country who have been injured by these vaccines. Don’t you think you and your government owe it to these people to come clean and release the Pfizer contracts?
Senator GALLAGHER (14:42): As I said, I’m not in a position to release the contracts—
Senator Rennick: That is the definition of a protection racket—a protection racket for big international
Senator GALLAGHER: that, Senator Rennick, your government entered into when it was in power, but there is, as senators will know, the COVID-19 Vaccine Claims Scheme, which has been established—
The PRESIDENT: Minister, please resume your seat. Senator Rennick, I have called you to order. This is
Senator Babet’s question, and the minister is answering it—
Senator Rennick: It’s a good one too.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Rennick, when you’re called to order, you come to order. Minister, please continue.
Senator GALLAGHER: The vaccine claims scheme that has been established was to ensure that people who did suffer a recognised adverse event as a direct result of the COVID-19 vaccine have faster access to compensation than a costly and complex court process, so I think that does acknowledge that there were a number of citizens that did have an adverse event and that there was a claims scheme put in place. Over $11 million has been paid to date under that vaccine claims scheme.
Senator Rennick interjecting—
The PRESIDENT: Senator Rennick!
Senator GALLAGHER: Thank you, President. As senators will know, the scheme is demand driven, meaning all eligible applicants will be paid regardless of how much— (Time expired)
The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, second supplementary?
Senator BABET (14:43): Minister, your party has promised to be a transparent government, and you weren’t even in government at the time that these contracts were signed. We all know that. You weren’t the finance minister or the health minister. In fact, it could have been the member for Cook who signed these contracts; we don’t know. We don’t know, but the Australian public deserves to know. Minister,
at the very least, will you commit to releasing a redacted version of these contracts?
Senator GALLAGHER (14:44): While the member for Cook was the Treasurer, the finance minister and the health minister at the time, I don’t believe that he would have signed these contracts as that would have occurred at the Public Service level. Regardless, governments engage in contracts across the board. It’s not just around vaccine arrangements.
Where there are requirements that those contracts be kept confidential, I would say that, regardless of the change of government, governments are bound by those contracts. You all come to estimates; you all ask questions around this matter; I’m sure that that will continue. So there is a level of transparency and accountability that’s provided that you take good advantage of, in my experience of sitting on that committee. I would encourage you to continue
to do so, but we won’t be releasing the contracts.