Scott Morrison has announced financial incentives to lure international workers to Australia as he continues to defend his government’s handling of the pandemic in the face of the Omicron surge.
But while unveiling the $55m package that will refund the cost of visa application fees for up to 175,000 backpackers and international students, the prime minister was forced to fend off criticism of one of his backbench MPs, George Christensen, who has been calling for parents to opt out of the government’s child vaccination program.
Morrison said he was in discussion with the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, about the potential for Christensen to lose his position on parliament’s joint committee for investment and trade, which is worth an extra $20,000 to his annual salary.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Christensen announced in a post on his Facebook page that he had decided to stand down from the committee.
“In breaking news that’s of no interest to anyone but the Canberra Bubble: When I return to Parliament House on Monday 7 February, I will be advising the Speaker that I intend to stand down as the chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth, a decision of my own making and not a demand or request from any third party,” Christensen posted.
“Until then, I will continue in the role, prosecuting the need for the recommendations of the committee’s report on the Prudential Regulation of Investment in Australia’s Export Industries to be adopted by the Australian Government, especially the recommendation that the government recognise that finance, banking and insurance services are essential services for businesses.”
Earlier, Morrison said his advice regarding Christensen was to “simply ignore him”.
“Australia is a free country, we can’t go around locking people up for what they say as Australians,” Morrison said. “He is allowed to speak his mind, but Australians shouldn’t be listening to it.
“I think they’re unwise views, I think they are dangerous views, I don’t think parents should be listened to them, that is the medical advice I have from the chief medical officer and is consistent with the advice you get anywhere in the world,” he said.
Morrison said parents should listen to the advice of the health experts and regulators, and said that already one in five students aged five to 11 had been vaccinated in the first 10 days of the program.
The number of children vaccinated in this age bracket is expected to surpass 500,000 this week.
The prime minister also faced questions about the shortage of rapid antigen tests across the country, saying Omicron had “changed everything”, and while discussions had been happening as early as June, at that stage the government’s focus was on vaccine procurement.
He said the UK, which had a universal access program for rapid antigen tests, was unable to deliver on demand, and it was making no difference to the surge in case numbers in the country.
“The test is not a cure, the vaccine is what protects, and that’s why we have channelled our effort into those vaccines, and that’s why one of the other areas we are working in with the workforce is targeting pop-up booster programs in a social work forces.
“I understand that those rapid antigen test shortages have been a great frustration but a lot of these comments are made with hindsight, not foresight,” he said.
In aged care, which is a responsibility of the federal government, Morrison said the commonwealth had begun supplying tests in August, but conceded there had not been enough.
Under the details of the visa rebate program, the $630 fee for international students will be covered for the next eight weeks, and for backpackers for 12 weeks.
Morrison said his message to 150,000 international students and 23,500 backpackers with visas was to “come on down”.
“We want you to come to Australia and enjoy a holiday here … [and] move all the way around the country,” Morrison said.
“At the same time, join our workforce and help us in our agricultural sector, in our hospitality sector, and so many of the other parts of the economy that rely on that labour.”
He said international students could be willing to fill some of the critical workforce shortages being faced as a result of the Omicron surge, “particularly those who are working and being trained in healthcare, aged care, those types of sectors, that will be incredibly helpful.”
The prime minister also said states that still had in place quarantine requirements for international arrivals should consider lifting them to take advantage of the additional staff arriving into the country.
“I’d be encouraging them to look at those rules to make sure they can get those critical workers in,” Morrison said.
He said the government was considering a further relaxation of isolation requirements down to just five days, but said it would be a “calibration” given about 30% of people remained infectious after such a short period.
“At the moment that is not the advice,” he said.