Scott Morrison has urged Gerard Rennick to listen to medical experts after the Liberal senator labelled the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 “completely irresponsible”.
Rennick has experienced a meteoric rise in reach on Facebook, adding 70,000 followers in a little over a month, as he shared stories of vaccine adverse events he admits he can’t be sure are “100% accurate” and videos of anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne.
Since the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved Pfizer for kids on Sunday, Rennick has lashed out over “serious concerns” about the sample size of clinical trials and again refused to vote for government legislation, this time warning he will do so until the approval is revoked.
At a Covid-19 committee hearing on Tuesday senior health officials rejected Rennick’s claims vaccinations amount to “experimenting” on children and pointed to the US experience of administering 5m doses of Pfizer to children aged five to 11 as evidence it is “worthwhile, safe and effective”.
A spokesperson for Morrison said: “The prime minister and [his] office have repeatedly made clear directly and also publicly that decisions about the health of Australians are made based on the advice of our country’s medical experts.”
“The government will continue to listen to the medical experts on these issues and strong suggests senator Rennick does the same.”
On 26 November, Morrison told ABC Radio “of course” he takes Rennick to task for misinformation privately, adding that he does so “publicly as well”.
“I mean, there’s no doubt about the government’s position on the importance of the vaccination program, and any suggestion otherwise is absurd.”
At a press conference in Melbourne on Wednesday announcing Moderna had been approved as a booster dose the health minister, Greg Hunt, said he expected a “positive announcement” next week from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation recommending Pfizer for children, who will be added to the vaccination program from 10 January.
Hunt told reporters he disagreed with “views that are at odds with the TGA, whether it’s Senator Rennick” or those he accused of having “trashed” the brand of AstraZeneca. He labelled the latter view “very unfortunate”.
Rising social media influence
Rennick has experienced a meteoric rise in the number of followers on his Facebook page, from 21,000 in late October to more than 93,000 followers as of Wednesday, according to Guardian Australia’s analysis of data from Facebook’s CrowdTangle social analytics service.
The tipping point came after a video he shared from the 6 November rally in Melbourne of a performance of I Am Australian. The video has been viewed over 700,000 times, and shared over 21,000 times.
In the following two weeks Rennick’s follower count tripled, expanding his reach with videos of people claiming to have suffered adverse events from Covid-19 vaccines.
Rennick posts between two and three times a day. The top six posts, all focused on rallies or alleged issues with vaccines, have all been shared about 20,000 times each.
In the past 30 days alone, Rennick has outperformed all of his Senate colleagues on Facebook, with over 992,000 total interactions in the past month, and 3.8m video views. The next closest is One Nation senator Malcolm Robert’s page, with 736,000 interactions, then One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s page with 662,000 interactions.
Prime minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese had 371,000 and 520,000 interactions respectively in the same time period.
The Australian Medical Association vice-president, Chris Moy, said Rennick’s surveys of adverse events were “as far away from science as possible” because they “force one answer he wants”.
He said Rennick sought to “portray himself as a Robin Hood figure while inciting distrust and fear … against the scientists and health professionals who have done so much to protect Australia”.
On Tuesday Rennick said he does not intend to stop social media advocacy on adverse events and rejected the label of misinformation.
“These are people’s stories and [the charge of misinformation is] an insult to those people,” he said. “It’s medical gaslighting of people who are having trouble getting their adverse events recognised.”
In addition to Rennick, the Morrison government’s authority over its own members has been challenged by the Nationals MP George Christensen and Liberal senator Alex Antic who both fronted far-right US online programs to criticise Australia’s Covid response.
The acting Nationals leader, David Littleproud, has counselled and condemned Christensen over his comments on American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s online show InfoWars, aspects of which Morrison also condemned.
At a press conference about the harms of social media on Wednesday, Morrison said he thought Jones’s comments comparing quarantine to a concentration camp were “appalling”.
“I have spoken to George directly about them,” he told reporters in Sydney. “I think they’re absolutely appalling. George is not a candidate for the LNP at the next election and I think George should quietly go into retirement.”
Asked about Christensen and Antic undermining public health orders, Morrison appeared to blame media for reporting on the controversy.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to promote what they’re saying by constantly drawing it to people’s attention,” he said. “I’m not seeking to do that. I don’t agree with them.”