He said, EU said
Strap in for a game of semantics with Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this morning cried “semantics”, after the European Commission overnight denied the Australian government’s claims that the EU had blocked 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from being shipped to Australia, saying it had only blocked the previously reported 250,000-dose shipment. In a statement released this morning, the prime minister’s office accused Europe of “arguing semantics” about what it had formally blocked, as it had informally signalled it would block other applications to export vaccines from the region. Two hours later, Morrison fronted a press conference, supposedly in an attempt to calm the growing diplomatic storm, arguing that he hadn’t blamed the EU. “I want to stress that at no time yesterday did I make any comment about the actions of the European Union,” he said, “nor did I indicate any of the background reasons for the lack of supply that we have received from those contracted doses.” He went on: “I simply stated a fact: that 3.1 millon of the contracted vaccines that we had been relying upon in early January when we’d set out a series of targets did not turn up in Australia.” So why did the EU think his government had blamed them? And where is the vaccine stock?
The European Commission’s rejection came in response to a range of comments from the Australian government over the past few days. After last week’s attempt to blame the states blew up in the government’s face, members of Morrison’s team began trotting out the line that the EU had blocked supply, with 3.1 million doses not having arrived from Europe. An Australian government source told Reuters: “They’ve blocked 3.1 million shots so far.” In reality, they had blocked 250,000, and reportedly suggested that other orders would be rejected too.
Morrison is technically correct in saying that he did not make any comments “about the actions of the European Union” yesterday. At Tuesday’s press conference, Morrison simply said there had been a “supply problem”, with “over 3 million doses from overseas that never came”. He never mentioned the EU directly or used the word “blocked” – though his message was fairly clear. But other members of his government have been far less subtle. On Monday, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud – the man who last week blasted Queensland for having unused vaccines in storage – told Today that Australia was “3 million short by the EU”, adding that we had been “undercut” by the European Union. On ABC News Breakfast this morning, Trade Minister Dan Tehan – surely an important source on the matter – continued to use the word “blocked”, even after the European Commission had called out the claim. When offered the chance to admit there was no block on the 3.1 million doses, he said, “No, that’s not what you’re hearing from me … An application was put in and that application was blocked.” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg engaged in some linguistics of his own, telling Breakfast that “the fact that they’re not giving approval is effectively the same as blocking”.
If the EU did informally block all of Australia’s 3.1 million missing doses (and it appears they did), the European Commission certainly is engaging in some deceptive semantics. But so, it’s clear, is the prime minister. Much like with last week’s attack on the states, Morrison kept his hands clean, and did not make direct attacks on the EU himself. But there’s no doubt he wanted his new scapegoat known. Even this morning, as Morrison denied having blamed the EU, he carried on doing so – laying out everything the EU had done while insisting it would be “completely incorrect” to suggest he had criticised them.
Semantics might also be Morrison’s justification for his government’s repeated claims, over months, that the vaccine rollout was not behind schedule; or for his suggestion in this morning’s presser that reports of bickering and blame-shifting with the states were just media beat-ups; or perhaps for the words of the man standing beside him, Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy, who said – with a straight face – that the rollout is going “well”. The PM might also like to use semantics to explain away comments from former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate, who yesterday spoke out in an explosive Senate inquiry submission, alleging she had been humiliated in parliament and unlawfully stood down. Holgate, Morrison told reporters in this morning’s presser, had “decided to leave Australia Post” before the review into the luxury watches she gifted senior executives was completed. “That’s just a matter of record,” he added gently, echoing his comments about Europe and “facts”.
In a clip posted to Twitter this morning, journalist Tegan George contrasted Morrison’s comments from this morning with those he made in parliament last October. “She’s been instructed to stand aside,” the PM shouted angrily in comments that were widely broadcast. “And if she doesn’t wish to do that, Mr Speaker, she can GO.” Holgate claimed yesterday that she was forced out, but does the PM screaming for you to quit really count? Let’s not get into semantics.
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison this morning cried “semantics”, after the European Commission overnight denied the Australian government’s claims that the EU had blocked 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from being shipped to Australia, saying it had only blocked the previously reported 250,000-dose shipment. In a statement released this morning, the prime minister’s office accused Europe of “arguing semantics” about what it had formally blocked, as it had informally signalled it would block other applications to export vaccines from the region. Two hours later, Morrison fronted a...
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