The Politics    Monday, July 12, 2021

P(fize)R war

By Rachel Withers

P(fize)R war

Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image © Luis Ascui / AAP Image

Kevin Rudd and the federal government fight for credit over next to nothing

The plot has thickened in the game of “who is responsible for the (alleged) Pfizer supply ramp-up?”, as the federal government downplays a report that Kevin Rudd may have had a hand in bringing forward Australia’s supplies, after it was revealed the former PM had a Zoom meeting with Pfizer’s chief executive. Many people have praised Rudd for his supposed intervention, including Malcolm Turnbull, tweeting his thanks to Rudd along with his astonishment that the current PM had not spoken to the Pfizer boss himself. Rudd’s carefully worded letter to the PM appears to be having the impact he hoped for, while Pfizer has been forced to release yet another record-correcting statement, saying reports of a third party being involved in its “contractual agreements” with Australia are “inaccurate” (though conveniently saying nothing about whether the call took place or had any influence, with Friday’s announcement regarding supply not believed to be contract based). Health Minister Greg Hunt has pushed back against the report in an increasingly desperate manner, first in The Australian, then on 2GB (where he said he “did chuckle” when he first read Laura Tingle’s report), then in an afternoon press conference (where he responded to a question by reading from Pfizer’s statement, twice, before calling it a “grassy knoll story”). The PM then spoke to Sky News, where he too dismissed suggestions Rudd had helped. The entire PR dispute is ludicrous, with the grown men fighting over who is responsible for a “bring-forward” that, if it exists at all, is a marginal increase on what was expected in August and nothing more – something a large part of the media continues to ignore. But while the fight for credit over a long-expected “ramp-up” is silly, the story did raise major questions about the federal government’s procurement efforts. 

Regardless of who is responsible for this nothingburger “ramp-up”, the fact remains that Australia is in a mess because the federal government bungled its vaccine procurement strategy – in particular its dealings with Pfizer, which it seems to have skimped on initially. The most damning part of Tingle’s report, and a point Rudd no doubt wanted to highlight, is the apparent confirmation that Australia got off on the wrong foot with Pfizer, with an anonymous business leader saying the government had displayed a “rude, dismissive and penny pinching” approach towards Pfizer, and sent “relatively junior bureaucrats” to the table. (A Guardian Australia report over the weekend backed this narrative, with Pfizer’s former president of global R&D John LaMattina describing Australia’s original order as “unconscionable”.) The health department has long been denying reports it botched its early meetings with the maker of the vaccine we are now desperately waiting on. But Tingle reports that well-connected Australian businesspeople in the US were “hearing even more graphic accounts of how badly offended the company had been by the response to its early approaches to Australia”, prompting them to try to get involved, before calling in Rudd. Hunt continued to deny this characterisation when it was put to him today, saying that the story was based on unattributed sources and that the “most basic element” of it had been denied by Pfizer (which did not deny it had initially felt disrespected by Australia). The person leading negotiations, Hunt said, was “one of the most senior people in the department”, adding that they were “the equivalent of a two-star general” (because everything must now be described in military terms).

Whether or not an overconfident Coalition government did originally mess up its Pfizer negotiations, the fact that it was a former Labor prime minister who jumped on the phone to the head of Pfizer at the urging of business leaders raises further questions about the federal government’s actions. If it was that easy to get on the phone to the company boss, and if other nations’ leaders were doing it, why didn’t Morrison? While it’s incredibly disheartening to think that a direct call to a pharmaceutical boss from a high-ranking representative would be a major part of greasing the wheels of supply in the midst of a global pandemic, the fact that Morrison didn’t is odd, with senior Pfizer executives “expressing their astonishment” at that fact. It’s not as if the federal government is opposed to making such calls, as many have noted, whether it’s in order to get one of their mates a job, order hydroxychloroquine, or let Tina Arena know they are coming to her show.

But more than anything, this dumb episode of Rudd versus Hunt, over such a measly boost, only highlights how poorly the rollout is going. It’s worth emphasising that the “ramp-up” being heralded by the Murdoch media and the Morrison government late last week was an expected part of Pfizer’s delivery plan, for which the government wanted brownie points, with 1 million doses by July 19 having already been on the agenda (the only thing that may have been “brought forward” last week was the amount expected in August, and only by about 12 per cent). The “tripling” of supply praised by The Australian, meanwhile, was only based on the absolutely pathetic weekly amount of the Pfizer vaccine we were receiving up until now – 1 million per week is really not all that much, considering how many doses we still need. The fact that the government so desperately wants credit for getting what is still, in the scheme of things, a wildly inadequate boost in supply, is a symbol of just how bad things have become for it. Rudd, finally responding to the drama in a statement this afternoon, summed it up best. Rudd, the statement confirmed, spoke with the Pfizer boss in a personal capacity, was not claiming responsibility for decisions made by Pfizer, and “would definitely not seek to associate himself with the Australian Government’s comprehensively botched vaccine procurement program”. Looks like we know who won the P(fize)R war.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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