Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs


Interview on 2GB, Weekends, with Chris Smith.
Topics: Additional repatriation flights for Australians; imminent end of JobKeeper.



Chris Smith: Well, the Federal Government is organising another 20 flights to rescue Australians stranded overseas. The flights will take place over the coming months from priority areas. Now, the announcement was made a few hours after Emirates pulled the pin, cancelling flights to Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. We spoke about that yesterday. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs at the moment. He joins me on the line with more details. Senator, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Chris. Thanks for the opportunity.

Chris Smith: How many Australians still want to come home? Do we know? What’s the official number?

Simon Birmingham: The official number is sitting at around 37,000 travellers who are registered with DFAT. Now, we’ve seen over a period of time that number has [indistinct] up and down a little bit but hovered around that range. It was sitting around, I think, a similar sort of level even back in early September, but since then we’ve had 71,000 people return home. And indeed, if we go back to March last year, when the Government first advised Australians that they should come home, there’s some 446,000 Australians who had made their way home in that period of time. So our country has managed to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Aussies who’ve been overseas and have come back home for a whole range of different circumstances, but obviously there are still people in need, and there are still people doing it tough as circumstances may not have had them looking to come home last year, but now they find themselves needing to, wanting to, and so we are trying to create the best possible circumstances for them to do so in these very challenging times by this additional 20 facilitated flights, Government-coordinated flights, and they come on top of more than 90 that we have undertaken as the Government to date, including the most recent one that landed from London just yesterday.

Chris Smith: So, an extra 20 flights, which means how many passengers?

Simon Birmingham: Chris, that will depend a little bit depending on exactly the quarantine arrangements as to them coming in, but it’s obviously going to help many hundreds more to get back and, over time, build into the thousands. And this stands alongside the fact that we do still have other airline carriers operating into Australia. So yes, Emirates withdrew, partly, it seems, as a result of the reduction in the cap on arrivals that National Cabinet agreed to recently. But the capacity that Emirates had under that cap will be reallocated to the other airlines, to Qatar, to Singapore, to others who are still flying. And importantly, these 20 facilitated flights the Government will undertake will come in over and above the cap. So, the cap is in place for most of the states of Australia, but we have different special arrangements in place for the Northern Territory, the ACT and Tasmania that will allow us to activate additional sites for quarantine that can take these people from these 20 flights.

Chris Smith: So these people won’t go to Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane?

Simon Birmingham: No, Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane will operate within their existing cap arrangements, which will be reviewed in mid-February, and those caps will still be filled [indistinct]… the commercial airlines.

Chris Smith: What are the priority areas? Will that- is that a complex arrangement whereby you’ve got to work out the numbers that want to come back, or is it about where they’re coming back from?

Simon Birmingham: So, it’s a bit of an overlay of all those factors. So obviously, we want to make sure that as many seats as possible are used on these planes subject to the ability to then safely quarantine them in Australia. But we also want to address people who are in special need where we possibly can. And so, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes by our diplomatic officials around the world to basically try to, out of that list of registered Australians, corral as many as they can into a central location that a plane can leave from to be able to make sure we get value for taxpayers money, help as many people as possible as well [indistinct]… So clearly, those parts of the world where there are larger numbers of Australians, where it is difficult in terms of the COVID situation present are the ones that historically we’ve seen a lot of these facilitated flights come from. So the UK, occasionally parts of Europe, India, and I would expect that there would still be a good number of them from similar countries.

Chris Smith: And will this No Test, No Fly rule be enforced for these flights?

Simon Birmingham: That has been the approach, and I would expect it to continue to be to provide as much assurance as we can that COVID isn’t present on the flights and isn’t spreading on the flights. But of course, the incubation period is such that there’s no guarantee in that sense, which is why the quarantine arrangements when people arrive in Australia remain a very important part of our success in keeping Australia safe and relatively COVID-free, which allows us to, of course, keep our economy open and enjoy a health outcome and an economic outcome that remains very much the envy of much of the world and certainly the envy of many of the countries that these Aussies are returning from.

Chris Smith: Okay. Now, we were just- you just told us that these flights, these passengers will be above the cap. But a couple of your colleagues have spoken with The Sun-Herald today criticising the decision to cut the number of Australians who can return home. Trent Zimmerman wants to see the cap lifted before 15 February. There is pressure on lifting the cap, right?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s always pressure on lifting the cap. So, the cap was reduced from around 6600 to around 4100 on the 15 January. That was at the request of New South Wales, Queensland, and I think WA in that case to give them some time to look at what other measures might need to be put in place to deal with the different strains we’re seeing, the more infectious strains of COVID-19 from different parts of the world. So it’s understandable that states and territories, who are being supported by the Federal Government with around 1600 Defence Force personnel helping in these quarantine arrangements, are working closely with health officials and state and territory health officials, But obviously, as early as we can, we would like to see that quarantine capacity restored back to the levels that we were handling before that reduction. However, we’ll work with the states and territories to make sure that they and through them all Australians can have confidence that arrangements are keeping Australia safe from COVID, including any new variants or strains.

Chris Smith: So 15 February is not likely?

Simon Birmingham: Look, mid-February is the date that has been set for the National Cabinet review. If there is any capacity to bring forward any decisions [indistinct] the states and territories, we will work closely with them. But that’s the date that is slated for that review. And clearly, the work is being undertaken to establish what other protocols or safeguards might need to be in place. Everybody has learnt as they’ve worked through this pandemic. We’ve changed, obviously, arrangements for hotel quarantine as we’ve gone in terms of heightened testing of staff who are working in those quarantine facilities, the protocols around the facilities and how they operate, and it varied over time. It’s a lot of work that’s been undertaken now on issues such as air ventilation and so on as well to try to make sure that we really do understand how not just to prevent COVID spreading into the community, but also making sure it doesn’t spread within those facilities as well.

Chris Smith: Okay. And just lastly, on the returning travellers, the 20 extra flights, will they be paying their way back, or will the taxpayer?

Simon Birmingham: So, we do see individuals make a contribution. It doesn’t cover the full cost of the flights, but we do expect people to make essentially a contribution into buying an airline ticket. Obviously, there are some circumstances where we may recognise an exceptional case of difficulty or hardship or otherwise. And of course, we have already distributed some $15 million in hardship payments to vulnerable Australians overseas. And you do see many of these stories of people who’ve had multiple flights cancelled, who may have lost their jobs, found themselves stranded in difficult- in different ways. [Indistinct]… embassy officials have closely and carefully to identify those individual circumstances. And we have sought to help out, if you like, where we can there(*).

Chris Smith: And when you decide on the right of someone to take one of these seats to get back home, do they have to submit their circumstances and how difficult it has been for them to get home? Because there’s room there to abuse the system. For someone who’s been working over there, they want to come back. They probably can come back. But then, hang on a second. I can get a free- a semi-freebie out of the Government for this. Do they have to prove to you that there’s no other course of action they can take to get home?

Simon Birmingham: So obviously, in having people on the DFAT register, they are contacted by embassy officials from around the world, our consular team, who assess the circumstances. And so, yes, our priority is to try to get vulnerable Australians, people who might be- may well be in a circumstance where you hear of families who have thought that they had a flight, had a commercial ticket, potentially had sold and given up their accommodation, and then find collapsed in a circumstance where that commercial ticket has been cancelled because of airline decisions. And clearly, they are in quite challenging circumstances. So it is very much a case of trying to assess those of greatest need. Obviously, that’s a subjective decision at times, but our diplomatic teams work as hard as they can to make sure that the flights are filled with Australians who genuinely need those positions to get back home.

Chris Smith: Okay. One final question, if you could put your finance hat on for a second. JobKeeper finishes in March. It’ll come to an end. We know it has to come to an end. But is the Government considering extending some sort of assistance to those industries that have been absolutely annihilated and really are in deep financial trouble? There are probably four or five industries that will suffer greatly when JobKeeper runs out in March.

Simon Birmingham: So, Chris, we know that there are businesses still doing it tough. At its peak, JobKeeper was supporting around 3.6 million Australian workers as a policy that the Government created. It has been a very important part of our economic resilience of the nation. It hasn’t been the only part of that. People should remember we’ve made payments to small- medium businesses of up to $100,000. Businesses have new tax arrangements in place where they can carry this year’s losses back against previous years’ profits to be able to get more money back where they were previously profitable and then pay(*) tax to offset some of the losses that they might be facing now. So we have put in place a number of different measures. The JobMaker hiring credit(*) continues to try to help particularly get young Australians into jobs and not linger on the unemployment queues for too long. But we have, as we’ve said right through the pandemic, looked at the circumstances of the Australian economy and different industries at every step of the way. And we’ve sought to respond in ways that were temporary. So we didn’t lock in spending forever, that we targeted the sectors that were at need and that were proportionate to their circumstances. And so as we approach the end of JobKeeper, we will, of course, look at those individual sectors against those principles and criteria of the need for any support to be temporary, targeted and proportionate to circumstances.

Chris Smith: Okay, so it’s not being ruled out. I appreciate your time, your extended time as well. Thank you so much.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Chris. Thank you very much. [Indistinct]… you and your listeners.

Chris Smith: Thank you. Acting Foreign Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham.