Date: Friday, 8 October 2021
Topic(s): Centre for National Resilience; Borders; vaccines; GST; Election

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Simon Birmingham has been in town to talk up a new quarantine facility being built at Pearce Air Base. He also announced the federal government will provide water to the neighbouring town of Bullsbrook after groundwater there was contaminated by toxic chemicals from firefighting foam. He joined me in the studio just a short time ago.

Simon Birmingham: Morning, Nadia, great to be with you.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: When we last spoke a couple of weeks ago, it was you said that it was not up to you to help Bullsbrook residents get a clean water source. What changed your mind?

Simon Birmingham: Well, ultimately, defence have been doing the work in terms of addressing these issues at Bullsbrook and across other sites around the nation for some time, and we were able to make sure that we could not quite align the projects. The National Resilience Centre will still be built ahead of the water supply being finished. But pleasingly, when we posed the questions, defence were close enough that they’re able to make the decision and give people in the Bullsbrook township that mains water supply. That means they will have potable drinking water just like people across the Perth metro area.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: So what would you actually be doing there? You’re paying for a pipeline.

Simon Birmingham: So the Department of Defence will pick up the costs of building the pipeline and connecting those houses that that need it to that new drinking supply and water supply for them. And of course, then then it will be operated as normal as part of the Perth Metro water supply.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: This has taken something like five, if not more years to resolve. Is that taken too long?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve all been learning a lot about PFAS and PFOA and what it means over that time. At the outset, it was really quite uncertain as to whether there were any issues, and there’s still a lot of outstanding questions as to whether there are serious health issues. But certainly the level of presence in in water tables is high enough that we think it should be treated with caution, and that’s why we’re taking these sorts of steps.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: You were here to talk about the new quarantine facility, which you are now calling a resilience centre. Is it actually going to be needed by the time it’s built? We may be in a position where we won’t need to be quarantining in a facility like that.

Simon Birmingham: It’s there for short, medium and long term potential needs. What we’re looking at in states like New South Wales initially in terms of opening up international borders, is that fully vaccinated Australian citizens may be able to start travelling again with a home quarantine arrangement in place and using some really highly sophisticated technology that South Australia’s pioneered to be able to quarantine at home, but still be monitored whilst doing so. But that still leaves those who are not fully vaccinated, those who are not Australian citizens, for example international students who we may wish to get back into the country. Essential workers that may need to come in who don’t have homes that they could quarantine in, so we can see some short term needs there that are still likely to exist. But over the longer term, we don’t know what potentially comes after the Delta variant, so we may need these facilities still in other ways of responding to COVID. And there will no doubt be future health crises, and there will no doubt be future natural disaster emergencies, be they bushfires or other natural disasters that require emergency accommodation, support or humanitarian situations like we’ve just faced in Afghanistan, where these sorts of resilience centres like we already had at Howard Springs just outside Darwin, it can help federal or state governments respond to all manner of emergencies.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: When will it open?

Simon Birmingham: We hope to have the first 500 beds in place by the end of the first quarter next year, so by the end of March, everyone’s working as fast as they can. There are contracts already let to modular builders. If you think about the type of dongas on mining sites or the like, we’re getting them built as quickly as possible. WA companies are assisting in that, as are companies around the country as they also do the ground works at Bullsbrook and bringing all that together, it’s a facility the size of three large international hotels. So to do it in the type of timeframe we’re talking about is pretty remarkable in bringing all of that together, noting it also has to meet the strict quarantine, health and safety standards about how you distance, how you move individuals safely in and out of the site without any risk of cross-contamination.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: And you have to find the workers to build it?

Simon Birmingham: And indeed the pressures in the construction sector. But the contractors are obviously prioritising this. They understand that although there are uncertainties about all aspects of its future use because of the ever changing dynamic circumstances around COVID, that it’s better, that we get it done as quickly as possible.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: My guest on ABC Radio Perth in WA this morning is Simon Birmingham, the Federal Finance Minister. Let’s have a look at WA’s border hard border should WA set a date to reopen to the rest of the country?

Simon Birmingham: I think more important than a date is, of course, getting the vaccination levels to the point where those openings can occur. And for West Australians, there needs to be just a little more urgency from some people in getting out and getting vaccinated. I mean, the majority of people are doing the right thing. Some 68 per cent have had a first dose, and so that’s great. But, you know, but across the country that’s 81 per cent, now Western Australia is not a state that likes coming last, but it is coming last when it comes to vaccinations at present. So getting that sense of urgency, because when I hear people say there’s no urgency on, you know? Some even suggest they’ll wait until there’s COVID. Well, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. You don’t wait to get vaccinated until there’s a real and present threat. WA, like my home state in SA has the luxury right now of being able to get vaccinated before COVID comes, and people should seize that at the first opportunity.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: And so on. That point, though, would setting a date maybe make people more urgent if the government was to say okay, on this date, we’re opening the borders and if you haven’t been vaccinated, there are also certain freedoms that you’ll miss out on. There’ll be certain places you will not be able to go. Is that the kind of motivation people need? I mean, what is what’s the situation in South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, in South Australia, the Premier is sticking by broadly the terms of the national road map, which is to set a target based on vaccination rates. That’s the sensible, responsible, health driven.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Which is what we’re doing to and people want a date.

Simon Birmingham: And I understand that that pressure for a date NSA is starting to give some indicative terms based on when they think they’re going to hit those vaccination targets and indicate what might start to occur then. But they haven’t given full clarity yet, and I encourage states and territories to start to better spell out once those vaccination targets hit 80 per cent double dose informed by the Doherty Institute modelling that says we can start to treat COVID-19 more like the flu not identical, but start to treat it more like that. In terms of the fact that whilst there will be cases, the consequences for our health systems of those cases will be less because we have such a heavily vaccinated population.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Does WA’s hard border policy frustrate you and your ministerial colleagues, your federal colleagues?

Simon Birmingham: Okay, it’s a frustration in one sense. But as I’ve said, while I’ve been here in WA and acknowledge the same in my home state, it’s far better to not be in lockdown. It’s far better to have an open enough economy with all the benefits that come from that. It’s far better to have kids at schools. So right now, maintaining a border on Victoria and New South Wales, the ACT and internationally makes sense for the rest of the country while they get those vaccination rates up. But the important thing is the choice as to when COVID comes is not necessarily in Western Australia’s hands. The border has worked to date, but let’s remember that that ultimately, as the Delta variant has got out not just in Sydney or Melbourne, but in Canberra, even in New Zealand, they haven’t been able to get on top of it once there’s been an outbreak. And so any of the other states could face a delta outbreak may not be able to get on top of it. And so if people haven’t seized the chance to get vaccinated, then it might be too late and it might be out of your control in terms of when or not the border opens up.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: And why you might feel comfortable about where we’re at now. Our target here in WA is that we try and hit 80 per cent vaccination by the end of December. If we do that, would you then expect that the Premier say we need to open up now because we could be in a situation where, say, people in Sydney can fly overseas but won’t be able to fly to Perth, which is a very real prospect?

Simon Birmingham: Look it, it is a real prospect and I would firstly urge everyone to try to do it sooner than the end of December. There’s close to 1,000 different points in pharmacies, in GPS in state run clinics. There’s ample supply of vaccine now, and if you’ve got an appointment for a month’s time, don’t necessarily wait that month. Go and see if the local pharmacist can do you this weekend, get it done, and particularly also remember 12 to 15 year olds eligible now. So if you have high school aged kids, get them done too and get them done early because again, WA is lagging the other states in terms of getting those young West Australians done and now in terms of the decisions around opening up borders. Look, I think we want states to broadly stick to the terms of the roadmap, which is that 80 per cent double vaccination, obviously striving for more than that is a good thing. And we’re seeing that in New South Wales, for example, they now have nearly 90 per cent. More than 89 per cent of people have had a first dose in New South Wales. We’ve got more people having had a first dose than the United States than the United Kingdom than most European countries, so Australians are turning out where the pressure is on. I just want to make sure we get others across the line and the more the better and the more the better, particularly when you do face that situation of COVID coming, whether it’s through open borders or just leakage.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Your listening to the Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham on ABC Radio Perth and WA, our Premier Mark McGowan and the New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet have been involved in a slanging match over WA share of the GST. Can you guarantee that GST deal will not change?

Simon Birmingham: I can make that guarantee very clearly firmly. Scott Morrison was the treasurer who negotiated the 70 cents in the dollar floor for the GST. And he stands resolutely by that and if we are re-elected next year, we will definitely stand by that deal. Maintain the GST floor that has provided some $5 billion extra to Western Australia in GST funding. And that is obviously a good thing for the West in terms of being able to invest in health systems and infrastructure and other things. But it’s also something where I would always urge everybody to come back to the first principles and to what’s reasonable. And I’m sure if New South Wales were facing a situation of getting less than 70 cents in the dollar of the GST, they contribute paid back to New South Wales, they would think that a floor is a reasonable thing and the floor does apply equally to every state and territory. And who knows in in five or 10 years’ time where economic conditions might be, and perhaps it might be of benefit to New South Wales at some point down the track,

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Who knows? Finally, before I let you go on the election, WA has traditionally been a conservative state when it comes to federal elections, and often we’re in a situation where we know who has won the election before our polls have even closed here. Do you think that things will be different this time, that there is some dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s vaccine rollout? There are issues surrounding Christian Porter that have also upset voters. Do you think that will cost you votes here in WA?

Simon Birmingham: We certainly don’t take anything for granted in Western Australia, but we never do. But I think the fundamentals that have underpinned our support in the West over a good many years now in terms of economic policies that are good for West Australian industries that support strong jobs, outcomes that put more money back in the pockets of people through lower taxes and remembering that we have delivered and are continuing to deliver lower income tax rates and reforms that will see the vast majority of people pay no more than 30 cents in the dollar income tax. And that Labor has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to those sorts of things that when the election comes around, it’s not a choice between Scott Morrison and Mark McGowan. It’s a choice between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese. It’s a choice between the federal coalition who have delivered lower taxes, a strong economy and record jobs numbers versus the Labor Party, who have continuously shown an inclination towards higher taxes and reckless spending.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: I’ll leave it there, I appreciate your time, thanks for coming in.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Nadia, my pleasure.