Date: Thursday, 7 October 2021

Topic(s): Centre for National Resilience; GST; Borders; Nuclear-powered submarines

Simon Birmingham: I’m delighted to be here as we now commence the formal construction works on the West Australian Centre of National Resilience that we are building here to ensure that in the long term, in the future we have better, stronger capabilities to be able to respond to any types of national emergency situations that the country faces. This is one of three centres the Morrison government is building across Australia, here in Perth, as well as in Brisbane and in Melbourne, complementing the facility that we already have and have been operating throughout the pandemic at Howard Springs, just outside of Darwin. Each of these facilities will provide the capacity to continue to respond to whatever unknowns we face in relation to COVID-19 in the future.

This year we’ve been hit with the Delta variant, which nobody saw coming and which changed the dynamic in relation to COVID-19. And of course, there may be other challenges in the months or years to come. That’s why these sorts of facilities can help as we reopen international borders, particularly help us confront questions around non Australian arrivals into the country. Questions around those who may not have homes to quarantine in questions around those who may not be vaccinated but need entry into Australia. There will be a range of different scenarios that these facilities may provide and be used for in the future and not just in response to COVID-19, but future health crises that could be faced or indeed any future humanitarian situations, such as those that we’ve seen in Afghanistan in recent months. So this is an exciting day to get this work underway. Progress on this project has been moving along very swiftly since this site at Bullsbrook was identified, and we’ve been able to work cooperatively with West Australian government, I thank you and acknowledge them for their assistance in relation to planning approvals and processes. We’ve been able to work very closely and successfully with the local community and Mayor Kevin Bailey, it’s great to have you here today joining us and working so constructively with the local community and my friend, colleague, soon to be I trust local MP for this area and the Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price here as well, and has been closely engaged alongside Christian Porter in discussions about the local environment issues that are faced here, which Melissa will have a little bit more to say about.

But as I said, the progress has been incredible in a very short period of time, to build a 1,000 bed facility is around the equivalent of building several new international hotels. But we’re doing this not over the space of a couple of years the planning, design and construction of those facilities would usually take. We’re doing this in a much compressed timeframe where only some weeks after final decision was made. Construction is starting on this site, construction of the modular accommodation arrangements that will be placed here is progressing in relation to those building them. And ultimately, we will see this site housing the first 500 beds in the time frame we’re striving towards over the first quarter of next year and the subsequent additional 500 beds following soon thereafter. This is a Centre for National Resilience, providing Australia with the capability to respond in stronger ways to whatever emergencies are thrown at us in the future. And that’s what’s so important. But to touch on some of the local considerations and some progress we’ve made on tackling local issues, I’ll hand over to Melissa.

Melissa Price: Thank you. Thank you, Minister Birmingham. It’s great to be with you here in Bullsbrook, a beautiful spring day and I’d like to acknowledge Mayor Kevin Bailey as well, the Mayor of Swan. This project for me is as much about ensuring that West Australian families can come home safely, but it’s also about economic development, and I look forward to working closely with the local shire to identify what are those jobs here at the new Centre for National Resilience that could be performed by locals. Very pleased that Multiplex, who obviously will be the construction company here, but they’ve committed to using as much local content as possible. That is indeed good news. As someone who hopefully at the next election will be the local member here with the redrawing of the boundaries, this part of Bullsbrook will be a part of the seat of Durack. I’ve been much focussed on what are the local issues, what are the things that people are particularly concerned about. And I know there’s a number of people here who will know that the issue of PFAS has caused incredible concern and indeed frustration for many people local to the Pearce base. What I’m very proud of is that we’ve been focussing on what are the solutions, and it’s not just here relating to Pearce Air Base, but other bases around the country trying to identify what are the solutions. I’m very proud that today, on behalf of the Morrison government here with Minister Birmingham, that we can announce that the Morrison government is indeed going to provide town scheme water to those impacted families, which I’m sure is incredibly good news for not only those impacted families, but the broader community. The next step for us is to obviously work very closely with the state government and also with the WA water corporation. But I’m very keen for us to get on with this very quickly as early as next year, early next year to be able to start the commencement of people being able to have get town water. This is really good news and just thrilled that we can all be here today for this announcement, and I might just invite Kevin to say a few words on both of these announcements. Thank you.

Kevin Bailey: Thanks, Minister. The City of Swan were pretty excited about having this project here in Bullsbrook, even more excited now that the minister has announced we’re going to fix up the scheme water issue in Bullsbrook. It’s been it’s been a key issue for us now for a number of years, been part of our lobbying and it’s fantastic to have this facility being able to leverage that solution for us. So we’re pretty excited about that. I think the people at Bullsbrook are going to be very excited about it. So Minister, thank you to your government for bringing that to fruition and solving a problem for Bullsbrook is fantastic. Thank you. Thank you.

Journalist: Obviously, the plans are changing in terms of how people are going to quarantine, and we’re looking at sort of home quarantine for international travellers. Could this be a white elephant?

Simon Birmingham: No. This facility will provide a resilience capability long into the future. Well after we’ve dealt with the immediate challenges of reopening borders, well after we’ve dealt with the immediate challenges of COVID-19, this facility will be here to respond to the next health crisis, to the next international humanitarian crisis, to the next bushfire crisis, potentially providing a resilience capability that we will work carefully with the state government in terms of its application, for the immediate future for its initial period, so long as it is necessary for different COVID quarantine arrangements. And as I indicated, that could apply to unvaccinated travellers, to non Australian travellers, to people without a home to quarantine in. There are a range of scenarios that we’ll still have to be carefully worked through and the reopening agenda. And whilst it is necessary for a COVID-19 purpose, the West Australian government under our agreements will operate it as a quarantine facility. But then it will maintain Commonwealth ownership and be available to meet all manner of different crisis situations in the future and provide us with that enhanced capability that what COVID-19 has taught us all is to expect the unexpected to be prepared for different challenges, and this sort of facility will give us that preparation in the future. Can I also, as I failed to do so in my opening remarks, just to acknowledge our other couple of key delivery partners in this AECOM who have helped drive the planning of these sites across the three locations and Multiplex who are helping to drive effectively the delivery of the construction, all of them working to these expedited rapid timeframes.

Journalist: But it’s safe to say that as things stand at the moment, this site won’t see any returning Australians in the facility if they have, if they if they have somewhere else to go. In other words, you know, a seven day home quarantine is what’s being suggested from November.

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are a number of different steps to reopening that will occur and clearly those steps will also be impacted by different decisions that state and territory governments make as well. So I don’t want to seek to pre-empt precisely or prescriptively exactly who will be quarantining here when it opens, because circumstances may well change between now and that point in time as well. But we know that having such facilities for the future is a sensible, prudent investment in resilience and being able to respond to future.

Journalist: And that could include if we if there are situations where people start arriving by boat in Australia, could this be deemed a detention centre for those people?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve been very clear that offshore arrivals, illegal maritime arrivals should not expect to be resettled in Australia, that we’ve maintained arrangements with countries like Nauru to be able to ensure that we can process effectively offshore. The signals that we have sent continuously and firmly as a government, to help stop the boats have ensured that they haven’t restarted and we’re not going to weaken any of those signals.

Journalist: Who ultimately has the say over the re-use of the buildings, you know, you talk about bushfires and floods and cyclones, who ultimately has the say because the federal government, you know, owns the buildings, but the state operates them. So could there be a problem there where the state wants to use them for something, but the federal Government doesn’t want them to?

Simon Birmingham: So the memorandum of understanding we entered into with the WA government again, I thank them for the cooperative approach on that makes it clear that we are building the facility and meeting the costs of building the facility. The West Australian government will operate the facility for the term of its requirements as a COVID-19 quarantine facility, and they will meet the costs of operating it and the responsibilities of doing so in accordance with relevant health protocols. At the end of that period of time, however long that that is, the facility reverts to Commonwealth management and operation, and we will then work closely with the WA government in terms of any emergency considerations about where and when and how it is used to respond in future. As I said, it could be a health crisis. It could be to natural disasters. It could be to humanitarian problems around the world. There are a range of different ways that we can see these facilities being used, which is why we think it’s prudent to have the facilities for the future.

Journalist: Is it too little, too late, though? Delta is knocking on our doorstep on the Eastern States. Hotel quarantines overflowing, is March next year for this facility too slow.

Simon Birmingham: This is why you have to look at this in the long term perspective. Hotel quarantine was able to be stood up quickly, effectively and overwhelmingly safely for the duration of managing the pandemic to date, and in states like WA have demonstrated the careful, successful management of hotel quarantine facilities. And in doing so, they’ve helped many thousands of Australians to return to Australia successfully. And so we shouldn’t underestimate or underplay the success of the existing arrangements that we have had. But for future crises, we can see the benefit in having purpose built, specifically designed facilities that can respond in all manner of different circumstances.

Journalist: Senator, does WA need to set dates or targets for when it will open its borders?

Simon Birmingham: I think every state benefits from as much certainty as possible, and so I would encourage. The West Australian government is looking towards meeting vaccination targets to be laying out certainty for WA businesses, industry investors and indeed families who are separated from loved ones to think about how they can reopen their borders and provide that sense of certainty. But the most important task right now is to drive vaccination rates, and the silliest thing I hear anybody say around the country right now is that they’re waiting to get vaccinated. Don’t wait, vaccines are in plentiful supply, the number of locations to get vaccinated continues to increase as we bring more pharmacies online alongside doctors and state run hubs and clinics. And it’s essential that people get vaccinated before COVID-19 comes before the delta strain strikes. Get it done as quickly as possible so that we can meet those maximum vaccination targets. And in meeting those targets, then I hope and trust that states and territories can work through careful, considered reopening plans.

Journalist: You’ve mentioned a number of scenarios that this facility might be used for. Can you also see is there a possibility that it could be used for a military purpose?

Simon Birmingham: Look, that’s certainly not the intention, but these are resilience and emergency capabilities. So if at some stage in the future there was some particular need that supported defence operations well, of course, we would always consider that, the national security of Australia is the most solemn responsibility of the Federal Government, and we have demonstrated in terms of the approach we are bringing to national security investment at record levels in world leading capability and equipment led very much by my colleague, the Minister for Defence Industry, that that we will do all that is necessary to protect Australians values, our interests, our sovereignty in the future. And so, so whilst there are certainly no expectations that that would be the case, these facilities are here to respond as necessary.

Journalist: And there’s obviously a federal election coming up. Is it going to help you that a New South Wales New Premier is sparking a GST debate which will play beautifully into the hands of our premier over here.

Simon Birmingham: Well, let me be very clear. Scott Morrison was the treasurer who put in place the GST floor and as Prime Minister Scott Morrison will never waver in relation to the policies to ensure fair distribution of GST and the floor that he delivered 70 cents in the dollar floor on GST. Distribution is a fair and reasonable approach that our government has implemented. We stand by it. We will make sure that it continues to be the case in the future. And so West Australians can be absolutely reassured in that regard that there will be no deviation by a Morrison liberal national government from the GST floor that Scott Morrison put in place. And frankly, if any other state were facing the possibility of receiving less than 70 cents in the dollar return on the GST that they contribute, then I suspect they would be supporting a floor arrangement as well, and that would include New South Wales.

Journalist: Just reading some of the comments you made reported in the West this morning You seem to have some admiration for the way that Mark McGowan has handled running the economy without lockdowns. No lockdowns. Good thing for the country.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s always better to not be in lockdown than to be in lockdown, and that’s a statement of bleeding obvious.

Journalist: So are you a fan then?

Simon Birmingham: I am a fan of states and territories not being in lockdown and in doing so, being able to operate as freely and with as many opportunities for business to continue to get ahead as possible. My state of South Australia, along with Western Australia and other jurisdictions, have been very fortunate during this crisis. To an extent, they’ve made their own luck. To an extent they’ve been the beneficiaries of distance, different geographies, different demographics and other factors. So all of those things are at play. But it is equally important to recognise that that Sydney, despite lockdown, couldn’t beat Delta, Melbourne despite lockdown, couldn’t beat the Delta variant. Perhaps even more noticeably, and importantly for states like WA and others to take note of, New Zealand despite lockdowns, couldn’t beat the Delta variant. Canberra with, much smaller populations, spread out and a very abiding and educated population equally couldn’t beat Delta through lockdowns or the like. So that’s why the message to get vaccinated and get vaccinated as quickly as possible is an important one because none of us can predict when there will be an outbreak. It only takes one person to have spread to enough for it to get out of hand, as we’ve seen elsewhere around the country. And that means that the more people who are vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity, the better it is to be able to avoid lockdowns and avoid the health consequences of an outbreak.

Journalist: Premier McGowan’s hard border stance and that we won’t open until we get to a 90 per cent vaccination rate? Do you support that? If you’re happy with how he’s running things?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the evidence that the Doherty Institute has outlined is that once you hit that sort of double vaccination rate around 80 per cent, you can successfully start to manage COVID 19 more like you manage flu type scenarios. Now, obviously, it makes sense to achieve the highest possible vaccination targets, and we can see that in states like New South Wales, they are surging beyond 80 per cent in terms of the numbers of people turning out to be vaccinated, and that is something everybody should aspire to. But there should also be an aspiration to give businesses certainty about when borders will be open to give families certainty about when they can reunite with loved ones, and to align that with vaccination targets to help drive the momentum, to get people vaccinated and to give them that maximum incentive to do so.

Journalist: Senator, why hasn’t the prime minister been able to secure a phone call with the French president yet?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s really a question for the French president. Our prime minister has been clear in terms of his willingness to engage. They have communicated. We welcome the return of France’s ambassador to Australia. We continue to value enormously the relationship and engagement that France has, not just with Australia, but crucially with the Indo-Pacific region, especially with other Pacific island nations. And we want to make sure that the France’s engagement and commitment to our region continues to be a strong one and we will work as closely as we can with them.

Journalist: What did you make of Dan Tehan being snubbed by his French counterpart?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I welcome the fact that Dan is in Europe and that was scheduled before the AUKUS announcement, he’s there for as scheduled OECD, WTO meetings and briefings, he’s meeting with the European Union trade Commissioner, it is the European Union who are in free trade agreement negotiations with. They represent the 27 member states of the EU in those negotiations.

Journalist: How significant is it that the ambassador has returned? I mean, as far as the Australian government’s concerned is that just show it was a spat and we’ve moved on.

Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s it is welcome. We will we will, of course, engage as we always do with diplomatic representatives of other nations, and we will work carefully through the issues. France is disappointment is entirely understandable that that is something to be expected. But we made the decisions around procuring nuclear powered submarines in Australia’s national interest to ensure that our Navy, our defence forces, have the best capability to meet the strategic challenges of our region in the future.

Journalist: Just a couple of questions about scheme water for Bullsbrook. They’ve been fighting for five years to get off bottled water and we get something like this. Is it? Is it just purely because we’ve got an election coming up sometime next year that you’ve decided to make this move?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ll make one quick comment, and then I’ll let Melissa add to that. But the quick comment I’d make is that the reason at this point of construction commencing that we are also able to make the announcement around secure water supply for the residents of Bullsbrook is because the work had already been done and was underway and the decision was imminent at the same time, so it is very encouraging, very pleasing the we’re would provide now this certainty to the residents of Bullsbrook. We’re able to do that because defence has been working through these issues over a period of time to resolve them. And there’s an alignment now with as these projects go forward.

Journalist: There are multiple sites aren’t there, around Australia that are affected by PFAS. Does this does this affect any of them? You seem to hint that they are also going to be taken care of.

Melissa Price: I might just comment on that. So as you will appreciate, I know you’ve been following this closely. There’s a number of sites around the country where the defence has been working on what are the solutions? In some instances, it’s effectively rainwater tanks. As you noted, in some cases, people have been living off bottled water for years, and clearly that’s not satisfactory and it’s not going to be sustainable. But Minister Birmingham is 100 per cent correct, that defence have been working towards this solution for some time, and today we were coming here to the site and pretty much they’ve been able to tick off on that. So it’s something that we’re really proud of. We know that people have been waiting for some time. But as for what the solutions will be around the country, that’s still to be determined.

Journalist: I mean, some people can’t sell the cattle that they raise because of the PFAS problem. You know, what do you do for them? You’ve got you’ve got a new, you know, you throw just throw money at them or do nothing.

Melissa Price: Well, each site will have its own considerations, as you say. Some will be a rural setting somewhere closer to town. But defence is working hard to resolve all of those issues. And just like they’ve done here.

Journalist: Compensation, though, I mean, where are you at with that discussion around people that haven’t been able to sell properties, move on with their lives?

Melissa Price: As you know, there’s a number of people that are subject to legal proceedings, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on that. But this is a good news story for those people that have been waiting for a long time.

Journalist: Do you support the Valhalla project going ahead in your electorate?

Melissa Price: The, what Sorry?

Journalist: The Valhalla gas project?

Melissa Price: Yeah, I don’t have the details of that?

Journalist: The WA Government’s been exempted for fracking to take place for that gas to be exported.

Melissa Price: Again, I don’t have any details on that.

Journalist: What are your thoughts on Labor saying I won’t force businesses to pay back JobKeeper if they’re elected, given they’ve been so critical of the Commonwealth’s handling of it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, you can see that that for Labor Party, it’s all about politicking and never about the actual real policy of the situation. So we have said very clearly for a prolonged period of time. Firstly, the JobKeeper was an incredibly successful programme implemented at a time of huge uncertainty across Australia. It provided a base of confidence to ensure that businesses survived. The businesses were able to maintain their staff, and in doing so, it saved an estimated 700,000 jobs. We’ve also been very clear we weren’t going to retrospectively rewrite the rules of JobKeeper despite Labour’s criticism. And it turns out Labour’s approach on that is based on what they’re now saying the same as ours. Now. Whether they can be trusted with anything that comes to small businesses across Australia is a different matter because what they seem to have been hell bent on is seeking to try to name and shame and embarrass businesses who received

JobKeeper, the overwhelming majority of whom are mum and dad businesses around the country. And so Labour’s approach there has been shown to be one of wanting to denigrate Australian business to harm the reputation. Struggling business, rather than to support the employers of Australia

Journalist: Nuclear powered submarines, I understand what they’d be stationed in Perth. What does this mean for WA and how many personnel would be based here?

Simon Birmingham: We’re a long way away from the final decisions over the next 12 to 18 months around the build programme. The exact design, those aspects, work, will clearly proceed as quickly as it can in that 12 to 18 month programme to give certainty. And then subsequent to that, further work will be necessary around ensuring the operational requirements of the submarines are ready for activation when the first is built and hits the water. But it is an exciting project for Western Australia. Nuclear powered submarine programmes will see Australia acquire bigger submarines that require bigger crews into the future. And given the expertise of our fleet that has been based here, the Collins class fleet, given the expertise of the submariners based in Perth, in WA, who have made sure that Collins class fleet is amongst the best performing, conventionally powered submarine fleet in the world. We should have great confidence in entrusting them to be skilled up to have the crewing opportunities, the training opportunities, working with international partners and the US and UK to be able to operate nuclear powered submarines in the future. It will require in having bigger submarines with bigger crews, more personnel, new infrastructure and all of that will see activity happening in the West in the years to come.

Journalist: How long do you expect it will take to get the relationship back on track with France? Or do you concede that it may be permanently damaged?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I am sure that that France will see the many opportunities that exist elsewhere in our commercial and trading relationship, the many opportunities for us to continue to engage cooperatively across the Indo-Pacific and in global affairs. The many areas in which our shared values of respect for liberty and democracy, and for an international rules based system that that respects the sovereignty of all nations, will see many different places for ongoing cooperation. But we don’t underestimate France’s disappointment at this point in time. We don’t underplay that and we are committed to continue to work sensibly with the French government and European authorities generally to make sure those relations are as positive as possible in the future. Thanks, guys.