Topic(s): SA floods; Labor’s RAT policy; Domestic manufacturing of medical products; NSW business support; Ukraine


Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along. It continues to be a challenging time for many people across South Australia, particularly the northern parts of South Australia, with the challenge of floodwaters and the threat of further heavy rainfall and additional potential flooding. The federal government is working very closely with our state counterparts, with Premier Steven Marshall, with the local federal MP Rowan Ramsey, to make sure that support and assistance is provided there. As the Premier has announced today, the Australian Defence Force will be assisting in the delivery of many tonnes of supplies to help communities across northern South Australia and to make sure that those communities get the assistance they need in these tough times to see through the days and weeks ahead. We’ll, of course, continue to work very carefully with the different authorities, local councils, regional areas authority and the state government to make sure that other assistance is delivered where necessary, to help those across the western and northern parts of South Australia, and to make sure that they get the type of assistance required to help them through these times.

Today, we’ve also had the leader of the opposition out there, each way Albo, demonstrating just how all over the shop he is in so many different policy areas. We saw last week when he was faced with questions on national security and relations with China, that he was happy to throw certain Australian industries under a bus. He was happy to say it only stand up for some of them, not all of them. That’s just not good enough, and it shows a weakness when it comes to standing up for Australian industry, for trade relations, for international relations and for the type of positions that would be taken on national security. Australia deserves strength, it needs strength, and it needs governments who have that inner strength and capacity to know what they stand for, to fight for Australia to stand up for Australia. And clearly, Anthony Albanese is lacking in that regard. We equally saw Anthony Albanese on Insiders this morning making the extraordinary statement that he believes that budget repair should have already started, while at the same time saying that he would commit tens of billions of dollars extra in funding in aged care, in funding in hospitals, in response to COVID and the current economic circumstances. It’s classical Labor where the sums just don’t add up. The fact is that you can’t have budget repair if you’re spending tens and tens of billions of dollars extra across a range of areas that are already receiving record funding and investment. Record funding in our health and hospital system even before COVID-19, which has been built upon since then. Record funding in aged care with a $17 billion package announced in last year’s budget. Record support in terms of the responses that are being provided to COVID-19 across the country, more than $300 billion of economic assistance to get us through. And yet Labor typically still thinks that more should be spent. More cash should be splashed around. It hasn’t got the faintest idea or won’t say where the money would come from. Well, Australians should know that on Labor’s form, it’s always higher debt and higher taxes that Australians face from Labor’s addiction to spending. Addicted to spending, the Labor Party will always drive taxes higher and Australians will pay the cost of that. Under our Government, Australians are benefitting from $1.5 billion a month in tax cuts and tax relief that is helping them with the challenges we’re facing right now and is providing strength and stimulus to our economy right now. Even on Labor’s alleged plan or policy for free rapid antigen tests, we can see that policy, Labor’s rapid antigen test policy is falling apart at the seams. When quizzed today, Anthony Albanese couldn’t say who would actually get rapid antigen tests. Couldn’t say how many they’d get and won’t say how much the policy would cost. As a government, we’re making sure the people who need RATs are getting them. Free testing for people who have COVID symptoms. Free testing for people who are close contacts. Free tests, more than two million of them delivered already under the concession card holders scheme. More than seven million tests being made available to aged care providers across the country. Millions of tests being made available to the states and territories to help them provide those free tests and undertake the testing in our health care services. That’s what focussed, committed policy looks like.  In contrast to the thought bubbles we’re seeing from the Labor Party and the last of those thought bubbles I’ll touch on is this apparent manufacturing policy the Labor Party’s announced today.

Once again, when asked to give examples, he cited a company that hasn’t yet received Therapeutic Goods Administration approval to sell its goods in Australia. That’s had a major recall of products from the US. You can see there that Anthony Albanese doesn’t know what he’s talking about, hasn’t done the homework or looked at the details in relation to how these types of policies should work. And he’s playing catch up on manufacturing because our government has a modern manufacturing strategy with billions of dollars of investment that includes supporting the medical sector, which comes on top of our deal we’ve struck with Moderna to see Australia as the first place in the southern hemisphere that will have mRNA vaccines made, manufactured and produced right here in Australia. So these are clear contrast that is shaping as we work through this election year between a government with detailed plans, with the focus on how we get through COVID-19, with the strength to stand up for national security principles, with policies that are keeping our economy strong, with unemployment at 4.2 per cent and more than 1.7 million jobs created over the term of our government against an opposition whose policies amount to thought bubbles and whose details and costings are sorely lacking. I’ll move to questions. Fi, did you want to kick off?


Journalist: Yeah, thanks for that Minister. Are you frustrated? The New South Wales treasurer publicly had a go at the federal government just months out from the election. Would you say that was unhelpful?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not interested in the politics of those things. What New South Wales voters and businesses, I’m sure appreciate is that federal government has provided $63 billion of assistance that is still helping New South Wales businesses and people across the New South Wales community. Our $63 billion investment into New South Wales is helping families, it’s helping individuals. It’s helping businesses small and large to get through COVID-19. We’ve got policies that continue to deliver benefits in terms of the pandemic disaster payment for individuals, terms the loss carry back arrangements for businesses in terms of the investment incentives and construction industry incentives that are fuelling economic activity across New South Wales. Now, we welcome states and territories putting in their bit on top of the billions of federal support that we have provided. We welcome New South Wales doing their bit on top of the $63 billion that we’ve provided to New South Wales, and we encourage them to do that in the type of targeted ways we’ve seen. Just yesterday without any fuss, without any demands of the Commonwealth Steven Marshall announced a business support package here in South Australia. He just got on with it. He did it. It’s focussed, it’s targeted. It complements the billions in business support we’re providing to businesses in South Australia as we are through the $300 billion of initiatives right across the country.


Journalist: And how do you think voters would have read that? Are you concerned at all that having a prominent state Liberal criticise the federal government could be damaging?


Simon Birmingham: Voters should always look at policies, the facts. Voters know that it’s been our government that’s delivered the tax cuts that are putting $1.5 billion a month extra into their pockets. Our government that delivered business support and assistance and continues to do so using our tax system as is appropriate. Our government providing $63 billion to New South Wales, and we welcome this bit that the New South Wales government has announced today on top of what we’re already and continuing to provide.


Journalist: Got a couple from our WA team if you don’t mind. So they’re regarding WA’s new multi-million dollar quarantine hub. A bushfire got dangerously close to the site yesterday, so was any damage sustained to the buildings? There are already apparently been some delays to construction. Will this fire further impact the build time?


Simon Birmingham: My advice is that the fires in Western Australia will not have an impact in relation to the construction timeline of the Bullsbrook quarantine facility. This National Resilience Centre, which is going to help provide greater capacity to respond to future emergencies over the years ahead It is an important investment. It’s one we’re working closely with the West Australian government on and I thank them for their assistance. And with the West Australian government as operators of that facility, there are careful considered safety procedures that will be in place to make sure that we can manage all incidents, including the risk of fires in that region.


Journalist: Is there any more detail on in the future if a bushfire breaks out when it is operational and the facility is full, how that would be managed and where people would be evacuated to?


Simon Birmingham: As with any government run accommodation facility, be it a health care system, be it a prison, albeit in this case, a quarantine facility. There are policies that will be carefully put in place by the operators, who will initially be the West Australian government to make sure they can respond in any circumstances. Of course, this facility is being built with the highest of safeguards in place to make sure that it can withstand fire, withstand disaster, and indeed, the facility itself may well play a role in the future. In response to natural disasters, including fire, by providing additional emergency accommodation provision in those sorts of circumstances.


Journalist: Thank you. I’m good.


Journalist: Just a couple of questions on two different topics. The first being why won’t the government expand free rapid test access to all Australians and has the government calculated how much a policy like that would cost?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we know that that the Labor Party’s policy could cost $13 billion or more, but Mr Albanese won’t put a cost to that. He’s not game to say what it would cost because he can’t say how many kits he’d actually give away. He can’t say who’d get them or where they’d get them from. It’s not a policy, it’s a slogan. It’s a thought bubble that Mr Albanese has come up with. And Australians deserve detailed focussed policies such as what the government is doing. And what we’re doing is making sure that rapid antigen tests are available to those who need the most and are freely available where they are needed most. That’s why they’re free for people who are close contacts. That’s why testing is free for people who have COVID symptoms. It’s why we’re making them free, more than two million kits provided already to concession card holders. That’s why we’re providing them free to aged care providers and why we’re giving them for free to states and territories to assist with their health response. It’s why we’re purchasing many millions of more kits in 50/50 undertakings at times with the states and territories to make sure that where they want to use them for screening in schools, for example, we’re supporting and assisting that to ensure that that is available too. This is about having the focus on ensuring that these sorts of health services are available to those who need them, rather than the type of thought bubble you get from the Labor Party, who say they’ll give them away to all for free, but then can’t actually say how many, where from or what it will cost.


Journalist: Just on the issue of the Ukraine, the UK has offered to deploy additional land, air and sea forces to the border. Is there any update from the Australian perspective?


Simon Birmingham: Australia continues to urge Russia to remove its military build-up along the Ukrainian border, to de-escalate tensions and to engage comprehensively in diplomatic dialogue to avert conflict occurring in the Ukraine. We stand by the Ukraine in supporting their independence, their sovereignty, their rights. We’ve been very clear that Australia won’t be undertaking military deployments in relation to the Ukraine, that we won’t be having direct military engagement in that type of conflict, but that we will, of course, and are continuing to stay in close contact with many allies with countries across Europe and the United States and engaging carefully at a diplomatic level with the Ukraine to make sure that we provide what assistance we can. Australia already has sanctions in place against Russia because of the pressure that it’s put on the Ukraine, and those sanctions remain under constant review. And of course, we will not hesitate to upgrade them and undertake further sanctions if that’s warranted should Russia escalate this situation.


Journalist: Minister, Rob Scott here from 7NEWS. Can I just ask? There’s 22 tests approved for use in Australia only one of them is made here. Some of those local manufacturers though did approach the Government in 2020, so looking back do you think you not taking them more seriously at the time was a mistake? Secondly, Albanese on Insiders appeared to be walking back a little bit on his promise of free rapid antigen tests [INDISTINCT] managed through Medicare, would you say that he’s walking back that promise?

Simon Birmingham: So, on the first part of the question, Australia has more rapid antigen tests approved through the Therapeutic Goods Administration than the United States does. Our regulator has assessed carefully all of those who have made applications, but always done so to the highest of standards, as we expect when it comes to medical goods and services in Australia. That we only want to see the best, most accurate, effective kits deployed in Australia so that people can have confidence when they’re using them. And that’s the way the TGA undertakes its work, and it’s the way in which it is engaged to date. And we saw today that Mr Albanese was spruiking a provider who is not yet received that TGA approval and who has faced a significant recall of products in the US. Now, of course, we urge that provider to continue to engage with the TGA, and if its case stacks up, it will receive approval. We have provided significant assistance to manufacturers across Australia through COVID-19 to be able to scale and respond at different times in terms of the provision of face masks, the provision of respirators and making sure that our medical stockpiles are as significant as possible. We have locked in Moderna to come to Australia and build the first ever manufacturing facility in the southern hemisphere for the production of mRNA vaccines. That’s going to provide Australia alongside the outstanding work that CSL does with a really strong supply of vaccines from different technological extremes into the future. And I urge any other businesses, including those rapid antigen test manufacturers, to engage with our modern manufacturing strategy, the various grants streams that we’ve made available there to be able to receive the type of assistance they can if the competitive case stacks up. Why we made medical products, one of the priority areas for the modern manufacturing initiative and why we are providing that type of assistance in a range of cases to support medical manufacturers to grow and prosper here in Australia, as we’re seeing with those vaccine providers. In terms of Labor’s rapid antigen test policy. Well, Mr Albanese’s comments today demonstrate that the policy is nothing more than a thought bubble, that it has no detail and that when pressed and pushed, he starts to talk about a policy that looks much more like what the government is actually doing. When he says that tests should be made available to those who need them. That’s precisely what we’re doing. It’s why we’re providing them for free through aged care facilities for people who have COVID symptoms, for people who are close contacts, making sure that it’s available in a range of different circumstances and working with the states and territories to do that. Mr Albanese can’t or won’t say how much his rapid antigen test policy will cost, how many kits people would get, where they’d get them from. It sounds like it’s a great big hoax, and it’s a policy that is falling apart at the seams.


Thank you all very much.