Topics: stranded Australians; JobKeeper; relationship with China;



Jim Wilson:      Well, big news today for stranded Aussies in the UK. They’ve been dealt a big blow after an abrupt decision by Britain to close its border to the United Arab Emirates. This means there’ll be no Emirates planes available to pick up stranded Australians in London. Same goes for Etihad Airways, who are based out of Abu Dhabi. This is a huge concern. Now, there are around 39,000 Aussies, including 4800 who are vulnerable, currently registered with DFAT as being overseas and wanting to return home. As I said, this is a big setback as far as Emirates and Etihad. No planes through the UAE.


On the line is Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, welcome back to Drive.


Simon Birmingham:     Hello Jim. It’s always good to speak with you.


Jim Wilson:      Thank you for joining us. You’ve been Acting Foreign Affairs Minister as well in the absence of Marise Payne who’s been on leave for the last couple of weeks. This decision will affect thousands of Aussies stuck in the UK.


Simon Birmingham:     Look, it will have an impact for a number of Australians. Now, we’re still seeing the full implications of the decision. It’s a reminder of just how difficult all of these circumstances are in the midst of a global pandemic. And here in Australia as we find ourselves in the fortunate position of having our 12th consecutive day without community transmission, we need to remind ourselves that overseas, just in a single day, the world is reporting more than half a million extra cases. So, our circumstances going about our daily business here are in no way reflective of the rest of the world, and we’re very fortunate as a result of that. But elsewhere, people are grappling with these challenges, random decisions are being made often at short notice, and obviously the United Kingdom government has made this decision as they’re seeing cases spike in the United Arab Emirates to restrict entries from the UAE.


Now, what that means, as I say, there’s still a little bit of understanding to come. We believe that Emirates have made the decision to cease flights. Now, you might recall that Emirates made a decision only a couple of weeks ago to cease flights to Australia. They then reversed that not that long ago. So, there’s been a lot of on again, off again in terms of the decisions Emirates had been making. Now, we understand that Etihad, being the other main carrier that flies through the UAE are likely to continue to fly cargo flights into the UK, and then passengers out of the UK.


Jim Wilson:      Okay. Thank you for clarifying that, because I thought it was flights from the UAE, which is obviously Emirates but also Etihad. But Etihad, you think, will continue?


Simon Birmingham:     That seems to be some of the early advice. That we understand Etihad obviously won’t be flying passengers into the UK because of the restrictions the UK is putting, but they’ll keep flying flights in because of the cargo loads they have, and then they’ll pick passengers up, including Australian passengers, for outbound flights.


Jim Wilson:      You’ve announced 20 repatriation flights. Will they still be going ahead? And is there the possibility of adding more?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’ll look at that as we go. We’ve already done more than 90 government assisted and facilitated flights and then we announced a further 20, and a lot of those come out of the UK and Europe, given the number of Australians there. And I think listeners would appreciate knowing that, even though way back in March of last year we encouraged people to come home, we still have new people adding themselves to the list and the register each and every week. So, we’ve seen more than 450,000 Australians return since March of last year. And we’ve been able to run a lot of those government supported flights and we’re scheduling more of them.


But it’s in a sense an endless task because you do get more people whose circumstances change and say that they now want to come home and register themselves to do so. But of course, there are people who are in genuine distress, genuine hardship. And that’s why, in addition to providing those government facilitated flights and the consular assistance, we have also been making millions of dollars in hardship payments available to Aussies finding themselves in difficult positions overseas.


Jim Wilson:      Have- there’s a lot of Aussies that we’ve spoken to on the program who are stranded overseas. As I mentioned, 4800 of them are vulnerable category. You can understand- they’re getting booted off flights at the last minute, there’s a lot of uncertainty. You can understand their frustration and anger, especially when you look at a thousand tennis players who can get charted flights into Melbourne for the Australian Open. But our own citizens can’t come home.


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I do understand that. And look, the Victorian Government put forward the proposals for Tennis Australia to create additional quarantine places in Melbourne. And that was all done on the expectation that as they did that work to create those additional places, they would then be available for returning Australians going forward. And so, our expectation is certainly that we will see more Aussies able to be accommodated through Melbourne now those tennis players are coming out of quarantine, that was the case previously, and we expect the Victorian Government to follow through on that. I know it’s very, very difficult. And if you’re in the individual circumstances, it can create enormous stress and anxiety. And that’s why we’re putting on the facilitated flights. It’s why the Federal Government, we’ve created extra space and facilities at the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory, that are over and above what the states are letting in under their medihotel and quarantine caps. And it’s also why we’re forking out taxpayers’ money in assistance to help people in those difficult spots around the rest of the world. We can’t control those circumstances in other countries around the world. Obviously, our international border restrictions into Australia for the last 12 months have been a really important part of keeping Australia safe. On Monday next week, it will be the 12-month anniversary of when our government took the decision to restrict flights from China into Australia. And obviously, subsequently, a range of decisions were made extending that ultimately to the rest of the world, and that has been a core part of saving Australian lives and saving Australian jobs. And unfortunately, it comes at some price in terms of the difficulty and inconvenience of accessing Australia from overseas right now, but we’re doing what we can to help those Aussies who are overseas.


Jim Wilson:      Speaking to Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, also the Acting Foreign Minister as well. The Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is demanding the Federal Government extend JobKeeper beyond March 28 for tourism businesses. It’s a bit rich, isn’t it, coming from her, considering she’s been the one that’s been very kneejerk and trigger happy with border closures. It’s her mess. Why should taxpayers from the rest of the country have to go and bail Queensland out and bail out the tourism sector?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’ve put a huge amount, more than $250 billion, in direct economic support across the Australian economy, and it’s much more than what the state governments have done. In a federal sense, it’s around 13 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product. If we look at the financial economics assistance that Queensland Government is providing, it’s around 2 per cent of their gross state product. So, I find it a bit rich more in the context that when Australian businesses and families have needed financial support, at a national level, we have stumped up in an enormous way to help get people through these times. And yet, Queensland has actually done less than any other state or territory in terms of the financial support provided to its small businesses and its households.


And so, the measures we’ve put in place, JobKeeper is the biggest single intervention via government in the Australian economy and in the private sector ever in our nation’s history. We created it to get us through a global pandemic. We’ve tapered it to take it through different steps to bring it off. We can’t continue to live on limitless spending and borrowing forever. We have to have endpoints and limits in that regard. But it’s important for people to appreciate that the assistance and the support, especially for businesses to survive, doesn’t just end when JobKeeper ends at the end of March. The measures we’ve put around the ability for businesses to carry this year’s losses back against the previous profits are really important in terms of providing more dollars going into businesses to help them maintain their business viability and employment levels into the future.


Jim Wilson:      What do you make of the New Zealand Trade Minister giving us advice on how we should be showing more respect to China?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I think the New Zealand Trade Minister has come out in the time since those remarks were reported to put a bit of clarification around them, if I can put it that way. We-


Jim Wilson:      Were you surprised with his comments?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, a little. But Australia’s been very clear from our position. We want to have a positive relationship as we can with China, as we do with all countries of our region and across the world, but we do it according to a very clear set of principles. We defend Australia’s sovereignty. We defend our core democratic institutions. We defend our security and that includes cybersecurity and communications security systems and the like, and we won’t compromise on any of those things.


Jim Wilson:      Well, the Trade Minister says we could show a little more diplomacy from time to time. I’d suggest we’ve been very diplomatic in our dealings with China. He should be saying the other way around, shouldn’t he? I mean, China showing us respect.


Simon Birmingham:     I think, and obviously, having been the Trade Minister for all of the previous few years, I think that I and my other counterparts across government went to great lengths in terms of showing a lot of diplomacy, and especially last year as we saw a whole series of adverse decisions taken by Chinese authorities that were detrimental to Australian businesses and industry. These weren’t things that were conducive to a good relationship. I hope China will consider revisiting them. We remain open, as I said time and time again as Trade Minister, to sitting down and talking through difficulties and issues and doing it in a diplomatic way. And it’s not a lack of Australian willingness to come to the table and have those talks that is getting in the way of them happening.


Jim Wilson:      I think you’ve been very respectful and I think certainly, we’ve got to protect our foreign- our sovereign interests. Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham:     Thanks Jim. My pleasure.


Jim Wilson:      Good on you. That’s Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.