Jim Wilson: We were told today how more Australians stranded overseas will be allowed to return home. Estimates vary but it suggested 20,000 to 25,000 Australians are stuck overseas. At the moment, there’s a cap of 4000 arrivals a week. The aim is not to overwhelm hotel quarantine. But the Federal Government is seeking to lift that to 6000 arrivals a week. It’s asked New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia to each accept an extra 500 people a week and South Australia around 400. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Tourism Minister. Airlines come up within that portfolio and Senator Birmingham is on the line this afternoon. Senator, welcome to Drive.
Simon Birmingham: Good day Jim. Great to speak with you.
Jim Wilson: Always a pleasure mate. Now, firstly, do we know how many Australians currently overseas are trying to get home because the estimates seem to vary greatly?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the estimates put it relatively around sort of 25,000 mark. Now, to put that in context, we’ve had 350,000 Australians who have returned since March when we first put out the call that those who could come home should come home, and of course, we’ve had many tens of thousands successfully pass through hotel quarantine facilities around the country. But we’ve got this sort of pressure point that’s come about since the Victorian second wave occurred, where, as a result of that, we suddenly saw what had been around 7700 arrivals per week going through quarantine cut right back to 4000 as the states and territories reacted understandably. They want to make sure they all had their quarantine arrangements in place in ways that weren’t going to risk a repeat of Victoria. And so that’s created the pressure and the difficulty. So we’re now trying to safely increase those numbers again, back to a similar level, making sure that we can remove some of that pressure for those Aussies trying to get back home.
Jim Wilson: Sure. I spoke earlier to Peta Credlin. She made the point that around 385,000 people, as you mentioned, have come home. So we’re doing pretty well, aren’t we?
Simon Birmingham: We have facilitated a return of vast numbers of people and done so overwhelmingly very safely. But through of course, the terrible failure, tragic failure, that occurred in Victoria, and that’s a credit to the different states and territories that managed that. They’ve done it with often Defence Force assistance and that’s how we’re going to make sure it’s safe this time as well, is that it’s done very much under the supervision of state health officials, under clearly laid out plans and with the support of Defence personnel where it’s necessary.
Jim Wilson: Now, New South Wales is really doing the lion’s share of the work, the heavy lifting here. How do you get the other states to lift their game?
Simon Birmingham: So New South Wales has done an incredible job at every level of handling the pandemic, the returning Australians, really a world class effort in terms of tracking and tracing and isolating individuals and containing clusters of outbreaks. And what we’ve done today is approach all the states and territories with proposals for how they can step up, and I’m pleased that most of the premiers are responding in relatively constructive ways and we hope that at National Cabinet on Friday, we can get agreement which sees them all do a bit more of their fair share of the lifting. New South Wales, Sydney being our main entry point for international airlines, will still face probably a disproportionate share, but hopefully we can get the rest moving too.
Jim Wilson: Now you may have heard Anthony Albanese calling for the Government to use its fleet of VIP jets to bring people home. Is that a realistic suggestion or is he just playing politics?
Simon Birmingham: It really was a cheap stunt. The problem we’ve got isn’t that there aren’t seats coming into the country. Most of the planes landing in Australia at present have got more empty seats than they have occupied seats on them. It’s the fact that these caps on quarantine places have limited the number of people who can be sitting on those planes, and that’s really created the pressure point that we’ve had to respond to. So, no, it’s a pretty silly suggestion from the Opposition yesterday. It didn’t respond to what the real problem is. What we’re doing today is trying to respond to that real problem by increasing the capacity in hotel quarantine so that we can have more people on those planes, which means airlines can fill cheaper seats rather than having such huge airfares that are inflicting additional pain on many people.
Jim Wilson: Okay. Speaking of airlines, Minister, Qantas has written to state and territory leaders inviting them to lodge expressions of interest for the airline’s headquarters, which have been in Sydney since 1938. You’re urging caution. You’ve accused Qantas of engaging in a bidding war.
Simon Birmingham: I’m more worried about states and territories engaging in a bidding war, Jim. Qantas is doing it incredibly tough this year and we have provided huge support through JobKeeper, aviation assistance, vast sums of support to assist Qantas, and they, to their credit, have gone out to the capital markets and raise significant sums, billion dollar figures, to keep the airline afloat. But what I don’t want to see is a circumstance where large parts of corporate Australia suddenly taking incentive from this and start to essentially auction up their corporate headquarters to the different states and territories and create a circumstance where state taxpayer dollars are being used simply to move jobs around the country rather than create new jobs. I want investment, as our government is focused on doing…
Jim Wilson: Sure.
Simon Birmingham: …to be in infrastructure that creates new jobs, to be in getting our energy markets to work to create new jobs. It’s got to be about how we save and create new jobs, not just move them from one state to another.
Jim Wilson: But if they’re doing it tough, and the aviation industry is, they’ve stood down 20,000 workers; 6000 people have lost their jobs. Isn’t it in their right to be looking at their options?
Simon Birmingham: It’s entirely within Qantas’s right, and my beef isn’t really with Qantas. Good luck to them. It’s a message for the states and territories of don’t start entertaining an idea that will create a risk that there’ll be lots of parts of corporate Australia who might follow suit who may be far less stressed than Qantas is at present, but will say: oh well, if the states and territories are going to play this game, we’re up to see what we can get out of it. The best thing we can do is to keep taxes and charges as low as possible, red tape as light such as possible, to make states efficient as possible so that we can create more jobs, not simply squabble over which city the existing jobs are based in. And that’s really where I would encourage states and territories. Some of them who are unfairly keeping border restrictions in place might want to have a look at getting a bit more support to airlines.
The Federal Government has done overwhelmingly the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. Qantas has done a lot of heavy lifting themselves in raising capital. Virgin has had to restructure. I’m not seeing too many states who are saying: we won’t let planes fly, stepping up and offering some financial assistance to the airlines. But it shouldn’t be about an auction for existing jobs; it should be about the sustainability of the airlines, as well as ultimately investing state taxpayer dollars wisely to create new jobs, new industries, new growth.
Jim Wilson: Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure Jim. Thank you.
Jim Wilson: Good on you. That’s Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham.