Topics: Vaccine rollout; Tourism & aviation industry support; Linda Reynolds; Christian Porter



Scott Emerson: I’m joined now by Simon Birmingham. He’s the federal minister for Finance. Minister, thank you for being on 4BC Drive this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Hello Scott, great to be with you again.


Scott Emerson: Now, let’s talk about the vaccine first. We have been talking about for some time, according to what the federal government said to us, that the vaccine will be completed by October. That seems to have been changed. Now, Brendan Murphy has said that might not be the case because of the extension from the recommended four weeks to 12 weeks between the doses of the coronavirus vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine. So when do you think now it could be completed?


Simon Birmingham: Well Scott, we continue to work towards driving an October deadline date for vaccination. But clearly, there are many things that we have to respond to in this highly uncertain environment we’re dealing with. The vaccine rollout, to vaccinate all Australians in in less than a year is pretty much the largest peacetime undertaking the nation ever had in terms of the logistical challenges of getting to everybody and making such a vaccine available to everybody. And it’s also done in an environment where the health advice keeps updating. As you said, we had initially understood that getting the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine could be done and achieve maximum effectiveness in the space of about four weeks. It actually now, according to best advice, is around 12 weeks. So clearly that adds some length of time to getting to that second dose. But it’s important for people to be reassured that even the first dose provides a high level of protection. So as we roll out the vaccine around the country, starting with the workers in the most vulnerable in terms of the settings and cohorts of population, we’re targeting and then spread it through the general population. And people are already getting that increased resilience from that first dose, 150,000 Australians or thereabouts by now. And that number will grow quite dramatically, especially when in the next couple of weeks, domestic production capability, our ability to manufacture the vaccine in Melbourne cranks up. And that will really see quite a surge in terms of the number of vaccines available.


Scott Emerson: Would you believe also then that the delay in terms of not meeting that October deadline is because of what’s happened with some of those AstraZeneca doses coming from Europe or stopped coming from Europe, those 250,000 doses that were stopped coming out of Italy?


Simon Birmingham: These early stage hiccups in terms of getting deliveries from other parts of the world, are a reminder of just how desperate circumstances are and some of those other parts of the world that they are stopping contracted shipments of vaccines coming to Australia. But they underscore the importance of the work that we had done to make sure that we could manufacture the vaccine here in Australia. Many other parts of the world will remain dependent upon exports from other countries. But we’re going to manufacture 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine right here in Australia, in Melbourne, guaranteeing that supply for Australians while continuing to work on the international purchases so that we have very much a belt and braces approach. Each batch that we get that comes from overseas is subject to our own quality testing to make sure that it makes Australia’s high standards of safety for individuals. Which again, is a contrast to the rushed approach that those in more desperate circumstances have had to undertake. We’ve been able to go through all the normal processes of our Therapeutic Goods Administration, doing all the normal testing and assessments themselves. And that work will continue as the vaccine rollout undertaken to ensure the safety of Australians and their confidence in having, receiving and taking this vaccine.


Scott Emerson: Well if that October deadline is no longer there. Can you guarantee that all the Australians who want it will have the either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca double dose by the end of 2021, but to.


Simon Birmingham: What we are working towards and we’re working towards getting to and still meeting an October deadline for people to be able to get the vaccine, and I think we will see that there’ll be a dramatic scaling up in terms of numbers of people being vaccinated as we get these very big supplies coming through, ultimately reaching around a million a week out of the production facilities, that are happening in Australia once they scale up and that’s going to really provide very strong availability. And we’ll keep working with the states and territories, with the medical professionals to make sure that it’s delivered in an efficient way is possible, but without compromising safety at all.


Scott Emerson: Now, let me turn to the tourism package you announced yesterday, one point two billion dollars, a big package. And I said yesterday a lot more money than the Queensland government is putting into the tourism sector. They highlight that- the centrepiece of their plan is these 200 dollar vouchers. Yours is one point two billion dollars. But there clearly has been criticism of what you’ve announced with these the 800,000 discounted half price airfares we had Alex Duvalle on before. He’s the CEO of Greyhound Australia, obviously one of the big coach companies there and says, look, this is really not just unfair to his business, it’s going to devastate his business by giving a leg up to the airlines that really compete with him.


Simon Birmingham: What this is about is ensuring that we’re trying to backfill where there’s been a loss from international tourists. And so and we’ve really focussed in terms of those regions that have the highest levels of employment dependent upon the tourism industry and focussed on regions that have a high degree of dependence on international visitation. And in fairness, international visitors are much more likely, much, much more likely to have been catching planes around Australia than they are to have been catching Greyhound buses around Australia. All of the data demonstrates that. And so in supporting the aviation sector and in targeting discounted flights, 800,000 of them all up, to regions that rely upon tourism the most. And we are seeking to really stimulate getting Australians moving. And we think that this can and should work. You know, Australians in 2019 spent 65 billion dollars leaving the country on international travel while international visitors to Australia in the same year, spent just 45 billion dollars. And so if we can just get two thirds of what Australians used to spend pre-COVID overseas spent on domestic holidays and travel instead, and then we can clearly backfill that absence of international visitation until we get borders back open again.


Scott Emerson: But what about the Greyhound, Australia’s business, like a bus business, they’re servicing regional communities. They say, well, now he’s got to lose business because of this discounted airline fares it’s not going to help him at all. What can you do for a business like Greyhound Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we have provided enormous ongoing support for businesses through this time. The scale of support is unprecedented in the nation’s history. Now we have to target assistance and we’re doing that. And I don’t accept the proposition that this is going to necessarily drive people away from those bus services if we can get a resumption in relation to people’s confidence to travel. And that’s what this is trying to inspire and knowing that Australians did used to spend so much more going overseas, not on domestic airfares, not on Greyhound buses, but they spent it leaving the country and going overseas. We want to redirect that money into travel within Australia and that’s the way we’re going to best save jobs in regional communities.


Scott Emerson: Now, let me just turn to obviously the news today regarding Linda Reynolds. She has appears to have made a retraction about those comments she made about Higgins describing her as a ‘lying cow’. And there has been a settlement. We don’t know how much that was, but apparently it’s been reported as a large settlement. Now, who’s going to pay that settlement? Is it going to be the taxpayer or the Minister for Defence?


Simon Birmingham: Linda Reynolds, has met her own legal costs and will meet her own settlement costs.


Scott Emerson: All right, then. The other news is breaking this afternoon. And I’m talking to Simon Birmingham, the federal Finance Minister, is that the New South Wales police commissioner has left the door open to potentially reopening the investigation into that historical rape claim made against Attorney-General Christian Porter. Now, former boyfriend of the woman has made the allegations against Mr Porter. He’s come forward to reveal new information about the case and says that he discussed it not only with the woman, but also discussed it with Porter himself in the 1990s. And that’s different from what Christian Porter told that press conference the other week. Do you think now we have to have investigation into these allegations?


Simon Birmingham: So let me deal with that, at a couple of levels. I haven’t seen the comments by other individuals, and nor would I have any ability to comment on the veracity or otherwise of conversations they may say that they have had with other people some years or decades earlier. But in terms of the New South Wales police commissioner has had, police, of course, always reserve the right to reopen investigations if new information or evidence comes to light. And all along, I and the government, the Prime Minister have backed the independence of our police services, the independence of our justice system and committed, that they ought to be able to do their work treating everybody exactly the same, whether that’s treating everybody exactly the same in relation to the presumption of innocence that applies or treating everybody the same in relation to the way in which they conduct investigations and have that independent autonomy to do so.


Scott Emerson: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, I appreciate you being on 4BC Drive this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.