• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Lifting of the cap on Australians returning home, Qantas headquarters bidding
16 September 2020

Scott Emerson: Now we’ve had some good news today about this issue about Australians stranded overseas because of COVID. Obviously we’ve been hearing about the cases of thousands of Australians still over there trying to get back. Well today, we saw that the Federal Government has made an announcement, and I’m pleased to say that the Federal Minister for Tourism and Trade and Investment Simon Birmingham is joining us now on 4BC Drive. Minister, thanks for being on the show.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Scott, great to be with you.

Scott Emerson: Now you’ve increased the cap on Australians returning home from 4000 to 6000. What does that mean in practical terms?

Simon Birmingham: Well practically that means that more Australians should be able to come back into the country, 2000 in fact, essentially on every two weeks, if you think about the rotation of people through the 14 days quarantine. So that really does get as close to where we were before the Victorian second wave happened. We had nearly 8000 people coming into the country each week at that stage, and states like Queensland were managing quarantine facilities in excess of 1100 people that they were processing each week at that stage. Now of course, we’ve seen that cut right back to 4000. Victoria is not taking any, the states have put caps in place. Queensland put a cap of 500, which is less than half what they were handling previously. So, we’re now going back to the states, asking them to increase those numbers in a sensible, safe way. Nobody wants a repeat of Victoria anywhere else around the country. But I’m pleased there seems to be some positive reaction from the states and territories and hopefully we can settle this at National Cabinet on Friday.

Scott Emerson: Well it seems to be a bit of a battle over here between the feds and the states over this, because each blaming each other about this. But it was good to hear the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk today saying, yes, look, welcoming this and saying they’ll look at increasing the numbers they’re taking, because that seems to have been the problem.

Simon Birmingham: That is encouraging. Look, we’ve put the caps in place at the request of states and territories after the Victorian second wave happened, and of course it occurred because of the failure of quarantine management in that state. Understandably, the other states and territories have all: hang on a minute, we better pullback a little bit and make sure that we are all getting this right and that we don’t have any leakage out of quarantine. So, we’ve worked with them on that. We’ve implemented the cap at their request, but a consequence is it is really hard for thousands of Australians to get back into the country at present under those caps, and that is causing distress and heartache for many individuals. So, we want to work with the states and territories to safely increase that cap. We will make Defence Force personnel available where necessary to help them on that journey. We’ve got more than 3000 already deployed as part of the COVID response, working with states and territories. We’ll continue that, and to get a sensible outcome that protects the community that also doesn’t leave Australians stranded overseas.

Scott Emerson: Now, I’m talking Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, you also bought into these this announcement yesterday about that Qantas might be looking to move its headquarters from Mascot in Sydney, possibly to other states as well. Now Queensland put the cue in Qantas, so we’re one of the states that have least flagged the possibility of trying to bid for this. But are you concerned about a bidding war breaking out amongst the states of Qantas’s headquarters?

Simon Birmingham: It does worry me to a degree, Scott. Qantas is doing it incredibly tough at present, and that’s why we have given hundreds of millions, probably billions of dollars of support across the aviation sector, and much of it to Qantas in terms of JobKeeper payments, Aviation Industry Relief, and the like. And we want to see them do well. But I’m concerned about states being encouraged into a bidding war for any corporation, whether it’s Virgin as has happened previously, or Qantas, where all they’re doing is transferring taxpayers’ money to shuffle jobs around Australia, not creating one extra job for Australians. It’s just shifting them potentially from one city to another. Now, Qantas has got some tough commercial decisions to make when they’re looking to consolidate parts of their business in different parts of the country. And I fully understand that and respect what they’re trying to do to maximise their viability. But I think states and territories need to show caution at not using state taxpayers’ dollars in bidding wars that ultimately sort of drive towards a form of corporate welfare for the bigger businesses around the country. And if they respond like this to Qantas, then there’s a risk that companies in far less tough times than Qantas are might try it on as well.

Scott Emerson: Now we have the heavy maintenance facility here in Brisbane currently with Qantas. Do you suspect that part of this plan from Qantas to go out there and talk about moving things around, maybe also a way of getting a bit of money out of the Queensland Government to try to force them to say, well, hand over this money to keep those facilities here still in Brisbane?

Simon Birmingham: There may be some expectations in that regard that is as much about sustaining jobs and positions than it is potentially transferring them around the country. As I say, Qantas is in an incredibly difficult position right now. I do understand the commercial reality of those place and why they may be looking at consolidating parts of their operations and considering what they can do to streamline their costs and potentially to get some extra cash out of state and territory governments. But good luck to Qantas if they can. That’s their commercial right, it’s a free country to do so. My message is more to the states and territories that they ought to be investing in the scarce taxpayer dollars, that it’s stretched a long way at present, in creating new jobs, in driving new investment, in making sure that we grow the overall economy. That’s what the Morrison Government’s doing now through our investment in skills, through our investment in terms of attracting new talent to the country, and it’s all about making sure that across the board, whether it’s driving energy prices down or any of our other policy settings, we’re saving jobs, we’re trying to create new jobs. We’re not simply trying to shuffle them around.

Scott Emerson: Alright. Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining 4BC Drive this afternoon. That was the Federal Minister for Tourism and Trade and Investment on the program. Good news regarding increasing that cap, more Aussies back. Looks like the states will play ball on that one as well. We’ll see our national cabinet meeting on Friday, but also interesting to hear the Minister there warning against this bidding war between the states for Qantas’s headquarters.