Topics:  Vaccine rollout; Quarantine facilities; Julia Banks; Auditor-General Report



David Speers: Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, David. Good to be with you.


David Speers: There are about 34,000 Australians still trying to come home, 10,000 are stuck in India. Are you also disappointed at this decision?


Simon Birmingham: David, this decision is one that just deals with the reality of the fact that the risk profile changes as we continue to move through this pandemic, the Delta variant does change that profile in terms of the transmissibility of that and risks associated with it. And so we’ll continue to do what we can to support returning Australians. 620,000 people have returned to Australia since the message was given in March of last year to do so. Around half of those have passed through hotel quarantine and overwhelmingly they have done so safely and successfully. But the risk is an ever present and a real one. And it’s why the decisions were taken on Friday. And we’ll still put 2000 people through the Howard Springs facility with its capacity having lifted to that level on a routine basis. And we’ll run more quarantine facilitated flights where we possibly can. And we will support those returning Australians as best we can whilst also providing the consular and where necessary, financial assistance on the ground overseas, too.


David Speers: Okay, but I just want to come to why this decision has been taken to halve international arrivals. Gladys Berejiklian disagrees with what you just said. She said the number of people coming home doesn’t change the risk. And in fact, the figures in New South Wales suggest there have been fewer Delta cases in hotel quarantine over recent weeks then there were previously. So whose advice was this based on? Was their AHPPC advice on this?


Simon Birmingham: David, the health officials are part of these discussions in terms of informing both their individual chief ministers and the Prime Minister in terms of-


David Speers: So did they recommend this?


Simon Birmingham: Sorry, David.


David Speers: Did health officials recommend this? Is that what you’re saying?


Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously some of the health officials in some of the states were clearly working with their state leaders, ultimately the decision is taken because the risk profile does change in terms of having fewer arrivals means there will be fewer positive cases. Now, we would all wish that we weren’t facing the changed equation in terms of the Delta variant. But it is there. It is a reality. And we’ve responded to that reality in terms of maintaining a proposition that has worked to keep Australians safe. We have the tightest border controls effectively in the world coming into Australia that’s helped us to save 30,000 lives, helped us to save a million Australian jobs. And it’s important that we continue to do all we can to suppress Covid across Australia to save those lives and save those jobs whilst we proceed through the vaccine rollout


David Speers: On this decision where we’ve heard ad nauseum from the government how good hotel quarantine is, it obviously couldn’t cope.


Simon Birmingham: Hotel quarantine has worked incredibly well as a means of returning Australians in very difficult circumstances, but of course, we have limits in terms of what can be maintained. I know for many of the states and territories as well there are pressure points-


David Speers: It can’t cope with the current numbers.


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are pressure points as I was saying in terms of number of staff dedicated to support hotel quarantine testing regimes and of course, actually getting the vaccination occurring through their facilities. And so these are all different factors that have to be weighed.


David Speers: Isn’t it true, though, that if if the government got cracking with some purpose built quarantine facilities before now, you wouldn’t have to do this?


Simon Birmingham: No, David, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to replicate the number of places in terms of hotel quarantine in other types of facilities, now we’re building facilities in Melbourne. We’re in discussions, proceeding positively with the Queensland and West Australian governments to have additional facilities there. We scaled up Howard Springs, as I said, to a two thousand person capacity. So all of those things will be there and we’ll provide greater resilience in the future for the uncertainties that will come in the future.


David Speers: But it’s taking a long time. I mean, the proposal in Queensland for a purpose built facility at the Wellcamp Airport at Toowoomba, I mean, that’s been on the table since last year, apparently it’ll only take 12 weeks to put it together, 600 beds. Why? Why hasn’t that happened?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, that facility doesn’t make the type of criteria that have been worked up in terms of proximity to an international airport with regular passenger flights, proximity to suitable health and hospital facilities. And that’s why we’ve proposed an alternative site with the Queensland government. And we expect that to move into the different stages now with feasibility assessment, as we’ve successfully done with the Victorian government.


David Speers: And it may not be perfect but given the situation we’re in and given you’re saying to these thousands of Australians stranded overseas, we’re going to halve intake, surely you do what you can to make it happen?


Simon Birmingham: David, we seen more than 300,000 as I said Australians returned successfully through hotel quarantine, around 620,000 people return since March of last year. Australia has done an incredible job managing to have people return whilst continuing to suppress the virus and keep it out of the community. And so it’s been a very successful model to date. That was the model that could be stood up as fast as possible at the time. Yes. Now we’re moving to create some of these facilities, which will be about long term resilience and providing responsiveness into the future to whatever may be thrown at us into the future, which none of us can necessarily predict in terms of this virus or other challenges to come.


David Speers: On vaccines a lot of young Australians have been a bit confused this week about whether to rush out and get AstraZeneca after the prime minister’s comments or wait for Pfizer. One of the difficulties is not knowing, I suppose, when they’ll be able to get a Pfizer jab. Can you clear this up? When will under 40s be able to access a Pfizer vaccine?


Simon Birmingham: David, we’re going to see a marked step up in terms of availability of the Pfizer vaccine coming through the next few months, stepping up as we now into July from around 300,000 doses of wake up to an average of about 600,000 doses a week and further increased forecast in September. So young Australians should have confidence that they will see a full opening up in the months to come. And that may even be sooner than months. But we do have to continue just to make sure we work through the different priority stages of the rollout that’s seen more than eight million doses administered to date to Australians and has seen some 70 per cent of over 70 receive their first dose, 50 per cent of over 50s have received their first does and over 30 per cent of the entire eligible population.


David Speers: Which is progress for someone who’s under 40 watching this today, when will they be able to get a Pfizer jab? Is it August? Is it September? Is it October? They’ve got to weigh up what to do through winter.


Simon Birmingham: We will make we’ll make those decisions working with the health authorities in terms of when to open up in that regard, not only do we have more-


David Speers:  There is no date for them at the moment?


Simon Birmingham: There’s not a fixed date that I can give you now, but as we move through those different priority cohorts, as I said, 70 per cent of over 70s. So that means you can look at that cohort and say we are very close to achieving optimal outcomes there. Obviously, we want more to do so. But huge outcomes in terms of 70 per cent of that that cohort-


David Speers: Sorry, Minister, we were just talking before about indigenous Australians. You would have heard that conversation. More needs to be done there, doesn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: So with indigenous Australians, the health minister, the indigenous affairs minister and states and territories are working to make sure that we can reach particularly those remote communities to indigenous Australians who are in proximity to GPs, who have and will receive now Pfizer doses over the coming weeks or to the type of centres the states and territories have been administering, I’d urge them if they haven’t made plans, to get there to do so. But in terms of those remote communities, there’s a step up as we’re seeing the supply increase in terms of making sure we getting to them too.


David Speers: On aged care. We know aged care staff, it’s now mandatory for them to have a vaccine by about September. Does the mandate apply only to residential aged care staff about a 190,000 of them. Does it also apply to home care staff and support staff? Because it’s nearly a million of them.


Simon Birmingham: So, David, it is the expectation that those working in close proximity to two senior Australians in residential aged care facilities will have to have the vaccine. I think Australians would also expect that those working in home care environments in close proximity to senior Australians also ought to do so and have to do so. Just as they would expect health care workers or to respond in those ways to more generally.


David Speers: Is it mandatory, though, for them?


Simon Birmingham: So, David, I think it depends in terms of the role that the individual is undertaking, but if its close proximity to somebody receiving funded aged care support, then the expectation is they ought to be receiving the vaccine.


David Speers: The plan that was announced on Friday after the national cabinet meeting the pathway out of Covid operation. There are no dates or details just yet, but there is a fundamental a couple of fundamental questions. If the targets aren’t achieved, what happens? Can people who are fully vaccinated still have the freedoms or do they have to wait until their population wide target is met?


Simon Birmingham: So, David, the plan that has been outlined is, one, to give Australians the hope and the detail in relation to the different stages, it makes clear there’s not going to be a single rip off the Band-Aid moment that says we’re done. We just move to complete reopening. We’re going to take a cautious approach in terms of going through the stages of piloting how it is we might move from current quarantine and border control arrangements to more open ones in a progressive way that that takes the different steps of testing the role of home quarantine and other things to make sure that we can reopen but still keep Australians safe and secure. It’s a plan that is having to be revised in light of the Delta variant. And that is where we’ve made sure we’ve brought in further expert assistance in the form of the Doherty Institute to help give Australians the confidence that as the vaccine rollout continues to step up from the eight million plus doses now right through the population that they can know the steps of reopening will be taken carefully, cautiously, but ultimately achieve that outcome of reopening.


David Speers: Your former colleague Julia Banks has written a new book about her experience in the Liberal Party. In Parliament, she references an incident in the prime minister’s wing when a male cabinet minister smelling of alcohol touched her inappropriately. She says she froze before walking over to another female MP for support. Were you aware of this incident? Should it be looked into?


Simon Birmingham: The first I’ve ever heard of that incident was over the course of this weekend when I read the extracts, obviously such behaviour is inappropriate and if there are issues there or they ought to be appropriately reported by any individuals. And that’s what we’ve sought to stand up in terms of improved reporting and investigatory arrangements right across the parliament to support staff, members of parliament or anybody else.


David Speers: Would the independent complaints body that’s been recommended by the foster report about a month ago. And I know you’re still working on this. Would it be able to look at historic claims like this one or only prospective claims?


Simon Birmingham: David, it’s unlikely to go back through previous parliaments indefinitely, but it certainly it will provide for now and into the future a model that actually enables people to have confidence that their complaints can be heard and investigated with independence and confidentiality if they wish.


David Speers: But not this one, not something that happened in 2018?


Simon Birmingham: It’s unlikely to be going back through previous parliaments becomes a point as to where do you draw the line in those regards. But from this parliament forward, I think it is a reasonable expectation that it is able to work through issues and provide everybody with the confidence that the best practise processes are in place to protect them.


David Speers: The auditor general delivered a scathing report this week on the government’s $660 million commuter car park fund. The process to get the funds was not open or transparent. It found there was no evidence of value for money. Projects were nominated by Coalition MPs and candidates. The overwhelming majority of the cash went to critical coalition seats. Most of the projects were signed off by the Prime Minister the day before he called the election. And we need a caretaker mode. This sort of pork barrelling is the stuff that really frustrates a lot of people about politics. Can you honestly say this was an example of good government?


Simon Birmingham: David, what we’re focussed on is getting on and delivering the election promises we took to the Australian people, and that includes critical infrastructure, local infrastructure such as car parks or be it major productivity enhancing infrastructure, such as the second Sydney airport or the inland rail corridor. Now, we will act in terms of the recommendations of the auditor general’s report, as we always do, as to how processes and procedures can be enhanced in the future.


David Speers: This was pork barrelling, though, wasn’t it, Minister? And it was before the election campaign. These were decisions of government. And it isn’t the first time. The auditor general, of course, has exposed these sorts of problems with how your government doles out grants. Can you at least give a commitment as finance minister here today that any future grant programs will at least have some clear rules on how you going to spend money and that you are actually going to deliver something that is merit based?


Simon Birmingham: Grants programs do have clear rules attached to them. We live in a parliamentary democracy where-


David Speers: This one, this one didn’t I mean, the Auditor-General says it was not open and transparent. It was not evidence based.


Simon Birmingham: And David, in a parliamentary democracy, part of the process is local MPs advocate on behalf of their electorates. That’s what electorates expect. That’s what they vote on. And governments are expected to listen and work to some of those advocacy points where a need is genuine and where it is well argued. And that is precisely what governments will continue to do.


David Speers: Minister, the Auditor-General says this was not needs based. If you look at the evidence of where congestion is the worst, that’s not where this money went. It went to coalition seats. You were trying to hold and win.


Simon Birmingham: And David, the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure-


David Speers: So we can expect more of this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, we’re going to continue to deliver infrastructure projects for the nation because they lift our national productivity and they help Australians in terms of whether it be their access to public transport, the time it takes them to get home. These are all about ensuring that local communities get what they need. But nationally, we get the productivity dividend that comes from faster movement of people and of freight.


David Speers: All right. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, David. My pleasure.