Topics: Australians stranded overseas; Charter flights; hotel quarantine; Mathias Cormann




David Bevan:    Listening to this is Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and the Federal Finance Minister. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham:     Hi, David. Thanks for the opportunity.


David Bevan:    What do you say to Ben?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, to Ben, I will certainly seek to make sure that our foreign affairs officials are in touch with him and responsive to him in terms of our consular staff in San Francisco, and that they are helping him through the circumstances he’s in. We know this is very, very difficult for many people right around the world. Since the Government recommended that Australians come home, which we did so way back in March, some 426,000 Australians have made their way home. We have directly assisted in different ways some 31,600 Australian citizens through charter flights that have been directly facilitated or contracted flights that we have operated at different times. But there are two, I guess, pressure points there that come through, as you heard from Ben. There’s the pressure point in terms of the management of quarantine places in Australia, which are a finite number and are subject to a number of unpredictable pressure points that I’m happy to talk through. And then, of course, there is effectively the collapse in global aviation, that most flights are grounded around the world. And so getting a flight is hard and then because Australia has a limit on the number of people who can come in on any given day, and that that is impacted by a range of quarantine factors, then the seats on those flights are also challenging …


David Bevan:    Yeah, but he’s just been caught up in a mess, because he was accepted to come back to Australia. If I’ve understood this correctly, he was accepted to come back to Australia, because the plane had a mechanical fault, he slipped over into the next day. He could have gone on the next plane, but they said, oh no, you can’t get into Sydney because their quota’s full. And he’s saying, but I could have come in yesterday and that was fine, I was part of that quota, so you were under your quota yesterday, can’t you take me today? It’s a bureaucratic nightmare.


Simon Birmingham:     It is and I feel enormously for Ben in that situation. Obviously, none of us can control a mechanical error on a plane, and the airline decision to not operate, where, of course, you can understand them putting safety first. In terms of the caps, there are 5625 places in hotel quarantine across Australia at present. We have helped the states to stand up additional capacity. And this is a cooperative venture in terms of using Defence Force personnel to help the states, in terms of the Commonwealth leading and working in cooperation with the Northern Territory to open the Howard Springs Facility that is housing some 500 people at a time coming through quarantine there in the Territory. So we’ve sought to add extra capacity. And when Victoria, who hasn’t taken any international arrivals for some months now, when it comes back online, then those 5625 places will rise to 6745 places from the 7th of December. But if you think about the disruptions we have, South Australia takes around or has around 600 places, I think offhand. Last week they ceased taking flights. So last week we had to make decisions around where flights would be rerouted to, where extra people could go into, noting that all of the other states still have their limits in place, despite the federal support that is there to them. That just meant that the number of places went backwards. And so at present, we have no arrivals coming into Victoria, no arrivals coming into South Australia, and are needing to manage the finite places that the other states and territories have.


David Bevan:    Which brings us to Penny Wong’s point, and she says, why doesn’t the Federal Government step up to the plate and have federal facilities that are looking after these people, fully staffed with all of the medical support that they need? What don’t you do it? I mean, it’s that the Australian Government, these are Australian citizens. Why don’t you look after these people?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, a couple of points there. Firstly, we have opened the Howard Springs Facility in the Northern Territory, and we’ve done that in conjunction with the Territory Government. But what we need to run these facilities are, of course, supervision and medical support. And now the supervision is best done in a place where you’ve got appropriate people doing so. And that is happening around the country as a joint effort between local police forces and Defence Force personnel. So- and we are playing a role there in terms of federal operation of facilities through the deployment of the Defence Forces to help with the states and territories. Then you need medical personnel. Well the Commonwealth Government doesn’t employ nurses, aside from those who might be working in the military. We don’t have a whole range of additional testing facilities that are simply at our disposal. We would if we had…


David Bevan:    Maybe you should.


Simon Birmingham:     Well everybody has scaled up their testing during the course of this year. But we would simply be hiring from the states and shifting the pressures from one place to the other. The best place to be able to have, of course, proximity to health care facilities, proximity to security services, and to use, frankly, underutilised, largely empty hotels that that have no longer a tourism market…


David Bevan:    Simon Birmingham, when the Federal Government wants to do something, it really does it. There was I think one asylum seeker appeared on the horizon before the last election and the Prime Minister ramped up, a- and fully kitted out Christmas Island once again. I don’t think anybody ever used it. Stop me if I’m wrong here. But the thing was pretty- was empty, but that’s how determined we were to stop some guy coming over on a leaky boat. Now we’ve got 37,000 Australians overseas. Shouldn’t we be ramping up facilities like that? And it’s not like we’re at the start of this pandemic. It’s now November. This has been going on since March.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, it has, David, and we have initially worked with the states on what was an uncapped arrangement. Remember, before the Victorian second wave, it was uncapped in terms of arrivals into Australia and the states were dealing with demand as they arrived. Then Victoria happened with the second wave and the states put in place caps on what could arrive. Since then, we’ve provided extra support to be able to grow it from those caps. So we’ve lifted the number of places significantly in a cooperative effort. We’ve done that as well by opening Howard Springs, Christmas Island is currently being utilised because not only is it hard to get people into the country at present, it is also hard to get people out of the country. So Christmas Island is being utilised for people who are meant to be being deported. Criminals and others who have their visas cancelled and would usually be deported are being housed there because it’s difficult to get them out.


Now, you asked Penny as to where else these facilities should be. And aside from naming Howard Springs and I think one RAAF base, there was silence. And because it is not that easy to say, we’re going to go and create out of thin air other facilities, what we are trying to do is use empty facilities. Those empty facilities are called hotels. So that’s why the medi-hotels are, based on all of the evidence, the best possible approach, because you’ve got empty facilities, they are easy to isolate because they are high rise, and they’ve got proximity to all of the health and security services that you need.


David Bevan:    One of the reasons you gave for this problem is that the international airlines have collapsed in terms of the services that they’re providing. Maybe Mathias Cormann could fly by and pick a few up.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, to reinforce, firstly, we’ve helped with some 369 flights. Some of them have been contracted, some of them have been charter, different types of natures that we put in place.


David Bevan:    Yeah. But can you see, it’s a bit rich to say: look, we’re really sorry you’re getting all these problems with the airlines and we are paying for one man to fly around and do job interviews in Europe.


Simon Birmingham:     And if Australia seriously wants to engage on the world stage – and we are the 13th biggest economy in the world, David – then when we decide we’re going to contest something like the Secretary-General of the OECD, which will play a key role in shaping global cooperation as to how economies recover from COVID, we’ve got to be serious about how we do it…


David Bevan:    But he doesn’t represent- he doesn’t represent South Australia in that- sorry, Australia in that position, does he?


Simon Birmingham:     Australia is nominating him for that job. It is an Australian Government decision to go ahead with that nomination. And we think that having an Australian in that role will be crucial. It’s never before been held by anybody from our region. But our region, with all of the different challenges across the Asia Pacific at present, needs to be playing a very crucial role in shaping the cooperation of the OECD members, which include the world’s most developed and advanced economies. So, if we’re going to contest that type of position, which we should, for those who believe in Australia playing a leading role in the world stage, then we should contest it seriously and contest it to win, which is what we’re doing.


David Bevan:    Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham:     Thanks, David. My pleasure.