Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs


Topics: Australian Open COVID cases; Australian repatriation flights, Hotel quarantine, US politics



David Bevan: Well, let’s go to acting Foreign Minister, South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham. Good morning to you, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, Ali. Welcome back and happy New Year to you both.

David Bevan: Why can tennis players make it to Australia while so many of our citizens can’t?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have seen many Australians. In fact, more than 446,000 Australians return since March of last year when the Government urged Australians to think about coming home if they’re in a situation to do so. And through that time, we’ve supported with more than 90 Federal Government facilitated flights and we’ve just announced a further 20 of those to come. And of course, we’ve seen many tens and tens of thousands of Australians return and pass through the medihotel facilities run by the states and territories ostensibly, but with significant Commonwealth support and particularly Defence support.

Now, Victoria took the decision that they particularly wanted to try to ensure that the Australian Open went ahead. It’s one of only four grand slam events in the world and that they had concerns about potentially losing that status. And so, they’ve put arrangements in place in terms of the- with Tennis Australia, the charter flights that Tennis Australia paid for, the additional facilities that Tennis Australia are funding and standing up, but all of it against very strict health and quarantine protocols. And so, we’ve allowed that and done so very much at the request of those state authorities.

David Bevan: Yeah, but you agree, it’s a bad look? Because we’ve got Australians who are stranded overseas and they turn on the telly and they see rich tennis players turning up in Melbourne… You agree it’s a bad look?

Simon Birmingham: I understand the narrative that you’re putting there, David. And understand, of course, if you are somebody in a position struggling to get back, that you are going to look at that and feel aggrieved, and that is entirely understandable. And it’s why we continue to try to do what we possibly can there in terms of putting extra flights on, finding extra quarantine capability where we can. The other states and territories, not Victoria on this instance, but other states and territories requested a scaling back of quarantine numbers in response to the new UK strain of the virus. So-

David Bevan: Because Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong, they just say: well, look, this is your fault and Scott Morrison’s fault. And you promised you’d bring them all home by Christmas, and you haven’t. And you’ve said: oh, the states are looking after this. Well, it’s in the Constitution- it’s in the Constitution, Minister. Quarantine is your bag.

Simon Birmingham: Well, they were all pretty cheap lines from the Opposition. I don’t actually hear them ever saying where they would establish these magical new quarantine places or where all of the additional workforce for them would come from. Now, more people continue to register each and every week in terms of wanting to come home. So, they’re not always people who have been on the list for many months; they’re often people who are registered purely in the last little while. And so, we continue to create opportunities to get people home. The places in terms of these 20 additional flights that we’ve announced will go into jurisdictions where they will be over and above the national cap on returnees. So, we’re getting them into the Northern Territory using the Howard Springs facility there, the ACT, Tasmania, under arrangements that allow us to come in above the cap that the National Cabinet had set, that the states and territories have asked for on returning Australians. We’re doing that to create that extra capacity. The Emirates flights that have been cancelled, we will reallocate the seat capacity within the cap to other carriers, such as Etihad and Qatar, to make sure that there’s no loss of capacity in terms of getting people back.

Nobody pretends this is an easy, straightforward thing. There’s not a magic silver bullet that allows us to miraculously bring tens of thousands of people in, instantly done, dusted all over. Australians around the world choose when they want to come home. They don’t always- as I say, haven’t all registered months ago. They keep adding the name to the list. Sometimes they’ll decide they don’t want to take a particular flight for different circumstances. So, there are a whole range of individual factors behind all of these. But we know some are doing it really, very tough, and it’s why we’ve also provided more than $17 million now in hardship support to Australians overseas to help them through some of these difficult circumstances.

Ali Clarke: You mentioned millions of dollars there. Do we know how much this is actually costing the Government? Because the percentage of this has to be covered by the individual itself, doesn’t it? They have to look after their plane ticket and everything else, and a lot of them have said that they bumped up prices. But then, the actual quarantining itself, the amount of money they pay – it doesn’t cover all the costs, does it?

Simon Birmingham: No it doesn’t, Ali. And look, the costs are ultimately run to many, many millions of dollars in terms of the fact that quarantine costs come at a cost that states and territories bear some of. We have more than 1600 Australian Defence Force personnel deployed working with the states and territories and running those quarantine facilities, the charter flights, the facilitated flights that are run. Again, ticket prices are charged where they can be. Of course, hardship circumstances are considered, but even those ticket prices don’t necessarily cover the cost of operating these flights, particularly some of them come from destinations where we just can’t fill the plane up. But there’s still vulnerable Australians in hardship circumstances.

So over the course of this week, we’ll have seen flights come in from London, from India, and from South America. And in the case of London and India, we expect them to largely be full flights with a couple of hundred Australians onboard. But in the case of South America it will be a much smaller load of people, that’s why it will obviously operate at a much greater loss, but there’s still vulnerable Aussies who we’re helping to bring home.

Ali Clarke: So, to be clear, has there been any Government payment and is there any Government cost to these tennis players that are currently near Wellington Square here in North Adelaide, South Australia and in Victoria?

Simon Birmingham: Certainly not Australian Government payment or costs. My understanding is that the flights were all chartered and paid for by tennis authorities themselves, and so, that was all their activity. The arrangements in terms of the hotel quarantine, I understand, are paid for by tennis authorities too, but it’s really a matter for the Victorian Government or with the small number in SA, the South Australian Government, to confirm that there’s no additional costs in relation to security or the like there. But definitely no Commonwealth costs.

David Bevan: Do you have any more information about the deaths associated with the Pfizer vaccine in Norway?

Simon Birmingham: No, nothing that I could specifically add there David. We have immediately asked our officials, both through the Therapeutic Goods Administration who are assessing the Pfizer vaccine to secure and assess what is occurring in Norway, and as well are Foreign Affairs and Trade officials, our diplomats in Norway to make sure that we have access to all information around what may be occurring there.

This an important reminder that Australia, unlike much of the rest of the world, hasn’t had to rush vaccines through emergency approval processes. We as a Government have always said we wanted them to go through standard, rigorous processes of our independent regulator, the TGA, to make sure that they were safe for Australians and would have a high level of efficacy in terms of their effectiveness for Australians. And that’s a good fortune, a function of Australia’s good place in terms of our management of COVID as a country to date, and that allows us to be able to take a little bit of time, go through those proper processes. We want to make sure people have a high degree of confidence to have this vaccine.

And people should know that, yes, obviously the stories out of Norway need to be thoroughly assessed and looked at around whether some elderly people with potential comorbidities face these consequences. But they should also know that the Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta in the US, has reviewed around 1.8 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, I understand, and found it to be very safe and with a high level of efficacy. And all of this evidence will be assessed by our independent scientific medical regulators, just as they would with any medicine or vaccine.

David Bevan: Well, that’s good news. Now, before you leave us – we’re talking to Senator Simon Birmingham, South Australian Senator, Minister for Finance and acting Foreign Affairs Minister. Simon Birmingham, does your Government have a problem criticising the people who ransacked the US Capitol last week? And the people who encouraged them – of course, including Donald Trump.

Simon Birmingham: No, David, I don’t believe we do. I absolutely condemn the actions as the Prime Minister has done. And I also condemn the…

David Bevan: It’s just that, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and acting Prime Minister McCormack, they’ve come in for some criticism because they didn’t go as far, as fast and as hard as, say, Angela Merkel in Germany or even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, David, I think Scott Morrison was out there pretty quickly and condemned the violence pretty quickly. But I want to make it clear to listeners in Adelaide, from a personal standpoint, that I well and truly condemn not only the violence or the incitement of it, but also what we have seen in the US in particularly recent months, an erosion of confidence in democratic systems, principles and values. And it’s horrific…

David Bevan: Did Scott Morrison pull his punches with Donald Trump? Because, you know, he gets along very well with Donald Trump. Did he pull his punches?

Simon Birmingham: No, look, I don’t think so. I mean, look, we are always cautious about running commentary as the Australian Government on the political leaders of foreign governments. And Donald Trump, whether people like it or not, is still the US President for a few more days, and then we very much look forward to working with the Biden Administration and then President Biden once he takes over. So, it’s in Australia’s interest for us always to be mindful that little has advanced for Australia by it, just running endless commentary on the rest of the world.

But we were quick to condemn, and as I was saying before, I certainly have deep concerns and misgivings not only about the violence or what led to the violence, but what I do see as acts that have longer term consequences in terms of eroding confidence in democratic values and systems. And all of us, as elected officials, do need to make sure that we work as hard as possible to make sure people have confidence in our democracy, that these are the best systems in the world. They’re not perfect by any means, but nor has anybody come up with perfection in terms of the way governments work. But democracy gives people a say, and democracy also entails the peaceful transition of power when you lose as a core and essential element of it.

Ali Clarke: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.