• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: international arrivals, state border restrictions
16 September 2020

Jules Schiller: But let’s start with a bigger federal issue of hotel quarantine, and this is important because the cap that we have on hotel quarantine dictates really how many Australians who are stranded overseas can come home. And you probably heard stories on the radio or on television of Australians who are couch surfing, who are beside themselves, who keep getting bumped off flights, and they’re really struggling to get back to their home country. So the Federal Government is now pushing states and territories to boost their combined hotel quarantine by about 50 per cent to allow these stranded Aussies to get home. Currently here in South Australia, we accept 500 people across seven days but the Premier says that he could increase that number to 800. Let’s talk through this with the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Senator Simon Birmingham joins me. Welcome Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Jules. Good to be with you.

Jules Schiller: So is this confirmed – that South Australia will take an extra 300 a week?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll work through all those issues finally at National Cabinet on Friday but I’m really thrilled that Steven Marshall has once again stepped up to the plate in terms of responding to requests to help the country out in this regard and recognising that the pressure point that we’ve had in terms of letting Australians and getting Australians stuck overseas back into the country are the limits in relation to quarantine rooms that are available. And so, we’ve asked today each of the states and territories to have a look at how they might increase those numbers, and Stephen has happily stepped up to the plate. It’s all being done of course in conjunction with state health officers under very safe guidelines and protections to make sure there’s no repeat of the failure that occurred in Victoria, and with the offer of Defence Force assistance where it’s necessary to help the states too.

Jules Schiller: So, are you monitoring how hotel quarantine is being conducted more on a federal level? Because anyone watching the hotel inquiry going on in Victoria at the moment is slightly aghast at how disorganised it was and people going out for coffees and guards sleeping on the job. Are you providing more oversight for this program, especially as we look to increase it?

Simon Birmingham: It’s more a matter of the ongoing coordination and sharing that occurs, Jules. So the state health officials and all of the relevant officers in charge of this meet pretty much daily with the Commonwealth officials and share all of the best practice examples. We saw I think a product of that over the last weekend where the report was there on the documented failures that occurred in SA’s system, but the positive part of that was many of those failures were very tiny technical breaches and it shows just how stringent and thorough officials are being in terms of monitoring everything and picking up even the smallest mistake to make sure that the quarantine works the way that it should and keeps people safe.

Jules Schiller: Anthony Albanese has been doing press today, Senator, saying that the Federal Government should provide its own resources to get Australians home like the- I guess the Prime Minister’s jet and the fleet of jets used for political figures here in Australia or maybe federal facilities. What would you say in response to that?

Simon Birmingham: But most of the planes arriving in Australia right now from overseas, and there’s still quite a number of them around the country, have got more empty seats than they have full seats. So, the pressure isn’t because there are a lack of airline seats coming into the country. The problem that’s been created in terms of Australians returning home is because of the caps on quarantine that were put in place and the airlines are being told you can only have 30 or 40 passengers on this flight because that’s all that a particular city can accommodate on that given day. So if we can increase the number of rooms, as is now looking really promising thanks to a bunch of state leaders making positive signs today, then hopefully we can see more of those seats utilised. It’s a bit of a stunt to say use the Air Force. We’ve got airlines at present like Qantas who are struggling enormously for financial viability and the last thing we need to do is take potential paying customers away from them. What we need is to find a way to enable them to carry more potential paying customers safely and be able to accommodate them in the quarantine when they get here.

Jules Schiller: Simon Birmingham, there’s some commentators who were saying that the restrictions on leaving Australia are too tight, and if what people want to leave the country, they should be able to. The Federal Government shouldn’t dictate whether they do or not. I mean, obviously, they come back at their own risk. If we increase hotel quarantine, are we likely to loosen the restrictions on Australians leaving if they want to?

Simon Birmingham: We review all of those rules fairly regularly, Jules, and there’s I guess chance if we see less pressure in terms of Australians overseas unable to get back that then it might be possible to entertain the idea of it being easier to let people leave the country. The problem with simply relaxing people leaving is that they do tend to want to come back eventually, and at present, we’re dealing with all of these challenges as to how we get people back safely and securely and the last thing we want is to unnecessarily increase that load or pressure.

Jules Schiller: As Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham, are you still concerned by the state of the borders? I thought South Australia did something quite mature by opening up to the ACT. It seems to be obvious really considering their run of days without any COVID cases. Yet, I’ve got a mate who’s got a 50th in Hobart. He can’t go there. He would have bought a ticket, probably bought accommodation in Tasmania, bought wine at a restaurant, probably put money into a function centre there. But borders are shut. And when you look at- I know I’m not privy to the medical advice, but it seems we’re COVID free and we have been for some time. Tasmania, Western Australia are the same, yet there’s no free movement between the states. Do you think you’re doing enough to try and stem the economic damage this is doing?

Simon Birmingham: It is incredibly frustrating in the types of circumstances you’ve just outlined, Jules. I welcome the fact that South Australia has taken the step in opening up the ACT, just as I welcome the fact that the Northern Territory, under a Labor leader, made a similar decision for a few weeks’ time, subject to the meeting the health criteria, in relation to New South Wales at the end of last week. And I think those leaders are showing real leadership in following the evidence rather than playing any type of populism around state borders. And it does worry me that a Liberal government in Tasmania, a Labor government in WA continue to say no to everybody. We should certainly have a situation where WA, SA, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, all of them should clearly be open to each other. Arguably, the ACT as well; Queensland really too. And New South Wales is, I think, well worth all the states and territories taking a very close look at given just how successful the Government there has been in containing every small cluster that’s occurred. They’ve got a world class testing, tracing, isolating system that has proven itself to work and has ensured that they have avoided what occurred in Victoria.

Jules Schiller: So how long will you have patience with states who aren’t opening up these borders? You know, even when- especially since other states have gone COVID free for quite a considerable amount of time. I mean how much patience? Because obviously, this is doing economic damage. I mean, we’re not seeing it now, but we probably will see it in 12 months. I mean, we’re seeing it now with our aviation industry. Simon Birmingham. How much patience will you have?

Simon Birmingham: It’s not about my patience. It’s about the jobs that are at risk and the businesses in peril. And it’s- the airlines, the airports, the hire car companies, the city hotels, the tour operators, a whole range of other service providers who rely on those businesses, and they are all unnecessarily struggling. We’ve got absolutely jobs in peril as a result of the prolonged use of these border restrictions by some of the states and territories. Nobody is quibbling with the fact there should be a border in relation to Victoria and restrictions there right now, but we do need states and territories to recognise that this is doing ongoing harm to the jobs of people in their own states, and that is the real concern now. Ultimately, these are decisions that states are taking. I just hope that sensible moves, like the one Steven Marshall took yesterday, can help to build the sort of momentum and impetus that sees others follow suit. And I think that probably will be the case, that as we see greater air travel, greater tourism movement between those states that are opening up to each other, it will extend the pressure on those who haven’t, who realised that they’re missing out, and indeed to citizens as well will continue to feel even more aggrieved that they can’t reconnect with loved ones, families and undertake all of those other necessary movements.

Jules Schiller: I’m talking to Senator Simon Birmingham. He’s the Minister for Trade tourism and Investment. We’re talking through the fact that the caps on international arrivals will be loosened. Australia- South Australia, I should say, will increase its number of 500 people over seven days to 800 people.

Tony has called on 1300-222-891. Hi, Tony.

Caller Tony: G’day, Jules, g’day Minister. I might be missing something, Minister, but isn’t Marshall behaving like Palaszczuk in keeping the border closed in New South Wales?

Jules Schiller: Why do you say that, Tony? Just-

Caller Tony: Well, we can’t go to New South Wales, so it’s like the New South Wales-Queensland border.

Jules Schiller: Okay, alright. Senator Simon Birmingham, I mean they do have very, very low case numbers in New South Wales. Do you think- I mean it seems that Steven Marshall is looking at loosening those borders, but do you think he’s doing it quickly enough?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’d rather it happened sooner. And I’m frustrated there. I think that the argument is now a strong one. As I said before, that New South Wales has managed to demonstrate successful containment and suppression of COVID, has shown that it’s got world class standards in place, that where there have been small clusters as the result of a spread from Victoria, they’ve identified them, they’ve traced effectively, they’ve isolated effectively, and that we should have confidence of being able to open up to New South Wales. So in that sense, yes, I’m as frustrated with Steven as I would be with the Queensland Government. But I do give Steven Marshall credit for having taken the decision around the ACT, which Queensland has not done. South Australia is more open to other states than the Queensland Government than Queensland is at present. I just hope that they will follow suit, and I’m encouraged at least by the noises that we’re hearing from SA in relation to how they are looking at the evidence around New South Wales. And that’s all we really ask for, is an evidence-based approach by the states and territories. And with the ACT having gone close to 70 days without any COVID cases, it was long overdue to open up to them. And certainly every other state and territory should look to do so as well, because right now it’s only Northern Territory and South Australia have done so.

Jules Schiller: Senator Simon Birmingham, always generous with your time here on the ABC. Thanks for giving up a few minutes again.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Jules. Thanks. Bye.

Jules Schiller: Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.