Topics: Australian in India; Quarantine facilities; Returning Australians; Catherine House; Budget: South Australian infrastructure;


David Bevan: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Finance, thank you for coming in.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Good to be with you.

David Bevan: And on the tie line, Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Good morning to you, Penny Wong.

Penny Wong: Morning, good to be with you.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham. Australian citizens stranded in India have been told they’ll be prosecuted if they make their way back home. Is that the right thing to do?


Simon Birmingham: David, based on the health advice, yes, it is. Now, what we’ve done is used the same law, the biosecurity powers that we have used ever since the 2nd of February last year. These were the laws that we used when we first put in place restrictions on arrivals from China at the commencement of the COVID-19 concern and at the commencement of the imposition of these sorts of international border restrictions.


David Bevan: You threatened to jail anybody and fine them, did you?


Simon Birmingham: No the penalties are actually standard penalties. So the penalties have been the same penalties for anybody who breaches these laws the whole way through the COVID crisis.


David Bevan: So there is nothing new in that.


Simon Birmingham: No new penalties being created as a result of this decision. But we have done is create further restrictions in relation to arrivals from India. It’s not the first time we’ve responded on a country by country basis. At the start of the crisis, we did so, as I said, with China, but also with Italy, with South Korea, with Iran. Only a couple of months ago, we did so in relation to Papua New Guinea and slowing the number of flights and arrivals coming in, particularly to Queensland. All of it, of course, having the overlay of the fact that in the middle we closed our borders to the whole world effectively and have been dealing then with how we allow people back into the country under the exceptional provisions of quarantine and isolation and so forth. And we’ve seen, of course, vast numbers, some 520,000 Australians have returned since March of last year. So we’ve managed large numbers of arrivals now overwhelmingly, safely. But in this case, we’re responding to the fact that there’d been a big surge in positive cases of those arriving from India and that that was putting real pressure on the quarantine systems. The Commonwealth run one in Darwin, as well as, of course, others around the country.


David Bevan: Penny Wong, is that the right thing to do?


Penny Wong: Well I reckon Australian citizenship has to mean something. And the reality is what we have is an extraordinary situation where the Government has trumpeted up to five years in jail, and up to $66,000 worth of fines if somebody comes back. And there’s a pretty sorry history here to this. Let’s remember the borders closed March of last year. We had thousands of Australians stranded. You spoke to some of them, David, on your program. We called for safe, national quarantine. We said without that we can’t get Aussies home and we can’t keep Australians safe. The Prime Minister was briefed about the need for a safe, national quarantine facility. But the Government didn’t act. All we had was more words. I mean we had the Prime Minister promising that people would be home by Christmas – we still have almost 40,000 stranded overseas and we now have 10,000 stranded in India, and people are facing jail. Now, I wish the Government would be straight about this. We had Simon, then again, coming up with a different explanation, ‘oh, these were the penalties which were there before’. There was no threat, there was no threat previously that they would actually be imposed. I’d make that point. And, you know, if this is the case, why wasn’t this talked about when the UK and the US both went into their first, second and third waves.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Penny Wong makes a good point, doesn’t she? We didn’t hear about these sort of fines and prosecutions a few months ago. You say, oh, it’s nothing new here. This is new. You’ve upped the ante or is this just rhetoric the play to the crowd?


Simon Birmingham: No doubt. Look, what is different here is, is the fact that we are looking very specifically at all arrivals coming in from people who’ve been in India in the last 14 days. So it does capture Australian citizens. And so that is something beyond what we have done previously. The penalties themselves are the same penalties for anybody else who would have sought to or may have breached biosecurity laws, as I say, right throughout the pandemic, because there’s no new decision that relates to the penalties. They’re just an automatic consequence of putting tighter restrictions in place-


David Bevan: And if you’d got quarantine right we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If you’d expanded the facilities to take into account something like this. And you’ve had plenty notice you wouldn’t be talking about it-


Simon Birmingham: David we get new people adding themselves to the DFAT registration process every week. So it’s at list in a sense that you’re never going to clear and you’re never going to clear it Penny, particularly when you’re still allowing some to leave the country too-


Penny Wong: That’s not an answer, the question you were just asked was about safe national quarantine. And it’s it is now May 2021. Are borders closed March 2020. People are supposed to be home by Christmas. The question that David just asked, it was about why you haven’t established safe and. Quarantine over a year after borders were closed. Instead, you’re talking about a list, a list which is growing because in great part, you have not stepped up to the plate and ensured there is a safe system. And we still have people in hotel quarantine in the middle of our cities and no surge capacity.


Simon Birmingham: We do have a safe system penny 520,000 Australians have returned since March of last year-


Penny Wong: So that’s why you’re going to put people in jail for five years if they come back-


Simon Birmingham: 99.99 per cent of those passing through our hotel quarantine facilities have done so safely without transmission of COVID into the community. We have a national facility in the Northern Territory and even there with that national facility, the NT government, because of the surge of positive cases testing from India, asked us to slow arrivals and pause arrivals because of concerns in relation to the potential impact on their health system. This is something that Labor leaders elsewhere around the country have asked for in terms of slowing arrivals from India. It’s a pause that will be reviewed on the 15th of May, but it’s a recognition that the numbers of cases testing positive from India is unprecedented compared with any other group that we have had coming into Australia since COVID started.


Penny Wong: Ok, I’ve make two points. The first is you and Senator Payne. Others keep saying this was entirely founded on Paul, on the chief medical officers advice. He’s made really clear publicly he gave no advice regarding fines or jail terms.


Simon Birmingham: Because they are an automatic consequence.


Penny Wong: Can I finish? I did listen to you and you spoke for a very long time. Matthew Canavan, your own senator, has tweeted today this We should be helping Aussies in India return, not jailing them. Let’s fix our quarantine system rather than leave our fellow Australians stranded. Well, I’m very rarely on the same ticket as Matt Canavan, but I am today. So what are you doing wrong as the government?


Simon Birmingham: Penny, what we’re doing is protecting Australians, and I’ll make absolutely no apologies for the fact that Australian lives have been saved through our stance in relation to come on international borders, for Australian jobs have been saved through us stance in relation to international borders.


Penny Wong: Don’t change the subject-


Simon Birmingham: No-


Penny Wong: You’re changing the subject, the issue is quarantine.


Simon Birmingham: These are all decisions-.


Penny Wong: The issue is quarantine, the decision you made not to proceed with establishing safe national quarantine, which has left thousands of Australians stranded. And now, instead of proceeding to establish more safe national quarantine, you’re saying even Australian citizens you face up to five years jail, I mean are we really going to put Dave Warner in jail for coming back? Is that what we’re going to do?


Simon Birmingham: Penny, you have held out Howard Springs as being the type of facility we should have more of. And even in relation-


Penny Wong: How long did it take you to make that up?


Simon Birmingham: And even and even in relation to the Howard Springs facility, the advice is clear. We need to stop arrivals from India for a period of time because of the number of cases testing positive. Now, you might be happy to bring hundreds of additional COVID into Australia, but we are taking the health advice-


Penny Wong: I love the way you just create these straw men arguments. You suggest we don’t want to keep people safe. You suggest we want to bring in a whole heap of positive people. What we are saying you-


Simon Birmingham: You seem to be pretending there is an easy solution to this and there’s not.


Penny Wong: No, no, no, there isn’t an easy solution. But I tell you what, if you listened to us and to Jane Houlton and to other advisers last year and established a system of safe national quarantine, we would not have as many people stranded overseas in perilous situations as we do now and I said at the time including on this program I said it will get worse-


Simon Birmingham: What is this magical system of safe quarantine-


David Bevan: I think we’ve got the idea for however we got here, we’re here today. What do we do today? Do we pause the take from India until we’re in a better position or until India is in a better position, or do we take them back? Penny Wong, just quickly, however we got here? What do we do today?


Penny Wong: We have said we support the suspension of flights if that is based on health advice, as we have supported every security measure the government has taken in relation to COVID. But what I am saying is that we need to use this time to actually seek to beef up national quarantine so that we have greater capacity to deal with this. And I’m also saying that Australian citizenship has to mean something. And a press release or an announcement over the weekend that trumpet’s jail and fines for Australian citizens seeking to return home surely is not the way to deal with.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham what do you say we should do today and how do you think we can do it better?


Simon Birmingham: So, David, firstly, we do have to wait a little while. The number of positive cases in the Northern Territory in our national facility. In South Australia, at present in Sydney, elsewhere around the country, the number of positive cases that will now sit in the system until those people clear is such that we can’t be bringing more positive cases potentially from India into the country. Now, we’ve run 38 Commonwealth facilitated flights from India in addition to commercial services. We had another eight that were scheduled to come during May. We will restart those when it is safe to do so, and we will help the most vulnerable on those facilitated flights to get into Australia. We also are looking at how we can make sure we have pre flight testing in relation to anyone departing India so that we can actually have that testing occur in country and give us confidence that we won’t see the same sort of surge in positive cases in our facilities in Australia in the future. That’s in addition to the new places that we’ve created at Howard Springs, which will see it go up to 2000 arrivals it can facilitate per fortnight, but medi hotel still play a very important role and have overwhelmingly safely managed arrivals into the country.


David Bevan: Senator Birmingham, Finance Minister, thank you very much for your time. Senator Penny Wong.


Penny Wong: Can I just say something about Catherine House, though before I go, David?


David Bevan: Yeah sure for people who do not know Catherine House. Catherine House lost funding under the government’s shake up of homelessness programmes.


Penny Wong: I just want to say quickly, this is a service I’ve supported for many years. It is the only service of its kind for single homeless women, a group that is fast experiencing growth in homelessness. They have people on the waiting list who are escaping domestic violence. And I would really urge the state government to reverse this decision. It’s a service I visited. There are a lot of women who would not be where they are today, but for the support of Catherine House gives. So I’d add my voice to those who are saying, please refund that and also Hutt Street.


David Bevan: Penny Wong, thank you for your time. And we do appreciate Simon Birmingham, Penny Wong giving their time. What we’ve been able to agree is that over the course of this year, from time to time, we’ll get both leaders in that they lead the government and the opposition in the Senate, the most senior South Australian politicians in the federal parliament and in this state to discuss the big issues of the day. Just before you leave us Simon Birmingham, we are is it a week away from the federal budget? You are Finance Minister.


Simon Birmingham: One week tomorrow.


David Bevan: So you’d know is there going to be much in it for South Australia?


Simon Birmingham: South Australia will do well and overwhelmingly, it’s a budget for the nation. And in that sense, our focus on continuing to grow jobs, provide skills and training for people, deliver the services that Australians rely on in aged care and disability services and elsewhere. They will be at the focus of the budget. But there’s also an infrastructure element and a focus on some of the particular needs that we have in SA. As we look right around the country,


David Bevan: You’re going to put some money into the building that building those tunnels on south road?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s a key infrastructure project and we have committed to seeing the north south corridor through to its fruition. And that’s been looking-


David Bevan: That’s got very quiet the last few months. I suppose we’ve all been focussed on pandemics and things, but that’s the big one, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that is that is a very big project, as you know, and the state government had been doing the scoping work to get us to be able to make decisions on the next stages around what type of tunnels, where they would actually apply them to and so on. And so we needed that type of work for us to then have a look at how we can make commitments. And we’ve been studying their work very closely.


David Bevan: But will there be extra money for those tunnels?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to be able to reveal the budget right here, right now, but-


David Bevan: Is Corey Wingard a happy man as of today?


Simon Birmingham: I look, I always hope to make Corey Wingard and Steven Marshall happy in relation to delivery’s for SA. As I say they have done the hard yards in terms of preparing the more detailed case that was necessary. And we’ve been going through carefully looking at the timing and sequencing of that. And I’m sure we’ll have a little bit more to say over the course of the next week.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham Federal Finance Minister. Thanks for your time today.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks David. My pleasure.