Topics: Return of Australians from overseas; Border restrictions; UK-Australia Free Trade Deal.



Danica De Giorgio:      Well the first special charter flight to help Australians stranded overseas will land in the Northern Territory today. The Qantas flight from London to Darwin is the first of eight, designed to bring about 5000 people home. Joining me now live is Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning. Thank you for joining me. Certainly, welcome news for these Australians finally arriving back on home soil. But there’s still around 32,000 Aussies that want to return home. No doubt, a big topic of conversation to come out of National Cabinet today. How hard do you think it will be to get the states to lift the cap on international arrivals?

Simon Birmingham:     Well good morning and thanks for the opportunity. Look, it is good news for these 161 Australians who will land in Darwin today. And they are on top of the almost 400,000 Australians who have returned home since the start of the pandemic. So we have seen a huge wave of Aussies returning home; many successfully processed through the quarantine facilities at the state and territory level. But, of course, the crisis that came after the Victorian second wave occurred, caused as it was due to a failure in hotel quarantine that saw Victoria close all international arrivals and other states and territories put in place very low, tight and restrictive caps in many cases.

Now, we’ve worked with them to safely increase those caps. We’ve opened Howards Springs Facility in the Northern Territory that’s going to facilitate some 5000 returnees over the coming months and we want to see, if we can, further safe increases. The decision in relation to New Zealanders coming into Australia now without having to pass through quarantine, if they’re entering through New South Wales, SA or the Northern Territory is again a positive because that will take people who didn’t need to be in quarantine out of those facilities and free up even more space for Aussies returning from hotspots around other parts of the world.

Danica De Giorgio:      How confident though, are you, Minister, that National Cabinet will be able to sort this out today, particularly what we saw come out of that Trans-Tasman bubble debacle of the week?

Simon Birmingham:     Well it’s an iterative process and so we don’t expect that everything is solved in just the click of a finger. It’s about making sure that we keep getting gains. And the gains we have had, with the states and territories agreeing to lift their quarantine capacity with the opening of Howard Springs now, with the ability of Kiwis, who in the main have been entering Australia through Sydney, and of course, primarily, they will now overwhelmingly choose to come in through Sydney or through Adelaide; the flights are put on to be able to enter without having to go through quarantine.

And I hope other states will sensibly look at the fact that New Zealand’s success in suppressing COVID is as good as anywhere else in the world, is as good as any other Australian state. And therefore, we ought to have confidence in terms of their ability to enter quarantine-free. And that way, they’re not taking up beds that could otherwise be used for Australians returning from India or from London or from other more remote parts of the world.

Danica De Giorgio:      What about in terms of the domestic border situation? The Prime Minister has previously flagged that he would hope that national borders would be open by Christmas. There’s been a lot of criticism of decisions being made in individual states. Take Western Australia, for example, the Chief Health Officer there said that it would be wise for WA to open up to some of the state’s that are seemingly COVID-free. But that Government there, not doing so. Would the Federal Government intervene if there has been no movement before Christmas?

Simon Birmingham:     This really is a matter for the states to justify to their electorates, their communities as to why they are continuing, in cases like WA, to harm the employment and job prospects of people who work in airlines, in hire cars, in city hotels, work along the Nullarbor, in roadhouses and other places. All of those people’s jobs are threatened as a result of Mark McGowan’s decision. If he keeps these borders in place until we get to the end of the year, well, he’s going to have to explain it to families who can’t see loved ones and can’t reconnect with other people across the rest of the country.

We are seeing, I think, other states having either taken or taking positive steps. And I applaud the Northern Territory and South Australia for the way that they have approached these issues. And I recognise the fact that Queensland has opened up in some cases. And there’s debate, of course, very much about the New South Wales border there. Tasmania is about to take steps, we understand, and that’s to be welcomed.

So we’re getting breakthroughs there and that’s pleasing. And that will help to reunite people with loved ones. It will help to save jobs in our transport and tourism sectors. And the states who aren’t doing that will have to answer to their electorates, to their communities about why those jobs are being lost and why those loved ones can’t reunite.

Danica De Giorgio:      But Minister, can I ask you, would you like to see the Prime Minister intervene? Because the reality is there’s thousands of families across the country that might not see their loved ones this Christmas. And while it is up to the individual states and territories, at what point does the Federal Government say enough is enough?

Simon Birmingham:     The Federal Government doesn’t automatically have any powers to intervene. So these are state based decisions, there have been various talks around High Court challenges and the like that could question then the validity of the decisions that the states have made. There’s no power for the Federal government just to come in and override those decisions in that regard. This is a matter that states and territories have taken. We have been clear and consistent, the health advice ought to be what guides decisions. We supported the quarantining of Victoria from the rest of the country because we could see the obvious threat that existed there during that second wave. And so we’re not against using borders where it makes sense and we have supported the states and territories to do that. And of course, that was crucial, as it turned out, to avoid a second wave spreading into New South Wales or South Australia. But the border between Western Australia and South Australia or Western Australia and the Northern Territory, well that should have been open long ago. And there are many, particularly border communities in much more remote settings than we talked about around Victoria. But there’s still border communities who are doing it tough because there is virtually no traffic going across those roads on the Nullarbor.

Danica De Giorgio:      Yeah, it’s a difficult situation for sure. Let’s move on to trade now, particularly the UK-Australia trade deal. How close is Australia to securing this?

Simon Birmingham:     We’re still a little bit of a way to go, there are some key negotiations to make sure we get a trade deal that has sufficient ambition. Australia wants to make sure that we don’t just do a deal, but it’s one that is good for our farmers, for our exporters, for our businesses. And so we will need, at the end of this negotiation, to have the UK – who start, of course, having inherited high tariffs, high protectionist walls and quotas and barriers from the membership of the European Union – agreeing to sufficiently lower those so that it’s a trade deal worth doing. Now, I hope that can be achieved this year. And I’m going to work as hard as I can as Trade Minister through to the end of the year to try to get that done. But we won’t do it unless it’s a good deal for Australian exporters, Australian businesses, and, of course, for the two-way relationship. There’s room to grow in both directions.

Danica De Giorgio:      There had been some suggestions that, I guess, one of the options coming out of the trade deal would be longer visa stays for young Australians. Would you consider a more a freedom of movement deal to live and work in both countries without a visa?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, a trade deal is a trade deal, it’s not an immigration opening up arrangement. But if there are opportunities that align very much with the things that are covered in trade agreements, such as the mutual recognition of professional services and the ability of people as a result of investments that are made in each other’s countries to work in managing those businesses and delivering crucial or critical services in those businesses. And yes, if we can explore the long tradition of young Australians and young Brits travelling to one another’s countries and how we can make that as easy as possible, we’re open to absolutely doing that too.

Danica De Giorgio:      So just finally, Minister, have you been able to establish whether China has issued a formal or informal ban on Australian coal and cotton?

Simon Birmingham:     We continue to have no clear evidence of a formal declaration by China, but clearly the feedback coming from Australian businesses dealing with their Chinese counterparts is deeply concerning. It is for China to rule out the fact that if there is any discrimination against Australian producers or exporters in these circumstances, and we would clearly be deeply concerned if such discriminatory practices were being deployed, which could be in breach of some of China’s international and bilateral undertakings.

Danica De Giorgio:      Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time. Thanks for joining me.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you. My pleasure.