Interview on Sky News Live, AM Agenda with Kenny Heatley

Topics:  Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Quarantine facilities;


Kenny Heatley:  Simon Birmingham joins me live from Adelaide. Minister, thanks so much for your time today. So after this, should the Nationals keep the water portfolio?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. It’s good to be with you. And look we’ve worked very well and with the current Water Minister, Keith Pitt, and with his predecessor in the portfolio, David Littleproud, each have shown an ability to work across the different Basin states. And that’s a really important thing. Amidst all of this, people do have to acknowledge there are strongly held views in different communities across the Murray-Darling Basin. The only way the plan is successfully implemented is by being able to work across those views, bringing the National Party water minister in New South Wales, together with Labor Party water ministers in Victoria and Queensland, and the ACT and the Liberal Party water minister in South Australia, and making sure you actually achieve consensus out of all of that lot. And I think Keith Pitt and before him David Littleproud, have done a good job in recent times in working through some of those issues. And if that’s where it falls, well, I have confidence that they will continue to do so and hold the course in terms of implementing the Basin Plan, which is already now seeing thousands of billions of litres of water recovered in efficient ways for distribution to environmental assets, not just in South Australia, but up and down the length and breadth of the Murray and Darling River systems.


Kenny Heatley: Is this what it’s like now in parliament now that Barnaby Joyce is back as Nationals Leader, that you have to be constantly on the lookout now for ambushes in the Senate?


Simon Birmingham: No, look, I don’t think that that’s the case at all. I think we saw a number of backbench senators exercising their freedom as backbenchers, which is something the Liberal and National Parties accord our team. It’s not something that Labor members and senators have. But I do have a degree of freedom to speak up and speak out on behalf of their constituents. But the important thing is the policy and the policy remains resolute. It’s a coalition government that introduced the Water Act under John Howard back in 2007. We have stood by in a bipartisan way in terms of implementing the Water Act and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and we’ll continue to do so.


Kenny Heatley: Can I ask you about the Mickleham quarantine facility in Victoria? Why was Mickleham chosen over Avalon?


Simon Birmingham: So we’ve had officials on the ground working through these different issues with Victorian officials looking carefully in terms of the different aspects of the different sites. Ultimately, some of the advice is clear that in terms of getting things done as quickly as possible, Mickleham provides the best possible prospect of doing so. There are fewer environmental considerations in relation to getting approvals through the Mickleham site. There is better, closer infrastructure, particularly around sewage management at the Mickleham site compared with what we would have to build at Avalon the real considerations that government has to make. If we do this, we want to make sure we do it as quickly as we possibly can. And that’s been a driving factor. We’ve already through the parliament this week provided exemptions from some of the usual public works committee scrutiny processes so that we don’t have to hold up the letting of contracting and that we can get this work underway.


Kenny Heatley: Is this facility going to host a different kind of traveller or is it just to expand the beds of the hotel quarantine programme? How exactly is it going to be used?


Simon Birmingham: So in some ways, that’s for the Victorian government. They will be through this COVID outbreak operating the facility. What I would anticipate is that they will use it as the first source of housing returning travellers, that they may use it in relation to housing travellers from certain priority countries or priority cohorts in relation to where they put them. But it’s additional to the hotel quarantine facilities that Victoria continues to operate. That is an important thing for everyone to understand. This proposal came to us from Victoria as an option to create additional capacity and capability, and that’s why we’re moving ahead with it. It meets the criteria the Commonwealth outlined in terms of proximity to an international airport that receives frequent passenger flights in terms of proximity to a sufficiently equipped hospital. It meets the criteria in terms of providing additionality. And I’m confident that we will work with Victoria in terms of its operation. And crucially, we’re doing it because it’s not just about the short term of managing COVID, but also recognising that perhaps these facilities can play other roles into the future in terms of greater resilience in responding to natural disaster or other unforeseen events such as this pandemic,


Kenny Heatley: Does this pave the way for more facilities across the country?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, we’re not going to hoist them onto states or territories, but where states and territories have shown a desire or an interest in such facilities, we’re working through those considerations. It’s why we have with the Queensland government and the West Australian Government, provided some options of Commonwealth land that we think could be feasible in terms of meeting those criteria that I outlined before, the proximity of international passenger movements, the proximity in terms of the standard of health care that’s necessary and meeting other criteria that’s important. And if those state and territory governments wish to work through those options with us, then we will do so as expeditiously as possible, knowing that as a result of the work being undertaken with Victoria, we can move through these things pretty quickly from here on in.


Kenny Heatley: Minister for Finance Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time today on AM Agenda.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.