Topics: New COVID variant; Solomon Islands; Commonwealth Integrity Commission; Boothby; National Plan




Laura Jayes: Joining me live now as the Minister for Finance, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time, this new variant out of South Africa. Are you aware of it and is there anything that you’re doing about it immediately?

Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, Laura. Yes, of course I am aware of it. And as always, our Australian authorities, our medical advisers and teams will be working very closely as part of those global discussions to ensure that we have the best possible information and analysis available to us that will be brought to the National Security Committee of Cabinet, where we have undertaken the majority of the COVID discussions so that we can have full information, that the Health Minister will brief and share with the Prime Minister and others to ensure that we maintain a complete awareness of these sorts of situations. We have throughout every step of COVID-19, been able to keep on top of the international situations and will make sure that we continue to do so with the best possible analysis.

Laura Jayes: The UK has already put in place travel bans to six African nations. Do we need to follow suit immediately?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll look very carefully at any of those considerations, the most important early decision that was made way back on the first of February last year was when Scott Morrison determined to close Australia’s international borders to China, and from there we took a series of subsequent decisions, ultimately with that global closure of our borders for quite a long period of time. Now we’re taking the careful steps at present to reopen those borders. They have been careful steps, but of course we will watch very carefully these sorts of developments, and if we need to target closures in certain locations, then we won’t hesitate to do so.

Laura Jayes: Yeah. Does this highlight kind of vaccinating the world is as much in our own self-interest as anything else? If the if poorer nations are not vaccinated, we risk getting these new variants that might eventually infect Australia.

Simon Birmingham: It’s a very good point, Laura, that yes, of course, protecting Australians is our first responsibility as an Australian national government and we have now one of the most heavily protected populations in the world in terms of the vaccine rollout in Australia, the reach of it to now more than 90 per cent of the Australian population double dosed. And one of the first countries in the world to be able to deploy a population scale booster effort. But alongside that, we have been committing and delivering millions of doses to other countries within our region to, of course, our Pacific Island family, but also then across countries to our north in Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste. And indeed, millions of doses of support for Indonesia as well as Vietnam. And we will continue to work as hard as we can and to continue to encourage other countries through our leadership to support that global effort to achieve higher vaccination rates.

Laura Jayes: You know, the Pacific is largely our responsibility in many ways whose responsibility is Africa?

Simon Birmingham: Well, you’ve always seen particularly European nations play a very large role in terms of affairs and engagement with Africa. It’s ultimately the world’s responsibility to look as best we can across the globe. But Australia, a country of our size and scale, looks very much to our region, first and foremost as to where we can provide that support. However, the collaboration that we’ve seen through, particularly the G20 through other international fora, the commitments made by the Quad leadership as well. All of that is about making sure that that we can reach this far into the world as possible, knowing that it is not just vaccine availability that is the challenge in so many of these countries. It is also, of course, actually having the distribution channels to be able to effectively reach into those populations at scale.

Laura Jayes: Indeed, it is. We’ve spoken about vaccine diplomacy and the influence that China has tried to exercise during the pandemic. We are also seeing something that’s a little closer to home now with China has been in the past trying to exercise its influence over the Solomon Islands. We have now sent troops there after days of unrest. Is this an opportunity to re-exert our influence in the region?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think I think you can see there is a vote of confidence from the Solomon Islands in the relationship that they have with Australia, we’re there as a friend, as a partner, as a nation that has a long standing history of working closely with the Solomon Islands and has a bilateral security treaty in place. And it was under that treaty that we have sent Australian Federal Police and support defence forces to be able to help the restoration of peace and stability in the Solomon Islands. And we have done so at the request of the government of the Solomon Islands. Our teams on the ground there will be working closely hand in glove with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to ensure that we are there to support them, not to engage in their domestic politics, not to engage in the underlying issues that might be related to the tensions that are there, but simply to help to ensure that critical infrastructure is protected and peace and stability restored to the streets of the Solomon Islands.

Laura Jayes: It’s been quite a busy week in Canberra, as some would say, chaotic at times. The prime minister yesterday also had quite a crack at New South Wales ICAC. He described it as a kangaroo court, which treated Gladys Berejiklian quote ‘disgracefully’, do you agree?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, Laura, look, I think we’ve seen too often that that we get sensationalist approaches to some of these bodies when they’re set up and sensationalist approaches that feel and look like it’s more about headline grabbing than it is about the pursuit of any genuine issues of criminal corruption. Now, of course, where there is criminal corruption, we should firmly see that pursued and pursued vigorously. That’s why we have, first and foremost, a range of different Commonwealth law, integrity and enforcement agencies already in place well-funded, able to do that. But in terms of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, it’s why we’ve also developed the legislation for an integrity commission funded to the tune of some $150 million and we’ll be ready to move on that legislation if the Labor Party indicated its support to get that legislation passed. But what we’re not going to do is set up some sort of kangaroo court or Star Chamber.

Laura Jayes: But why do you need the Labor Party? I mean, you are still in government, you are still in government. Why do you need the Labor Party to introduce legislation you promised it 1000 days ago?

Simon Birmingham: No, no, no. We don’t, we don’t need them to introduce legislation, but we need them to indicate that they will actually support.

Laura Jayes: Why…

Simon Birmingham: A sensible model, a sensible model…

Laura Jayes: Why? You’re in Government, don’t you set the rules?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t have the numbers through both chambers of Parliament.

Laura Jayes: Yeah, but you’ve got the crossbench.

Simon Birmingham: We don’t have the numbers through both chambers of Parliament. I wish Laura that being the government meant that we set the rules in that sort of way, but that’s not obviously the way, particularly my chamber, the Senate works. In the Senate it is always a case of negotiation and approaches. This week, we’ve managed to pass a number of important bills around national security legislation, in particular with the support of the Labor Party. I acknowledge that, I thank them for that. That’s the way we can get those sorts of issues addressed, and we could do the same in relation to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission if Labor was willing to take a sensible approach, not wanting to see some sort of Star Chamber or kangaroo court established.

Laura Jayes: All right. I don’t know whether that’s the wind of change there in Adelaide, where you are this morning, you’re hoping to hold on to Boothby. The Prime Minister is going to be there with the new candidate. What do you think?

Simon Birmingham: I have, I’ve just seen her walking, walking along behind the cameraman, Dr Rachel Swift, our new liberal candidate for Boothby, whose medical science background. It would be an exceptional gift to the Australian parliament, and she would be a great advocate for the people of Boothby. Look, it’s great to be here back home in Adelaide, and now that borders have reopened this week for the prime minister to be able to return here and Steven Marshall is showing incredible leadership in taking these steps in accordance with the National Plan. Doing so safely, carefully, but reopening, which is providing the type of economic uplift that we want to see right across the country and as we are now seeing with the latest payroll jobs data showing 350,000 jobs coming back as reopening’s were occurring,

Laura Jayes: Is it really a national plan when WA and Queensland are pretty much totally ignoring it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I wouldn’t say that, you know, they have certainly used elements of the national plan and Queensland indeed does have its state and arrangements for reopening that are broadly in keeping with the national plan. Western Australia, we all understand, has laid out its pathway. What I would say there is I hope that all states and territories can continue to move forward moving forward is what’s important at this point in time. Obviously, if circumstances change, such as those we were just discussing at the outset around countries like South Africa, then we’ll work with the states and territories in how we can best respond to those circumstances and we’ll lead in terms of international borders, wherever that’s necessary.

Laura Jayes: Moving forward? Sounds like that slogan that Julia Gillard used in her campaign. You’ve got a new slogan for this quasi campaign.

Simon Birmingham: No, it’s purely an observation they’re about the importance of, as we reopen, as we take these steps through the national plan, it should be a case of continuing to take positive steps, take steps forward. That’s what we, I think, all want to see as a country. It’s what’s enabling people to get back to their lives and to get back to their businesses, to get hundreds of thousands of jobs re-created and for government to step back out of their lives a little bit compared with what we’ve had over the last couple of years.

Laura Jayes: I thought it might have just been an Adelaide thing minister. We’re well over time. Thanks so much for calling.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.