Laura Jayes: Australia’s international border reopening will be discussed today as a two week pause on the reopening in response to the Omicron variant is due to end on Wednesday. A decision will be made on whether skilled migrants and international students can return or the travel ban extended. Joining me live now is the Minister for Finance, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. Will we open to visa holders on the 15th?
Simon Birmingham: Hi, Laura. Look, I think we should be very optimistic that we will see this sort of opening happen relatively soon. Now, final decisions and announcements will be made, of course, by the Prime Minister in due course. But as we’ve continued to gather as much information as we can about the Omicron variant to make sure that we take sensible, safe precautions and continue with our approach to reopening, that it be done in the safest, most cautious possible way. While occurring as quickly as possible. We’ve been making sure that we get the best possible analysis and evidence, and from there, I think we can have confidence that certainly international students who are looking to start next year should expect to be back in Australia and that we’re well placed with our very, very high vaccination rates and the next steps now being taken in the booster programme and the childhood immunisation program to really keep Australians safe and secure while we reopen.
Laura Jayes: What was the point of the two week pause, though? What have we actually gain from it?
Simon Birmingham: Information. The chance to be able to better understand the rate of spread, the impact in terms of severity of illness and the efficacy of vaccines against it. Now, there are still some questions to be answered in relation to some of those details. But we do have an improving, really improving on a day by day basis, understanding in terms of to what extent this spreads as fast as Delta or may be a little bit faster. The extent to which the health impacts are possibly a little less than what we’ve seen previously and really the questions around the efficacy of vaccines being a key part that we continue to work with medical scientists to get a true picture of. But again, people should have confidence that vaccines provide meaningful protection against Omicron and all variants to date of COVID-19. And that’s why keeping those vaccination rates high, getting those boosters and pursuing childhood vaccinations are going to be so crucial.
Laura Jayes: In the interest of transparency in a year where the unexpected has certainly come to the fore. What is the trigger going forward for pausing or shutting our borders once again?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura. We’ll have to take each step as we go, obviously high risk situations, we’ve shown a willingness to respond quickly to in the past. We did that in relation to COVID19, initially way back on the first of February last year, when the first decision to close our borders to China was made and subsequent decisions to a number of other countries and eventually to the world. We did that in the difficult circumstances in relation to travel from India earlier this year, where there were particular threats and challenges in terms of spread at the time that we just had to confront. And so we made those difficult decisions. Now we’ve made this delay on this occasion, and yes, it does mean that there is always a risk into the future. But now that we have such a highly vaccinated population, it would take something quite extraordinary to change that risk factor and see us go back to those widespread border closures that we were pursuing earlier.
Laura Jayes: We now have a vaccine or we’ll soon have a vaccine available for children in Australia. This comes months after other countries have done this. Do you expect there will be a higher level of hesitancy around vaccines for children? And what are you planning to combat that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think certainly parents are both eager to have their children vaccinated, but want the reassurance in relation to the safety and the processes around that. And so yes, a handful of other countries have started childhood vaccination programs, but it’s by no means been widespread across the globe. We do, however, now have enough data from the US where I think it’s around four million first doses administered to children and around 1.5 million, I think it is, second doses administered to children. Providing an underpinning there in terms of how the rollout to children has gone and the success that has been in terms of both the safety around vaccine administration and increasing effectiveness in terms of preventing and reducing the spread of COVID-19 or the incidence of illness. Remembering that children historically have shown a very high resistance to COVID and a very low likelihood of serious illness to date. But the vaccine is going to provide an additional protection, particularly in terms of helping to further slow transmission and in further slowing transmission, not just protecting kids but protecting their parents, their grandparents, their teachers and the other loved people in their lives. So that’s the very important role that it can play. Of course, we have to make sure that clear information. Is there reassurance to Australian parents that we have gone through all the normal, proper, thorough processes. We’ve taken the time to get that data from overseas in terms of the rollout in the United States, in terms of as well some of the analysis from other countries about the ideal optimum time frame between first and second doses. And look, I checked when I’m due for my booster shots, which I think is on the 17th of January, just 10 days after the kids become eligible for their first doses. So, leading by example, I think we might be doing a big January family outing for four boosters and first doses in my household.
Laura Jayes: Oh, there you go. A family vaccine outing sounds wild. [Laughs] Now let’s get to defence matters. Change tack a moment, now hot on the heels of scrapping the French subs, it now seems that your government is scrapping the Taipan fleet as well. How much money have you wasted in these changing decisions?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the Taipan are in service right now. This is not a change that is completely analogous to the change in terms of submarine, where we made the decision before we got to the point of construction, let alone them being in service. The Taipans are providing a service to our Defence Forces. But we have done the analysis in terms of operational capabilities, reliability, all of those different things and believe that in terms of future needs, future procurements, we’re going to be better served by going in a different direction. That’s about making what are not always easy or popular decisions with suppliers of particular military equipment, but making sure that we continue to follow the best possible analysis that’s available to us about what our Defence Force needs in the future and making those capability decisions.
Laura Jayes: Gladys Berejiklian doesn’t want to join your government. What does that say?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Gladys is saying she doesn’t want to continue in politics, and she’s going to take a different direction. Now, Gladys is a dear friend of mine for many decades, standing since before either of us served in parliament, and I wish her nothing but the success and happiness in the future. I’ve got no doubt that, like other former premiers Nick Greiner or Barry O’Farrell, that Gladys will go on to serve with great distinction in the private sector and contributing in other ways and other roles that she undertakes. I would have loved to see her run for federal parliament, but as I said to you last week and have emphasised time and again, it was always her decision. It’s entirely understandable after the gruelling time she’s had leading New South Wales and the challenges she’s faced in recent months that she decides to go in a different direction.
Laura Jayes: Do you think it’s because she thinks that you might not win?
Simon Birmingham: No, I think it’s because she wants to do something else with their life. I believe what she’s saying when she makes her public statements there, she’s indicated-
Laura Jayes: She didn’t rule it out completely. That should be, said Minister. She did not rule it out completely. She said they’d have to be a long time before she consider it again. But if she went into federal politics, she could be the prime minister. Pretty soon after that, couldn’t she?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Gladys certainly has those capabilities, but I know she’s also a pretty modest and humble person and that if she chose to do so at some stage into the future, she would expect to chart her own course and to do so step by step and to show respect to all those that she was coming to work alongside of. If there’s one thing I know Gladys wouldn’t do is push herself in ways that were about her rather than her community or the people she was seeking to serve and to work alongside of. Gladys is somebody who’s always seen the job itself, whether it be the job as premier serving the people of New South Wales as being bigger than her. And that’s why she stepped aside as premier. I know she also sees the party as being bigger than her individual role and that she’s always respected for her contribution to the Liberal Party, not seeking to overtake or control the Liberal Party and so in every single way. You know, Gladys is a person who I have deep admiration for, great personal respect for, and as I think everybody would wish her nothing but all the best in whatever the next steps are. And if she has a contribution to make in public life that she decides to do at some point in the future, that’d be very, very welcome. But it’s still her call.
Laura Jayes: Well, we know the ICAC findings are ahead. So that’s one thing that is certainly coming up for her. Simon Birmingham we’ll leave it there today. We’ll speak to you next week. Thanks so much.