Topics: COVID-19 quarantine and related issues in South Australia; tensions between Australia and China; superannuation; the SAS in Afghanistan.



Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live to the Minister for Finance, Tourism and Trade Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks so much for your time, joining us, as I say, live from Adelaide today. We’ll get to South Australia’s specific issues in a moment. But on that point that Andrew raised there, why not have the quarantining in areas outside our capital cities?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Kieran and thanks for the chance to be with you. We’re bringing home at present around 6,000 or so people per week. These are returning Australians. Federal Labor and many others have called for us to do even more, even faster. Now, we’ve been trying to do this as safely as we can in conjunction with the states and territories. You have to realise that there are capacity limits both in terms of what can be done in the cities, but if you want to look outside of the cities there are potentially even greater capacity limits in terms of the numbers of people who could be processed and bringing them back. So these are matters that, as Andrew said in his intro, states and territories have managed themselves with support from the ADF and the Federal Government in terms of how they operate those quarantine facilities.

We appreciate the cooperation. It’s been difficult at times. The caps that have been put in place have created blow outs in queues and wait times for people to try to get back to Australia. And I think what this week’s events have again shown in South Australia is that you have to take a careful, cautious approach to this, and there is no magical, silver bullet to say: Yes, we can magically get all these returning Australians home quickly and easily. It’s got to be done in a way that is as safe as possible. We have equally put the effort in place in terms of auditing the practices and the safety standards. Now, of course, this is something that everybody is learning as we go. And the incident out of SA this week where it seems as if a cleaner, from contact points, from surface touching rather than from another individual, has contracted COVID, has led to a further escalation of the security practices and testing practices around these sites.

Kieran Gilbert: When you say, though, it needs to be as safe as possible, just on that point about doing it remotely, even if the Government and states, Federal Government combined, had to invest a great deal to build that capacity for remote quarantining, it would be a lot less than the cost of a lockdown the likes of which, well, a very short-lived one in South Australia, thankfully, but a lot less than what it cost Victoria, that’s for sure.

Simon Birmingham: You also still have elements of risk. You still have to staff these things, wherever they are. So you’re still talking about security staff, cleaning staff, otherwise. I appreciate that they may not be going back into such urbanised areas, but… [video-link cuts off]

Kieran Gilbert: Okay, we’ve got a bit of a problem there. The link to Adelaide on a Sunday morning. So we’ll get that fixed for you and we’ll get back to the Minister for Trade and Finance after the break. Stay with us.

[Ad break]

Welcome back, thanks for your company. I think we’ve fixed those gremlins from out of Adelaide. The Minister for Finance and Trade’s with me, Simon Birmingham. Sorry for the delay there, but I think it’s sorted, hopefully, now. The Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas says the medi-hotel program should be suspended in South Australia to minimise the risk, given the events of the last week. What’s your response to that?

Simon Birmingham: These are cheap but cruel stunts from an Opposition at this time. Obviously we still have many thousands of Australians desperately trying to return to Australia, hoping to get back by Christmas. Now, we’ve been processing about 6,000 of those per week. Let’s remember that since the pandemic began and border restrictions were put in place more than 400,000 people have returned to Australia and overwhelmingly these have been safe, well-managed processes. Of course we’ve had to learn as we’ve gone along with an unprecedented pandemic and unknown virus as to how we definitely control things along the way, and we’ve put further safety mechanisms in place. We’ve had audits along the way to make sure that everything is done as safely as it can be.

But at a time when we’ve had Federal Labor out there calling on us to bring people back even faster, I find it amazing that we have a state Labor leader now calling us to stop bringing people back at all. And I would hope that Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong and others would dissociate themselves from Mr. Malinauskas’ remarks today.

Kieran Gilbert: You and the Prime Minister have said that international travel in 2021 might be off the cards, but we’re hearing now vaccines with an efficacy rate of upwards of 90 per cent could be rolled out within a month or so. Is international travel back on the cards for next year?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, it’s not impossible, and I would like to think that we will see such success in terms of both the vaccines and their effectiveness. Then of course the manufacturing rollout, distribution, uptake, all the other factors that come into how it is that a vaccine could change the way we look at things around this pandemic. It’s why our Government has been world-leading in terms of the types of contracts that we’ve entered into for different vaccines, securing millions of potential doses for Australians to make sure that we are about as well-placed as anybody possibly can be for our country, for our regional partners in terms of our care for our Pacific island friends. And making sure that we’ve also driven a consistent line that any vaccine breakthroughs need to be shared across the world. This can’t be technology that is held and profited upon. It’s got to be something that enables everybody to respond quickly. So I’m hopeful but…

Kieran Gilbert: But could you see Australians heading overseas in the first half of next year if they’ve been vaccinated?

Simon Birmingham: I think the first half may be challenging. But let’s just see how we go in terms of how quickly we can secure, distribute, get that take-up in relation to vaccines with the confidence and safety that everybody needs in terms of the vaccine itself being safe. And that’s why all of the standards at present are so important as well as crucially, of course, then the vaccine being effective in ensuring that people aren’t spreading COVID when they come back.

Kieran Gilbert: Can you understand why Gladys Berejiklian wants to open up- she’s saying in the papers today she wants to open up a third of her state’s hotel quarantine slots to international students and skilled migrants as a boost to the economy? Are you sympathetic to that?

Simon Birmingham: I can certainly understand. However, the priority has to remain on returning Australians. This is exactly what we’ve been talking about through this interview that getting those Australians, particularly those who might be in challenging or distressed circumstances home is a genuine priority. And we don’t want to see them left stranded or isolated because of state Labor leaders wanting to simply stop arrivals altogether or because places are unduly displaced in terms of going to other purposes. But if we can see fast enough movement in terms of the bringing down of that list of returning Australians then I would like nothing more than to see international students able to safely come through proven processes as a key part of our services export industry and a crucial part of our university system.

Kieran Gilbert: Did the Premier in your state and the Chief Health Officer lose their nerve this past week with their over-reaction to a small cluster?

Simon Birmingham: I think they sought to manage what they saw the risk being at the time and to act in ways that avoided any possibility of South Australia facing a Victorian-style three month or so lockdown, that their view was acting hard and swift for a few days was going to be far better than facing 112 days or of course the even worse circumstances that you see overseas. So I can understand the rationale, particularly given that they went from one case to 16 cases to 23 cases in the space of a couple of days, that they had some 5,000 plus people who are now in mandatory isolation as a result of the contact tracing activities. And that I think what they saw was that the contact tracing was going to reach a point of viability pressures. This instance that proved to be false, but this claim that COVID had been contracted again off another touch point off of a delivered pizza box, was a tipping point for them in terms of the potential number of contact tracing elements that they needed to chase down. So I of course would wish that the short but brief lockdown had never occurred. I wish even more that this guy had told the truth, whatever his motivations may be, but I do understand that a few days of intensive restrictions are certainly a damn sight better than a few months.

Kieran Gilbert: No argument there. I want to ask you about some other stories. The list of 14 grievances from China issued in the last week, none were really a surprise, the PM says they go to our national interest. Are we in a stalemate now with China?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, it’s very much a case, as I’ve said many times before, that the ball is in China’s court. From the Australian Government’s perspective we, like China or any other nation, will always stand up for our values and our interests and protect our sovereignty and security. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t also open to dialogue, engagement and cooperation with our partner countries across the globe. And that is very much where we are at with China, that as a government Australia is willing to continue in all of the areas of mutual benefit in engagement between Australia and China. We have emphasised and stressed that time and time again. Our cooperation, our economic partnership has been outstanding for each of our countries and for the region over the last couple of decades. It’s lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, created enormous new opportunities in growth across this region. And that is certainly why we think it is in China’s best interest, Australia’s best interest, the region’s best interest, at a time when economic recovery is so crucial, for that cooperation to continue. And it’s why we are so deeply concerned at the fact that the number of regulatory interventions China has taken this year that seem to have disrupted the flow of trade do then undermine that economic cooperation.

Kieran Gilbert: Why can some Asian nations, some with territorial disputes with China, much more pertinent than Australia in terms of how close they are to that massive country, but how do they maintain workable relations, yet ours has deteriorated so much?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, again, in many ways you’re asking a question that is a question for Chinese authorities as to why they may have chosen to seemingly single out Australia in some way for commentary and/or action in different ways. We believe that there are many grounds upon which our two countries have successfully cooperated, not only in terms of economic grounds. We’ve cooperated successfully in terms of security and we’ve cooperated successfully in terms of areas of health cooperation such as…

Kieran Gilbert:             The Treasurer this week tried to calm things down. He was slapped down, basically, he was rejected. So it doesn’t look promising.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I certainly don’t think that a number of the actions from China’s embassy in Australia have been particularly helpful this year. Comments of the ambassador at the start of the year that essentially were threats of coercion. These actions in terms of providing lists of documents of claimed grievances, even though they are the types of things that, as I say, any country rightly does in terms of providing for rules around foreign investment to make sure it’s in the national interest, rules to protect critical infrastructure and security provisions in nations. That’s something that China does as much as Australia does.

Kieran Gilbert: And the lack of face-to-face summits like APEC and East Asia Summit, those things that normally would give the Prime Minister a chance to have an aside chat with the President Xi Jinping, that’s not afforded this year, is it? So that’s unfortunate in a way that the Prime Minister’s having these virtual summits at a time when he really needs to have a face-to-face discussion.

Simon Birmingham: I think that’s quite an appropriate observation, Kieran, that, yes, COVID does certainly add a degree of difficulty in terms of working through some of these issues. I would, normally, through all of these types of summits and plurilateral trade negotiations or multi-country trade negotiations, have a whole range of official and unofficial meetings on the margins with my counterparts. The Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister would do exactly the same thing. And so it has been one of the extra challenges this year that that informal dialogue, those seizing of the opportunities and moments have been much harder to come by, basically impossible to come by in some of these circumstances. So that certainly doesn’t help. I’m not saying that it would fix the current circumstances, but it is yet another hindrance in terms of addressing them.

Kieran Gilbert: Couple of other issues before you go. Superannuation: the report released by the Treasurer is clear-cut, saying maintaining the superannuation guarantee at 9.5 per cent would allow for higher living standards in working life. Working life income for most people would be around 2 per cent higher in the long run. That’s just one of its assertions, but it’s basically saying that the rate should stay where it is. Now, the report is clear. Is the Government spooked by the politics of this?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, the report is clear that there are trade-offs that exist between working life income and retirement income, that superannuation is a very important vehicle in terms of protecting people in their retirement years, and it certainly is. But so too are measures such as home ownership, and of course the Aged Pension remaining a crucial factor in supporting those who may not be able to save effectively for their retirement through either compulsory or voluntary vehicles of saving. So there are a range of different inputs to this. This report is an important one, so too is the analysis and observations of the Reserve Bank of Australia, the work of entities like the Grattan Institute. And the Government’s being clear that we will work through all of these issues in terms of any decisions that are to be made and respond appropriately next year.

Kieran Gilbert: And finally, before I let you go, the SAS, that story, well, the Brereton report, so concerning some of its findings. How damaging is that to our international reputation? As someone who represents Australia in an official capacity are you worried about the damage in terms of our international reputation, the prestige of our military?

Simon Birmingham: It is a troubling report, it’s troubling at many levels. It’s troubling for the many thousands of Australian service personnel who have served our nation with nothing but distinction. And we ought to make sure that, first of all, we call them out for praise and thanks and for acknowledgement. Because this should certainly not tarnish everyone. The vast, vast majority have done us nothing but pride and good service.

This, though, yes does show a problem. What it also shows, though, is that Australia is a country that owns up to problems and that has a far higher level of transparency than, perhaps, many other nations of the world. So yes it creates some challenges in terms of the instances that occurred. But I think we can also, in our international engagement, hold our head high that where these sorts of terrible, atrocious things have occurred, Australia doesn’t shirk away from it. We go through proper processes, we make sure that we expose it and we are transparent to the world then about how we are going about fixing it. That transparency is something that not all others would apply the same standards to.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate it. Talk to you soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran, my pleasure.