Press conference, Cairns
Construction commencement of Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine; Office refurbishment
6 September 2016

Simon Birmingham: … $42 million institute that the Federal Government is backing is really about marrying together our world class capabilities in research with the enormous opportunities that exist in the tropics, which by 2050 will house half of the world's population. It really is about backing Australia's strengths in research, especially in health and medical research with the enormous global opportunities that exist and problems that are there to be solved across challenges like malaria, tuberculosis and the Zika virus. James Cook University has been a global leader in terms of its research undertakings, and is the obvious choice as Australia's university for the tropics to really deliver on this institute and to make sure that across Thursday Island, Cairns and Townsville, the different research undertaking to get the maximum benefit.

I want to particularly pay tribute to Warren Entsch and Ian Macdonald who’ve championed this project for many years, delivered the Federal Government commitment of funding which is now making it a reality that will deliver benefits not just through the construction phase but through research undertakings that will have an impact not just for years but for decades to come.

Question: Do you think this will go, I guess, some way towards making up for previous funding cuts to places like CSIRO and other research [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: We continue to see overall growth in the level of research that's being undertaken in Australia and investment in research, and what we're focused on is ensuring that the targeted research investment through the Australian Research Council here gets the maximum benefit in terms of creating jobs across this region and benefits in an area where Australia has a natural and competitive advantage in that field of tropical medicine and health research. Thanks guys.

Question: Thank you. So you've spoken out a lot about TB in the past; do you see this facility as being able to find some of the solutions to [indistinct]?

Warren Entsch: Oh, it's unquestionable. I think it provides a fabulous opportunity here. I mean, this is the Australian institute here, the national institute, and one of the first of the first tropical institutes at this time in the tropical world, so I think we can be very excited about that. On top of that, you know, there is a race now to try and find a vaccine that – for tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is one of the largest killers in the world, and huge numbers of people die every year from tuberculosis. And the research that … or the treatments for tuberculosis in many cases are no different to what they were in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, so there is a need for research to be developed in this area, and JCU already has some world's leaders in this field, and this will provide them with the opportunity to be able to build on that research.

So – and you know, remember that one of the highest burdened tuberculosis regions in the world is four kilometres from Australia's border, four kilometres. And there's no – we have no idea of the number of deaths up there, because many of them go unrecorded. But it's not only just tuberculosis, but you've got multi drug resistant uberculosis and you've also extensive drug resistant  tuberculosis, and some of these challenges are very, very real, and unless we do the research now, there's a real prospect of those coming here in greater numbers [indistinct]. So yes, it is a great opportunity for us, and to be able to – not only in tuberculosis, that's certainly a focus that I have, but a lot of the other tropical diseases – we’re talking about Zika virus today for example, another area we can excel here. So I'm very excited that it's happening here, and certainly looking forward to seeing the finalisation and having it up and working.

Question: Sort of we're looking at the construction phase today, but will there need to be continued funding to ensure that research can happen out of this facility?

Warren Entsch: Well look, re- the facility itself is going to be built. There is a whole raft of areas where funding can come forth for specific research projects, and the Australian taxpayer, through the Australian Government is one way of doing that. But I'm actually the Australian Convenor for the Global Tuberculosis Malaria and HIV Caucus  and we are at the moment in negotiations with governments around the world for the replenishment of the Global Fund, which is expected at the end of this month. Now, you know, we're talking about literally billions and billions of dollars, with a focus on things like tuberculosis, diseases like tuberculosis et cetera. There is a great opportunity there, with the facilities that we are constructing here, to be able to bid for some of that funding, to be able to do that world class research to find that magic formula for the vaccine.

So there are a whole raft of other ways. Government funding is part of research, but there are a lot of other opportunities that a world class facility like this will open the door to to be able to access a lot more than would ever be expected to be coming just purely by taxpayer funding, including other governments. I mean, we're sitting here today, we're doing this – university's got here, they got people from Ethiopia and other countries here that are studying here, building on their skills, and you know, many of these other tropical countries are likely to be interested in investing in what we're doing here as well, because it's of benefit right across our tropical region.

Question: And just following on about an article in today’s paper …

Warren Entsch: Yeah.

Question: … yeah, half a million dollar fit-out for your office. Is the criticism that some members of the public might have, is that fair?

Warren Entsch: Well look, well I've got say to you if they gave me a tent to work out of then somebody would  criticise. I have no say over that. I mean, at the end of the day the lease had been expired, there was a whole raft of reasons. They talk about itinerants and the safety of my staff but that was not all of the reasons why it was not suitable. I mean, the reality is that the office that was identified was infinitely cheaper in rent, much cheaper in rent, parking, particularly for older constituents, and I tend to have a much larger number of seniors that come through my office. There was a whole raft of reasons there that we thought that it was appropriate not to continue on the lease, and when it comes to – and actually I selected an office that we were quite happy with its – the fit-out. There was only minor modifications required.

Unfortunately, what I'm happy with is not necessarily what the department is happy with, and one of the challenges we had there was that in the complex, in the building complex there was no disability toilets or facilities, and for them to do that- for me to be able to move there, they had to actually build these facilities. Now – which are available to everybody in the complex. So you know, I mean, I think it needs to be put into perspective. In talking to the local builder that did the job, he tells me that it's on par with the fit-out of that type anywhere in Cairns. The local suppliers, everything from the locks to the carpets to the paints to everything else was all provided locally, so there was a benefit there, but at the end of the day I've got absolutely no control over the project management of- in fact, the project manager from Brisbane that was supplied originally I objected to, and they were removed from it, so we kept it all local.

But you know, there are standards and requirements, workplace health and safety and other issues, we've had the builders [indistinct] and so the cost was there, yes, but it was [inaudible] people have got access, much easier access into the building, there’s disability facilities there now that weren't in that complex in the past, and so all of these are accessible by the community, and we have community groups who access the meeting space  and they do on a very regular basis. So no, look, I mean, at the end of the day it doesn't matter what I spend [indistinct] I still get complaints, I can't – I have no control over those things.

Question: The refurbishing, it was a cost of almost a nice sort of house, is that – is it warranted? It was among the highest of the state.

Warren Entsch: Well there was only three  to compare to with respect, and I think I was the second, so it was [indistinct] three of us. You know, you've got to compare apples with apples, and it's hard to say that yes, of course, you could refurb  a house or you could purchase a bus or something else, purchase meals or footballs I see there was a comparison on that, you can make all sorts of comparisons but these things, they do cost money. People expect to be able to get access to their local member. They expect to do a – we were constantly getting complaints from people that couldn't find parking, and either just give up or end up having to pay significant parking fines, when they came and they couldn't leave. I don't think it's acceptable for my staff to have to walk over where somebody has crapped on the front step in the middle of the night, there's a dark area there, or step over syringes, or to be accosted having to walk, you know, two or three blocks to be able to find their car late at night. I think that staff safety [indistinct] also. Police did a great job, they were regularly around there, we reported them over a period of five years. It didn't improve, and there's not much that I can do about that as an individual, try as you may. I mean, I noticed there was comparisons there, feed the homeless and a whole range of other things, but I mean at the end of the day people also expect to have access to their federal representative and I can] assure you that if they do not get access they can complain very quickly.. You know, there is – unfortunately there is a cost to this.

Question: Sorry, in hindsight – pardon me, losing my voice. In hindsight, if you'd known it was going to cost that much, would you have chosen another site, or you stand by the decision?

Warren Entsch: Well, it didn't matter what site I'd chosen, I mean the costs are fixed by department standards. I’ve got no choice. I mean, they’re building the building here now, it's going to cost a certain amount of money. There are standards that are expected by council, there are standards that are expected by the university and there are standards that are kept – expected by government. They have to be met, even if these guys think that they can live in a tin shed, they won't be allowed to do that, and the same goes for an office. I mean, every so often – it's a great way to be a little bit sensational about it, but understand that every dollar that was spent on it stayed in the community, and they talked about buses and houses, but the people that supplied the materials there, the people that actually did the building, actually it allowed them to keep people employed that they were looking at putting off because they had no work.

So the money that was generated from the cost of that actually paid for people's mortgages; that kept them in their houses, paid for food on their table, paid for other costs that they had, and every single dollar that was spent there stayed in the community. So you know, I mean you can put whatever political spin you like on it, but at the end of the day it was a cost that I had absolutely no control over. Any elected member, irrespective of whether they're state or federal, are compelled to follow these regulations, and I think the fact that we made sure that every single dollar of it was kept in the community, you know, helped for paying for all these services, whether it be groceries or accommodation [indistinct] I can't do anything about that, but I was not prepared to continue to work- and understand over time the cost of rent is going to be significantly less than what it is – than what it was before, and the safety of my staff, quite frankly, is paramount, and on top of that I have to say to you that access for those that genuinely need to get to the office to me is more important than a little bit of political grandstanding and a little bit of selective reporting in the media. I stand by what has happened.

Unidentified speaker: Thanks guys.