Interview on 5AA, Breakfast with David Penberthy and Will Goodings

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Pilot Program for International Students Entering Australia; Rex Patrick’s Comments Regarding the Chinese Consulate in Adelaide.
17 August 2020

Will Goodings: These issues will be watched on closely by our next guest, South Australian Senator and Federal Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, who joins us. Does that sound over the top to you, Senator?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, boys, good to be with you. Well, look, obviously, I’ve literally only just heard the news as well. I gather most of the other political parties in New Zealand were requesting this. So, it might be something done more by consensus, than otherwise. But, we’ve got a couple of state and territory elections coming up in Australia and I think our systems, including the ability to use postal voting and pre-polling, as we’ve done in the recent Eden-Monaro by-election shows that you can safely conduct elections, even in these circumstances.

David Penberthy: No thoughts about delaying the federal election?

Simon Birmingham: [Indistinct]… two years’ time.

Will Goodings: Scomo, Prime Minister for life. Yeah that’s right.

David Penberthy: Our democracy does appear to be safe.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ve always thought that the candidate system where Senators are appointed for life seems like not a bad option.

[Laughter]

Simon Birmingham: Might be a stretch in the Australian context.

David Penberthy: Throw that into the mix. Hey, Simon Birmingham, there's a degree of consternation if not anger about the international students being allowed to come into Adelaide via Singapore. It seems to stem from two things; one, is the question of safety. Can we guarantee that no one is going to be bringing in the coronavirus? And secondly, with a lot of Australians still trapped overseas, mainly because they're unable to get onto commercial flights, there's a sense that these people are almost jumping the queue. I'm not advocating either position, but that is what the commentary is running like at the moment. What do you say to those two criticisms?

Simon Birmingham: I certainly understand both of those concerns. This is a small pilot of up to 300 students, that's being run to make sure that all of these things can be done safely into the future. It's being done under the strictest of quarantining arrangements, which South Australia's demonstrated throughout this pandemic to manage. And so, that's why the South Australian pilot, approved by health authorities here, approved by health authorities in Canberra, is the one that got the tick because of the high degree of confidence in SA’s health and management systems. And that these people, with the type of testing and quarantine processes in place, should pose no additional threat to South Australians. No more so than any other person returning into SA. In terms of concern about the difficulty of getting [indistinct] into Australia and the challenges in terms of global aviation, I recognise that fully. South Australia, though, has, on my advice, never reached the cap in terms of arrivals and people in quarantine in SA. So, there's always been surplus capacity in terms of SA being able to quarantine. Flights are difficult, but I assure you guys and listeners, that no taxpayer support is being used for these students, in terms of their airfares or in terms of their quarantine costs.

David Penberthy: So, they pay or the unis pay, don’t they?

Simon Birmingham: They pay or the uni – somebody pays. Not the taxpayer, not the state government, not the Federal Government. They will have to sort out their own flight to get here, just like returning Australians. It's not going to be done by governments, in that sense. So, this is simply using some excess capacity, if you like, within the SA system and using the SA system, because it has proven itself to be up to the task and challenge. This is a sector that supports thousands and thousands of jobs. And so, if we can successfully run a pilot, listening and learning to all of the concerns that people have along the way, well, then we can look at how we might deal with things as we head into next year, particularly, and the start of uni next year and whether we can find better ways that might improve overall air capacity into the country, which could benefit everybody.

Will Goodings: All coming from Singapore, this pilot lot, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: [Audio error]

Will Goodings: I think we lost the Trade Minister.

David Penberthy: I think his phone line just dropped out momentarily. Yeah, I think his phone’s just dropped out, we’ll try and get him back on because there’s plenty more to ask.

[Phone line reconnects]

David Penberthy: Senator, we've got you back on the line now. Can we ask you about some comments that one of your fellow senators made, Rex Patrick, here in South Australia, who wants to close the Chinese consulate here? I’ll read you a quote from him as reported in The Advertiser. He says: it is not in Australia's national security interests for China to maintain its Consulate-General in Adelaide, in close proximity to Australia's major naval construction projects at Osborne and Australian Defence Science and Technology Research Capabilities at Salisbury. He also makes the point that it's a consul that's significantly larger than any other here in South Australia. It has around 10 staff; Italy and Greece have one or two each, should it be closed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the consulate here is established under the normal protocols, to exist under the Vienna Convention that allows us to establish embassies and consulates in other countries around the world and enables those countries to establish such facilities here. Now, that convention has appropriate protocols that require the host country, in this case Australia, to give approvals under the terms of the convention. But, certainly, we have safeguards in place and we particularly have safeguards for our defence facilities to protect them from espionage, from interference, from spying, most of which is now a threat in the cyber space in particular. And so, we've built strong protection there. I think this is quite reckless policy or headline grabbing by Rex Patrick. It's unfortunate to play such politics with sensitive national security issues and very sensitive foreign relations.

Will Goodings: Isn't there a broader point though, that goes beyond Rex Patrick trying to get a headline? Which is that he's actually relying on our own Defense Department, saying that they're concerned about the consul general’s being involved in espionage?

Simon Birmingham: Well let's put it in context the concern there. Rex Patrick had asked for information to be publicly released by the Defense Department and in reply, they provided commentary about the reason why they weren't publicly releasing certain information around defence projects because of the high risk of at foreign state espionage or interference, at this point in time. So, it in fact is defence taking a highly cautious approach to the handling and release of information and materials, that provided, if you like, the opportunity for Rex to undertake this grandstanding, that these are obviously sensitive issues, difficult times that the Government's been very transparent time and time again about the fact that we do face certain concerns in relation to heightened levels of espionage activity or cyber activities that are of concern. That's why we've built additional protection throughout our time in government, passing new legislation around foreign interference, building our cyber protections and capabilities quite significantly. They are the protection that we have against any players or actors who are detrimental to Australia's interests, be they a foreign state or otherwise.

David Penberthy: Senator, Simon Birmingham. The Federal Trade and Tourism Minister, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.

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