Interview on ABC News, Afternoon Briefing, with Patricia Karvelas

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: International arrival cap; Qantas headquarters relocation; Australia-China relationship
16 September 2020

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and also my guest this afternoon. Minister, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia. Good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: The Western Australian Premier says the state's hotel quarantine system is at capacity and that the Commonwealth should instead accommodate returning Australians in army barracks or immigration facilities. Is that something that the Morrison Government's considering?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, What we want to see is a circumstance where we work through a constructive solution with the states and territories here. Prior to the Victorian second wave, there was some 7700 arrivals being accommodated in quarantine on average each week. As a result of what happened in Victoria and the fact that Melbourne is understandably not taking any international arrivals now, all of the other states and territories asked for caps to be put in place, that 7700 has been down to 4000. What we're now trying to do is propose a way to bring that back up to a level that is more commensurate in most cases with what states were successfully managing beforehand. We're offering the support in terms of making sure that the Australian Defence Force is available, where it's necessary.

In terms of your question, the best place for us to do this is close to airports, in major hotels, where quarantine can be set up in a manner that is comfortable for the individual, can still be well supervised and strictly controlled but isn't putting people in small numbers, in remote settings that weren't really established to accommodate individuals for two weeks at a time.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But you did do it at the beginning of the crisis. People were flown to Christmas Island, so there is a precedent for it. Why not that system now if you want to get as many Australians home as you possibly can?

Simon Birmingham: We did use Christmas Island there briefly for periods of individuals coming out of Wuhan in China. Now, at that stage, that was what we could do at a Commonwealth level quickly before the states themselves have demonstrated a capability to use the thousands of empty hotel rooms around the country as a quarantine facility in the way that has now been occurring and was occurring at greater volumes prior to the Victorian second wave starting. Now, Christmas Island right now is in fact being used for different purposes, in terms of people that we would ordinarily be deporting, non-citizens guilty of often violent crimes who, because of the pandemic, we have difficulty sending back to their country of citizenship. So, Christmas Island is being used as a result of the pandemic but in different ways, housing individuals who we would normally be seeking to deport.

Patricia Karvelas: South Australia is prepared to increase its quarantine cap to 800. I imagine you welcome that, but that's not all the states. Mark McGowan says that the National Cabinet solidarity is essentially being broken by this announcement. Why make the announcement before you've locked in all the states to increase the quarantine cap?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, the states and territories, over recent days, including Premier McGowan, have been indicating that they would be welcoming and willing to work to see an increase in these numbers. So we've put a proposal to be able to work through constructively at National Cabinet. I've heard Premier McGowan today talking about the potential for Rottnest Island. It's up to them as to what they think will work best in their cities. But these are Australians. They come from every state and territory around the country who are stranded overseas, and we're asking the states and territories to help us in terms of being able to accommodate them coming back into the country. The only reason these caps are in place on arrivals is because of the request of the states and territories. Now we're willing to work with them in terms of resourcing Defence personnel, of whom we've got more than 3000 deployed helping the states and territories already, to accommodate numbers that are more consistent and commensurate with what the states and territories were doing prior to the Victorian wave. I welcome the fact that a number of state leaders across party lines have been relatively open in their remarks today to working with us to do that and I hope they'll all come on board.

Patricia Karvelas: Tasmania says it's keen to do more but they need federal assistance and Border Force staff to establish an international airport. How quickly could that happen?

Simon Birmingham: That has certain additional challenges there because of course Hobart Airport does not ordinarily take international flights in. Look, it's something that I'm sure can be looked at and we can see what could be done. Al all of these levels, whichever the state, our first priority remains keeping Australians safe. We don't want to see any repeat of the failure that happened in Victoria. So whether it's standing up a new facility, looking at how we manage arrivals through airports or which states we are seeing the growth in quarantine capacity in, we will work with them to ensure that with their health officers, there is absolute safety and all the right precautions are put in place.

Patricia Karvelas: The ACT also wants federal assistance and also the results of Jane Halton's review of hotel quarantine. So when will that be released?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that was tracking towards a conclusion relatively soon and I'm sure that will be a topic discussed at National Cabinet with the state and territory leaders on Friday. And where we hope that we can get the type of progress that can help Australians come back to Australia in a way that keeps everybody in Australia safe at the same time, that's the overarching objective here: maintaining safety in Australia but also the safe return of those Australians stranded overseas.

Patricia Karvelas: And should WA and Queensland be taking more returned travellers?

Simon Birmingham: Well yes, we're asking each of the states and territories on the whole to do a little bit more. Those who are already taking them, to do some more. And as I say, most state premiers today seemed to have responded with an indication there is some potential to do so. They're going to work through the details as to how that can be done and we will be with them assisting in that regard. But there are many thousands, tens of thousands of empty hotel rooms across this country with little prospect of tourists or business travellers filling them up any time soon, and so we want to see those facilities, where they can be, used with the appropriate supervision and appropriate safeguards.

Patricia Karvelas: And how about Victoria-

Simon Birmingham: There is an opportunity in the case of Queensland to look at Gold Coast or Cairns as potential other centres, which do have the experience of handling international arrivals.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. How about Victoria? Obviously it stopped hotel quarantine. There's an inquiry in Victoria. There's the Jane Halton inquiry too. When do you expect Victoria to bring people in?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think Victoria has indicated in their roadmap some junctures where they can see potential for international arrivals again. We're not going to pressure the Victorian system. They have plenty to deal with in terms of still getting on top of COVID-19 and the challenges that are there, and we want to see Victorians and Melburnians being able to get back to more normality in their lives. But as soon as Victoria can receive international flights, we would welcome that. When that occurs, there's a potential that with the increased numbers we flagged today in the other states and territories, that we could return to at least the same sort of arrival numbers possibly as we had before, that's 7700 on average per week, which, at that stage, was allowing airlines to resume services, to offer seats at more affordable rates, and for Australians to find it easier to at least to get back to Australia where they needed to.

Patricia Karvelas: Just moving to some other issues. You've been critical of Qantas asking states and territories to bid for its new headquarters. Isn't this inevitable, given the downsizing right across corporate Australia?

Simon Birmingham: My criticism's not so much at Qantas. They're welcome to go out there and of course, seek to do so and I fully understand just how difficult it is for Qantas at present. It's why we've committed ultimately billions of dollars in support for the aviation sector, significant degrees of that going to Qantas through JobKeeper, aviation packages, a number of different measures that are supporting Qantas, and we want them stray strong. And we understand their need to restructure, to consolidate certain operations to maintain their viability and it's within their right to go and ask the states and territories for support and those states and territories probably should stump up, particularly those keeping in place excessive border restrictions. But I am concerned at states and territories just engaging in a bidding war, an auction to shuffle jobs around the country. I want to see states and territories join us in investing in ways to create new jobs and to save existing jobs, not to simply try to steal them from each other. And I think that is a concern if we see - whether it's Virgin, whether it's Qantas, whether it's other big businesses around Australia simply trying to extract dollars from states and territories to move jobs around the country, rather than getting support to grow more jobs.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, turning to China. Are you concerned about Australians in China?

Simon Birmingham: Well our travel advice's contained warnings in relation to China for some period of time. Of course, right across the world, we have strict travel advisories in place to deal with the health pandemic and crises, other circumstances and we have acknowledged also the risk of possible
detention that can occur. So those warnings are there for all and I would encourage any Australian who is abroad or needs to go abroad to make sure that they heed all of those travel advisories, whatever the country may be.

Patricia Karvelas: And what is the Government doing to protect them?

Simon Birmingham: So our Government works closely in terms of providing consular support in all circumstances where that's necessary and clearly we had the high profile case of a couple of journalists just recently where it was very active consular assistance that was required.

Patricia Karvelas: Is the interception of communications of Chinese consular officials by Australian police a violation of international law as Beijing claims?

Simon Birmingham: Well Patricia, I'm not going to speak to any particular operational actions of any of our security agencies. That is for them to address and it's…

Patricia Karvelas: But is that a violation of the international law that we understand?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, what I will speak to is the fact that it is entirely appropriate for intelligence agencies, police services to enforce the laws of Australia and to make sure that where they are investigating foreign interference under the foreign interference laws that have been passed by the Parliament of Australia, with bipartisan support, that they undertake those investigations thoroughly. They do so in accordance with Australian law and Australian law respects international laws and norms.

Patricia Karvelas: How should Australia respond if Chinese consular officials are found to have been engaged in foreign interference?

Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that investigations that might be underway relate very much to
potential foreign interference activities by publicised figures, who have been identified in the media, who are Australians. Now, obviously, those investigations will stretch in ways that it's appropriate only for the authorities to comment on but, as I said, our approach is purely to uphold the laws of Australia and they include bipartisan foreign interference laws that are designed to protect our democracy, protect our systems of Government from undue interference, wherever it may come from.

Patricia Karvelas: How does Australia bring pragmatism back into the China relationship? I mean, you're Trade Minister, you want to do business with China but how can you do that business right now?

Simon Birmingham: Well our businesses continue to trade in many successful ways. Our ambition is for China relationship…

Patricia Karvelas: But it's not easy though is it, right now?

Simon Birmingham: There have absolutely been a number of issues of concern that have arisen this year and I've spoken publicly about the fact that what I see as some of the unexpected administrative decisions taken by China in relation to barley or meat or wine, clearly heightened the risk of doing business in China. And that is something that Australian businesses will have to weigh when it comes to those risk factors. But our view remains, as it's ever been, and that is we welcome and want to see a cooperative relationship with China, between our peoples, between our businesses, between governments where we can. We don't agree on everything. We don't resile from the importance of protecting our values, our security, our interests but we absolutely welcome the fact that China is a more prosperous nation today, it's economy has grown significantly. We want to continue to support those types of areas of economic growth that have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty right across our region, have been great for humanity and that Australian trade with China is absolutely beneficial to both our nations and that we continue to welcome and encourage that.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, just finally on a breaking story this afternoon, a significant story. The Australian National University is the latest tertiary institution to announce job cuts - 215 staff are to go. You're a former Education Minister. How concerned are you by this?

Simon Birmingham: This is obviously very tough news for individuals, their families and the institutions. We've responded during the crisis by guaranteeing Australian universities taxpayer funding, that there would be no deviation of what they expected regardless of what occurred in terms of enrolments, shutdowns or otherwise and we've outlined ways to make sure their revenue in a domestic sense increases into the future. But of course, they are feeling the pressures from the loss of international students, a market that universities have grown, and I understand these decisions may need to be made by some university councils to deal with the disruption to some of those international markets.

Patricia Karvelas: Look, there's a breaking story this afternoon that I'm going to get you on the hop on, but I will ask you. Samantha Maiden from News Limited is reporting that Scott Morrison will be banned from Queensland for campaigning unless he quarantines. What do you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don't think it should ever be about any one of us, including the Prime Minister. Every state and territory needs to apply its rules in relation to state and territory borders and quarantine restrictions in a way that is based firmly on health advice, that recognises that areas like the ACT haven't had a COVID case in close to 70 days and that it makes no sense to maintain restrictions there. And I'm pleased to see that Labor leaders like Michael Gunner, Liberal leaders like Steven Marshall have been taking steps to open up in relation to regions where COVID has been successfully suppressed and taking more of a hotspot-based approach and I hope others can do so. Certainly not about the Prime Minister, it's about Australians being able to freely move across the borders.

Patricia Karvelas: Alright. But do you think it's fair to ask the Prime Minister to quarantine in a government facility for 14 days?

Simon Birmingham: It's not about the Prime Minister. And I'd hope…

Patricia Karvelas: But do you think it's fair?

Simon Birmingham: …that Annastacia Palaszczuk is not seeking to play – well, as I said, it is not about the Prime Minister or any one of us. None of us want to be talking about what's fair for us; it's about what's fair for Australians on the whole.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But if it is their rule full stop...

Simon Birmingham: Australians should be able to and expect to move freely across borders, unless there are very good health reasons or other reasons, to not deny them the right to do so.

Patricia Karvelas: So, let me get in here. So if it's the rule that people have to quarantine, should the Prime Minister quarantine just like everyone else?

Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister has ensured that the same rules apply to him, as apply to any
of the rest of us and our messages, when it comes to state borders, have got nothing to do with politicians or our right to travel, it's about recognising individual Australians face hardship cases, terrible difficulties and Australian jobs are on the line across aviation industries, hire cars, tour operators, a range of people whose
jobs are threatened, in some cases by states who are taking a more excessive approach to borders than we've seen as being necessary or justified on health grounds.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

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