Interview on ABC News, Breakfast with Madeleine Morris

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Repatriation flights; Increased quarantine spaces; Investigation into Australia Post.
23 October 2020

Madeleine Morris: But let's return to those repatriation flights bringing stranded Australians home. As we mentioned, the first flight will arrive in Darwin later today, and the Federal Government says those on board have been identified as vulnerable and given priority. Trade and Tourism minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Canberra. Good morning, Minister. Thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Madeline, Great to be with you.

Madeleine Morris: Thank you. So how many people are you hoping to bring home through this program?

Simon Birmingham: Well today, we’ll see some 161 people return, in addition to the almost 400,000 Australians who have returned since the start of the pandemic. Now, we are continuing to work to help Australians return by a whole range of means. So, there are the burst of chartered flights that will be bringing people through the Howard Springs Facility in the Northern Territory which our Government has opened, and that will enable 5000 people to pass through quarantine over the next six months through that Howard Springs Facility.

But we're also working continuously with the states and territories to lift those who can come in through the regular quarantine services that the states and territories have set up and we've seen some significant gains there, in terms of states and territories putting new places online, in terms of the fact that New Zealanders are no longer occupying those spots in Sydney hotels. And ultimately, we hope to see Victoria, of course, return in a way that allows many more Australians to enter through what used to be Australia's second largest entry point in Melbourne.

Madeleine Morris: So this is high on the agenda for National Cabinet today. You managed to get the cap lifted from 4000 to 6000 per week. How many - do you have a specific number of how many people you’d like to get coming in through the states?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we know that prior to July, when the second wave hit in Victoria, and we had these caps put in place, that we did have a system that was working in terms of Australians, by and large, being able to find their way back, noting that the global aviation market is of course just heavily disrupted itself.

And so, I'm not saying it's easy by any means, but people have, some close to 400,000 Australians have managed to return since the start of the pandemic. We have provided, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, assistance to many thousands in different ways, in different circumstances. But our determination now is to try to work with the states and territories in a way that doesn't compromise safety at all for Australians, and our successful management of COVID, but to try to get back to a position where we have at least those sort of levels passing through quarantine. And what we've done working with the Northern Territory in being able to open that Howard Springs Facility adds to that capacity overall and is helping to deal with the fact that Melbourne continues to be closed off at present to arrivals.

Madeleine Morris: Just still on that story, there's a report out this morning that DFAT has again revealed the identities of Australians stranded overseas by adding their email addresses in the wrong field. Did this actually happen? It's been reported. And if so, this would be the third time in three months that DFAT has breached these privacy guidelines.

Simon Birmingham: Madeleine, I'm not aware of that happening. I’ll certainly, now you’ve raised it with me, check when I get off air. But DFAT has been working very hard right around the world with an extraordinary case load of consular cases. Now, of course, privacy and other factors need to be respected and worked on and ensured that they are protected in that regard. But I do want to pay tribute to our consular staff, who in some of the worst hard-hit spots around the world, have been working hard to help Australians to be able to return home or find safe refuge in these difficult times.

Madeleine Morris: Okay. Can I just take you to Australia Post? CEO is standing aside while this investigation into these gift of watches is taking place. Doesn't this speak to a bigger issue at Australia Post, which is over years and years, this culture of massive bonuses going to executive staff, isn't this a bigger problem that now needs to be tackled front on by the Government?

Simon Birmingham: This gifting of expensive watches is completely unacceptable and the review that our Government ordered yesterday, immediately upon hearing about this, we hope we’ll get to the bottom of that. Indeed, get to the bottom quickly of any of those sort of cultural issues to make sure that we do put in place going forward, the type of structure, the type of regime, whether it's at a board level, whether it's at an executive level, that Australians can have confidence that Post is doing its job. Post has a large and complicated job across Australia, we recognise that and respect it, it operates as a business enterprise with a degree of autonomy from the Government, but what we saw yesterday was unacceptable and that's why the Government stepped in.

Madeleine Morris: Okay. And just briefly then, should the board be up for consideration as well? Should they be looked at, and their continuity? I mean I know that they're looking into it but, you know, is this a question of whether their tenure is tenable now?

Simon Birmingham: If the review finds failings with aspects of the board, then the board will be dealt with. If the review finds failings with the executive management, then they’ll be dealt with. If the review finds failings across the board, then the whole lot will be dealt with. And I think the PM was pretty crystal clear yesterday that he was appalled at what he saw and will act as necessary in terms of giving Australians confidence that this type of behaviour is not tolerated, not accepted, and should not occur in the future.

Madeleine Morris: Okay. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.

Madeleine Morris: Thank you.

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