Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast, with David Bevan and Ali Clarke

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Potential move of Qantas’ head office; Australians stranded overseas; Increasing the cap of returnees.
16 September 2020

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David and Ali.

David Bevan: And on the other phone line Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Good morning to you.

Penny Wong: Good morning all. Good to be here.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, if we would start with you - just about Qantas to begin with. What do you think of Qantas pitting the states against each other in a bidding war?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, I know Qantas is doing it incredibly tough at present and that's why our Government's provided hundreds of millions in JobKeeper and aviation assistance. But I have to say this act of effectively trying to auction off the location of head office jobs is a pretty blatant attempt to extract taxpayer dollars from the states and territories, and good luck to Qantas. But I'd have urge caution from the states. This bidding war won't create one extra job in Australia, it just shuffles jobs around Australia and certainly our focus federally is how we save jobs across the country and try to start to grow those numbers again.

Ali Clarke: You're a South Australian; are we really in with a genuine shot of getting this type of business here or is it going to be, as some people thought our bid for the AFL Grand Final, we were never going to get it and somebody else already had a leg up and that was in Queensland in that case.

Simon Birmingham:  I heard Jules interviewing an aviation expert yesterday arvo and I thought he made be pretty valid points that geographically South Australia probably struggles to be a logical hub for, certainly the international operations of Qantas and also potentially, to some extent, domestically. I understand why state governments of course want to get jobs into their states, that's a core function for them, but this has the potential to represent the worst of federalism and to spark a wave of corporate welfare seeking by big business if we sort of have big companies around the country just auctioning off their head offices to states and territories and in the end, it's taxpayers picking up the bill. And what we've done as the federal government, is recently stood up a global talent and attraction investment taskforce to try to get more investment, more global talent to Australia to grow more jobs overall. This is just Australian companies trying to auction off jobs to the highest bidder and it doesn't create any extra jobs for Australians overall, it just shuffles them around the country and that's not going to help our productivity.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, is Simon Birmingham right? Best thing the territory and premiers could do would be to say, no, we're just not going to do this.

Penny Wong: Look, I'm not sure I agree with that. I mean, I think, of course Qantas is doing what Qantas will do which is to try and get the best deal for Qantas. You know, it's to be expected. So I guess as a South Australian what I'd say is any jobs in South Australia would be welcome. So I think it would be a good thing if we tried to see if there was a way we could get any more jobs here into South Australia from this. I mean more broadly, I mean, Simon, there were a lot of words in his answer but I've got to say the airlines are struggling. We know what's happened to Virgin. Really, I haven't seen a comprehensive plan from the Government but that's another discussion for another day.

David Bevan: Your leader and yourself suggested yesterday that the Prime Minister could use his plan- his plane and his VIP fleet of planes to bring Australians home. Is that a practical solution or is it a headline?

Penny Wong: Well no, we've been talking for months. In fact, I think you've had me on your program before David and Ali, talking about stranded Australians and we've got 25,000 people who are stranded overseas. We have, by the Government's own figures, just under 4000-3500 of them who are classified as vulnerable. You know, we've heard really distressing stories come through our electorate offices of people who are couch surfing, a couple with a one-year-old daughter. They stayed in Canada because he had a job. The jobs ended, can't get home. They've been advised by the Government to look into, you know, homeless shelters if you're stuck. People who've gone- I've been- you know, we've been on this program before talking about people who've gone to see someone in their family who's passed away, haven't been able to get back. So there is a genuine problem. So the Government really does need to do something about this. They announced these caps, they didn't have a plan. You know, the consequences have been that people are unable to get home because of the caps and because of price gouging from airlines. So we've said, look, this isn't something the Federal Government can walk away from.

David Bevan: There's no doubt there's a genuine problem but is using the Prime Minister's VIP fleet a genuine solution?

Penny Wong: I think that absolutely should be on the table. I mean, look, there are a number of things that can be done and I think a lot of the families heard Judith this morning, whose son is coming home and what I'd say is we want you know 25,000 more stories like that of people who actually are able to get home. So instead of the Government saying, Mr Morrison and Simon I saw yesterday on social media washing their hands and saying it's not our problem. Why doesn't the Government work with the states to increase the quarantine capacity? You've had Steven Marshall today saying he's open to it. You've had the Northern Territory Health Minister saying they'll take up to 3000 more arrivals. Western Australian Premier also saying they're willing to help, as well as Queensland. Instead of the Federal Government washing their hands of it, why don't they increase the quarantine capacity, why don't they stop the airline's price gouging? Why don't they put Mr Morrison's VIPs on the table to try and help people get home and get these Australians home?

Ali Clarke: Alright. Well let's go to Minister Simon Birmingham; is it as simple as that? Let's get all these planes in the air if you've got them.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it's not that simple, because it really is a function of the quarantine capacity that exists in Australia at present.

Ali Clarke: Okay then. Can you increase the quarantine capacity when, as Penny Wong has pointed out, there are state leaders that are happy to do that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the state leaders can all offer to increase the capacity in real terms and we are working with them to try to do that. Before the Victorian second wave hit, which of course, was a function of a failure of quarantine; we were seeing around 7700 people processed into the country each week, through quarantine. As a result of Victoria's second wave, Victoria is no longer taking anybody. So, Australia's second largest city isn't processing international arrivals. All of the other states asked for caps to be put in place, so that they could have confidence that they would be able to safely manage their quarantines and not have a repeat of what occurred in Victoria. So that meant that the 7700 is down to about 4000 per week at present. We are talking to all the states and territories to try to lift that, but nobody's going to compromise the safety of Australia. Nobody's going to risk a second wave occurring in other states, like it occurred in Victoria. We want to make sure that any increase in quarantine is done safely and we've managed to see some 350,000 Australians come home since March when our Government urged people around the world that if they could come home, they should come home, because there were no guarantees that could be provided beyond that time around accessibility to planes and so on. Now, thankfully aviation's come back a little bit; but, they are struggling because of the state caps. There are plenty of empty of empty seats on planes coming into Australia. It's just that they can't fill those planes, because there isn't room at present. But, we are working to try and grow that.

Ali Clarke: So, are we at 100 per cent capacity in this country, of those 4000 people coming in every week?

Simon Birmingham: Pretty close to, Ali. I mean, there are obviously some rooms in some states at different points in time. But-

Ali Clarke: So then, if it's 4000 a week essentially – if that is the sticking the point and that's it- even if that doesn't change, we should be able to get the 25,000 people, who are stranded as quoted, home within the next, well, six and a quarter weeks?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think if we can get an increase to that, then we can also create other opportunities. I'm conscious that because of the caps, airlines are charging more. If airlines are told they can only have 30 or 40 people on a flight, landing in Sydney or Perth or Adelaide, then clearly, they're going to have premium prices on those flights. So, if we can increase the cap, which we are trying to work with the states and territories to do. But, against all of those safety criteria, then hopefully we can get more seats on those airlines available and that will also bring down the price and increase the frequency for individuals.

David Bevan: But your argument is it is not a plane shortage, it's a quarantine storage. So, you can send all the VIP planes you like and that's not going to help the solution.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, David. Look, Anthony Albanese and the Labor party were able to stunt yesterday when it comes to using Air Force flights. This is about making sure you've got enough safe quarantine rooms, where there's no risk of a failure like we saw in Victoria-

Penny Wong: But I don't think it's fun for those people who are having to stump up a first class fare to get home and not being able to afford it, Simon. I mean, I've got to say; you've got a bloke in charge of this country whose told Australians for years I'm in charge of our borders, I'm in charge of quarantine, I control the borders, I stop the boats. And now he's, as you just have, saying, we're back to, you know, I don't hold a hose mate, it's all the state's responsibility. I mean, really you are the Federal Government. You are responsible for the borders. You know you could work with the states to increase quarantine. To suggest that we're suggesting there shouldn't be safe quarantine is a straw man. We've got people who are being told to go to homeless shelters overseas. I had a bloke contact my office who, he's now thankfully back in Australia, he was a pensioner with health conditions, who was sleeping in his car in France because he couldn't get back. So, the reality is that the consequences of caps have meant that the airlines are doing what, you know, what people are reporting the airlines are doing, which is bumping people up to business or first class because they can't afford it. Now, you can do something about that and you should.

Simon Birmingham: Penny, the caps were requested by the states and territories.

Penny Wong: Here we go again. You're seven years in Government, are you responsible for anything? Are you responsible for anything? Or is everything in this country the responsibility of state premiers?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no certainly not, Penny. But, you want the Federal Government to override the state health officers and others who requested these caps following the failures to Victorian quarantine to pause the second wave in Victoria?

Penny Wong: No, I don't. But stop putting- you know, you don't usually do this but you are misleading people. That is not what I said. We have got premiers and health ministers who are putting quarantine options on the table for you. We have- the Northern Territory have said we can take up to 3000 more, that is a lot of people. Why don't you work with them, increase capacity, so we can get people home?

Simon Birmingham: We are absolutely doing that, Penny.

David Bevan: Okay, Simon Birmingham, what's the answer?

Simon Birmingham: We are absolutely working with the states and territories. I hope we will see an increase as a result of those discussions with the states and territories. But the NT has not said: we have 3000 hotel rooms that people can arrive in tomorrow, move them in straight away. It's much more complicated than that as to what the NT has said. Steven Marshall has said he's open to increasing, we're having those discussions with each of the states and territories.

Penny Wong: He's also said you're not at capacity here in South Australia.

Simon Birmingham: We're going to make sure that if we can lift it, we will and I hope there will be some good news on that to people very, very soon. But, we're working with those state health officers to do it safely.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, but before you leave us, a listener on the text line wants to know; what about our detention facilities? Why couldn't we use those, because they're run by the Federal Government. Why couldn't you get Australians back in, house them up in there for 14 days and then, send them off?

Simon Birmingham: So, Christmas Island, we are actually now using for people that we would ordinarily deport. Those who've committed serious crimes and who have been released from jail, but aren't Australian citizens and would usually be deported. But again, for the same reasons in reverse, it's hard to get people into other countries around the world. So, those high risk individuals who we don't want put back out into the Australian community from the prison system are now being housed at Christmas Island. So, there are these other pressures that are building in terms of those systems. But as I say, we are working with the states and territories. There are plenty of hotel rooms that are empty in all of our capital cities. That's the easiest place for us to house people. We've got more than 3000 ADF personnel deployed helping the states and territories do this and if we can increase those numbers of hotel rooms, that's the simplest way for us to do it safely.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, thanks for your time. And Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Penny Wong: Thank you.

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