Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings, with David Bevan and Ali Clarke
David Bevan: Coming up in a moment, Senator, Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment; what can he tell us about this deal that’s been hatched? I mean that not in a sinister way, it’s an agreement that’s been reached between the states and federal governments, regarding overseas students.
Good morning, Senator Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning David, good morning Ali.
David Bevan: Can you explain, what is this plan to bring overseas students to Adelaide?
Simon Birmingham: Sure, David. So, this is approval for a pilot for up to 300 students to come into South Australia again. This is being worked up carefully by South Australia’s health officials in conjunction with the universities, being reviewed and approved by Commonwealth health officials so that we can have complete confidence that all of the necessary testing and quarantining arrangements will be in place, which South Australia has shown an exceptional ability to manage during the pandemic. The students themselves, or universities if they choose to do so, but certainly not taxpayers, will have to find the cost of airfares, the cost of the quarantine, which will have to be paid for. So, taxpayers are not subsidising this; but we are, in recognition of the fact that international education is such a significant employer of so many people across Australia, and particularly here in South Australia. Approving this pilot to run, so that we can see whether it can all be done in a manner that can be facilitated, as confidently as we are that the safety precautions are in place and then we can think about how that impacts decisions, as we run into the next academic year.
David Bevan: Would the students be tested before they got on the plane, after they get off the plane and then, before they’re released from their two weeks’ isolation, here in Adelaide?
Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that the testing regimes are akin to returning international travelers. So, in that sense, they are in that 14 days of quarantine; there are testing expectations on those students, in coming in. That’s all part of the safeguard approach that is put in place to try to make sure that just as South Australia has managed now thousands of returning Australians coming in from overseas, we should have confidence that the same types of standards and processes can manage up to 300 international students.
Ali Clarke: Early this morning, in fact, on that I did speak to Dr Mike Cusack. Who is the Deputy Public Health Officer of South Australia and they said that we’re very, very confident that we will be able to work and look after these students and maintain safety for everybody involved. I did ask for the maximum number of students we can bring back at any one time and SA Health has got back to us and said: there is no set number, we’ll work closely with the medihotels to monitor numbers, depending on these flights and take numbers accordingly. Simon Birmingham, which university is specifically involved with this flight of students?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, I think the South Australian Government has been working with all three universities. Now, it will be up to the universities to nominate the students; for them to then be identified, so that they can be approved for entry into Australia, noting that, at present, people can only enter Australia if they are citizens returning home or permanent residents returning home, or otherwise have an exemption. So these international students will clearly be granted an exemption there. There are some criticisms, I know, because of the difficulty some returning Australians are having getting back into the Australia and the caps that some states have put in place on the numbers of people that can process into those states. But, my understanding and advice is that South Australia has never hit its cap, in terms of the number of people they think they can handle in quarantine, which is consistent with what you heard earlier, Ali. In that sense, South Australia is a good market to do this in, because there is, if you like, excess capacity, in terms of quarantine availability in South Australia. And also, that very high standard and success rate, in terms of the management of quarantine in South Australia.
Ali Clarke: But, the issue that I’ve been seeing repeatedly on the text line isn’t the quarantine ability of us here in South Australia, it’s the fact that people can’t even get on the planes to fly in. I think Peter might be ringing on something similar to this, Peter, I believe your wife is stuck in Shanghai?
Caller Peter: Yeah, that’s right. Thanks for having me on. G’day Senator. My wife flew to Shanghai, 16th January to be with her mum because her live-in carer had to go away for Chinese New Year. Now, I was scheduled to go over there as well, but I had to get my visa renewed and in that time of getting renewed, all these restrictions came into place. Now, we were supposed to come back on 5th March together; but, Qantas changed that and my wife is there by herself. So, changed it to 30th March and since then it’s been cancelled and bumped and changed about four or five times. The latest flight was Singapore, due to arrive today – sorry, due to fly out today, arrive tomorrow. Now, she was bumped off that because Singapore Airlines has advice from the South Australian Government to restrict numbers to 60 people on the plane. Now, those 60 seats I think were business class or thereabouts, but the price is about four times the amount and only the first in, best dressed I think.
David Bevan: So, what are you saying, Peter? Are you saying you don’t want these students here until you get your wife back?
Caller Peter: I’m not saying that. I’m all for the students coming back; I think it’s good for the economy and the students are quite welcome. But, I’m just saying that earlier in the conversation, it was mentioned that we haven’t reached our cap for people coming back and there were no restrictions on the flights for people getting on the flights. So, there’s a bit of conflict there between the information that Singapore Airlines are getting, saying that only 60 people allowed. And yet, I’m hearing this morning that there’s no restrictions. So, we just need a bit of clarification there, I reckon.
David Bevan: Peter, thanks for your call. Let’s go to Wayne, hello Wayne.
Caller Wayne: Hello, David. How are you?
David Bevan: Good, what’s your experience?
Caller Wayne: Well, my wife’s stuck in Ireland and she went home because her mum was dying and her mum finally died last week. Sorry-
Ali Clarke: It’s okay.
Caller Wayne: Sorry, I contacted Home Affairs about five or six weeks ago; they put me on to – I spoke to a really nice guy there, so he put me on to Department of Health, who shunted me straight back to Home Affairs, who put me back to Health, who told me to contact my local MP, which is what I was going to do in the first place. So, I contacted them, I sent them an email, which didn’t arrive because I had the wrong address, but it didn’t show me that the email was bouncing back. But, then I rang them and they said– no, I finally sent them the email on about the third attempt and they said: contact Webjet, the website. So, I rang them, she’s got MS and she needs the medication, she was supposed to take it before she left Australia but she couldn’t.
Ali Clarke: So, you’re apart from your wife; she needs some help. She’s obviously going through one of the worst times in her life and you can’t get her home?
Caller Wayne: No. She’s going to book a flight today with – I looked at a few options and the best option for her is to fly with Qatar because it’s Dublin- Doha, Doha-Adelaide. Sorry and-
Ali Clarke: It’s alright Wayne. I think we can all imagine how awful this has been for you all.
Caller Wayne: There’s no guarantee she can get on the flight. So I contacted her neurologist on Friday, Andrew Lee, who’s a really nice man, hoping that he might be able to do something, but...
Ali Clarke: Okay. Alright, Wayne, you hang there and we'll get Eliza and Luke to have a chat to you to, to make sure that you're okay. But, Senator Simon Birmingham, do you hear the emotion and the struggles that people are dealing with just getting their South Australian families back together in here in SA?
Simon Birmingham: I absolutely do, Ali, and my heart goes out to Peter, Wayne and I know many others in similar circumstances. I want to reassure them; there's no short cut being granted to these international students who will come in this pilot. They’re going to have to run the gauntlet of airline unpredictability, like anybody else at present and the international aviation sector is highly volatile right now with routes and flight arrangements changing at very short notice. And we do know that's the case.
Ali Clarke: So, is this not going to be like a big plane that has been chartered and it will leave from Singapore and it will bring a whole host of students at once.
Simon Birmingham: That's not the intention. The expectation is that these will be seeking to book seats on flights, like anybody else in terms of trying to get in. I will take up with the South Australian Government the question that Peter raised, about his wife being apparently bumped off a flight because of capacity constraints. As I said, I'm advised that South Australia's quarantine has capacity in it at present and that should mean that if there are seats on flights, people should be able to get in, is what I would have thought. I know there are particular difficulties, in coming out of Europe right now. But thankfully, the Qatar flight that was referenced had its first leg yesterday and hopefully, that will provide an opportunity for people further afield to be able to book through Doha and find that there is a more reliable service than they've had in recent weeks.
Ali Clarke: What about people who are commenting – Jeff from Noarlunga, Rob, Sal – quite a few people are saying: why would international students want to come here to study, after the way the Government has abandoned those already here? We heard- we're hearing stories about it in AM, just this morning. We actually crossed to student’s weeks ago who were lining up around the street just to be able to get some food. What safeguards would you give these students once they get here, if it all goes pear shaped again?
Simon Birmingham: Well, students are expected to be able to look after themselves while they're here, to have a particularly the financial capacity to care for themselves. So, it's an important prerequisite. I wouldn't say that we had abandoned international students. It's right that we didn't make programs like JobKeeper or JobSeeker available to people who wouldn't ordinarily be eligible for Australian social security assistance. But we did provide significant funding into various welfare organisations and others so that in cases of genuine hardship and need, there could be support provided to non-citizens where that was necessary to see them through.
Ali Clarke: So, that was specific to non-citizens? Because a lot of the non-for-profits and the charities have been overwhelmed by people from all walks of life needing help during this time?
Simon Birmingham: Indeed, I know they've had huge demands on their services, and of course mental health services and other things, but part of the funding that was given was to be able to account for the fact that we weren't about to put in place an open entitlement for non-citizens to receive Australian welfare support or social security support. But we did put in place funding arrangements so that in cases of a genuine hardship for people who were here, they could be considered on that more bespoke approach of individual circumstances that those charitable agencies are capable of doing.
David Bevan: Minister, Mark says: I can't get 80 kilometres across the Victorian border to check on my farm, but we can bring people from overseas to be students here in Adelaide. As well we have the case of Mabel Dyer, she’s a little girl, she lives in Victoria, she suffers from hip dysplasia. She was due to come to Adelaide for treatment along with a lot of other people who are very close to South Australia and need Adelaide for their medical services – apparently, the Prime Minister is intervening in the case of Mabel Dyer. This starts to look like if you've got powerful friends or a sad story, powerful friends in universities or a sad story, you'll be taken care of.
Simon Birmingham: Well a sad story is not the way I'd put it. The State Government is processing exemptions for medical conditions in hardship circumstances to enable Victorians to cross the border where they need to, and it's being done rightly on a case by case basis. I would hope that Mabel will be able to be properly assessed and if all the circumstances are as they seem to be, no doubt be able to get the medical treatment that is necessary – and that should be the case for anybody in those closed border communities. Nobody wants to see somebody suffering with a medical condition unable to get across-
David Bevan: You're hoping that two-year-old Mabel Dyer will be able to come to Adelaide for her treatment?
Simon Birmingham: So I expect that our health authorities in South Australia should show compassion and consideration in those circumstances. Now, I'm not the medical expert, I'm not going to prejudge the final outcome there, but I know that a number of exemptions have already been given by the SA Government on medical grounds to enable people to cross the border, to still access the medical treatment that they need. So this is not a cold hard rule the state governments are applying in terms of zero crossings, but it's got to be for genuine need that it is absolutely required.
David Bevan: Is this plan originally-
Simon Birmingham: This is a pilot, and we've got to be trying to explore ways to save jobs in our economy, to get things coming back through in the months to come ahead. This is a challenge that we will face at some point in time, even when we don't have state border restrictions in place.
David Bevan: Was this plan originally contingent on the states opening all their borders?
Simon Birmingham: Well back when we were first having discussions around this it was prior to the Victorian second wave taking off, and I think this would have all been approved earlier if of course things had continued to go well across Australia. There, in the end, were some delays that you would expect to have occurred as a result of the Victorian second wave. But because South Australia has continued to handle things as well as they have, we still see the capacity for SA to be able to go ahead, notwithstanding the fact that because of that Victorian second wave there are border restrictions still in place within Australia.
David Bevan: Now before you leave us, Rex Patrick's worried about the Chinese consulate here in Adelaide. Are you?
Simon Birmingham: Well I'm not particularly worried or specifically worried about that. I'm always worried about ensuring that we protect our defence assets, that we protect our national security. And as a government we've put in place significant additional investments in terms of our protections for cyber intrusions, we put in place new legislation in government to protect Australian from foreign interference-
David Bevan: He thinks having 10 staff in the Chinese consulate in Adelaide is a bit of an overkill. He wonders what they're up to.
Simon Birmingham: Well China- the China’s consulate in Adelaide is smaller than any of its consulates on the East Coast, contrary to what Rex seems to be implying. I'd suggest some caution in terms of trying to seek cheap political headlines or playing politics with what are sensitive national security issues when it comes to the defence of our naval shipbuilding capability. And what I think it is foreign relations and diplomatic issues when it comes to simply calling for a consulate to be shut down and closed down. We have been very vigilant as a government in terms of strengthening all of our lines of defence when it comes to the risk of foreign espionage, foreign interference, and we will continue to apply the highest of standards. But I think this is a pretty cheap stunt by Rex in this regard.
Ali Clarke: All right. Well, Senator Simon Birmingham, hold there because we do have the Independent Senator of South Australia in. Rex Patrick, you're a man of cheap stunts apparently.
Rex Patrick: Look, this is a very serious national security issue. I'll read from a statement made to me by the Department of Defence, this is by the government itself: foreign intelligence services are currently assessed as posing extreme threat to sovereign capability in Commonwealth strategic interests. The statement then goes on to say: the target of this foreign intelligence gathering is in fact our maritime capabilities.
So this is not a cheap political stunt, it's a very serious matter. We have eleven- sorry, ten staff at the consulate general here in Adelaide, the nearest embassy or consulate representation to that is two with Italy, one with Greece. Right across South Australia we do have honorary consulates but this seems to be excessive. And look, this consulate was stood up in 2016, the very same period in which the Government was announcing that our naval- our shipbuilding would be centred around South Australia. We've also got of course the Defence Science up in Salisbury-
David Bevan: Well what do you think they’re doing?
Rex Patrick: There's no question, if we look to things that have been happening here in Australia we know that there has been foreign interference – that's on the record. Everyone understands there have been interference with it- within our political system.
David Bevan: So you think they’re spying?
Rex Patrick: There's no question that the embassy is conducting intelligence-related activities – no question at all. We've seen an indictment in the United States stating that Australian shipbuilders have been hacked. When the US shut down the consulate in Houston, they did so- they had the indictment spells out there are military officers operating undercover inside consulates engaged in intelligence-related activities. This is about risk management. We've got a significant risk on our doorstep. We are SA, the defence state. We have a large unusual consular presence and now we're seeing warnings come from Defence saying, this is a real problem.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: Defence provide those warnings and that is precisely what government has acted on in strengthening all of our capabilities. Rex Patrick reads those warnings and decides to run off the media, calling to close down the consulate despite never having, to my knowledge, suggested to the government that he thinks the consulate should be closed down. This is just about cheap headline grabbing on Rex’s part. We have put in place, as I say, the strictest of standards which includes refusing sometimes to release information to Rex Patrick, who himself has been known to run off and provide sensitive information to newspapers previously.
Ali Clarke: Senator Birmingham, why does the Chinese Consulate here in Adelaide need 10 staff? And then the next closest one is the Italian Consulate and it only has two?
Simon Birmingham: I said before, China's consulate in Adelaide is smaller than China's Consulate in Melbourne, in Brisbane, in Sydney.
Ali Clarke: Yeah, yeah. But that's not what I'm asking, I'm asking why does China need so many people staffed here in Adelaide as opposed to other international consulates? The next biggest one is Italy with the staff of two.
Simon Birmingham: South Australia’s historically had a very low footprint. The topic we were discussing before, things like Chinese students, has seen the presence of Chinese nationals in South Australia grow quite significantly over recent years. All of these consulates and embassies established and approved under what's known as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations – it’s what enables Australia to establish our embassies, our consulates and high commissioners in other countries, including China; and it enables those countries to establish them under common protocols in Australia. Now there are safeguards in place in terms of what we have to approve to allow that, but we also do it under that mutually understood arrangement of an international convention that enables us to have presence elsewhere around the world to serve our citizens overseas.
But first and foremost, we put national security at the top of our priorities. That's why we've acted as the country to also protect critical infrastructure including our communications networks, and I think there is no doubt that our government has taken a very strong position on these issues. But this is a rather cheap issue for Rex to raise.
Ali Clarke: Thank you, we've heard that Senator Birmingham though. Let's go back to Rex, you have a right of reply about these leaks, or his accusations of leaking to newspapers.
Rex Patrick: Look, it is true that back in I think it was 2016 that I did reveal that there was a massive leak by the French submarine manufacturer in relation to India's future submarine project – that was raised, it was raised in a manner that involved no passing on of any classified information to the media, simply highlighting the measure. And as a result of that, Defence has completely changed the way in which it's conducting security in relation to a future submarine project.
Ali Clarke: Independent Senator for South Australia, Rex Patrick, and Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you both for your time.