Interview on Radio National, RN Drive, with David Speers

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: WA border restrictions; travel bubble with New Zealand; delay of supplies at Port of Botany.
29 September 2020

David Speers: In an expected move late today, the West Australian Premier Mark McGowan has softened the restrictions on people travelling to WA from Victoria and New South Wales. Throughout the pandemic, WA has stood behind very its tough border stance, which has effectively helped eradicate COVID from the state. So from 5 October — so not long now — those travelling from New South Wales and Victoria will no longer have to quarantine in a hotel. I’m joined now by the Minister for Trade and Tourism Simon Birmingham. Minster, thanks very much for your time this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Good to be with you, David.

David Speers: It is some softening, at least, of the border restrictions in WA. Does it go far enough, do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a small step. And what it will do is hopefully create more capacity in WA’s hotel quarantine for Australians returning from overseas, and so that will be very welcome if it does that and allows for more people on planes arriving in from overseas, which can create more cost effective airfares and help people who are struggling around the world. And it’s why we’ve been asking the states to increase their hotel quarantine capacity and this is one way doing so. I trust that in doing so for Victoria, as well as New South Wales at the same time, that WA has taken all of the requisite health advice for much of the rest of the country. We’re seeing of course huge success in suppressing COVID. Victoria has been on the improve, but still has a higher level, clearly, than the rest of the country. And what I would really love to see WA do is recognise that its neighboring jurisdictions of South Australia and the Northern Territory, and other states like Queensland and Tasmania, have had almost identical success to WA in eliminating or suppressing COVID...

David Speers:  So they should drop border restriction for those states?

Simon Birmingham: …and to open right up and really look at the type of methodology that South Australia used in opening up to New South Wales, which was to do so once they'd been 14 consecutive days with no cases of community transmission. That's good health evidence-based approach, justifiable, and can actually help to then save jobs across tourism and travel sectors, and of course reunite many families and loved ones.

David Speers: So, okay, the clear Commonwealth position is open the border up to the states, like you mentioned, South Australia, Tasmania, so on. But you're okay with their approach on Victoria and New South Wales?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I trust that they're following the advice there. I think some will find it surprising that they're moving in unison in terms of New South Wales and Victoria. The profile of COVID remains quite different between those two jurisdictions. But it's for Mark McGowan to understand, to explain the logic behind…

David Speers: One of the things they're doing in WA, they're going to- well, they're encouraging those from New South Wales and Victoria who are going to quarantine in a home not a hotel to download a new app called G2G Now. It apparently can track movements using facial recognition, and so I'm not sure if you've heard much about this app, but is that sort of technology, which would obviously carry some privacy concerns- but is it appropriate for the two weeks of quarantine that someone's required to do?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I haven't heard much about that app, so I don’t want to pass too much comment there. Where technology can help, that's great. Clearly, if you're going to have home quarantine obligations, you've got to appropriately enforce that. And I know from experience of my own family members returning to South Australia, that they had multiple police visits.

David Speers: Yeah, the idea here is you don't need as many police visits if you've got this app.

Simon Birmingham:   And as long as the technology is robust and effective, then that's a point for consideration.

David Speers: I mean, the PM's talking about moving to the home quarantine at some point for international arrivals instead of hotel quarantine. Would using an app like this be part of the deal?

Simon Birmingham: These are all things to explore. Home quarantine has worked very effectively in lower risk settings around the country. So prior to South Australia opening up its border to New South Wales, people coming in from New South Wales were home quarantining in SA while those coming from Victoria were hotel quarantining. If you were home quarantining, you had the knock on the door from the police, you had the checkups occurring. If technology can complement that and manage to enable it to be an even more effective system, then that absolutely can help for everybody. And that is where we've got to all work and look for…

David Speers: Okay, so to be clear on that. You look at how this goes in WA with his app and it may be a tool to use for international arrivals at some point.

Simon Birmingham: It could be a useful tool. We are open to anything that can ensure the safety of the population while also helping us to return to more open environments that will save jobs and make sure that we strengthen the economy and reunite loved ones and all the things that closed borders undermine.

David Speers: The talks on a travel bubble with New Zealand's have bubbled along for many months given the…

Simon Birmingham: Still water there for a little while.

David Speers: Well, indeed. Given the infection risk, you know, we're doing a lot better across Australia. These talks are back on in earnest. Is it possible we could see travel across the ditch by Christmas?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. I am very enthused by the reaction and public comments from Jacinda Ardern. It reflects the sentiments in Australia that we do wish to see that type of opening up with New Zealand if we can. Each of us has to prove the safety to one another, the safety of each other's jurisdictions in terms of people being in those areas and not being exposed to COVID. The safety of movement in terms of through the airports and not being exposed to people from other flights. And all of that legwork is being done by officials to get us to the point where hopefully we can see genuine opening up with New Zealand. And I'm really hopeful that that again can happen by Christmas and that would be a great boom for the tourism travel sector, but again for so many people who are just desperate to reconnect with their family members, their loved ones. They will see Christmas is a very important benchmark for us all to work towards.

David Speers: A couple of other things Minister. The Prime Minister today accused the MUA, the Maritime Union, of extortion over the industrial action at a number of ports around Australia. He said some 40 ships were being held up, some carrying medical supplies. Is there any evidence that medical supplies are indeed being held up?

Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that at the Port of Botany you've now got shipping potentially running up to three weeks behind schedule. Eleven days behind scheduling in Melbourne, nine days in Brisbane, three days in Fremantle. So it’s having effects right around the country. And the-

David Speers: Well okay, the Union disputes that but on this claim that medical supplies are being held up…

Simon Birmingham: And that through the Port of Botany in the last two weeks alone there was more than $116 million in medical supplies coming through.

David Speers: What are we talking about there? $116 million in medical supplies, what is that?

Simon Birmingham: They included vaccines, medicines, facemasks, medical equipment, a whole gamut of things that you would expect to be coming into the country. And if you've got a delay, the company- Patrick says it's up for three weeks. The Union might say it's less than that but I don't think the Union is denying that their industrial action is causing delays. Well that's going to delay pretty much everything coming in.

David Speers: Okay. Just on your claim there, I'm just wanting where that's come from because the Pharmacy Guild has told us they don't have evidence at the moment of medical supplies being held up. They've checked with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Medicines Australia. Their concerned, yes but they can't put their finger on any medications that are missing right now.

Simon Birmingham: It may not yet be disrupting supply chains.

David Speers: Well you just said it was Minister.

Simon Birmingham: No. No I didn't David. What I said was that there was some $116 million in medical supplies that went through the Port of Botany over the last two weeks and that if you've got delays of up to three weeks or more occurring in relation to shipments coming in, by default there are going to be delays affecting almost every good and every category coming in there.

David Speers: Okay. So just let it be absolutely clear on this. You're saying yes, those supplies came through in the last two weeks but are you agreeing with the Prime Minister that medical supplies are being held up now?

Simon Birmingham: Everything is being held up.

David Speers: But our medical supplies are being held up now?

Simon Birmingham: Everything is being held up. That is the problem that we are seeing by the type of action that is-

David Speers: I’m just asking that specific question here. The Prime Minister says medical supplies-

Simon Birmingham: Well medical supplies are part of everything.

David Speers: So they are being held up right now?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, David as I say. Look you’ve got-

David Speers: Because we've got the Pharmaceutical Guild saying otherwise.

Simon Birmingham: You’ve got the Pharmaceutical Guild saying they haven't seen disruptions to supply chains hitting pharmacies yet.

David Speers: Well they're saying there's no evidence of medical supplies being held up. I'm just wondering where this claim has come from?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, the evidence is there that the delays at the Port of Botany from this industrial action are mounting. I mean this is not a delay now of a few days like we're seeing in terms of shipping at Fremantle. It's a delay that is stretching into the weeks, three weeks or more by estimates. And yes, some close to 40 ships being held up around Australia or en route from Asia…

David Speers: Yes I do now.

Simon Birmingham: …because of these delays. And so it's affecting those in port and it’s affecting-

David Speers: Okay. But my question was more about the specific claim of medical supplies. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. This obviously is alarming that any medical supplies would be held up. The Union strongly argues that's not happening. I'm just trying to get to where the evidence is to support the Prime Minister's claim.

Simon Birmingham: The evidence is the fact that we know large volumes of medical supplies come through the Port of Botany, some as I say, $116 million over a two-week period recently. And that we now have clear evidence of significant delays in shipments coming in. So that-

David Speers: Not necessarily of medical supplies.

Simon Birmingham: David, these ships coming into the Port of Botany contain basically all manner of things that Australia imports be it medical supplies, be it construction supplies, be it a range of different categories that we have. And they are all in the process of being held up as a result of this industrial action. And of course it's not just the imports, it's the exporters who are all identifying significant increasing costs that they are facing as a result of the mounting delays. You don't just have to take the shipping companies word for it. You have now a number of different Australian industries who are admitting they are having to pay surcharges because they've got goods sitting on ports, longer- sitting in containers longer and massive delays that they're facing.

David Speers: Trade Minister, Tourism Minister as well Simon Birmingham, we will have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you David. My pleasure.

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