ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings with Ali Clarke & David Bevan - 16/09/2020

16 September 2020

DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Good Morning to you.


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


BEVAN: Simon Birmingham if we can 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?

BIRMINGHAM: David, I know Qantas is doing it incredibly tough at present and that's why the 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. Good luck to Qantas but I'd have to say I 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.

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 with 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.

BIRMINGHAM: I heard Jules interviewing an aviation expert yesterday arvo and I thought he made some 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 you know want to get jobs into their state, 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. What we've done as a Federal Government is recently stood up a global talent attraction and investment task force 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.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, is Simon Birmingham right? Best thing the Territories and Premiers could do would be to say 'no, we're just not going to do this'?

WONG: 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. It's to be expected.

I guess as a South Australian what I'd say is, any jobs in South Australia would be welcome. So I think it'd be a good thing if we tried to see if there was a way we could get more jobs here into South Australia from this.

I mean more broadly, 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.

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

WONG: 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. We've got 25,000 people who are stranded overseas. We have, by the Government's own figures, just under 4000 - three and a half thousand - of them who are classified as vulnerable

We've had 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 job's ended, can't get home. They've been advised by the Government to look into homeless shelters if you're stuck.

People who've gone, 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 that the Federal Government can walk away from.

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

WONG: That absolutely should be on the table.

I mean, look, there are a number things that can be done and I think a lot of the families, I heard Judith this morning whose son is coming home and what I'd say is we want 25,000 more stories like that of people who actually are able to get home.

So let's, 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 airlines 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.

CLARKE: All right, 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.

BIRMINGHAM: It's not that simple because it really is a function of the quarantine capacity that exists in Australia.

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?

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 and a failure of quarantine, we were seeing around 7,700 people, processed into the country, each week through quarantine. As a result of the Victorian 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 are able to safely manage their quarantines and not have a repeat of what occurred in Victoria. So that meant the 7,700 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 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 did urge 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 has come back a little bit, but they are struggling because of the state caps. There are plenty 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 to grow that.

CLARKE: Are we at 100 per cent capacity in this country of those 4000 people coming in every week?

BIRMINGHAM: Pretty close to, Ali. I mean there are obviously some rooms in some states, at some points in time.

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

BIRMINGHAM: Again 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.

BEVAN: So your argument is it's not a plane shortage, it's a quarantine shortage. So you could send all the VIP planes you like and that's not going to help the solution?

BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely David. Look Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party were out with a stunt yesterday when it comes to using Air Force flights. This is about making sure you've got enough state quarantine rooms where there's no risk of failure.

WONG: I don't think it's a stunt 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 who's told Australians for years, 'I'm in charge of our borders, I'm in charge of quarantine, I control the borders, I stopped the boats' and now he's, as you just have, saying, it's 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 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 a health condition, he was sleeping in his car in France because he couldn't get back.

So the reality is that the consequences of the caps have meant that the airlines are doing, 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.

BIRMINGHAM: Penny, the caps were requested by the states and territories…

WONG: Here we go again. You're seven years in government. Are you responsible for anything? Are you responsible for anything, Simon? Is everything in this country the responsibility of state premiers?

BIRMINGHAM: Well no, not certainly not Penny but you want the Federal Government to override the state health officers and others who requested these caps...

WONG: No I don't.

BIRMINGHAM: (cross talk) failures in Victoria quarantine.

WONG: 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 has 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.

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…

WONG: He's also said we're not at capacity here in South Australia.

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 for people very, very soon. We're working with those state health officers to do it safely.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham 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?

BIRMINGHAM: So Christmas Island, we're actually now using for people that we would ordinarily deport. Those who have 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 and now being housed at Christmas Island. So, there are these other pressures that are building in the, in terms of those systems. But as I said 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 the simplest way for us to do it safely.

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


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.