SUBJECTS: Australians stranded in India; cuts to funding for SA homelessness services.
DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Finance, thank you for coming in.
SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM, FINANCE MINISTER: Good morning. Good to be with you.
BEVAN: And on the tie line, Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Good morning to you, Penny Wong.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Morning, good to be with you.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, Australian citizens stranded in India have been told they'll be prosecuted if they make their way back home. Is that the right thing to do?
BIRMINGHAM: David, based on the health advice, yes, it is. Now what we've done is use the same law, biosecurity powers that we have used ever since the 2nd of February last year. These were the laws that we used when we first put in place restrictions on arrivals from China at the commencement of the COVID-19 concern, at the commencement of the imposition of these sorts of international border restrictions.
BEVAN: I don't think you threatened to jail anybody and fine them, did you?
BIRMINGHAM: No, the penalties are actually standard penalties. So, the penalties have been the same penalties for anybody who breaches these laws, the whole way through the COVID crisis.
BEVAN: So, there's nothing new in that?
BIRMINGHAM: There's no new penalties, being created as a result of this decision. What we have done is create further restrictions in relation to arrivals from India. It's not the first time we've responded on a country by country basis. At the start of the crisis, we did so as I said, with China but also with Italy, South Korea with Iran, only a couple of months ago we did so in relation to Papa New Guinea and slowing the number of flights and arrivals coming in, particularly to Queensland. All of it, of course, having the overlay of the fact that in the middle, we closed our borders to the whole world, effectively, and have been dealing then with how we allow people back into the country under the exceptional provisions of quarantine and isolation. So, we've seen, of course vast numbers some 520,000 Australians have returned since March of last year. So we've managed large numbers of arrivals overwhelmingly safely, but in this case we're responding to the fact that they've been a big surge in positive cases of those arriving from India, and that that was putting real pressure on the quarantine systems, the Commonwealth run one in Darwin, as well as of course, others around the country.
BEVAN: Penny Wong, is it the right thing to do?
WONG: Well I reckon Australian citizenship has to mean something. And the reality is what we have is an extraordinary situation where the Government has trumpeted up to five years in jail, and up to $66,000 worth of fines if somebody comes back. And there's a pretty sorry history here to this. Let's remember the borders closed March of last year. We had thousands of Australians stranded. You spoke to some of them, David, on your program. We called for safe, national quarantine. We said without that we can't get Aussies home and we can't keep Australians safe. The Prime Minister was briefed about the need for a safe, national quarantine facility. But the Government didn't act. All we had was more words. I mean we had the Prime Minister promising that people would be home by Christmas - we still have almost 40,000 stranded overseas and we now have 10,000 stranded in India, and people are facing jail. Now, I wish the Government would be straight about this. We had Simon, then again, coming up with a different explanation, 'oh, these were the penalties which were there before'. There was no threat, there was no threat previously that they would actually be imposed. I'd make that point. And, you know, if this is the case, why wasn't this talked about when the UK and the US both went into their first, second and third waves.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, Penny Wong makes a good point, doesn't she? We didn't hear about these sort of fines and prosecutions a few months ago. You say, 'oh, it's nothing new here'. This is new. You've upped the ante. Or is this just rhetoric the play to the crowd?
BIRMINGHAM: No, David. What is different here is, is the fact that we are looking very specifically at all arrivals coming in from people who've been in India in the last 14 days. So, it does capture Australian citizens. And so that is something beyond what we have done previously. The penalties themselves are the same penalties for anybody else who would have sought to or may have breached biosecurity laws, as I say, right throughout the pandemic because there's no new decision that relates to the penalties. They're just an automatic consequence of putting tighter restrictions in place.
BEVAN: If you'd got quarantine right, we wouldn't be having this conversation. If you'd expanded the facilities to take into account something like this - and you've had plenty of notice - we wouldn't be talking about this.
BIRMINGHAM: David, we're getting new people adding themselves to the DFAT registration process every week. So, it's a list, in a sense, that you're never going to clear and you particularly never going to clear...
WONG: That's not an answer, Simon.
BIRMINGHAM: You're never going to clear it, Penny.
WONG: That's not an answer. The question you were just asked was about safe, national quarantine. And it is now May 2021. Our borders closed March 2020. People were supposed to be home by Christmas. The question that David just asked you, was about why you haven't established safe, national quarantine over a year after borders were closed. Instead, you're talking about a list, a list which is growing, because in great part, you have not stepped up to the plate and ensured there is a safe system. And we still have people in hotel quarantine in the middle of our cities and no surge capacity.
BIRMINGHAM: We do you have a safe system, Penny. 520,000 Australians have returned since March of last year...
WONG: So that's why you've got to put people in jail for five years if they come back?
BIRMINGHAM: 99.99% of those passing through our hotel quarantine facilities have done so safely, without transmission of COVID into the community. We have a national facility in the Northern Territory, and even there with that national facility, the NT Government because of the surge of positive cases testing from India, asked us to slow arrivals and pause arrivals because of concerns in relation to the potential impact on their health system. This is something that Labor leaders, elsewhere around the country, have asked for, in terms of slowing arrivals from India. It's a pause that will be reviewed on the 15th of May. But it's a recognition that the numbers of cases testing positive from India is unprecedented, compared with any other group that we've had coming into Australia since COVID started.
WONG: I'd make two points. The first is you and Senator Payne and others keep saying this was entirely founded on the Chief Medical Officer's advice. He's made really clear publicly he gave no advice regarding fines or jail terms.
BIRMINGHAM: Because they're an automatic consequence.
WONG: Can I finish. I did listen to you and you spoke for a very long time. Matthew Canavan, your own Senator, has tweeted today this, "We should be helping Aussies in India return not jailing them. Let's fix our quarantine system rather than leave our fellow Australians stranded." Well I'm very rarely on the same ticket as Matt Canavan but I am today. So, what are you doing wrong, as the Government?
BIRMINGHAM: Penny, what we're doing is protecting Australians and I'll make absolutely no apologies for the fact that Australian lives have been saved through our stance in relation to international borders.
WONG: Oh, come on, please.
BIRMINGHAM: Australian jobs have been saved through our stance in relation to international borders.
WONG: Don't change the subject. You're changing the subject. The issue is quarantine. The issue is quarantine. The decision you made not to proceed with establishing safe, national quarantine which has left thousands of Australians stranded and now instead of proceeding to establish more safe, national quarantine you're saying even Australian citizens, you face up to five years jail. I mean are we really going to put Dave Warner in jail for coming back? Is that what we're going to do?
BIRMINGHAM: Penny, you have held out Howard Springs as being the type of facility we should have more of.
WONG: How long did it take you to make that up?
BIRMINGHAM: And even in relation, even in relation to the Howard Springs facility, the advice is clear; we need to stop arrivals from India for a period of time, because of the number of cases testing positive. Now, you might be happy to bring hundreds of additional COVID positive cases into Australia...
WONG: Please don't do that.
BIRMINGHAM: We are taking the health advice...
WONG: I love the way you just create these straw men arguments. You know you suggest we don't want to keep people safe. You suggest we want to bring in a whole heap of positive people. What we are saying...
BIRMINGHAM: You seem to be pretending there's an easy solution to this and there is not.
WONG: No, there isn't an easy solution but I'll tell you what, if you'd listened to us and to Jane Halton and to other advisors last year, and established a system of safe, national quarantine, we would not have as many people stranded overseas in perilous situations as we do now. And I said at the time, including on this program, I said it will get worse.
BEVAN: Can I just interrupt here, because I think we've got the idea. However, we got here, we're here today. What do we do today? Do we pause the take from India until we're in a better position or until India's in a better position, or do we take them back? Penny Wong, just quickly, however we've got here, what do we do today?
WONG: We have said, we support the suspension of flights if that is based on health advice - as we have supported every security measure the Government has taken in relation to COVID. But what I am saying is that we need to use this time to actually seek to beef up national quarantine, so that we have greater capacity to deal with this. And I'm also saying that Australian citizenship has to mean something. And a press release or an announcement over the weekend that trumpets jail and fines for Australian citizens seeking to return home, surely is not the way to deal with this. Surely, there's a better way.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, what do you say we should do today? And how do you think we can do it better?
BIRMINGHAM: So, David, firstly, we do have to wait a little while. The number of positive cases in the Northern Territory at our national facility, in South Australia at present, in Sydney, elsewhere around the country, the number of positive cases that will now sit in the system until those people clear is such that we can't be bringing more positive cases potentially from India into the country. Now we've run 38 Commonwealth facilitated flights from India in addition to commercial services. We had another eight that were scheduled to come during May. We will restart those when it is safe to do so and we will help the most vulnerable on those facilitated flights to get into Australia. We also are looking at how we can make sure we have the pre-flight testing in relation to anyone departing India so that we can actually have that testing occur in country, and give us confidence that we won't see the same sort of surge in positive cases in our facilities in Australia in the future. That's in addition to the new places that we've created at Howard Springs which will see it go up to 2000 arrivals it can facilitate per fortnight, but our medihotels still play a very important role and have overwhelmingly safely managed arrivals into the country.
BEVAN: Senator Simon Birmingham, Finance Minister, thank you very much for your time. Senator Penny Wong...
WONG: Can I just say something about Catherine House though, before I go?
BEVAN: Yes, for people that don't know Catherine House, Catherine House has lost funding under the Government's shake up of homelessness programs.
WONG: I just want to say quickly, this is a service I've supported for many years. It is the only service of its kind for single homeless women, a group that is fast experiencing growth in homelessness. They have people on the waiting list who are escaping domestic violence and I would really urge the state government to reverse this decision. It's a service I've visited. There are a lot of women who would not be where they are today, but for the support Catherine House gives. So, I'd add my voice to those who are saying please refund that and also Hutt Street.
BEVAN: Penny Wong, thank you for your time.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.
SUBJECTS: Australians stranded in India; cuts to funding for SA homelessness services.