ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings with David Bevan - 07/06/2021

07 June 2021

SUBJECTS: South Australian Liberals recruiting at Pentecostal church services; Morrison Government’s failure to establish fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities; Morrison Government’s failures on defence capability.

DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Good morning to Simon Birmingham, Leader of the Government in the Senate and Federal Finance Minister – good morning to you sir.

SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Good morning, David and good morning to you listeners.

BEVAN: And on the other line, Penny Wong Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Labor Party in the Senate. Good morning to you.


BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, just before we get on to some of the other issues – we wanted to talk about subs and quarantine – I've got to ask you, we've got a lot of talkback about this issue of Alex Antic and other people running a recruitment drive in the churches for the Liberal Party. And some people say this is a terrible breach of church and state, other people saying, as our last text, saying look I have particular views which are informed by my faith, I haven't got a problem with signing up. What do you think Alex Antic is up to?

BIRMINGHAM: Look, probably a question for Alex. I can’t say I've been briefed in any detail on what's been going on in membership signups or whatever of like. Look, it's probably a matter for churches in part as to whether they think it's appropriate to offer themselves as, as a platform in any way for party politics in this day and age. That really is one for them and their relationship with their parishioners. As political parties, the criteria is, is we want people who believe in the party and its values and its causes and are willing to work hard for it and participate within it. And that's obviously what I would expect all memberships to be judged against.

BEVAN: But do you have a problem with him specifically targeting conservative Christians and saying please join this party?

BIRMINGHAM: I welcome new members as long as they accord to those values that I just set out before in terms of their alignment with the values the Liberal Party has, their commitment to the good of the party, and to working for the party and particularly at present, for the re-election of our governments. Now if there's particularly abnormal behaviour occurring in relation to memberships then, I've no doubt that the administrative wing of the party will take a look at it.

BEVAN: Abnormal behaviour – but there's nothing wrong with a recruitment drive is there?

BIRMINGHAM: No there's nothing wrong with, with new people joining the party, David. As I said, if, if there's anything unusual about, about the manner in which people have been signed up, then that’s a matter for the administrative wing to take a look at.

BEVAN: And are you aware of anything unusual or inappropriate going on?

BIRMINGHAM: Not, not to my knowledge, David, but as I said before, nor have I been briefed on, on any of these news stories in any detail.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, how do you feel about people within churches being targeted by a political party saying look we, we need you, if you have conservative views, in this case, you need to join up and help change our party stance. I mean that's, that's just democracy isn't it?

WONG: Well I think democracy is parties of government having people from all parts of Australian society – people of faith and different faiths, as well as people who aren't people of faith. I think what was concerning about the reports today is the objectives and the agenda which, out of people's own mouths, is being articulated. When we have a parishioner from an Adelaide Pentecostal church writing to the Liberal Party State President here, complaining that “a senior Liberal is using my church to take over your party”, and you have David Speirs saying, and there's a quote in the article that's been reported, “this idea of the separation of church and state – forget it”. I just wanted to – because I know you raised in your intro David, a question about that – let’s remember the separation of church and state was as much to defend the rights of everybody, to practice their faith freely as anything. It was to avoid the sort of sectarianism that you know historically Western democracy had seen. And we have in our constitution, our federal Constitution, a very clear prohibition, a very clear articulation of the separation of church and state. And I think what I'd say to Simon, as the most senior Liberal in South Australia: is David Speirs articulating the position of your party, that this idea of separation of church and state, forget it – is that the position of the Liberal Party?

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, no, it's not. Look, I would be in agreement with Penny in terms of the fact that remains a very important principle for the way in which governments and Parliaments operate. And that needs to flow into it, into certainly major political parties that we welcome people who are of faith and who are not of faith and if they're of faith, who are of all types of different faiths and beliefs and that is crucial and that ultimately as parties of government, and I think we, we both have certainly long held to these principles and would expect us to continue to, that we respect the freedoms of individuals to practice.

BEVAN: But is what David Speirs saying, is look, separation of church and state, forget about it – is what he's really saying is that, that's a red herring, it doesn't apply here. Nobody's seriously suggesting that we have an official state religion, but what he and Antic and other conservatives are saying is that if you hold these views, and you don't like where a government or a party is going, then join up because you are allowed to have your views informed by your faith. That's fair enough isn't it, Penny Wong?

WONG: I mean people have their views informed by faith, but I think what's happening here is that the right wing of the Liberal party is fighting back and using the churches or one of the churches – not my church but the Pentecostal church – to recruit members for their own ends. I mean, I think that's quite clear from what the report says. I think I am always concerned, I would always be concerned when comments like that are made, because I think what it forgets is the very important democratic principle that underlines the separation of church and state which is, we don't want parties of government focusing and responding to only one type of faith practice – we want parties of government to behave as a state, separate from faith, and that we want people from all faiths to feel included in our society.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham – quarantine. Setting up dedicated quarantine facilities funded by the Federal Government. Has the South Australian Government raised the prospect of a federally funded quarantine service, in a similar way that the Victorians and the Queenslanders have done?

BIRMINGHAM: No, David. Victoria is the only one who has worked in quite a constructive and detailed manner with the Federal Government to pursue a proposal. Now that proposal is for additional quarantine places to be created in Victoria and that is important to underline – they weren't proposing that this be a substitute arrangement in the short term – they were proposing it be a long term facility that for dealing with the immediate COVID crisis would be additional quarantine places. We have worked with them over a period of some weeks. They presented quite a detailed proposal with some options involved in that. We got to the stage last week of signing a memorandum of understanding between the Commonwealth Government and the Victorian Government to proceed through the next stages of that. It has an expression of interest process out at present for the, for essentially tenders to come in, proposals to come in, around, around costings and so forth. We've committed to construction of the site as the Federal Government, that it will be on Federal land and the Victorian Government have committed that they will operate it as a facility creating additional quarantine places over and above those in current facilities through the life of the pandemic and then it will revert to Commonwealth operation in the longer term as we utilise it potentially for other disaster or emergency situations in cooperation with Victoria.

BEVAN: Penny Wong?

WONG: Well, we've had some 21 breaches from hotel quarantine which has had pretty devastating consequences for people around Australia but particularly Victorians. We know hotels are built for tourists, they're not built for quarantine. We are more than a year into the pandemic, we’re nearly nine months after Jane Halton told this Government they should be using purpose built facilities. And we've seen this Government bizarrely, just stubbornly refusing to do that until the political pressure was placed upon them. Howard Springs is still not at full capacity. We've seen Victoria put something on the table. We've seen Queensland put something on the table, but I can tell you as someone who asked the Prime Minister's Department question after question about that, it was ‘computer says no’. I mean, it was obstacle after obstacle and I for one do not understand why this Federal Government is so stubbornly resistant to having purpose built quarantine facilities. I mean Simon is the Finance Minister, who brought down a budget with a trillion dollars worth of debt and $100 billion worth of new spending and no new spending for national quarantine facilities.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, we often talk on this program about what's good policy, and what's good politics. Just in terms of the politics, wouldn't it have been a real winner – I mean who's going to bag you for building dedicated quarantine facilities. I appreciate now it's getting a bit embarrassing, you'd be late to the party, but wasn't it just good politics to build some of these things?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, we do have to equally work through the question of building these things, as you say, and then their long term purpose and objective. This Victorian facility will come at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of its construction. Now, we've determined that we think having a facility like Howard Springs created on the, on the east coast in one of the major cities is going to be something that, for the long term, serves a purpose and a use which is, which is why we're moving ahead with Victoria.

BEVAN: It just doesn’t look enough, to a lot of people.

BIRMINGHAM: Well, we have been progressing Howard Springs towards taking 2,000, but the India situation saw us slow down arrivals there, which I think is a reminder that even the purpose built facilities have pressure points and we reacted to that in relation to India by slowing arrivals there, at the request of the NT Government, who were concerned about the number of positive cases coming in through that facility. On the whole, we've got around 360,000 people who have passed through quarantine since we started these systems in March of last year –360,000, across the country. Now, of course we take seriously any of the breaches because they have serious consequences and it's why there have been continued efforts to tighten the operations around the country. But, but we should equally acknowledge that of that 360,000, nearly everyone in fact, all but a handful have passed through safely, successfully managed. And of course as we've learned the lessons we continue to put in place further protocols with the states to support their safe operations, too.

BEVAN: We can't get a hold of the Federal Defence Minister, Peter Dutton. I appreciate he’s a very busy man, but South Australia spends a lot of its time and effort building stuff for the defence of this nation, including submarines. Can you explain to us what is actually going on with our submarine contract? Are we seriously threatening the French, that we'll call the thing off, we'll pay the penalties – $150 million – just get out of it, and start again?

BIRMINGHAM: David we're working through the next scope of the works package with the, with Naval Group. So Defence and Naval Group are going through the process of settling costs and parameters of all of that. The Prime Minister is heading off to the G7 meeting of world leaders over the next week, which will be his first chance to meet with, with Joe Biden in his capacity as President of the US, he's also going to meet with President Emmanuel Macron of France, and in doing so, will be talking about the importance of the Attack-class and the work that is being undertaken there.

BEVAN: But is going there saying, ‘if you don't give us what we want, we will close it down, we'll pay you off and we'll start again’ – is that what he's saying?

BIRMINGHAM: David we're not, we're not balling up threats in that regard. As I think Defence officials said last week under questioning, of course they have undertaken prudent contingency planning but our commitment is to seeing submarines, world leading regionally superior in terms of their capability submarines, built in South Australia for the Australian Navy, and to work with Naval Group and the French on delivering on the commitments that we've made to each other. But it's got to be commitments that honour the terms of the agreement we've reached to make sure that there is Australian industry content that delivers that capability in Australian businesses and industry that will serve not only our Navy in terms of the submarines they receive for the years to come, but also defence industry in Australia to be able to work on the subs and on sustaining them for the many years that will come thereafter.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, what do you say came out of Estimates last week regarding the state of the submarines?

WONG: Well, a few things came out of Estimates. The first point I'd make is the broader point – that you've got critical defence capabilities after eight years of this Government which are just not being delivered. I mean it is a cumulative, 28 major defence projects are running a cumulative 74 years late. So just pause and think about that for a moment; that we've got 28 projects – capabilities that the ADF needs – a cumulative 74 years late. And the most worrying of them is the Future Submarines project. It's already going to be 10 years late and the costs have blown out by $40 billion. We've had officials concede, after all of these delays and blow outs, and after the Government failed to start the contract with an enforceable legal requirement to have local content – so we have Australian capability and jobs in this submarine – now officials are saying, we're looking at a Plan B. And just to put this all into context, I asked how many submarines will be based in the Indo Pacific by 2035. And I was told – this is all nations – around 300. At best, we're going to have seven, and that's only if there's a life of type extension – that's a full refit of all the Collins-class – the Government still has not made a decision about that. And two years later, after the former Defence minister – one of the many – said there would be a decision on full-cycle docking – whether it would remain in Adelaide or go to Perth – we still don’t have a decision on that. It is extraordinary.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, we know you and Simon Birmingham are very busy people. Thank you very much for your time.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.