Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs
Date: Friday, 22 January 2021
Michael Rowland: Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Adelaide. Senator Birmingham, it's simply not good enough, is it?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, I know these are very difficult times for some of these individuals. Now, we have seen, since March of last year, some 446,000 Australians successfully return to Australia - vast numbers. The Government's operated more than 90 repatriation flights or assisted flights to date. We've now scheduled a further 20, a couple of those have had ticket allocations go out already, others will be scheduled over the days and weeks to come.
But we face an incredibly challenging time and that is that there is the cap on arrivals into Australia, there are limited places coming into Australia right now. And what we are trying to do is make sure that we move people through as quickly as we can, noting that we continue each week to have more people register who've never registered before as part of the DFAT system, the foreign affairs system, to identify these Australians. So, it's a challenge and it’s a challenge that keeps changing as we do get those additional registrations each and every week.
Michael Rowland: Alyse has been trying for months; she tried to get a seat on one of those 20 flights. As we heard, they went out very, very quickly. These are Australian citizens we are talking about, Minister. Isn't it the right of any Federal Government to look after Australian citizens to ensure they can exercise their right of Australian citizenship, and that is returning to their place of birth?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we're facing a global pandemic, Michael, and it’s a pandemic in which Australia's handling of it has stood out amongst the rest of the world. Six out of the last seven days in Australia we've recorded zero cases of community transmission while around, while around the rest of the world, Michael-
Michael Rowland: I know. And I just want to butt in there. Australia’s done very well. We’re talking about maybe doing- moving Heaven and Earth and I appreciate the extra flights have gone in, but moving Heaven and Earth to help people like Alyse.
Simon Birmingham: Well Michael, our international border restrictions have been an important of that. Around the rest of the world there’s average nearly 700,000 new cases a day in the last week. And so, we've had one case in the last seven days I think it was, or at least six out of seven days with no cases of community transmission - the rest of the world averaging nearly 700,000 new cases. So, border controls have been an important part of that.
Now, what we've done is work to see Australians return home ever since March of last year when we first gave that signal. More than 446,000 have done so successfully in that time. Yes, there are still Australians in challenging circumstances. Why we're not only working with those in terms of repatriation flights, or trying to increase areas where we can of quarantine places, but we've also provided more than $17 million in
hardship payments and assistance to those Australians overseas. So, we are working as hard as we can across the diplomatic networks to help people in these very difficult situations, whilst still putting the premium on making sure we keep Australia safe and secure in relation to…
Michael Rowland: Okay. Is there any hope of National Cabinet agreeing to, any hope of National Cabinet agreeing to lift that cap on arrivals today?
Simon Birmingham: National Cabinet had agreed to review the cap in mid-February, so if such decision were made to today it would be bringing it forward. Look, I hope the states and territories do consider ways to do so. They made this decision to reduce the cap on the basis of concerns about the UK strain and other new variants of the virus. We want to make sure that we do have the systems in place to keep medi hotels and quarantine systems safe from these new strains, but also to try to get those cap numbers back up to where they were as quickly as possible.
Michael Rowland: Okay. To other news, the new US President, Joe Biden, has, amongst other things, recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement. So the US now has a formal target of bringing emissions down to net zero by 2050 - joining the Conservative Government in the UK, countries like France, New Zealand, several other Western nations. Why is Australia the global outlier on this front?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Michael, I warmly welcome the decision of President Biden to re-join the Paris Agreement. Australia's one of the original signatories to the Paris Agreement and we never left it. And so, it is great to have the United States, the world's largest economy, back at the table at the Paris Agreement which will make a big difference in terms of the global effort to reduce emissions and achieve our climate change goals. As part of the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia is committed to net zero achieved and we want to see it happen as soon as possible by 2050 or even sooner.
Michael Rowland: Yeah, by the end of the century, and Paris is by the end of the century. But I'm talking about all these countries, including the US, including the Conservative Government in the UK committing to net zero by 2050. But, will the Australian Government commit to 2050?
Simon Birmingham: Paris says in the second half of this century. We want to make we can get there as quickly possible and Michael-
Michael Rowland: Yeah. But that's not the question I'm asking. Will we- I know, I know exactly what Paris says. Will the Australian Government commit to 2050?
Simon Birmingham: And Michael, what we will do is work to get there as quickly as possible. And the big opportunity with the Biden Administration is that their plans for investment in technology to achieve emissions reductions, to know how you're going to get to net zero, complements our technology road map here in Australia. And so, we want to work together with them as a Government to achieve net zero, we want to work together from business to business to invest in those technologies that will be the pathway to get there. That's the most crucial thing, is to know how we're all going to get there and to develop those technologies, not taxes, to achieve it.
Michael Rowland: Okay. What do you think of Cricket Australia's decision to drop any reference to Australia Day for the Big Bash matches on January 26?
Simon Birmingham: I urge everyone to look for opportunities to achieve unity around Australia Day, to bring Australia together - be that First Nations People, Indigenous Australians; be that those who are descendants of the convicts and the first settlers; or, be that of course, the many waves of migrants from right around the globe who've come ever since. Let's celebrate together as one, bringing all of those different Australians that make Australia a diverse and successful nation together and try to make sure that we do see Australia Day as one where Australians, one and all, can look at our successes, acknowledge of course there are challenges and failures that we've had like any nation over the years. But we are a country with much to be proud of, much to work on together in the future, and let's see it as a unifying occasion that I know the Australia Day Council has been working so hard to achieve in recent years.
Michael Rowland: Okay. The Prime Minister, when asked about this yesterday, had this to say.
Scott Morrison: It's all about acknowledging how far we've come. You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, all those years ago, it wasn't a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.
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Michael Rowland: Simon Birmingham, you can't really equate scurvy with genocide, can you?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, we saw, that was more than 200 years ago, convicts being brought out under forced orders from the United Kingdom. Now, I don't want to reflect on what was happening more than 200 years ago in terms of the individual circumstances of many individuals - they were pretty rough times for lots of people. What I want us to focus on in Australia Day is Australia here, in 2021; the success of our nation; and, the opportunities for us to achieve even greater success. And we will achieve that greater success by bringing people together; not by dividing them; by embracing the Indigenous heritage of this nation; by embracing the multicultural heritage of this nation; and, by celebrating it together - not by trying to segment one another.
Michael Rowland: Okay. We're out of time. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us on News Breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Michael. My pleasure.