Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs
Date: Friday, 22 January 2021
Peter Stefanovic: Well, we’re going to go live now to the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, and also the acting Foreign Minister for this week.
Minister, it’s good to see you, thanks for joining us. Let’s start off in your acting portfolio. It’s our top story of the morning, it’s Joe Biden’s first full day as President. I’m just wondering if whether if the foreign office, or Arthur Sinodinas over in Washington DC - has there been any contact between us and the new administration yet?
Simon Birmingham: G’day, Peter. Well look, it will take a little while before we see leader to leader calls to take place. Of course, President Biden has many world leaders to work through and much that he is doing domestically to get started. Obviously, Ambassador Sinodinas will be working to get to know people in the new administration as quickly as possible, but those senior officials still have, for most of them, confirmation proceedings to be concluded through the US Senate before they officially take office. So, this is the early days, but we look forward to close engagement as quickly as we can.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. It took a while for the US to appoint an ambassador to Australia in the last administration. When would you expect the US to appoint a new ambassador here?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the transition that the Biden administration has undertaken has been very smooth, notwithstanding some of the difficulties that they’ve faced along the way. The announcement of Cabinet appointments has all occurred prior to inauguration and they are now moving through the process of getting that Senate confirmation. I would expect that other appointments, including postings around the world will equally occur in a timely way. Now, that’s a matter for President Biden and his team, but we will look forward to welcoming his representative in Australia at the earliest possible opportunity.
Peter Stefanovic: Well, when would you hope the President would visit us here? It’s obviously not going to be anytime soon, but would you hope it could be this year?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, I don’t want to talk about Presidential visits - that’s a little pre-emptive. I’m sure we will extend an open invitation for President Biden or Vice-President Harris to visit, and of course, we’ll look forward to our regular dialogue - the two plus two dialogue between our Foreign Minister and our Defense Minister, with the Secretaries of State and Defence of the United States occurring during the course of this year. And it’s a crucial part of the exchange we have on a regular basis each and every year, between Australia and the US, and it will take on even greater import this year as the first one with the new Biden Administration. President Biden himself visited Australia as Vice-President in the Obama Administration, so he’s no stranger to Australia’s shores and we’d love to have him back. But, I know he’s got plenty on his plate to start with.
Peter Stefanovic: Yep. Alright, now Emirates has announced this morning that it is resuming its flights to Australia. It only just suspended those flights, what’s your reaction to that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, look, these are obviously commercial decisions that Emirates are making. I understand that they’ve rationalised this on the basis that they’ve worked through the impacts of the new testing requirements that Australia have announced on their flight crew and that they’ve managed to find ways to navigate that. And so, I welcome the fact that Emirates are recommencing those services. Of course, their decisions have caused some disruption to many Australians and that is deeply regrettable.
We moved quickly to make sure that the seat allocations that Emirates had under the quarantine caps into Australia, were reallocated to other carriers, our officials will now have to rework some of those numbers to accommodate the return of Emirates into the market. And of course, on top of those carriers – be it Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Singapore or others still flying into Australia - we have Australian organised, Government organised and facilitated flights that are being undertaken; more than 90 undertaken to date and a further 20 that we’ve announced and are now working through the process of allocating and filling seats on.
Peter Stefanovic: Yes. It was those 20 repatriation flights that was announced after Emirates had initially pulled out of its operations in Australia temporarily. So, those extra 20 repatriation flights, they will still proceed?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. Decisions around pursuing those additional 20 repatriation flights were taken prior to the Emirates decision. The announcements happen to occur on the same day, but that’s more a factor of coincidence rather than design or result. And so, we’re committed to continuing our efforts to help Australians to get home as quickly as possible. More than 446,000 Australians have come back in the period of time since we issued the suggestion that people should come back if they wish to in March last year, that's a vast number that have successfully been repatriated into Australia. And we're going to continue to work on getting people back, noting that each and every week more people add their names to the Foreign Affairs Register indicating that they now want to come home, who may not previously have done so. So, it's a never ending task in some ways, but we will continue to work as best we can to help people back to our shores.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Well, on that - and this is going to be talked about in National Cabinet - Queensland wants to use a mining camp in central Queensland near Gladstone to be used for quarantine outside of hotels, separate from hotels as a matter of fact. Do you support that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we still haven't seen a detailed proposal around those ideas, and I know there are some reservations in some local communities to such proposals. But it's within the rights of states and territories in terms of identifying the quarantine facilities that they want to use and to make sure those quarantine facilities have the security, staff, and services there, the health staff and services there, that are necessary for them to operate successfully. And as long as states can meet the appropriate standards, and do so working with their local communities, well then that's really a matter for those states. What we want to see is the maximum number of places being available for returning Australians. That's what really is the impediment to people freely getting back at present, is the cap that's in place and we want to see that cap return to where it was prior to the decision of National Cabinet late last year, as quickly as possible.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Well, I was going to ask you about that anyway. When would you hope that those caps would be lifted? I know you just said as quickly as possible there, but have you got a timeframe on when you want those caps lifted?
Simon Birmingham: There was a review committed, of those caps, for mid-February. We need to remember that the caps were put in place, or were reduced in that regard to deal with the new variants and strains of the virus that we were seeing appearing in medi hotels and quarantine facilities across Australia. So, it was an understandable decision that was taken. We want to see the mid-February deadline met or exceeded. And if there are opportunities for states to confidently increase numbers before we get to that review point, that would be very, very welcome, especially for those Australians trying to get home right now.
Peter Stefanovic: But why not use- If those mining camps are available and it works, surely that would lead to a lift in the caps.
Simon Birmingham: Well, if it can lead to a lift in the cap, that's fantastic. As I say, it's for the states and territories, who we’re working very closely with, to identify how they can best make sure they run these services. It's not just about where there are beds - there are no shortage of beds in many Australian hotels and other places right now. It's of course, about successfully staffing these facilities. You need the medical staff for the very significant scale of testing that is undertaken now in relation to, not only the residents of the facilities - those returning to Australia - but also in relation to the staff who are in those facilities too. You need the security services to make sure that they are secure sites; that people don't just get up and leave. So there's all of those additional factors. And what some states have said pretty clearly is that city locations work best because they are able to isolate and secure high-rise buildings most effectively and they are proximate to hospitals, to medical services and the like, whereas more remote settings create have far greater difficulties in terms of staffing. But if states think they can manage to do that, and that it can add to the quarantine places, then that would be very, very welcome.
Peter Stefanovic: Would federal help be provided?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we are already providing federal help. There’s 1600 Defence Force personnel still working with the states and territories primarily on the operation of quarantine facilities, and we continue to respond to requests from the states and territories there. So we see this very much as a program, working hand in glove with them to make sure that we have the facilities in place to return Aussies home, but in a way that keeps Australians safe.
Let's remember that our international border restrictions have been a key part of Australia's successful management of COVID, keeping our health outcomes better than the rest of the world. We've seen, in six out of the last seven days, zero cases of community transmission in Australia, while across the rest of the globe we've seen an average of around 700,000 new cases a day and about 17,000 deaths recorded in a single day. So, horrifying stats in the rest of the world.
So the international border restrictions have kept us safe from a health perspective and also made our economy stronger, seeing such strong jobs outcomes yesterday – a further 50,000 jobs created and around 90 per cent of those jobs lost at the start of the pandemic now coming back online. And that, again, is very welcome and another sign that the economic policies have helped whilst of course keeping Australia safe and secure in that health sense is also a crucial part of the economic outcome.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time this morning. Good to chat. We’ll talk to you soon.
Simon Birmingham: Peter, my pleasure.