Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Monday, 7 June 2021
David Bevan: Good morning to Simon Birmingham, Leader of the Government in the Senate and Federal Finance Minister. Good morning to you sir.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, and good morning to your listeners.
David 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.
Penny Wong: Good morning David morning all.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, just before we get onto 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 was 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?
Simon Birmingham: Look, that’s probably a question for Alex. I can’t say I’ve been briefed in any detail on what’s been going on in membership sign-ups or whatever of the like. Look, it’s probably a matter for churches, in part, as to whether they think it’s appropriate to offer themselves as a platform, in any way, for party politics in this day and age, but that really is one for them and their relationship with their parishioners. As political parties, you know, the criteria 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.
David Bevan: But do you have a problem with him specifically targeting conservative Christians and saying ‘please join this party’?
Simon Birmingham: Look, 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 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.
David Bevan: ‘Abnormal behaviour’ but there’s nothing wrong with a recruitment drive, is there?
Simon Birmingham: No, there’s nothing wrong with new people joining the party, David. As I said, if there’s anything unusual about the manner in which people have been signed up, then that’s a matter for the administrative wing to take a look at.
David Bevan: And are you aware of anything unusual or inappropriate?
Simon Birmingham: I’m not, not to my knowledge, David, but, as I said before, nor have I been briefed on any of these news stories in any detail.
David Bevan: Penny Wong, how do you feel about people within churches being targeted by a political party saying ‘look, we need you; if you have conservative views,’ in this case, ‘you need to join up and help change our party’s stance’ – I mean, that’s just democracy, isn’t it?
Penny Wong: Well, I think democracy is parties and having people from all parts of Australian society and 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, you know, 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 that 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, cause I know you raised, in your intro, David, sort of the question about that, let’s remember the separation of church and state was as much to defend the rights of everybody to practise 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. Now, 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?
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: Well, no, it’s not and 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, certainly, major political parties, that we welcome people who are of faith and who are not of faith and, if they are of faith, who are of all types of different faiths and beliefs and that is crucial and that, ultimately, as parties of government, I think we both have certainly long held to these principles and would expect us to continue to, that we respect the freedoms of individuals to practise their faith and to…
David Bevan: But is what David Speirs saying, 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 is 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?
Penny Wong: Oh, often people have their views informed by faith and I think what’s happening is that the right wing of the Liberal Party is, you know, fighting back and putting on… using the churches or one of the churches, not the church I, you know, not my church but a Pentecostal church to recruit members for their own ends – I mean, I think that’s quite clear from, you know, what the report says. I think, I am always concerned when people may, I would always be concerned when comments like that are made, because I think what it forgets is a very important democratic principle that underlines the separation of church and state, which is, we don’t want parties of government focussing and responding to only one type of faith practised – we want parties of government to behave as a state separate from faith and we that want people from all faiths to feel included in our society.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, quarantine, setting up a 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?
Simon Birmingham: Ah, no, David. Victoria’s the only one who has worked, in quite a constructive and detailed manner, with the Federal Government, to pursue a proposal – now, that proposal for additional quarantine places to be created in Victoria and that that is important to underline; they weren’t proposing that this be a substitute arrangement, in the short term, and 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 costings and so forth. We have committed to construction of the site, as a federal government, that it will 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 we will revert to Commonwealth operation, in the longer term, as we utilise it, potentially, for other disaster or emergency situations in cooperation with Victoria.
David Bevan: Penny Wong?
Penny 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’re 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 place 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’ 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 stubborn, ah, 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 a hundred billion dollars’ worth of new spending and no new spending for quarantine, national quarantine, facilities.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, we often talk, on this programme, about what’s good policy and what’s good politics – just in terms of the politics, wouldn’t have been a real winner… I mean, who’s going to bag you for building dedicated quarantine facilities? I mean, 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?
Simon 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 and 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 why we’re moving ahead with Victoria. We…
David Bevan: It just doesn’t look enough, to a lot of people.
Simon Birmingham: We have… well, we have been progressing Howard Springs towards taking 2000 but the India situation saw a slowdown, 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. Now, 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 they've been continued efforts to tighten the operations around the country, 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 learnt the lessons, we continue to put in place further protocols, with the states, to support their safe operation, too.
David Bevan: We can’t get 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, a hundred and fifty million ($150 million), just get out of it and start again?
Simon 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 the costs and parameters of all of that. The Prime Minister, in heading off to the G7 meeting of world leaders, over the next week, which will be his first chance to meet with Joe Biden, in his capacity as President of the US, is also going to meet with President Emmanuel Macron of France and, in doing so, will be talking about the importance of the Attack class…
David Bevan: Yeah…
Simon Birmingham: And the work that is that is being undertaken there. We remain firmly committed…
David Bevan: But is he going there saying ‘look, 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?
Simon Birmingham: Ah, David, we’re not bowling 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 breeds, 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.
David Bevan: Penny Wong, what do you say came out of Estimates, last week, regarding the state of the submarines?
Penny Wong: Well, a few things came of Estimates. I mean, 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 ten years later and the cost have blown out by $40 billion. We’ve had officials concede, after all of these delays and blowouts and after the Government failed to start the contract with 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 Indo-Pacific by 2035 – you know? – 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 sort of 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 be remain in Adelaide or go to Perth, we still don’t have a decision on that, so it is extraordinary.
David Bevan: Penny Wong, we know you and Simon Birmingham are very busy people. Thank you very much for your time, Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Simon Birmingham, last word to you: you do appreciate that this has been going on for far too long and South Australians listening right now. would like some certainty?
Simon Birmingham: Ah, I do, David. I also, though, think it’s important for South Australians to appreciate the scale of what is happening already. You know, I was talking to BAE, the other day, who have the contract to deliver at the Hunter-class frigates – they employed an additional one thousand 1000 people last year to work on those frigates and they expect to employ a further one thousand 1000 people this year to work on the construction of those frigates. Now, we are, equally, getting on with delivering a range of other defence projects. The submarines are crucial. Our commitment remains to have them built in South Australia and that’s, as I say, a leading topic of conversations that our Prime Minister will have with President Macron in France, in Europe, over the course of the next week.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you; pleasure.
David Bevan: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Federal Finance Minister, and before that, Penny Wong, Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.