Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 25 June 2021
Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along. COVID-19 continues to present enormous challenges right around the world. This year 2021, we've seen two million people globally lose their lives due to COVID-19. But here in Australia, nobody has contracted COVID and died in 2021. And that is a testament to the management successfully of COVID-19 right across the Australian community and to the work of governments be they state territory or federal, local communities, businesses across the country, and most of all Australians who continue to heed and respond to all of the health messages. Today, we feel very much for people across certain designated suburbs in Sydney who find themselves now [indistinct] undertake a period of stay at home and in doing so, make sacrifices once again to keep all of Australia safe when it comes to the COVID-19 situation. To those who are across New South Wales and people right around the country, the message of continuing to get tested and to get tested in strong numbers, to make sure you respond to any risks or threats by getting tested, following orders and instructions when it comes to isolating and quarantining and to our contact tracers, particularly those who have done such an exceptional job to date in New South Wales. A big thank you and to everyone to continue to engage with those contact tracers when they have to, to use the QR code systems and other features across the country that are helping to build the layers that keep Australia safe. Those layers that keep Australians safe, start with our international border closures, quarantine systems that are there, but they're underpinned as well then by extensive testing, tracing, isolating regimes all of which are necessary to provide different buffers from COVID-19 spreading across the Australian community.
In the last in the last day our government has taken further steps in relation to how COVID and other future challenges can be managed into the future by progressing discussions with different states and territories about the potential of different quarantine facilities around the country. We're responding to those states and territories who've said that they want to have purpose built facilities. We've outlined clear Commonwealth criteria for such facilities. They must be facilities that are proximate to a suitably capable hospital. They must be proximate to an international airport that regularly carries international passengers. They must be additional in terms of creating further quarantine capacity in Australia. Despite the challenges, our medi hotel systems across the country have worked well. More than 380,000 returning citizens have come through those medi hotels, more than 99.9 per cent of them successfully safely managed. But with any human system, there's a risk of human failure and that's why it's important to constantly learn and improve in the operation of those systems, as we have done. But the opportunity to create some additional quarantine places and to create facilities that can help us respond to future natural disasters, future challenges in other health crises in the years to come is one that we take where states and territories see that they're willing to do so to step up in contributing. I thank the Victorian government for the very constructive discussions we've had, we're now seeing this advance through the stages of quickly building a new facility at Mickleham in Melbourne, which will provide the capacity to lift the quarantine numbers in Victoria and manage those through that facility while continuing to utilise the opportunities of hotels in Melbourne as well. We've outlined potential sites in relation to Brisbane recognising the interest of the Queensland government in a building site, but importantly, we've identified a site where that could occur close to Brisbane, close to the airport, close to hospitals for a secure facility. They're the criteria that need to be met and we're willing to progress discussions quickly with Queensland on that. As we've similarly identified in Western Australia two potential sites in response to queries and ideas from the WA government, where, again, we can work through the feasibility of those sites as quickly as possible if the WA government so chooses.
Journalist: Why is the federal government waited until now to start choosing sides in advancing these discussions?
Simon Birmingham: This really is about the medium to long term, recognising that the potential for these sites to be able to be used for a range of purposes into the future is something that we see benefit in enhancing the resilience of Australia for future crises while adding to the capability in this crisis. Twelve months ago, the nation had widespread potential lockdown occurring right across the country, slowdown and a shutdown of much of our economic activity. Our economies bounced back strongly, but back then we had huge international hotels sitting empty across the cities around the country, the right way, the fast way to stand up a quarantine system that is has been as effective as any in the world, probably the best in the world in terms of the scale of numbers its handled and its ability to keep COVID out of the community is something Australia should recognise has served our country well, continues to serve our country well. It has challenges and we continue to evolve the model to respond to those. But these new facilities will be an additional element, misleading of those in Labor to suggest otherwise. And the Victorian government put the proposal for Mickleham forward were very clear about its functionality and we thank them for the way they've engaged today and we're committed to continuing to work with them.
Journalist: There have been calls for so long for these types of facilities. Why has it taken an outbreak in New South Wales to finally prompt the federal government to take this action?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we've been working with Victoria on their proposal for quite a number of weeks now. And get it now to this point where we've settled on the preferred site. We're advancing through the processes. The parliament this week passed the necessary instruments to waive the facility from going through the usual Public Works Committee approval processes so that we can get the construction underway quickly. So these are being delivered following the interests of the states and territories and our willingness to work with them.
Journalist: How do they operate and how many people they take?
Simon Birmingham: Well, each of them will depend upon the feasibility and the interest of those states and territories. The facility with Victoria, we hope to get construction underway as soon as possible. And we'll be driving towards having that facility in a position where it can be operating somewhere towards the end of this year, early next year.
Journalist: What about Perth and Brisbane?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that would depend upon the discussions with the states and territories. We've invited them to respond to the proposals and we look forward to working with those state governments.
Journalist: South Australia, New South Wales. What about them?
Simon Birmingham: This is about responding to the interests of states and territories. We're not going to force facilities into any particular state and territory. Crucial to remember those states who are proceeding in this case, Victoria, are doing so with a commitment that is the right additional places on top of the existing facilities. And so for any state or territory, it wants to come to the table on those terms, then we're willing to sit down and talk to them, but nobody is being forced to do so.
Journalist: So no prelim discussions with the South Australian government?
Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that's not the approach that South Australia government wants to take at present. We respect that, as we do with any of the other states and territories, but those who have said they want such a facility, that's why we're working with them. They are additional places.
Journalist: How much do you think it cost the Commonwealth government to build the Queensland and West Australian facilities?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we've got to get into the feasibility stage to get to that point. There is no doubt these are not cheap exercises. The Victorian facility will come into the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to be able to construct and stand up Victoria's proposals that they will operate it as they will their existing, continuing medi hotels across Victoria but the Commonwealth will retain ownership for the long run to be able to respond, as I say, in that medium to longer term, to whatever other future challenges such facilities might be able to-.
Journalist: The number of extra travellers that you're going to accept? Have I missed that, have you said so? Is there are a number of extra travellers as a result of these sites being set up?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the Victorian side will see a lift in terms of the number of potential travellers who can come into Victoria. That's the whole point of them being additional facilities. Now, the final construction terms of that determine the exact number. But obviously, Victoria has indicated, as we have the minimum proposals for it to be a 500 bed facility.
Journalist: The Queensland deputy premier said that the only details he got in the letter from the PM, which is an address for the site, is that a bit of a cheap shot for him to say?
Simon Birmingham: Well the Queensland deputy premier is well experienced at cheap shots and shallow politics. That's not where we want to play. We want to be constructive as we've sought to be right through the COVID pandemic. And we're grateful for the work in a constructive sense that all governments have undertaken together. And in this, our response to Queensland is to identify the site that is close to Brisbane airport, close to Brisbane hospitals, that can be developed. We invite them to come to the table for a feasibility study on that.
Journalist: The issue with Perth is the cost, isn't it, though? I mean, I see Victoria's budget of 15 million out of their state budget for their site. How what arrangements are you proposing with the WA government? Because Mark McGowan has previously said he wants it to be a Commonwealth facility.
Simon Birmingham: So the Commonwealth approach with Victoria is that we are meeting all of the capital costs. We will own the facility. The Victorian government has agreed that it will operate the facility. That is the approach that we would take with any state or territories that come to the table. And the Commonwealth is willing to invest in facilities that will be enduring, Commonwealth owned to respond to future emergencies and crises. We would expect the states and territories to operate them as additional quarantine capacity during these COVID crisis.
Journalist: Hundreds of millions of dollars for the capital cost of setting up three sites, at least?
Simon Birmingham: The Victorian facility will come into the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, and others would be of similar cost in terms of the Commonwealth contributing to their construction and establishment and the states and territories continuing the partnership that has seen them operate such facilities through the hotel network to date.
Journalist: Is there ever going to be any advice from the federal government for places like South Australia to increase the quarantine caps? Or are we most likely just to see opening up the international borders first?
Simon Birmingham: South Australia has increased its quarantine camps along the way. And importantly, Steve Marshall has shown leadership in bringing in Pacific workers and successfully bringing them into Australia through dedicated support in the Riverland. And he's brought in he's bringing in, I should say, international students through Parafield proposal. So I think we're seeing different states responding in different ways, working with their agricultural sector, with the international education sector, as well as with the Commonwealth for returning Australians to achieve positive outcomes. It doesn't all have to be one singular approach. And the approach, SA has shown in being able to contribute to the national effort with returning citizens, with international students and with agricultural workers is a good example of a different approach that clearly has and is working for SA.
Journalist: Should state governments, make fully vaccinated people exempt from border restrictions?
Simon Birmingham: We're still some way from those sorts of decisions being made by the states and territories that need to be guided by the health advice, we're at this point to a point now where I think we've got around seven point one million doses of vaccines that have been administered across the country. And we're seeing around 140,000 doses being delivered and administered daily. And we want to see that continue to grow. And as that grows and reaches a broader reach across the Australian population, then some of those discussions will be able to be had.
Journalist: Can I just ask you about Miami? Any update on if there's any Australians affected by the apartment collapse?
Simon Birmingham: We don't have clarity in that regard. Clearly, Australia's consular officials in the United States working closely with U.S. authorities. And if there are any instances Australians need support that's [indistinct]. Thanks, guys.