Transcripts → 2021


ABC Radio - 891 Adelaide, Mornings with David Bevan

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia


Date: Monday, 19 July 2021

Vaccine roll-out; Afghanistan; Nick Xenophon

David Bevan: Now, Simon Birmingham, who is the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Federal Finance Minister couldn't make it in because. Simon Birmingham, are you getting your second jab?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, Penny and listeners, I am sitting in my car just outside of the Wayville Clinic and yes, I have just had the second jab, a big thanks to all the staff there and indeed to all the health and distribution workers across the country making it happen. And it was a seamless exercise from booking on the online system when I became eligible through to turning up this morning for a 9:00am appointment. And then all done, dusted and on the phone by 9:30am.


David Bevan: Well, if it's so easy, it makes us all wonder why the vaccination rates are so incredibly low in this country. And isn't that evidence that the narrative has got away from you, Simon Birmingham. And you need to get it back, but you won't be able to get back control of the narrative over this pandemic until the vaccination target has been revealed, which will allow us not to have lockdowns.


Simon Birmingham: Well David we do need to indeed make sure that those vaccination numbers continue to grow and each week they are growing more steeply than the week before, we have now seen over 10 million doses of vaccine administered across Australia. We had another one million doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrive overnight in the country and we're scheduled to get one million per week of the Pfizer vaccine in addition to our supply of AstraZeneca through until the end of August. And that's up from what was around 350,000 per week earlier. And it's got us to the point where 75 per cent of all Australians, over 70 have had at least the first jab. And they're getting through the process of having their second and 35 per cent of all Australians over 16 have started the process. And look, I would urge anyone who is eligible at present, over the age of 40 to go online if they haven't to make the appointments that they can and to put themselves in the queue for the first spot that is available for them so that we keep those rates climbing, as we have seen.


David Bevan: But the Premiers have to keep us safe because the Prime Minister has failed to deliver a vaccine.


Simon Birmingham: David, look that’s a fairly simplistic assessment there and indeed, there are some concerning examples around the rest of the world in countries that had higher rates of COVID and were able to secure doses of vaccine earlier, in part because of their higher rates of COVID, it's worth acknowledging the fact that Australia is actually issuing more doses per 100,000 people than New Zealand, we're doing more than Taiwan, we're not far off the mark of Japan or South Korea, and we're all countries who had successfully suppressed COVID. And in a sense, the price we've paid in successfully suppressing COVID is that we haven't been prioritised by some of the companies of vaccine distribution, like some of those parts of Europe and North America who hadn't successfully suppressed COVID and those parts of the world, even where the vaccine rates are higher, you're seeing case numbers climb and in some cases, disappointingly hospital rates climb as well at present.


David Bevan: Penny Wong.


Penny Wong: Well, David, I don't think the government's lost control of the narrative. I think they've botched the vaccine rollout and they botched it from the beginning by putting too many eggs in the AstraZeneca basket and not doing enough deals. And, you know, we've got a Prime Minister who simply refuses to take responsibility. It's just like the bushfires, you know, doesn't hold a hose. We've got about one in ten Australians vaccinated. We've got one in five aged care workers vaccinated, fully vaccinated. I mean, that's an extraordinary figure, that's what I saw just before I came on. And if that's correct, you know, that's extraordinary. I mean the reality is, there were two jobs that Scott Morrison had, quarantine and the vaccine rollout, and he's botched both of them. This is a race, despite what he says. And we're losing.


David Bevan: And it looks like you are gaining traction in the polls. Penny Wong, but you've been here before, haven't you, when all you could see was victory in front of you and yet you lost. Are you confident that this will carry you to an election victory?


Penny Wong: No. Look, there's only one poll that matters and it's the one on Election Day, you know? And, you know, what I do think is happening is people are increasingly frustrated by Mr Morrison's refusal to take responsibility and by the fact that they can see the rollout of the vaccine has been botched. I mean, Simon can use as many words to you as he likes. He can talk about how seamless it was, but the reality is this government didn't do enough deals when they needed to. They put too many eggs in one basket. The rollout has been really badly handled, and now we are at a situation where we are the worst performing country in the OECD when it comes to rates of vaccination. That has a direct consequence to people's health and to lockdowns.


David Bevan: And yet we are outperforming practically every other country in the world in terms of the economy, and we have outperformed the rest of the world in terms of keeping the population safe.


Penny Wong: I think, the right question was of Simon Birmingham. You said, you know, why are the Premiers having to keep us safe when the Prime Minister hasn't got the vaccine sorted? That's what's happened, the Australian people and state governments have done the heavy lifting. Mr Morrison has sat there saying 'this isn't a race'. You know, I don't hold a hose mate.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: David, it's easy to throw barbs, it's easy to ignore the fact that AstraZeneca, which has been the most successfully used vaccine across the UK, but we've followed stricter health advice here, and that's meant we've had to limit the distribution of it. The reason we backed AstraZeneca was because we could make it here in Australia and we can make close to a million doses a week of it here in Australia. But unfortunately, the health advice changed along the way. Now, in hindsight, would we have done things differently? Well we would have tried to, but equally, let's remember as I said, other countries who had similar success to Australia in suppressing COVID, other places in the world, like New Zealand, like Taiwan, like Japan, like South Korea, are either at a similar level of vaccination to us or behind us. Because the global companies manufacturing elsewhere in the world have prioritised the places they manufacture that also had lives being lost on a daily basis. Now, if AZ had gone to plan, we would have been one of the few places in the world to have both suppressed COVID and had an early vaccine rollout going along well because we had that manufacturing capability in Australia.


Penny Wong: So why did he say it wasn't a race?


Simon Birmingham: We're investing in bringing the new technology to Australia, but that takes time. And in the meantime, what we've done is scale up the imports now, a million doses of Pfizer a week.


Penny Wong: Well, a couple of things. First, you know, having MRNA manufactured here is an announcement I think you made, was it nine months ago? I'm not sure there's been any progress, but I think most people would like to understand why the prime minister spent so much time telling everyone it wasn't a race?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that was given in the context of questions about whether we were going to rush the health approvals through the TGA processes, and I think what we wanted to do…


Penny Wong: I don't think that's right Simon, I don't think that's right.


Simon Birmingham: …and was always important for Australians is to give them confidence, give them confidence that we actually put all of these drugs through the same type of checks and tests as we do any other drug we expect Australians to take.


David Bevan: How are you going to change what Paul Kelly in The Australian writes on the weekend as 'the Australian mindset', which seems to be addicted to lockdowns. Simon Birmingham, you've got to convince people that at some point. Every time there's a case of the Delta variant, we don't rush to a lockdown. Because we can't continue like this forever. How do you get us to a place where we just don't respond with a lockdown?


Simon Birmingham: You are right David, we can't continue like this forever, but we and we will work with the Australian people the same way we in the states have done all along, which is with health advice. And that's why we've got the Doherty Institute doing work to take to National Cabinet about the different phases of unlocking what we need to see in terms of vaccination rates to step through those phases of reopening. We will see towards the end of this year all Australians having had the opportunity to get vaccinated. And I hope all Australians take that opportunity up and that we do get huge take up rates that will enable us to shift through those different stages as quickly as we can.


David Bevan: At that point, do we do a Boris Johnson? Do we just say okay, everybody go for it?


Simon Birmingham: That's exactly where I was going David, it's not to say at that stage we just throw everything wide open. And that's why we're getting that work done by the Doherty Institute. It's why we'll be looking carefully at what's happening in the UK, what has happened in the Netherlands, for example, where they also largely through things open and now they've been winding things back again. So we are going to have to work step-by-step through the best health advice as to what the vaccines do protect against, what they don't protect against. I mean, we do know they have huge effectiveness in terms of reducing the rate of serious illness and sickness, but we also need to be mindful that at present they're only approved to be administered to those over 16. And that we're seeing in some cases, the Delta variant applying to children a little more in terms of the contagion rate and maybe not so much in terms of sickness. Right. The things to take into account.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham a listener wants to know, are you getting AstraZeneca or Pfizer?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I got Pfizer because, as I said, I booked as soon as I was eligible as somebody between 40 and 50, and that's what I was eligible to get at the time.


David Bevan: Ok, Penny Wong, have you had yours yet?


Penny Wong: Yeah, I had my first AstraZeneca and then they changed the advice on me. So I am waiting to see what the advice about the second dose is.


David Bevan: Okay, let's move on to another topic. Afghanistan, after 20 years, after all that blood and treasure that's been lost. Are we leaving behind our allies and I'm talking about people who actively supported us. Penny Wong, you're former Foreign Affairs Minister, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister now. If you win the next election, you're likely to take that portfolio again. Are we leaving behind friends and allies, are we betraying them?


Penny Wong: Well, our effort to help those Afghans who helped us is certainly less than comparable nations. And we've got the US airlifting people to a third country so that they can be processed in safety. We've had the UK and Germany issue far more, provide much more support to people who helped us and therefore whose lives are at risk. You know, because obviously the Taliban had made very clear that those who assisted allies in Afghanistan have a target on them. Now I am very disappointed with the effort or the way in which the government has approached this. You know, I understand you have to make sure that national security concerns are dealt with. But we are so clearly behind what comparable nations are doing. And can I tell you the thing that I've really noted, the number of people, former veterans who have contacted me, who are very, very distressed and upset about this. Because, of course, many of them worked with local Afghan interpreters or people on aid projects and so forth, and they want them looked after.


David Bevan: I appreciate this is a difficult issue. But, the people that have been helping us, they would have had security clearances, so the work would be done, we know these are people you can trust, otherwise we wouldn't have been working with them, surely?


Penny Wong: You'd assume there'd be some sort of baseline.


David Bevan: Yeah


Penny Wong: But I just think I mean, this is about our reputation. It's about keeping us safe, because when we go to these theatres, we want to be able to say to people, if you help us, we'll help you.


David Bevan: Yeah. We've been here before, haven't we? Simon Birmingham. Are we doing everything to look after the people who helped us?


Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I think we are doing all that we can. We have a special visa category available for Afghans and indeed previously Iraqis who would had a close relationship with the Australian government. We've granted in the past three months over 300 visas to Afghanis who were in those circumstances to be able to get them to Australia. And around 1500 such visas, in fact, since back in December 2012 have been granted in those special categories. So the work certainly is there. You're right, some of them will have certain security screening already done. But it is also a fact that some applications have been rejected and for some who are deemed to pose a security risk, and so it's necessary to at least run the ruler over and undertake those checks. But certainly hundreds just in the last few months of those visas have been issued to Afghanis.


David Bevan: Rex Patrick, South Australian Senator, believes that it's a disgrace that we're not looking after the Afghans, who support of our troops. Are you confident that Australia has behaved in an honourable way, Simon Birmingham?


Simon Birmingham: David, I mean, there clearly was the significant report handed down early this year that identified some acts of behaviour that were unacceptable.


David Bevan: I don't mean in terms of the war crimes, I mean in terms of looking after people who looked after us.


Simon Birmingham: Well David I think we are continuing to work to, and to behave in a very much an honourable way in trying to look after and help those who helped us. That's what those special visa categories are about and why they are being issued and that assistance being provided.


Penny Wong: Well, the reality is it's incredibly slow. And the effort is nothing like comparable countries. And, you know, like so much with this government, people aren't taking responsibility. And there's a lot of words to explain why things are happening, but not much action on the ground. I just think we should do the right thing. We should be honourable. And we should also remember, as I said before, there are many veterans who served with these people for whom it is extremely distressing to consider that they might be left behind.


David Bevan: Just before you leave us. Nick Xenophon has flagged he might return to federal politics. Penny Wong, would you welcome Nick Xenophon coming back? We've missed him, haven't we?


Penny Wong: Well, I think you certainly have. The media enjoy him. Look, Nick is a very good politician and, you know, he's a very effective politician. He knows how to get a headline. And, you know, he is certainly somebody who comes on your show a fair bit. I mean, if he wants to run it's up to him.


David Bevan: Okay, Simon Birmingham, would you welcome Nick Xenophon back?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I always like a bit of competition, David, but look it's up to Nick. I always get along well with Nick. It's a free democracy. So it's entirely, entirely his call. But I thought he was pretty emphatic when he exited stage left after the state election.


David Bevan: Well, apparently this hinges on whether or not the federal government supports his client in the UGG boot dispute in the United States because he's saying it's now going up to one of the appellate courts and the federal government needs to intervene on behalf of this Australian business that manufactures UGG boots in this trademark dispute. And if you do it, it's much more likely to go before the appellate court. Is the federal government giving any consideration to helping out the UGG boot manufacturer?


Simon Birmingham: The short answer to that, David, is yes. I don't have a detailed answer that I can give you in terms of the nature of assessment around that assistance. I mean, it's a very Nick type of case, I think we all agree. I know that there was a response from Karen Andrews at the time that they were looking at options to intervene. Sorry, the Industry Minister, at least they were looking at options to intervene, or to provide some form of assistance. But status on that, I haven't looked into in the last few weeks.


David Bevan: If this keeps Nick Xenophon, out of federal politics, it would be money well spent wouldn't it?


Simon Birmingham: I assure you that won't be a factor in the decision.


David Bevan: Really? I would pay the money if I was the Federal Government, federal Labor or Liberal, Coalition or Labor. I would pay the money.


Penny Wong: The government should look at what it can do, definitely look at what it can do you know, because UGG boots you know, my kids should be able to call their UGG boots, UGG boots, don't you reckon?


David Bevan: And sell them in the United States.


Penny Wong: And everybody else's kids. And sell them in the US.


David Bevan: Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and leader of the opposition in the Senate. Thanks for coming in.


Penny Wong: Good to be here.


David Bevan: And Senator Simon Birmingham, Leader of the Government in the Senate and Federal Finance Minister, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you both, cheers.