Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 18 August 2021
Liam Bartlett: Minister, good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Liam and good morning to listeners right across W.A.
Liam Bartlett: Well done.
Simon Birmingham: Just to keep Ron happy. Hello, Ron in particular.
Liam Bartlett: Well done. That app is working so well and we're not getting criticised for only keeping Perth in. But anyway, what's the total cost on this minister? What's this going to cost the taxpayer?
Simon Birmingham: The final cost will be determined obviously, once we've issued all the contracts and finalised those details. We're already building a facility, a 1000 bed facility in Melbourne, very similar to this one we'll be building in Perth using similar designs. And the cost order for that is around a few hundred million dollars. So this is significant. But to put it in some context, creating a 1000 bed facility is the equivalent of building several inner city hotels. So it's not a small undertaking. It's a very significant one. And we're obviously also looking to do it in a very short timeframe.
Liam Bartlett: A few hundred million, So about three hundred roughly?
Simon Birmingham: In that magnitude.
Liam Bartlett: Okay, so the federal taxpayers cough up about three hundred and then the state taxpayers pay for the day to day running. Is that how it works?
Simon Birmingham: Whilst facility is used during the COVID-19 pandemic as a quarantine facility. Yes, this is about providing some additional quarantine capacity in the country and in Western Australia in particular. WA has done a pretty good job across the pandemic in safely and appropriately running hotel quarantine facilities to help to bring right across the country hundreds of thousands of people back into Australia are vastly, overwhelmingly without incident or problem. Obviously, there have been a handful of small issues that have had some serious consequences. But we want to make sure we have additional capability and resilience, not just for COVID but for all of the uncertainties we face in the long term future.
Liam Bartlett: So how much do you reckon the operating costs on it are per year every 12 months?
Simon Birmingham: That depends Liam very much on, of course, the capacity that it's run at-
Liam Bartlett: Yeah but roughly, give us an idea, because I think I think our listeners I think the taxpayers deserve to know what we're up for all up.
Simon Birmingham: Well, it's very hard to put a figure on that. It does depend on the extent to which existing resources around policing or ADF support or otherwise are used to help maintain the quarantine perimeters of the facility. It depends upon whether it's just being used for COVID purposes as is the case under current anticipation that in the future it may be used as emergency accommodation in natural disaster situations, it could be used for circumstances such as the repatriation of people from Afghanistan that we're undertaking right now or for other unknown health emergencies that we might face. It obviously runs into the millions of dollars in terms of if it's to be operating at full capability.
Liam Bartlett: Okay. I want to ask you a stupid question. You might think it's stupid, but why are we embarking on this when we are planning for our borders to open up? Why are we embarking on this and spending all this money?
Simon Birmingham: Because what we've learnt through the last 18 months is to prepare ever more for the unexpected. We didn't expect the Delta variant to come along this year, and that's 100 per cent more transmissible than the version of COVID that we were dealing with last year. We don't know what we will face next year-
Liam Bartlett: But there's unexpected Minister, there's unexpected and then there's extraordinary. I mean, this is this is one in 100 year pandemic.
Simon Birmingham: It's a one in 100 year pandemic, but it comes after the last few decades of having seen outbreaks of bird flu and other transmissible diseases in our region. We've found during the pandemic just how helpful it was to have Howard Springs facility in Darwin and being able to scale that up-
Liam Bartlett: And that has been but perhaps we should have had this 12 months ago?
Simon Birmingham: And people can argue that case 12 months ago, we hadn't seen the mutation to the Delta variant. We didn't have those unknowns. The decision we've taken now is that we think there is a long term capacity. As I said before, there are other factors in terms of our national resilience that we see facilities like this being useful for and what we will establish essentially is a network of them, this one in Perth, the existing one outside of Darwin, the one I've already referenced that is under construction in Melbourne and a fourth one in Brisbane.
Liam Bartlett: Well, that's a lot of money to spend on a might need basis. I mean, let me put it this way. If the national plan, your boss, the Prime Minister, has said this, if the national plan is opening up after 80 per cent vaccination, in other words, living with the virus. So if we're living with it, why do we need this quarantine facility?
Simon Birmingham: Even at that stage, the national plan still envisages some careful management strategies and questions of if we find that we're needing to bring unvaccinated people into Australia, they may still face quarantine and they could be people that we're bringing in, not necessarily Australian citizens, but that people coming in for either essential worker requirements or for refugee or humanitarian reasons.
Liam Bartlett: Well, we use facilities at the moment, don't we? We use things like Christmas Island for that. But, Minister, look, you're a man of the world. The rest of the world at the moment is getting on with life. They're taking their vaccinations part and parcel of their life. They've got full stadiums for EPL matches. They're taking summer holidays in Europe. They're living with the virus. They're not building quarantine facilities. They must think we're mad.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think you've perhaps lost a little bit over the rest of the world. There's enormous concern in parts of the world. The Netherlands went through an opening up process and then proceeded to put in place tighter restrictions again as a result. Many parts of the world are seeing outbreaks driven by Delta that are actually causing them to put further restrictions back in place. Many parts of the US have got enormous concerns about lack of take up of vaccine. And some parts of the US you've seen a requirement put in place in terms of in terms of restrictions again. You've had countries like Singapore go into partial lockdown just in the last couple of months again. And of course, New Zealand going into lockdown again yesterday.
So, it's still a pretty uncertain global environment. I appreciate that, that people will say it's a lot of money and it is a lot of money to establish this, but it does then provide a lot of flexibility thereafter in terms of how it is used and whether that's responding to the types of natural disasters that Australia sees, provide emergency accommodation for Australians in response to both natural disasters or whether it's responding to other global emergencies, such as the type unfolding in Afghanistan. We do think that there is capacity there. It may well be that this facility has times where it is not occupied and that'll probably be a good thing if it does, because it means that the country and the world is humming along without disasters, but in terms of being able to respond faster, more effectively in future to such disasters, it will provide an additional resilience capability.
Liam Bartlett: The location is definite, isn't it? It's down near Jandakot Airport?
Simon Birmingham: I wouldn't say definite. The memorandum of understanding we've reached with the WA government provides for the fact that we are still doing some scoping work and options on alternative locations. There are some commercial negotiations to be finalised with the leaseholders of Jandakot Airport. I hope that they can be satisfactorily resolved so that we can proceed there. But because we want to get this job done, it's prudent for us to have some contingencies up our sleeve too.
Liam Bartlett: All right. But that's your desired spot?
Simon Birmingham: That's the intention right now. It's obvious what we've talked about publicly. We initially shortlisted Perth Airport and Jandakot. Our Commonwealth criteria, so that these things are as effective as possible, is that they need to be within close proximity of an international airport that receives regular passenger flights that needs to be close to Perth airport. It also needs to be close to a high grade standard, etc.. Medical hospital facilities. So they're the criteria, which means we have to keep it essentially close to Perth.
Liam Bartlett: Seventeen past nine. We're talking with Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, on a related topic, Qantas has come out with an announcement overnight. As you know, they've laid down the law. They're saying all their workers have to be fully vaccinated. It's mandated. Now, as you also know, a lot of business and employer groups generally have been calling for you and your colleagues to legislate to indemnify them from lawsuits that may spring from these sorts of decisions by bosses. Is that on the cards, that legislation?
Simon Birmingham: We don't believe that's necessary. Federal law, as it stands, provides for employers to make reasonable requests. And I think most reasonable Australians would think that it is quite reasonable for Qantas to expect their staff to be vaccinated for an airline where people are working in confined situations to take that type of step as a workplace health and safety measure.
Liam Bartlett: Okay, so you support that?
Simon Birmingham: I do. And I assume Qantas has made its decision informed by their industrial relations advice, looking at their work, health and safety requirements. And no doubt in terms of their international operations, they've probably had historic expectations around vaccination requirements going into different parts of the world, and COVID-19 is now something that we all have to accept is going to be around the world for probably the rest of our lives. And therefore, vaccination is going to be an ongoing and important part of that and it's why it's so pleasing to see that and we hit records again yesterday with 279,000 Australians being vaccinated. That's 200 vaccines being administered per minute right across the country and it's a rate that we want to encourage people to keep up.
Liam Bartlett: Speaking of records, we'll certainly need those vaccinations to keep coming because today there's a record in New South Wales. There's 663. 663 new cases in New South Wales overnight, 24, 25 in Victoria. But lockdown's continuing there. Now, with those lockdowns in mind and Queensland's situation, the latest job figures come out tomorrow for the country. Are you expecting them to go backward under those circumstances?
Simon Birmingham: Logically, people would expect so. We've obviously got big impacts and lockdowns across the Eastern Seaboard. They're deeply distressing times for many individuals. It's why we've stepped up with JobKeeper type assistance to those states payments to individuals who are losing hours of work, as well as support packages to businesses being delivered in conjunction with state and territory governments and that type of economic assistance that has enabled our economy to bounce back very, very quickly in response to the shutdowns and lockdowns that we've seen before. And so whilst there will probably be some impact in tomorrow's figures, we also think that the type of assistance we're delivering will enable us to come back quickly again. And it should be remembered only a couple of months ago, our economy was the first in the world to have reached a state where it was bigger than it had been pre-COVID amongst developed nations where we had more people back in jobs than we had pre-COVID amongst developed nations. And so we want to make sure support measures continue to roll out so that we can come back quickly, strongly again once we get past these trying times on the East Coast.
Liam Bartlett: Once we get past them. That's the key, isn't it? That's the difficult part.
Simon Birmingham: It is a difficult part. Obviously, different situations across Queensland and Victoria compared with what's happening in New South Wales. We really do hope that New South Wales and the measures they're putting in place enable them to stem the tide. It's worth remembering that Victoria recorded close to 800 cases a day during the peak of its outbreak late last year, and they were able to get on top of it. The Delta variant poses extra challenges but if the people across New South Wales heed the tighter rules and restrictions that have been put in place in the last week, then that should be able to in a week or so time see those numbers coming down. And that's what we all need to look for. But in the meantime, continuing to push on with that vaccine rollout, in the last seven days, we've seen more than one point six million doses administered across the country. The deal that enabled us to bring some surplus doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Poland, we'll see another 70,000 doses come across to Western Australia and more than a million extra doses across all of Australia. And I encourage all listeners if they are currently eligible to make bookings, to get out there and to make those bookings and to understand that we've got additional supplies. Come, September, October we'll be stepping up and seeing around two million doses of Pfizer coming into the country each and every week. And we'll also start seeing the Moderna vaccine come online as well. Initially, at around one million doses per month, grow into about three million doses per month.
Liam Bartlett: Alright Minister, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much for your time this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Liam, my pleasure.