Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 18 August 2021
Steve Austin: Simon Birmingham, thanks for coming on the program.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Steve. It's good to be with you.
Steve Austin: What's actually on the site of the Damascus barracks at the moment?
Simon Birmingham: Steve, it's a defence facility, but essentially it's mainly used by defence for storage and other low level purposes. So might need to be a little bit of assistance in defence relocating some of their operations, but largely the area we're looking at utilising on this site, which is quite large, 35 hectares of potential space is unbuilt land and so will be able to establish what will be a 1000 bed quarantine facility purpose built on that location, providing the proximity to Brisbane International Airport, as well as to, of course, the necessary health services close to the city.
Steve Austin: Once it's built, how many people will be able to house or hold for a period of time?
Simon Birmingham: So it's around 1000 beds that we will be constructing now. Obviously, that means that it can potentially house a little bit more than that, able to operate with full occupancy, although in the current COVID world, the circumstances we see and having run the facility at and how it's broken down for a period of time is there is obviously a period of time necessary for cleaning and exiting and entering people. And you operate the thousand beds as a series of different cells, if you like, so that if you've got a plane load coming in, you fill up as many groups as you can. That might mean there are a few empty beds at the end of it. So under the current scenario, you're unlikely to have full occupancy all of the time due to some of those safety issues that have to be taken into account. But of course, this is a facility that will serve a number of different resilience needs for disaster recovery and other purposes in years to come. And so it may well be able to operate at full capacity for other purposes.
Steve Austin: How similar to Howard Springs will be used with all its cells, which doesn't sound terribly attractive to me, so I'm trying to get a visual image. So compare it to Howard Springs for me.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I should say by cell, I was meaning a cluster of 50 different units as a cell group. Not actually a prison cell by any means. Think a little bit more like mining camps, but modern mining camps, these are purpose built modules that we will be constructing. We're constructing one already down in Melbourne, essentially they are sort of four unit compounds. Sometimes a number will be built to service family needs, which means the four units will essentially be able to be joined together to create separate rooms to house a large number of people. Others are single standalone individual units that exist in those modules. The modular construction approach enables us to get this done faster than you would ordinarily in a build scenario, think about 1000 beds, that's the equivalent of building several inner city hotels. But what we're doing in Melbourne through the prime contractor is then having five different subcontractors working on the modular to build the units simultaneously to enable us to get this done far faster than builds ordinarily would be.
Steve Austin: I've spoken to a couple of Australian Olympians who just got out of quarantine at Howard Springs and they're glad to get out of there. One of the things is the sort of freedom to move around. What people are finding difficult, both in hotel quarantine and at Howard Springs is the difficulty in getting fresh air, any sort of freedom of movement. Will that be designed into the Pinkenba facility so that whoever is interned there for whatever period of time will have some ability to walk around and not be in breach of the design purpose?
Simon Birmingham: Like Howard Springs, every single unit will come with its own balcony area so people can get out and get fresh air. However, the ability to be able to walk around the site is much more challenging because the whole purpose is to keep people isolated from other people.
Steve Austin: The difficulty here in Brisbane and Howard Springs is the heat, particularly in the hot season in the the summer season. Minister, that unlike down where you are down the other end of the country up here, it is stinking hot for a good part of the year.
Simon Birmingham: I do appreciate that. And obviously, the facilities themselves will be built for the climate. But in terms, in terms of getting some outdoor space, they are veranda balcony type structures that are there now. Clearly, the units themselves will be able to close up the air conditioned. 14 days of quarantine's not fun for anybody. I'm partway through doing it in my own house in Adelaide. So, yes, I have a bit more of an outdoor yard to walk around. But it's still frustrating in the process however these are being built to be as functional as we can in all of the circumstances. And as I emphasised before, not just being conceived for the current COVID circumstance, but also being prepared for all manner of national emergency and disaster resilience type purposes in the future.
Steve Austin: Simon Birmingham, federal finance minister, is my guest. We're talking about the Pinkenba quarantine facility that's going to be built an MOU was designed, was signed by the state and the commonwealth. The premier said recently in relation to the mass vaccination centre here in Brisbane that it was 70 per cent funded. That's responsible by the Commonwealth and 30 per cent by the state. What's the breakdown on the Pinkenba facility?
Simon Birmingham: So this facility, we will fully build at the Morrison government, will fund federal taxpayers, will contribute entirely to the cost of the construction on defence lands, so its on Commonwealth land, and we will own it and in future will be responsible for the maintenance, etc.. Whilst it used as a COVID the quarantine facility, the state government will run and operate it as they have broadly done in a successful way the better part of that is hotel quarantine facilities in the state. So that's the arrangement we've entered into in that agreement, state runs it at least for those COVID purposes. And what we don't know about COVID is what comes next. Obviously, the Delta variant was unforeseen and created enormous challenges, new challenges this year being 100 per cent more transmissible by any estimates than the original variant of COVID. And this will provide us with another capability next year responding to future COVID needs, be it how we handle other variants, be it how we handle international arrivals who in the future might not be vaccinated, might not be Australian citizens, but may be essential workers, or indeed it could be used for purposes. For example, right now we if we had it might have been using such facilities for repatriation of people from places like Afghanistan or the like.
Steve Austin: Once it's up and running well, it would mean the end of hotel quarantine?
Simon Birmingham: Not in the current conception, Steve. The idea right now is that this will provide some additional capability. Obviously, everybody can continue to learn in terms of how to best manage hotel quarantine as safely as possible. And it's been a really important pathway. But these facilities will also be coming online as we are dealing with more vaccinated population. The ability with that for us to be able to move through the national plan of opening up and the different trials some places are undertaking at present for how it is we might be able to have particularly vaccinated Australians move in and out of the country a little, really. So it's structured on the basis that it is to provide additional capability. But of course, we'll be dealing potentially with a different scenario once it opens.
Steve Austin: When's it due to open?
Simon Birmingham: So as I said, we'll move through the approval process. We'll use the design from Melbourne as much as we can whilst updating them for the Queensland climate and the unique factors in there needs to be a bit of extra noise insulation given the proximity to the Brisbane airport put into these ones. Its open, we hope to see the first 500 beds, certainly well within the first half of next year, ideally towards the end of the first quarter of next year, and then putting those extra 500 on fairly swiftly thereafter.
Steve Austin: Who's actually doing this? Is it a Melbourne architecture firm or Canberra architect firm that is designing it, there are a lot of buildings and housing estates where the houses have been designed in Melbourne, and the only way they're liveable in this tropical climate is by air conditioning them to extreme. I'm a little concerned that we'll be repeating mistakes of the past and not allowing someone who's familiar with the heat and the climate and the rainfall of the tropics building the facility here.
Simon Birmingham: So the design firm I actually can't tell you off hand where they're based, but they have the national presence and footprint. And I can assure you that I'll be double checking after this interview. But the need for them to be fit for purpose, the different localities, as I said before we're already taking into account the fact that this one is within the flight path zone and therefore needs a bit of extra acoustic protection compared with what we're doing in Melbourne. So those different geographical factors are being considered certainly be taking into account the climate considerations that you raised. And they are quite similar. And indeed, many of the construction companies who are making them have experience in making your mining camp accommodation, which are often across Queensland and WA some of the most extreme of climates. So certainly that experience will come in handy for making sure that they are as amenable as possible whilst being mindful of the fact that we don't wish to over-engineer or gold plate them either.
Steve Austin: The prime minister has said- sorry John Frewen, Lieutenant Colonel John Frewen has said that possibly by the end of this year, we might actually achieve the national 70 to 80 per cent vaccination rate remains to be seen, in which case that's you know, that's the Freedom Day, if you like. Which begs the question, isn't the Pinkenba facility 18 months too late?
Simon Birmingham: Look, these facilities will provide, as I said before, for or a range of scenarios the unknowns of COVID going forward as to whether we face other variants post that pose new challenges. That they'll be able to help us in addressing potential challenges of dealing with unvaccinated rivals or others into the country. What we've learnt through COVID is, is indeed that having extra resilience capability as the country is something very, very helpful. And so we'll now have a network of facilities like the one in Howard Springs established, not just this one in Brisbane or the one in Melbourne that I've been referencing, but also one over in Perth. And together they'll give us an ability to respond to future global pandemic type scenarios like COVID, but also equally to respond potentially to local natural disaster situations in terms of additional emergency accommodation, support or the like. And for every conceivable scenario in between of international repatriations or the like.
Steve Austin: I really appreciate you giving me so much of your time. Simon Birmingham, thanks for coming on this afternoon.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Steve. My pleasure.