Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 18 August 2021
Nadia Mitsopoulos: With more on this, let's go to the federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham. He spoke to me just a short time ago.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Great to be with you.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: When this facility is built, will it completely replace the hotel quarantine system?
Simon Birmingham: No, these facilities were built in this one in Perth, as well as ones in Melbourne, already under construction and in Brisbane to supplement the one we've got in Darwin are intended to provide additional capacity, but they're also there to respond to the many unknowns. And we know the Delta variant is throwing a big unknown at us this year. And of course, we want to have this extra resilience to be able to respond to future uncertainties in COVID-19 or other challenges that are thrown at us in the future.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: This plan is for it to open in March next year. Why will it only be 500 beds when it initially opens?
Simon Birmingham: So we are building a 1000 bed facility. But we know that that we can, through the modular construction of these units, if you think sort of the type of accommodation facilities that exist at mining camps, we're building a portable unit type structures that can be brought in. So we know that we can get pretty quickly to have a 500 capacity operational and then we'll supplement it with the extra 500 pretty soon thereafter. It won't take long to add those extra 500 and get it up to 1000 beds.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: And what else will this facility then be used for when you know when the pandemic is over?
Simon Birmingham: So, as I said before, we're looking at these really is a national resilience capability, having established pre-COVID the Howard Springs facility in Darwin, we know that that can be reused in response to natural disasters, emergency situations. It could be used, indeed, in terms of responding to the situation we have in Afghanistan, where we're looking at moving hundreds of people out of Afghanistan, needing to find short term accommodation, those sorts of emergency situations. But of course, we also don't know what will come around the corner in relation to COVID-19. We've responded as a country to the huge extra challenges that the Delta variant has thrown at us this year. We'll just have to be ready for those things in the future. We know that as we move through the stages of reopening our economy and our borders, that there will still potentially be a need for people to quarantine, particularly anybody who hasn't been vaccinated, potentially those who may not be Australian citizens, but who we have coming in for other essential purposes in the months and years to come. And so we'll be looking carefully at how we work through all those issues. And the WA government's been very good in working with us on the plans around this facility to date.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: On ABC Radio Perth in WA my guest this morning is the federal finance minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, giving you the detail about a new quarantine facility, purpose-built, at Jandakot Airport. Have a listen to the detail and you can tell me what you think. You plan to start construction in October. How likely is it that that will be able to happen, given you still need to, you know, get the design underway and all of those planning processes done, which I understand haven't really started yet?
Simon Birmingham: In terms of design. We are using as much as possible the design elements for what we are now constructing in Melbourne. And we've been able to move through that with the Victorian government quite quickly, get the design settled. They've provided types of emergency necessary approvals to enable us to get construction underway because of the modular construction approaches we are able to have multiple businesses building the unit type accommodation and simultaneously. There's five doing the job for us in Victoria simultaneously. We'll work through expedited contracting arrangements, again using where possible, the same contractors who went through the tender process in Victoria the lead contractor there is Multiplex, whose head office is based in Perth. So we're able to do all of those things as quickly as we can to make sure we move things along. There are still some things to be settled, negotiations over lease terms and the like. And we're making sure that we have contingency plans where possible as well to be able to keep this project on track.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: So you may need to fast track some planning and construction processes by, I understand, seeking parliamentary exemption from the Public Works Committee process. But what about the timeframes? How confident are you those will be met, given we have a very heated construction market here in WA? We have a labour shortage and builders are already unable to complete jobs on time.
Simon Birmingham: So we know absolutely there are pressures there. But by the type of works we're doing, the type of construction we have, a reasonable degree of confidence that we can push through this, we're making sure we contracts create the right incentives to get the job done in a timely way. We think that in terms of all those approvals process and given the high degree of cooperation between the federal government and the state government, that we can move through those quickly in terms of, as I said, the contracting, because we've done that work already in Victoria. We have, again, a fair degree of confidence that the contractors will be able to step up to the plate.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: Minister, how much will this facility cost?
Simon Birmingham: Until all of those contracts concluded it's hard to put a final figure on it, but the Victorian facility construction costs are around a few hundred million dollars. So they are significant facilities that we're establishing. Putting a thousand beds in place is the equivalent to building several inner city hotels, for example, in one location. So of course, it it's a big undertaking in a short period of time.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: How much of the bill will the federal government pick up?
Simon Birmingham: The Morrison Government will entirely fund the build costs and the McGowan government has agreed in terms of as long as it's operating as a COVID quarantine facility to operate, that as they have successfully done those COVID quarantine facilities in the WA to date.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: So during the pandemic, the state government covers the running costs, the weekly operating costs for the duration of the pandemic. Then what happens when the pandemic ends? Does the federal government then take charge again?
Simon Birmingham: We'll then manage the facility and depending, of course, upon what it's used for, we then work with the state government around responses to that. So that would be a matter of ongoing negotiation. If needed to be used in response to a local natural disaster for the emergency accommodation arrangements. The state government, you would imagine, would step up there if we were using it to respond to a crisis such as in Afghanistan. That may well be something that we did either separately or in conjunction with WA.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: So it would be a case by case basis as to who covers the cost, depending on the use?
Simon Birmingham: That's right. The federal government would once we get past the global pandemic, take responsibility for maintenance of it and maintain that they're to be able to respond in emergencies and case by case circumstances we'll handle it from there. We can see that COVID-19 has been an enormous shock to the whole world that the potential for these types of shocks in the future is very real. And that's why having a network of such resilient facilities and such capabilities to respond to emergencies in the future is something that we think is prudent. And obviously there will be times where it's not necessary. And frankly, it's probably a good thing they're not necessary because it means that things are going well across the country and around the rest of the world. But we are a nation that faces natural disasters, national emergencies, and then these sorts of global challenges and these will help us to respond more effectively to them in the future.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: Minister, finally, your memorandum of understanding with the state government does allow for alternate sites to be scoped. Why is that clause in there? Is there still some concern about the Jandakot location?
Simon Birmingham: We're just finalising contractual terms, lease arrangement and so on in relation to Jandakot, it's an airport that is subject to commercial leasing operations already. And so is a prudent contingency, if you like. We've made sure that we carry on some scoping works to be able to have backup plans should we not be able to settle with those commercial terms of access to Jandakot.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: Appreciate your time, Minister. Thank you very much.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, my pleasure.