Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 26 August 2021
Oli Peterson: There are reports, though, the new site near the RAAF base in Pearce is being constructed on contaminated land as local residents continue to fight a PFAS contamination class action. That's over toxic chemicals being discovered in their water due to what he claims is a result from firefighting drills. Joining me live on 6PR this afternoon is the federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon.
Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Oli. Great to be with you.
Oli Peterson: Great to have you on the show, Senator. Is this quarantine facility being built on contaminated land?
Simon Birmingham: No, it's not Oli. Bullsbrook training facility that defence have the 1000 hectare sites around three kilometres away from the RAAF Pearce base. What we're using is about 30 hectares or so within that 1000 hectare site that's been chosen and assessed. We brought in, as part of the assessment, independent engineering and planning firm AECOM. They had a close look at the environmental health and other issues there. And we're quite confident in terms of the site itself, concerns that have been raised in a broader area there about PFAS relate very much to groundwater issues. And of course, we're not intending to have groundwater supply this and we'll be providing proper potable drinking water to the site.
Oli Peterson: Ok, is there local residents there worry it's in the sort of the dust. So what'll happen when those quarantining turn on the taps?
Simon Birmingham: Well, those in quarantine on turn on the taps, and they will be receiving water initially out of tanks that will be installing and providing water too. Over time, it may be possible to connect the site into a mains water supply.
Oli Peterson: Why the switch from Jandakot to Bullsbrook?
Simon Birmingham: So that really is about the assessment on how quickly we can get it done and our cost effectively, we can get it done. And so we were hopeful of being able to push ahead with Jandakot. But in the end, as we worked through the different commercial aspects of settling the arrangement there, as well as some of the other consideration became apparent that we were going to be able to do it more cost effectively for taxpayers and faster by going to Bullsbrook site its existing commonwealth defence owned land. And so we have easy access to it. It's also a site where we don't need to do some of these acoustic abatement applications that were necessary at Jandakot, being a build right on an airport site that was going to happen there. So these will provide ultimately the best case for us to move forward and get it done. It still meets the Commonwealth criteria that we've always laid out being sufficiently proximate to the international airport delays and sufficiently proximate to high standard health care.
Oli Peterson: It's just a month ago you said there were fewer environmental land management issues at Jandakot. So purely. What has changed here is that you can build it faster and cheaper at Bullsbrook than you can at Jandakot.
Simon Birmingham: We initially compared two sites. Perth Airport and Jandakot, as we progressed, Bullsbrook became a potential contingency for it. And so we were quietly working on that site behind the scenes. Jandakot, became preferred to Perth airport for a range of environmental and other reasons. But then in terms of settling the commercial negotiations with the operators of Jandakot Airport, as well as all of the other factors, it became apparent that with Bullsbrook we actually had a site that was going to enable us to get there faster and cheaper, essentially.
Oli Peterson: Is it the same size as what was originally proposed, for the same cost?
Simon Birmingham: It will- it should come in at a slightly lesser cost. It is still with the aim of achieving 500 beds initially at the first quarter of next year, and then in a further 500 beds added pretty promptly after that. Obviously as you heard me say before it's a 1000 hectare site. So, there's plenty of room for expansion. If we needed to go beyond that initial 1000 beds. That's consideration for a later date. And we've already announced and signed the contract. And in that sense, we have made contractor in place. They'll be moving quickly to get the different subcontractors who will be building the modules in sort of a bit like mining camp style accommodation that will be able to get multiple modules being built by different contractors at the same time to enable it to meet pretty tight deadlines. And doing a thousand beds is the equivalent of building about three inner city hotels. And you don't usually see them go up in the space of less than six months, but that's what we're aiming to achieve here.
Oli Peterson: So by that March, April of next year, you expect people who are coming in from overseas will be quarantining in Bullsbrook at this new facility?
Simon Birmingham: It certainly provides for that the federal government, the government picking up all of the tab of building it. We have an agreement with the McGowan government that we've been working closely with, and they've been very cooperative in terms of there then operating it as a COVID quarantine facility, so long as we need that. But we also see that these facilities can serve a long term purpose in responding to these types of health crises, but potentially other emergency disaster situations in the future and provide a long term resilience capability for federal and state governments to be able to utilise.
Oli Peterson: Just got a question from one of our listeners, Chris, who says, have you moved the quarantine facility to back Christian Porter in because he's the liberal member who represents Bullsbrook. Any politics about this one finance minister?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely none. Bullsbrook is actually moving at the next election out of the electorate that Christian currently represents and into the electorate that Melissa Price represents. But look, I can honestly say that we were well down the path of making the decision to make the move before I've discussed with either Christian or Melissa. This was simply about making sure that we got the best deal for taxpayers done in the most timely way.
Oli Peterson: Who do you believe will be using it if people are double vaccinated by the middle of next year, if they're coming in from the UK or the US, do you imagine they'll still have to spend two weeks in quarantine?
Simon Birmingham: All these considerations are going to have to weigh as we get closer to the time. That's why I emphasised before, we see these as being long term assets that give the nation ability to respond. If you think about what we're doing as a country right now, having airlifted more than 4000 people out of Afghanistan just in the last few days and having to find things to then transport them back to Australia and accommodate them as part of that humanitarian activity, this type of site in the future will provide an ability to respond to those sorts of circumstances. It may provide opportunity to respond to bushfires or the like. In the shorter term we do still expect they'll probably be some COVID opportunities for utilisation in terms of perhaps unvaccinated people coming in as essential workers or migrants or humanitarian entrants or otherwise coming into the country where perhaps a type of relaxed quarantine arrangements that may be able to be in place for fully vaccinated Australians might still require us to have these sorts of facilities operational in responding to COVID. And of course, we don't know what curveball COVID will throw at us next. This time last year, we weren't at all contemplating a Delta variant such as what has emerged this year, 100 per cent more transmissible and a far greater challenge is posed.
Oli Peterson: Appreciate your time, Minister. Thank you very much.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Oli. My pleasure.