Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 26 August 2021
Steve Austin: If you've been listening to ABC Radio News, you'll know that the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, held a press conference in Toowoomba today this morning announcing that Queensland is going to build their own or our own quarantine facility. Now, quarantining is the responsibility of the Commonwealth, the federal government. But Queensland is going to build its own dedicated facility, construction of the 1000 bed facility under a joint agreement between the state government and landowner, the Wagner Corporation starts today, apparently. We've already been promised a quarantine but at Pinkenba funded by the federal government, and it's their responsibility. So why should Queensland pay twice to keep people in quarantine? It seems that way anyhow. Simon Birmingham is the federal finance minister. I spoke to him just before coming to air under fairly pressured circumstances this afternoon, asking what the Commonwealth's reaction is to the news that Queensland's state governments plans to go it alone.
Simon Birmingham: Well Steve, the Commonwealth is already pursuing a purposeful quarantine facility within Brisbane. What we're doing, though, is building one that is within very close proximity adjacent to Brisbane International Airport in Pinkenba, seven kilometres away from specialist health services within Brisbane. We think that's the right place for these sort of facilities to provide them with long term capacity and ability to meet what the nation needs. Now, if Queensland wants to go ahead and build one at Toowoomba, that's really a matter for Queensland.
Steve Austin: The- this means that the taxpayers of Queensland will be paying for two quarantined facilities, one built by the Commonwealth, one built by the state.
Simon Birmingham: Steve, we've been very clear about what the assessment criteria we saw as being important were for these sorts of facilities, we outlined that they should be proximate to international airports that regularly receive international flights. They should be proximate to the highest standard medical facilities so that we can operate them with a high degree of confidence. And when Queensland couldn't have a site or couldn't come up with a site that met that criteria, we scoured Commonwealth land holdings, came up with the Pinkenba site. And we're now at the point where we have happily signed a memorandum of understanding to get that developed with the Queensland government. And the Commonwealth government will build it and fund all of its construction costs. Queensland have agreed that so long as it's needed for COVID quarantine facility, they will operate it consistent with national agreements, and then we will have a lasting capacity with that proximity for the long term. We've been clear around having established criteria. I can't really speak for the purpose or logic of what Queensland are doing at Wellcamp. That is a matter for them. They've made that decision themselves. And I gather the premier made something or sought to make something of a virtue today of pointing out that she hadn't consulted us in doing so.
Steve Austin: So you didn't know the premier was going to make this announcement today? You weren't informed or consulted or told anything about it?
Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that when the premier was asked at the press conference whether the Commonwealth government knew, she said, well, they do now. So that's obviously, again, a matter of her attitude or approach for her to comment on.
Steve Austin: Okay, so how can you still go ahead with the Pinkenba quarantine facility? Because it's my understanding that while the Commonwealth builds it, the state will be staffing it. Is that still on the table?
Simon Birmingham: We have absolutely no suggestion from Queensland to the contrary. We have a signed memorandum of understanding with Premier Palaszczuk, and I thank her and the government for the fact that they've engaged constructively with us on that Pinkenba facility that they have worked through, as we did the feasibility studies on it. They've worked through the negotiations of that, MOU. And I trust that having signed that, they will be true to their word in terms of the fact that we will get on, get it built. We're in a position where we expect that over the course of the next couple of months we'll move quickly through the final design stages and have earthworks on site relatively quickly in a position where we can get things underway. Indeed. I understand we have drilling rigs on site today for some of the geotechnical investigations to enable us to move forward.
Steve Austin: So that's happened today?
Simon Birmingham: Drilling rigs on site today. Look, I can't tell you whether they went on site today or whether they've been there a few days.
Steve Austin: OK.
Simon Birmingham: But in terms of my update, the survey and geotechnical investigations should be completed by the end of next week. And we're moving forward with all of the contracting of constructors using, as I've told Brisbane listeners before. As far as we possibly can, the models from the facility that's already under construction in Melbourne, where we've had good cooperation there, a modular type construction, that means we can have multiple subcontractors building the portable unit type accommodation at the same time, allowing us to really be able to scale that construction as quickly as possible.
Steve Austin: My guess is Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. This is ABC Radio Brisbane. The Queensland premier seems to have, what's the word, thumbed her nose at the Commonwealth that your government, the federal government today with her announcement. How are you regarding it or interpreting it? Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Look Steve, I find it a little curious. I'm not sure quite on on all of the rationale or logic from Queensland whether they are expecting to still be using this facility for domestic quarantine purposes, even after we've passed 80 per cent of the national population being vaccinated. I hope that's not the case, because Premier Palaszczuk, along with other leaders of the national cabinet, agreed to the scientifically based and independent Doherty Institute modelling. That's a crucial piece of work, unlike any done pretty much anywhere else in the world, charting our pathway to say when we reach certain vaccination targets, how we should be able to reopen not just-
Steve Austin: The premier's made it clean. She's made it clean. She doesn't accept the premise of the modelling at the moment, hasn't she? She made it very clear that she doesn't accept that anymore.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I'm not clear that she has said that quite so specifically or plainly. And I'll be very disappointed if that were the case, because if not Doherty Institute modelling, then what? And that really is for her to explain. You know, we're seeing Australians turn out in record numbers to get vaccinated. More than 330,000 did so yesterday. On a per capita basis, that is more than the UK or the US ever achieved in terms of daily vaccination rates at their peak. And that's before we actually see an even greater step up in the number of vaccines being delivered into our country. Currently, we've got around one million doses of Pfizer a week, and soon we're going to see that come up to two million doses Pfizer a week. And soon we'll go from having and we'll get our first million doses of Moderna, and that will grow to three million doses a month pretty quickly thereafter. That's going to give us capacity to really reaching population. And I think Australians deserve some certainty that as they turn out in record numbers to get vaccinated, there's going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. And that's what our commitment to the Doherty Institute modelling seeks to provide.
Steve Austin: All right. Let me come back to the quarantine facility, though. So now here in Queensland, our borders to almost the entire East Coast of Australia are shut because of hotel quarantine being full. The premier then the next day today has announced the new state funded quarantine facility at Wellcamp. So the taxpayer will be funding to quarantine facilities here in Queensland. One built by the Commonwealth, one built by the state. Both of them staffed by the state. You still have your memorandum of understanding about the Pinkenba one. Doesn't- the Premier's indicating that the Commonwealth should have moved earlier to build a quarantine facility, pointing out that quarantine in the Constitution of Australia is a Commonwealth responsibility. So, in other words, this would not have been an issue if the Commonwealth had it moved earlier and built the quarantine facility months ago.
Simon Birmingham: So a couple of things we did move quickly at the start of the pandemic to put in place arrangements with the states and territories to enable the return of Australians to this country as safely as it could be managed. And indeed-
Steve Austin: If that were true we'd have a quarantine facility by now, wouldn't we?
Simon Birmingham: The hotel quarantine systems put in place by the states and territories have worked incredibly effectively in bringing hundreds of thousands of people back to Australia in safely managing more than ninety nine point nine per cent of cases. Now, yes, it's had the very isolated outbreaks. That, of course, is a challenge that everywhere around the world has faced. We've done far better as a nation than virtually anywhere else. Ourselves and New Zealand, New Zealand are facing their own challenge, seemingly emanating from quarantine. Together, we stand out from most of the rest of the developed world suppressing COVID successfully and saving an estimated 30,000 lives in doing so. So there has always been a quarantine plan in place. We've come to accept the view that there is a benefit for the long term in having more Howard Springs' type facilities around the country, Howard Springs being our national resilience facility just outside of Darwin. And that's why we're replicating that in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. To provide those additional facilities, be they to respond to the unknown COVID into the next year, or be they indeed in the longer term, to respond to other natural disasters, emergency situations or health crises in Australia or around the world.
Steve Austin: All right. So your Pinkenba facility is modelled on the Howard Springs design. The premier has announced today that the state's quarantine facility at Wellcamp is modelled on the Howard Springs design. It's still not clear to me why the taxpayer is going to have to fund two quarantine facilities. It sounds to me like relationships have broken down between the state of Queensland and the Commonwealth over what's already been agreed in national cabinet.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Steve, our facility, as I say, we've engaged with Queensland every step of the way to make sure that we have an agreement about the build and the operation of it. Ours, of course, is also not designed to be there for the maintenance of interstate borders. It's there to facilitate international arrivals during the COVID pandemic and beyond. Now, I hope that as we move into next year, we can see freer and movement for vaccinated Australians, but we will still have pressures in relation to those unvaccinated. We'll have pressures in relation to non-Australians particularly, who may not be able to have a home to quarantine or isolate at who may be coming into work or other specialised services. There'll be other challenges in the future, like the one we're confronting at present with arrivals from Afghanistan, that mean these sorts of facilities can play a role as well as responses to national disasters. That's our purpose with our facility. As I say, in terms of why Queensland has chosen to go it alone with the facility a long way away from the international airport, further away from the different health and hospital options that Brisbane poses. That really is a matter the Queensland government's got to answer. I hope they've got good policy rationale for doing so. And that it's not just about making some sort of political point.
Steve Austin: When will Pinkenba be built. So your facility, when do you expect the first stage of it to be open? Premier says her facility will be open at the end of this year and should be taking a thousand or have a thousand beds available by the end of the first quarter of next year, 2022. When will Pinkenba be doing what it needs to do?
Simon Birmingham: So we're taking an approach with careful design contracting to get it done as quickly as we can. But we also don't want to make promises that we can't keep in that regard. Our expectation is to see the first five hundred in place during the first quarter of next year and the other 500 subsequently.
Steve Austin: So that's by March, the first quarter. I'm talking the in the first quarter. I'm saying by March next year. Is that is that right?
Simon Birmingham: That's the expectation and the target that we're working towards. The earlier we can get it done earlier, we will get it done. Okay. But we're not going to make unrealistic promises that may compromise the integrity of the facility.
Steve Austin: And as far as you're concerned, the Commonwealth is concerned once you've built it. Queensland is still that was Queensland has signed an agreement that Queensland will staff that facility at Pinkenba still even today.
Simon Birmingham: That is that is what, only a week and a bit ago, Premier Palaszczuk signed her name on the bottom line of an agreement to that effect, that Commonwealth will build the facility, the Damascus Barracks there at Pinkenba. And Queensland, while it's required as a COVID quarantine facility will operate it.
Steve Austin: Senator Canavan has tweeted out today that given that Queensland has decided to go alone on quarantine, the Commonwealth should pull the Australian Defence Forces that are helping Queensland on the border. Will that happen?
Simon Birmingham: No, our approach is, is one being constructive in these things. That's why we were constructive in relation to discussions about Pinkenba by actually working with the Queensland government, reaching terms, settled in that MOU, and indeed will be constructive in terms of providing a defence force assistance, as we've done right throughout the pandemic, to help with quarantine and other purposes. We understand the importance of that. We understand right now, while we strive for those 70 and 80 per cent vaccination targets, the importance of having the protection to try to keep COVID from New South Wales out of Queensland.
Steve Austin: One final question. I'll let you go. Once Pinkenba is built and running. Could it be repurposed away from quarantine and say, house refugees from Afghanistan, for instance?
Simon Birmingham: Steve, as I referenced before, there are options in in that sort of regard for the long term. So we wouldn't see it as being a long term accommodation facility for the people. But importantly, yes, if we didn't have a COVID crisis or some other crisis demanding places and we were responding in future to something like the current evacuation efforts out of Afghanistan, where we've lifted more than 4,000 people out of Afghanistan just in space the last few days, then indeed, facilities like this may be very helpful for the repatriation of those individuals to Australia.
Steve Austin: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.