Transcripts → 2021


ABC Radio - Perth Mornings with Nadia Mitsopoulos

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia


Date: Thursday, 26 August 2021

Nadia Mitsopoulos:  I'm again joined by the finance minister, Simon Birmingham. Thank you very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Nadia. Good to be with you again.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: What is the reason for this decision?

Simon Birmingham: Nadia, it's a combination of factors. As I mentioned, when we were talking a little over a week ago about the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the Commonwealth and the West Australian government. We did have flexibility in that agreement around potential sites, and there were still some planning and commercial discussions on-going in relation to the Jandakot site. We had, as I mentioned in that interview, some back up and contingency plans underway. We had identified the defence training site at Bullsbrook as a potential alternative and already had underway planning and insight assessment works in relation to that as a contingency. And as we work through the final stages of those planning and commercial negotiations and considerations, as they related to Jandakot, it became apparent that we were ultimately going to be able to achieve the outcome for taxpayers and Australians more efficiently in terms of time and cost by proceeding with the Bullsbrook site instead.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Okay, just exactly first of all, what were the issues with Jandakot? Was it environmental issues or was it was that the issue there?

Simon Birmingham: There were some in in that regard. But Jandakot also is obviously an airport under the Airports Act. There are additional planning and other requirements that we were going to have to push through to be able to proceed. It's a commercially operated airport site. And so there were commercial negotiations in play there. And I want to acknowledge the operators there, Jandakot Airport, for their engagement constructively with us. But ultimately, in terms of looking at value for money for taxpayers, as well as the ability to timely to ensure the timely delivery of this project, we've decided that Bullsbrook offered a stronger basis to proceed.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: You also talk about it being more cost effective. How will it be cheaper?

Simon Birmingham: This is existing commonwealth owned land. So we don't need to get all those sorts of commercial arrangements that we would have with the operators there. It also doesn't require some of the acoustic abatement works that we needed to undertake at Jandakot, given the location differences there. So there are some benefits there in terms of the cost equation.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: What about medical facilities? Because that's always one of the requirements that they be close to medical facilities. You'd have to travel to the local hospital would be the Midland or Joondalup, which is, you know, a good half hour away. Is that a concern?

Simon Birmingham: It's still within the type of zone that we have looked at, both the proximity to appropriate scale and quality medical facilities, as well as to Perth Airport. And they're both important considerations for us. And in that sense, it meets a reasonable threshold test. Obviously, this is a part of Perth that has seen some significant population growth in recent times. And so we're confident in that sense that the ability to reach those essential services in accordance with the Commonwealth criteria was that it was met.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: The concern from locals today. Minister, is the fact that it is near a contaminated site. And we know that PFAS and those PFAS chemicals that were once used in fire retardant at that site has contaminated the ground water. And for that reason, locals are saying we don't think this is a good idea. Did you look at that issue? Do you share their concerns? Because it is a legitimate concern. There are people in Bullsbrook that still cannot use groundwater. They still use bottled water.

Simon Birmingham: So we did undertake an independent feasibility study of the site. We were running that concurrently so as not to lose time around the site to construction and development. It's important to appreciate the Bullsbrook training area is a 1000 hectare area. And it's some three kilometres from the Pearce Air Base across the Tonkin Highway. What we've identified is a 30 hectare site within that 1000 hectare defence training area that we wish to proceed with developing this facility on. As part of the independent feasibility study, which was undertaken by specialist engineering and design firm AECOM. They look. A range of issues, including planning, environmental considerations, cultural heritage, traffic management, waste management and contamination issues. Their advice to us was certainly that it is a suitable site to proceed, a safe site to proceed on. We won't be using groundwater for drinking purposes at the quarantine facility, and obviously all safety precautions will appropriately be taken.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: So what will they be using? Bottled water?

Simon Birmingham: So we will look at the construction of if need be, in a temporary sense, dedicated potable water system, including storage tanks, pumps and distribution on site. Obviously, ideally, the long term we'd see connection to nearby mains, at Pearce or elsewhere.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Well, the Mayor of the City of Swan, which you know and this site is in his is part of his area. He would like the federal government, you Minister, to provide scheme water not only to this quarantine facility, but the other parts of Bullsbrook or all of Bullsbrook, that can't actually use groundwater. Just have a listen to what Kevin Bailey's had to say.


Cr Kevin Bailey: We've been pushing a solution for this for some time. And obviously they're going to have to get potable water to this site in some way, shape or form. So this may be the catalyst for us to get scheme water right through that area and solve that solution. So that is one of the upsides in some leverage in that space.


Nadia Mitsopoulos: Is that something, Minister, you'd consider supplying water to the town, not just that quarantine facility?

Simon Birmingham: Look, Nadia. I'll look forward to the opportunity when I can get over to the West or if I can't get over there in near enough term them to schedule some discussions there with Mayor Bailey. I acknowledge, the City of Swan, who we brought in some briefings at the start of this week as it appeared that we were going to make this decision. And I have been very constructive in their early discussions, and I'm eager to have further discussions with them in terms of broader PFAS management, in terms of what has occurred there, and an engagement that the Department of Defence led activity in terms of engaging with some of the PFAS management area plan for the community in that region. But we'll certainly engage there and seek to understand for those parts of the community that are affected and noting that we don't believe it necessary for this giant, aside from addressing the potable drinking water issues, that we can work through those issues with the communities as best as possible.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: It sort of feels like a no to me at the moment, what you're saying. Water for the site, but not the town.

Simon Birmingham: It's- I can't, I can't provide, obviously, an instant blank check, yes. In that regard, if there are efficiencies that come from what we are working on with the site that support outcomes in the community, then just as we've worked constructively with the WA government at all stages of considering this site, as well as considering the other sites to date, we'll look to engage constructively on these matters, too.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Senator Simon Birmingham, the finance minister, is my guest. I know you have to go, but I just need to put this to you Minister, and I'm sorry, I'll be really quick. People are saying this sounds like politics at play, thinking that this is in Christian Porter seat of Pearce. My understanding is it's actually in the seat of Durack. Is that right? Because people are a little cynical about this idea. And if there is politics at play here, can you respond to that criticism?

Simon Birmingham: So this site and much of the surrounding community of Bullsbrook is currently in Christian Porter's electorate. The redistribution handed down for Western Australia moves into Melissa Price's electorate. But I can assure you that for each of them, the first that they became aware of the potential for this site to be used was when I rang them to inform them that we were undertaking feasibility work and that it was underway. There was certainly no consideration in relation to the politics of whose electorate it is. And it's an important resilience capability that we're building for the nation, for our long term capability, for Western Australia to respond to emergencies, to deal with situations be it COVID or other emergencies in the future. What we want to make sure is we get it in place quickly, efficiently, effectively, and that it simply meets the criteria of access to an airport, access to health facilities and being a good long term option, which we believe this site is.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Minister, thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Nadia. My pleasure.