Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Jim Chalmers MP
Member for Rankin
Date: Friday, 7 January 2022
Charles Croucher: There is plenty more to unpack on Novak Djokovic's visa fiasco. Let's bring in the Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, who's in Normanville in South Australia, and shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers in Brisbane. Good morning to you both. Simon, we'll begin with you by virtue of your seat at the cabinet table and the National Security Committee.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Charles.
Charles Croucher: Greg Hunt wrote to Tennis Australia in September, explaining medical exemptions. Is this an honest mistake from Tennis Australia or does the blame lie somewhere else?
Simon Birmingham: Look, there's clearly been a mistake in terms of what Novak Djokovic or his team understood in terms of the entry requirements or indeed people have acted in misleading ways. Now they're matters that frankly aren't particularly relevant to the facts of the case, which are that the Government has always been clear around what is necessary in terms of the entry requirements into Australia. We made that clear to Tennis Australia. It's been publicly clear for a long time you've got to be double vaccinated if you're not an Australian citizen to enter Australia as we've reopened the borders. These border controls have been incredibly important right throughout COVID in terms of protecting Australia. Yes, we've taken the steps of reopening, but being double vaccinated has clearly always been a requirement, and the medical exemption requirements have been clearly explained to those tennis authorities. And of course, it's up to our Border Force officials to uphold those entry requirements.
Charles Croucher: Minister Andrews tells us this morning there are other players that are only now being investigated that seems convenient that the world number one player, the highest profile player, is the one that's holed up in the Carlton Hotel now.
Simon Birmingham: The Australian Border Force operates on a range of different levels in terms of the way in which they undertake checks at the border, and intelligence and information about individuals arriving is part of that. It's not unusual for the Border Force to detain people, to question people and indeed to turn people around and say you're not meeting those entry requirements into Australia. That's what's happening in this case. It has a little way now to play through the courts, but this is simply an example of our Border Force ensuring the rules are upheld as they do for anybody based on the intelligence, the information, the suspicions or anything else they have to hand.
Charles Croucher: Alright, Jim, let's bring you in. It's shaping as a diplomatic incident now, the Serbian President's come out swinging, our ambassadors being contacted, Djokovic's own mother said 'it's not human'. Has the government lost control of this situation?
Jim Chalmers: Charles, it's obviously a very messy situation now, but you can't have one set of rules for everybody else and another set of rules for celebrities, whether they're the world's best tennis player or not. But I think the main thing here, Charles, is we're getting we're getting all this chest beating now from the federal government in a really desperate attempt to try and distract from the absolute debacle that we're seeing on rapid testing from the Morrison government. That's why we're getting the chest beating about Novak Djokovic. But there are more people worried about whether or not they can get a rapid test, whether or not they can get groceries, whether they can get a booster shot, then are worried about whether Novak plays in the Australian Open or not.
Charles Croucher: Do you think this has specifically targeted Novak Djokovic for that purpose?
Jim Chalmers: Oh, I'm not saying that, Charles. The point I'm making is that, yeah, at the very beginning, the Morrison government gave the visa. Then they tried to say it was all Victoria. Now they're trying to blame Tennis Australia. But when there was a public outcry, obviously Scott Morrison's out there taking credit for the fact that Novak Djokovic is holed up in a hotel. We want to see the rules fairly applied. We don't want to see a messy situation. If he doesn't comply with the arrangements, then he shouldn't be here. That's pretty clear. But I think Australians are onto this Prime Minister. They know that his chest beating about this now in the desperate hope that people don't focus on the absolute mess that he's made of rapid testing. And what that means, then for shortages in our supermarkets, what it means for long queues, for hours to get different kinds of tests. These are the prime minister's responsibilities. He may as well be back in Hawaii for all the good that he's doing us. He doesn't hold a hose. He doesn't give a rat's. And once again, ordinary Australians are paying the price for his failure to lead and take responsibility for things like rapid testing, which is leading to this grocery shortage in our shops.
Charles Croucher: Alright, Simon, let's pivot to the pandemic because restrictions are returning in Victoria and New South Wales isn't far away. This was all meant to be behind us, wasn't it?
Simon Birmingham: Charles, the Omicron variant has been a game-changer right around the world and globally, we've seen that the upside of Omicron is that people are 70 per cent less likely to face severe illness. And so over the longer term, that means that Omicron is easier to live with and that Australians will be able to live with COVID due to the fact that Omicron presents less seriously in terms of illness. However, it also has far higher rates of transmissibility, and so that has thrown challenges right around the globe, where there are different restrictions, different measures, different pressure points in terms of testing facilities globally, not just a challenge here in Australia. And we've responded in terms of adjusting the rules and the settings to take account of the fact that Omicron results in less severe illness but is more transmissible. We're providing more RAT tests, 10 million more to the states from the Commonwealth. Between the states and the Commonwealth, close to 200 million more are expected in the country over the coming weeks. We've taken steps to make them more available to concession holders, but what we've not done is the type of cheap politics of Labor. You heard a lot of that from Jim Chalmers before and his attacks on the Prime Minister. You can see it in their policies as well, which is suggesting that every supermarket, every pharmacy should apparently just give away RAT kits. That's not going to help with supply shortages. That's just going to exacerbate pressures. What we're making sure is that testing remains free for every Australian who needs it, who has indeed suspicions they might have COVID-19, who has symptoms, who may be a close contact. Testing is free, PCR testing, RAT kits that are being provided to the states by the states. And of course, now we're taking the steps to provide them to concession cardholders to make a limited number freely available, but to do it in a far more responsible way than what Labor is proposing, so that we don't create those types of additional pressures on supply chains across the country.
Charles Croucher: Jim, we're short on time, but the Minister has a point there doesn’t he? There are places like America and like the UK where RAT tests are free, but they are still seeing a big growth in cases. Is it a case of Omicron being beyond any testing capabilities?
Jim Chalmers: Look, I don't know what planet Simon's living on, but we've got this issue now, even after the prime minister's announcement during the week. Most Australians are still finding it just as hard to get a RAT test at the end of the week as they were at the beginning. We've got this Hunger Games in our chemists. We've got Hunger Games in our supermarkets. Once again, Australians are paying the price for the fact that the prime minister hasn't done his job. He talks about the supply issues. The supply issues are the prime minister's responsibility we've known since at least September last year. The doctors were writing to the government, the truckies were writing to the government. People were warning the government that-.
Simon Birmingham: You don't fix the issue by inviting everyone to stockpile…
Jim Chalmers: …this would be the case. And you can draw a straight line, you can draw a straight line between the shortages on RAT kits and the shortages in our supermarkets. Because people haven't been able to manage their workforces, they can't access these tests. When they can, they're too expensive. The finance minister should understand of all people that a test that costs a few bucks wholesale in big numbers is a far better investment from the Commonwealth than this economic carnage that we're seeing in the moment, at the moment in our workforces and in local economies, and versus $100 PCR tests, which is being provided for free. It's common sense. It's simple economics. It's cost effective and responsible to provide these tests for free so that people can do the right thing by their co-workers and their loved ones.
Charles Croucher: Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. I get the feeling we'll speak about both these issues a lot in the coming days and weeks. Appreciate your time this morning.