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, 14 January 2022
Sarah Abo: Well, supermarket purchase limits are back, rapid antigen tests are near impossible to find, and our aged care sector has entered crisis mode again. You'd be forgiven for thinking our government hasn't had the time to prepare for living with the virus. All this while the world number one tennis player faces the possibility of being kicked out of Australia. Well, let's bring in Finance Minister Simon Birmingham from Adelaide and Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers, who's in Maryborough this morning in Queensland. Simon, let's just start with you and the Novak Djokovic saga. This visa debacle remains an absolute headache for the government. When will the Immigration Minister make his decision?
Simon Birmingham: Look that is a matter for the Immigration Minister. Our policy not to come to any specific case, but our policy remains the same, and that is that non-Australian citizens entering Australia should be double vaccinated and we've been very clear about that all along. We seek to ensure that policy is enforced across Australian borders because our border controls have been a very important part of helping to keep Australia safer and more secure during the COVID-19 outbreak. Our intention is to continue to use those border controls where they can help, including to ensure that those who enter our country who are not Australian citizens should be double dose vaccinated.
Sarah Abo: Simon, the Australian Open starts on Monday. How do we not know yet what the results are going to be?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the arrangements for the Australian Open are a matter for tennis officials. In terms of decisions that that will be made on individual cases, they're matters for the Immigration Minister. But the policy settings of the government overall remain crystal clear. That is that people who enter Australia who are not Australian citizens should be double dose vaccinated unless they have a clear and valid medical exemption against that.
Sarah Abo: Jim, we know that Tennis Australia delayed its draw yesterday off the back of National Cabinet meeting and announcements that were made there, but there's still no clearer. So of course, the Serbian has now been named in the Australian Open draw. Do you think he should stay?
Jim Chalmers: Well, look, our position has been clear from the beginning. If he doesn't meet the visa requirements, he shouldn't have been given a visa in the first place. But there's two issues now, I think, as this debacle drags on for another day. First of all, make a decision. I mean, our international reputation is being trashed more each day that the government delays. And secondly, when Scott Morrison thought there was a political opportunity in this, he was all over it. And now that it's gone so badly, he wants to pretend it has nothing to do with him. And it's all Alex Hawke's job and all of his fault. And unfortunately, there's a pattern of behaviour here when things are easy and there's a photo or a political opportunity, there's Scott Morrison all over it. But when things get difficult, as they have with this Novak Djokovic case, he's nowhere to be found. We're seeing that once again, we need to see it resolved so that the government can focus on what they really should be focussing on, which is the grocery shortages, the fact that people can't find a test, people are having their kids vaccination appointments cancelled, there's uncertainty about school going back. All of those sorts of things are far more important than whether Novak Djokovic plays or not. We need to see the government make a decision and then do their job,
Sarah Abo: I think it really highlights sort of that lack of decisiveness across the board that we've been seeing for the past two years and the feds and states not talking. We know decisions were made by each party that are inconsistent with the expectations. But let's move on because we know that National Cabinet is set up for national consensus. Simon, the list of critical workers has been expanded. It's hoped to ease pressure on strained supply chains. But I guess what would really make this work is rapid antigen tests, and they do need to be rolled out to all, don't they? Not just some. I mean, otherwise. How will this work effectively?
Simon Birmingham: Well, yesterday the Prime Minister chaired National Cabinet, and they spent, of course, the time focussing on the extreme set of circumstances that the Omicron variant is posing. These are dramatic changes Omicron is posing right around the world. You have shortages of rapid antigen tests in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in Canada. This is a global challenge because Omicron is so much more transmissible that it's put pressure on systems right around the globe. Now, the worst thing you could do in a sense, is to take Labor's policy, which is to suggest that everybody could just pick them up for free off the supermarket shelf, stockpile them at home and just have continued pressure in terms of the availability of those test. What we are doing as a Government with the states and territories-
Jim Chalmers: You think that's the worst thing that we could do, Simon? You think that's the worst-
Simon Birmingham: Sorry, Jim, I haven't interrupted you, mate. So let me go. What we are doing together with state and territory governments, Labor and Liberal, is making them freely available to those who need them. To people who are close contacts to make sure that testing remains free to those who have symptoms. This is how you make sure we get through this challenging time of Omicron and yes, adjusting to the different circumstances of Omicron. People are less likely to get very sick, which means we can change those close contact arrangements. That's precisely what we continue to do. To adjust that, to make sure we can keep the workforce going, to keep systems across Australia going under incredible stress and pressure this new variant poses.
Sarah Abo: I mean, I guess rapid antigen tests are the one thing that taxpayers are probably willing for the government to spend their money on in terms of protecting us. What do you think Jim that more can be done here? Obviously, you guys want to roll out rapid tests for everyone for free. Is that realistic?
Jim Chalmers: Of course it is. We should be providing rapid antigen tests free via the Medicare system. Simon Birmingham just said that the worst thing that we could be doing is supplying these tests for free. Well, we have a completely different view-
Simon Birmingham: No, Jim. I said picking them up off the supermarket shelves and letting people stockpile them would be.
Sarah Abo: You can put measures in place to prevent stockpiling of course-
Jim Chalmers: Ok, Simon. No worries. Our point is really clear, Sarah. The reason why Australians are finding it difficult to go back to work is because they either can't find or they can't afford rapid antigen tests. And this is one of the defining failures of Scott Morrison and his government. The whole plan that was announced yesterday hinges on whether or not people can find tests that either don't exist or are priced out of people's reach. Australians are prepared to do their jobs. They just need the Prime Minister to do his job. And the problem we've got here is because he ignored the warnings in September and October last year from the doctors, from the truckies, from the unions. We've got this problem now. We've got this rapid antigen test shortage. And so people are in this extraordinary state of where they're either undiagnosed, they don't know what the rules are, they can't find a test is still driving around, trying to find one. They're still paying exorbitant prices for them if they do, that is the problem here. And so if the Prime Minister and his government seriously wants to get people back to work, to back to doing their jobs, then they need to do their jobs. It all hinges on this rapid antigen test failure. And that's why we're in this position we're in right now where the grocery shelves are empty, the chemists are getting increasingly frustrated, the pharmacists because they can't supply the tests that people need. The Prime Minister needs to do his job for once and secure this. They'd cut the ad saying that they were providing tests. There's ads running on our TVs screens saying that there are tests, but they didn't get around to it until this week, issuing the tender for more of the tests that Australians need.
Sarah Abo: And look, obviously we know that the economy is a big factor here and we do need to keep that rolling. And that's where the schools factor in and childcare centres. So there will be developments that come out then. Obviously, unions are meeting on Monday for those crucial talks, but let's move on. I just want to go to Jim. We know obviously you are in Queensland at the moment. We can see the wreckage there behind you from the floods that have been experienced in Maryborough. How's it all going?
Jim Chalmers: Look, as you know, Sarah, this is one of a great Australian town, Maryborough, and they've had a really rough trot over the last week or so. You can see some of the damage behind me on the banks of the Mary River. So I'm here with Anthony Albanese and Murray Watt today to express our appreciation and our admiration for the emergency services and the volunteers and the community groups who've done so much for people in here in a really difficult time. And now it's time for governments to do their job to make sure that the disaster payments and the support which locals need and deserve here to get back on their feet is provided as quickly as possible. We know from earlier disasters, not just here in Queensland, my home state, but around Australia, that often this is the difficult time the floodwaters have receded. People are assessing the damage, it's an incredibly difficult time and we need to get around them.
Sarah Abo: And I guess just to end on a positive note, guys, isn't it good to see those borders finally come down in Queensland? No more restrictions. Let's keep it that way, shall we?
Jim Chalmers: Yeah, let's not stop at 90 per cent. People need to keep getting vaccinated and keep getting the boosters. I'm sure that Simon can agree wholeheartedly with that. We need to get as close to 100 per cent as we can.
Sarah Abo: Absolutely. Hey, thank you both for your-
Simon Birmingham: Third highest day for vaccinations ever in the country yesterday. So great news there and keep going Australians.
Sarah Abo: It is excellent. I'm sorry, we're out of time. It would be lovely to chat a bit more, Simon Birmingham and Jim Chalmers. Thank you both for your time.