Interview with Steve Austin, ABC Radio Brisbane

18 May 2021
Prime Minister

STEVE AUSTIN: Prime Minister, thanks for coming on this afternoon.

PRIME MINISTER: G'day Steve. And can I just send a shout out to Luke Howarth and his family today. I know he’d normally be joining you around about this time. But going through, they’ve had some bad news lately, and I just want to send them all the best on this difficult day for them.

AUSTIN: I’m sure he appreciates it. What do you need from universities to allow them to fly in international students on charter flights to start getting the higher education back up and running again?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Steve, let me just sort of pull you back a bit. I mean, the reason why the borders are shut is because of the global pandemic. This is not made up. It's real. And it's worse today than it was a year ago, and it's raging through the developing world as we speak. So the protections we have on the borders is keeping Australians safe. But at the same time, it's enabling the Australian economy to have more people in work today - despite all the challenges and all the issues that you said in your introduction - there are more Australians in work today than there were before the pandemic. And we're, in an Australian way, managing to work our way through this great challenge. It's the pandemic that is the issue here. It's the virus that is the reason for all of these things. If we had the same average rate of fatalities from COVID that other countries just like us have had, 30,000 more Australians would have perished as a result of this virus. So we'll do everything that we can do to ensure that we can start to bring back as much of that activity as we can. But in the meantime, we will continue to do things that keeps the Australian economy moving forward, and that's what the Budget’s about. That's how it's securing Australia's recovery …

AUSTIN: ... I understand that …

PRIME MINISTER: … [inaudible] these challenges, we deal with them. But when it comes to students and, or when it comes to Australians returning in larger numbers and all of these sorts of things, that will, of course, be guided by the health advice. But, equally, for students of universities and universities who have made significant revenues in recent years and they have significant capital to be able to support the type of facilities that would assist those students coming back, if the state government wishes to support their return with the health arrangements that would allow that, over and above the bringing Australians home, then we've always been in favour of that. We already have a …

AUSTIN: … I understand that. Let, if I may interject, let me, I understand that and accept what you say, but the Commonwealth has told the universities to come up with some plans, trial plans, some trial projects …


AUSTIN: ... to test bringing international students in from overseas.


AUSTIN: So, what, let me go back to my original question. What do you need from universities to allow them to fly in international students on charter flights?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what has already occurred in the Northern Territory, where they've been able to do that around facilities, get the support of the Territory Government to ensure that the health issues are covered off because the public health orders that are put in place by states and territories have to be observed. You need a workforce to support that and the facilities to make them possible. This is the same thing we've been saying to them for over a year, over a year.

AUSTIN: The State, the State Government is pushing, as you know, for a dedicated facility to be built at the Wellcamp Airport near Toowoomba. But the proposal’s been rejected by you. Given that quarantine is a Federal responsibility, what do you need from the State Government?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, Steve, I’ve got to pull you up there. The quarantine is enforcing a state public health order, which was agreed to over a year ago by the National Cabinet, including the Queensland Government. It's a Queensland state public health order that they're enforcing with the hotel quarantine that is in place. Now ...

AUSTIN: … I know, but they look to the Commonwealth to manage the borders. You're responsible for the Northern Territory quarantine facility. I'm just trying to understand what else you need from the state to get something up and running.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've, we’ve written to them and told them, they won't tell us how much it costs. They won't tell them whether they're going to run the facility. They won't tell us whether, on top of that, whether it’s being in addition to bringing Australians home, so supplementing what is already being done, or is to replace it. These are the things we've been asking for for ages. This is a ...

AUSTIN: … So you want a dollar figure from them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, this is what Victoria’s done. I have a very comprehensive proposal from Victoria and we’re, we are in the … 

AUSTIN: … With a dollar figure attached?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, absolutely, and we're working that through with the Victorian Government. It is a comprehensive proposal that deals with workforce, the medical controls, how the State Government will operate that facility, the capital requirements, all of this. It's all set out and we're working through those details. It's a comprehensive proposal. We didn't get that from Queensland.

AUSTIN: So you're looking for a dollar figure from the Queensland State Government on the Wellcamp proposal?

PRIME MINISTER: [Inaudible] what we need because I've written to them and told them, and we've been seeking it from them for some period of time.

AUSTIN: Let me play you Professor Sandra Harding, Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University, Chair of the Queensland Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. She wants the Wellcamp option looked at.

[Excerpt plays]

AUSTIN: So your position is the State Government only needs to provide a dollar figure on what a Wellcamp quarantine facility will cost, and you'll be happy to make it a goer.

PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not what I said, Steve. There was a range of issues that I said that remain unresolved ...

AUSTIN: … What are the other ones other than dollar figure?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I already went through them - how it's going to operate, who’s going to operate it, where’s the workforce going to come from, who's running the infection control procedures, or where is the security workforce coming from. All of this needs to be established. That's what the Victorian Government is doing. But the Victorian Government, like the New South Wales Government, Steve, is working with us. New South Wales is working with us on arrangements to bring students in as well as we speak. They're not doing it as some sort of political show out there in the, they’re just working with us, and I would encourage the Queensland Government to do the same thing, not looking to [inaudible].

AUSTIN: I spoke to the Premier's office today and they were having difficulty understanding what the impediment was …

PRIME MINISTER: ... getting [inaudible] for New South Wales and Victoria.

AUSTIN: They’re very, the State Government’s very keen to work with your office to see it happen. The impression they left me with that the blockage is in your office.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm sorry. I completely reject that. We’ve, on numerous occasions, set out the additional information that we require, and it just hasn't been coming, forthcoming. But I'll tell you what people need first though, Steve. They need us to keep us focused on keeping Australians in work, getting Australians home safely, and ensuring that we keep Australians safe from a pandemic that is raging. It'd be great to have students back. But frankly, right now, the most important thing is we secure this recovery and the jobs that people have here, and we protect Australia from a virus that is ravaging the rest of the world. It'd be nice to turn everything back to normal in a heartbeat, but the pandemic is real and happening and it hasn't gone anywhere and it's getting worse.

AUSTIN: Do you have any concerns about the ability of the Wagner’s Wellcamp Airport to take jets and process people in any physical capacity? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the planes don’t fly there, they fly to Brisbane.

AUSTIN: No, but they could. I mean, frankly, international freight planes fly there now.

PRIME MINISTER: But no, but the airlines [inaudible], and this is one of the other problems with that proposal. It's not where the planes fly. We already have facilities that enable us to bring charters in. But for normal commercial flights, where we need that capacity, this is why the Victorian proposal is a far superior one. It's actually in Melbourne, close, you know, it’s within proximity to the hospital.


PRIME MINISTER: It enables you to attract workforce, to that proposal. And the other thing I'd stress is people in Toowoomba don't want it either. The community has not been brought on board with this proposal. They're not on board with it. And where we've worked with the Northern Territory Government - Michael Gunner worked with us, he went out there directly and got the Northern Territory community on board for the Howard Springs facility. So, you know, I'm working really well with the states and territories, but they have a role in actually bringing things forward that are in a position to be considered. And when that can happen, well, maybe they should, they can look at how the Victorian proposal worked out and that might assist them.

AUSTIN: My guest is Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison. So the Gladstone proposal didn't get up, you don't like the Toowoomba proposal, some time ago I spoke with your counterpart Warren Entsch in North Queensland. He wanted Cairns to be considered an international quarantine hub. Did he ever raise that with your office or raise that?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well we pursued whether there would be hotel quarantine that would be run out of Cairns, where international flights were coming into Cairns, and the Queensland Government did not want to do that.

AUSTIN: So there's three different options, all for international quarantine hubs and all of them have been rejected.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Cairns one that the Queensland Government didn’t want to do, hotel quarantine in Cairns. I'm not criticising them for that. That was just that, they looked at where they had their workforce and how they could work that. I think the Queensland Government with hotel quarantine, which has a 99 per cent effectiveness rate, has been, you know, done extremely well. And I think they're testing and tracing regime here in Queensland is also very good. So I'm not making criticisms of how they've been managing it. They’ll make calls based on the health advice and I respect that. But equally, when it comes to other quarantine facilities, the hotel quarantine facilities have been very effective. And we will look at comprehensive proposals with states and territories, and as we are already doing in other states, where they’ve been able to work with us rather than seek to negotiate things through the media.

AUSTIN: Whenever I speak with business they express concern that they can't get hold of the skilled workers they need. This doesn't sound like they're going to be able to get skilled workers any time soon, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think you'll, you'll see over the next sort of six months or so, and you'll see further solutions being brought to bear there. We just keep dealing with this problem one step at a time. That's what you do in the pandemic. There's no magic answer. It doesn't turn up, you know, tomorrow afternoon. You just keep working the problem, as we have been, and let's remind ourselves of these. Here in Australia we are living like no other country, almost, in the world.


PRIME MINISTER: People are back in jobs. Businesses have been maintained. 

AUSTIN: Yes, we're very fortunate. I agree.

PRIME MINISTER: [Inaudible] had 910 deaths from COVID. It could have been 30,000 more.

AUSTIN: Yes. No, I agree, we’re ...

PRIME MINISTER: … That has been as a result of the decisions we've taken together, backing Australians. The HomeBuilder programme, there's another one. 120,000 applications, $2.7 billion of support, which is unleashing up to $39 billion in investments in residential housing by, including by first homeowners, which is at its highest level in 11 years. So we're making our way through this and we'll keep doing that and we'll get there by working together.

AUSTIN: Yeah, I agree we’re very, very fortunate. One final question. In today's Australian newspaper, which I understand you read, it's been written that Australia is one of the only countries in the world failing to publicly report the number of people who are fully vaccinated. Why is this?

PRIME MINISTER: We release our vaccination numbers every day, every single day, and we've got 13 per cent of the country …

AUSTIN: ... Fully vaccinated? ...

PRIME MINISTER: … of the adult, of the adult population that we've been able to achieve those doses, first doses with, and we're pleased about achieving that. And in addition to that, we're about 85, more than 85 per cent of the way through the residential aged care facilities. We release additional information on the Monday morning, which also goes into state allocations and vaccination rates across the population. We’ve still got a long way to go on the vaccination program. We’ll still keep releasing all of that information every single day.

AUSTIN: So we do report publicly the number of people who are fully vaccinated. That’s what’s happening - number one and number two vaccine?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you can see that on the aged care figures we release every …

AUSTIN: … Okay, great ... 

PRIME MINISTER: … the aged care figures we release, how many people have had first doses and how many people have had second doses.

AUSTIN: Alright. Well, that’s the last time I'll trust The Australian newspaper. Finally, Scott Morrison, how much longer you going to be here in Brisbane? 

PRIME MINISTER: I'm heading, I’m heading [inaudible] I’ve been, I got up to Gladstone on Sunday and we've been here around Brisbane for the last couple of days, which has been great. I’m looking forward to coming back soon.

AUSTIN: Thanks for your time. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Steve. Cheers.