• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Building Trade Relations with India.
26 February 2020

Deborah Knight: Yeah, the elephants, they belong in India which is where we find Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham. He’s currently in India for a series of events and meetings and he’s promoting relations between the two countries. And you might have seen stories too about a new Amazon platform allowing Indian shoppers to get their hands on Aussie products, things like Vegemite, which is good to see. He’s also about to announce a major funding boost to encourage tourism to Australia. But the big issue of course on everyone’s minds right now is coronavirus. It’s continuing its spread around the world, and he’s the minister responsible for Trade and Tourism in Australia, I’m sure he’s got a lot on his mind about this, particularly given the huge outbreak of the virus in other countries like Japan and South Korea.

And I’m pleased to say that Simon Birmingham is with us now. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Deb. Namaste.

Deborah Knight: Namaste. There you go. Now you’re in India to boost trade and tourism relations between the two countries, but are you turning your focus to India because you are realising that we- we’re over reliant on China here?

Simon Birmingham: Deb, we’re here implementing strategies that had already long been developed well before anybody had ever heard of coronavirus. Our government commissioned an India Economic Strategy a number of years ago and it recommended that we ought to undertake more of these type of activities. What we’re doing here is the Australia-India Business Exchange – more than 130 different business, education sector, tourism sector leaders who are here. It’s giving us the chance to fan out across six targeted Indian cities. I’m in Mumbai today, I was in Delhi yesterday. I think that both cities have populations basically as big as Australia’s entire population.

So the market potential here as India grows and its middle class grows, Australia’s economy is incredibly complementary. Our resources and energy are powering the needs of India to grow its industry and its manufacturing base. Our education and skills training is helping to upskill Indian students for higher skilled jobs in the future. And of course, our quality food and produce is all incredibly well-placed to serve a growing middle class here.

Deborah Knight: And that growing middle class is out there visiting the world. What are you doing to try to bring more tourists to Australia from India?

Simon Birmingham: The tourism market is really growing strongly between Australia and India – it sits right alongside and in partnership with our education sector. Yesterday we had a roundtable of airlines that operate out of India that was convened by the Tourism Australia Board and myself to pitch very strongly to them about the need for increased direct services between Australia and India, as well as of course greater connectivity through key ports like Singapore and Malaysia through into Australia from India.

We’re committing a significant marketing campaign around the T20 World Cup cricket matches – of course, the Women’s underway already. We’ve added $5 million extra in last year’s budget to market sales into Australia for the T20 World Cup. We’re complementing- supplementing that with an extra $1 million that we’re announcing on this visit, because we’ve already seen some 40,000 tickets sold into the Indian market and we’re determined to make sure that we get as many Indian travelers into Australia as part of those World Cup events.

Deborah Knight: Which is all welcomed. Obviously, we need the visitors, we need the dollars to be spent here in Australia, and with the spread of coronavirus coming on top of the bushfires, which we know the impact is going to be immense- is already immense. Why is it that the government isn’t already providing financial help for- or stimulus package even for industries directly impacted by coronavirus? Because we know they’re hurting already from the bushfires and this on top of it means that many are really going down to the wire.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Deb, there’s one part of the approach which we are firmly doing and there’s another part which is just impractical to do. And we are absolutely helping Australia’s tourism industry by changing all of our marketing approaches and investing record sums. We already had a record budget for Tourism Australia. We’ve put a surge of an extra $76 million into that, for this year alone, to make sure that we can run stronger domestic marketing campaigns encouraging Australians to holiday at home this year, to spread out across Australia. And the best thing Australians who are concerned about jobs and small businesses within a tourism industry can do is to make a booking. Make a booking for a long weekend, for a school holiday trip, to get out and see our country and support. [Indistinct].

Deborah Knight: But will you provide financial assistance to businesses who are hurting?

Simon Birmingham: In general terms, that’s the other part that of course people talk about, but we have to look at this as being so widespread, Deb. It is, yes, hurting some regions more than others and we are making sure our tourism marketing efforts focus in on those regions such as Far North Queensland or the Gold Coast, for example, that have higher proportions of Chinese visitors..

Deborah Knight: And they need financial help. Will you give them?

Simon Birmingham: The downturn- Deb, the downturn is not though just in those tourism businesses. Seafood industry is feeling the squeeze. Our wine industry is feeling the squeeze. Our education sector is feeling the squeeze. Government can’t simply hand money out to businesses because customers dry up. What we are trying to do is to help those businesses by generating alternate customers, alternate markets, and to try and get them through these tough times.

Deborah Knight: What about a travel ban? Because we know that the number of cases of coronavirus has vastly increased in South Korea, also in Japan. We’ve also got the travel ban in place right now for China. Will you consider extending that travel ban to other countries?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve acted every step of the way on the advice of our public health officials. It’s not for politicians to second guess these things. It’s for us to listen to the public health officials’ health advice.

Deborah Knight: Is it being considered as an option?

Simon Birmingham: The National Security Committee of Cabinet continues to meet on at least a weekly basis to consider all the options that are necessary there. But we are also getting an understanding, more information, about the coronavirus in terms of its impact on health, and we have to assess all of that as it’s been presented by those health officials. So I wouldn’t want to pre-empt what will occur there. There have been some updated advisories in relation to Australians travelling to some of those regions, such as parts of northern Italy, and we’ll continue to make sure we do that based on the advice of our health officials.

Deborah Knight: And how worried are you by this? Because on a personal level, you’re in India at the moment. You’re travelling as part of your job. We’ve got people here in Australia watching these cases go through the roof. It’s not slowing down. Are you concerned by coronavirus?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think, firstly, Australians should have absolute confidence that you should go about your normal business in Australia. You should travel with confidence in Australia. Every measure we’ve taken to date has been a success in terms of containment strategies within Australia, and we are making sure that we keep everything safe and secure for Australians based on that health advice. Yes, I’m in India and I’ll be hopping on flights eventually to come back home over the coming days.

Look, I think Australians do need to also be mindful that whilst this is a public health problem – and that’s the reason we’ve taken all of these actions – it is in no way as lethal as, for example, SARS or MERS previously. Now, that’s not to say we don’t take it seriously. Clearly, we do or we wouldn’t take steps. But we do also need to keep it in some perspective and avoid a sense of mass panic in terms of overreaction when it comes to doing business with other parts of the world that are so important to our current economic situation and our long-term prosperity.

Deborah Knight: And let’s hope you can drum up as much trade as possible while you’re there. Simon Birmingham, we thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Deb. Thanks so much for the time.

Deborah Knight: Minister for Trade and Tourism Simon Birmingham joining us on the line from India.