• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Tourism and border restrictions, Australia-China relations.
03 September 2020

Kieran Gilbert: Joining me now is the Minister for Trade and Tourism Simon Birmingham. The PM making a big focus to wrap up Parliament this week on the borders and wanting the states to come to the table. How much is the closure of the state borders costing the domestic tourism industry right now?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, it’s costing billions of dollars, and the longer it goes on where it is unnecessary — and we absolutely accept that in cases like Victoria right now it is necessary — but the longer a disproportionate or unwarranted closure is extended [indistinct], the more businesses are in peril. And these are the things that we want to avoid. It’s why we ask the states and territories to come to the table with an open mind, a willingness to engage constructively around the definitions of hotspots. We don’t expect major breakthroughs to occur tomorrow, but what we do want is the states and territories to desist from blanket approaches applied indefinitely into the future and instead to come and look at the evidence and think about how they can best act in a way that will save jobs across communities, save businesses, and better ensure the economic recovery in their communities is a success.

Kieran Gilbert: It must disappoint you, then, to hear what Mark McGowan has said today that he’s told the Prime Minister he won’t be lifting the borders, not before the end of the year.

Simon Birmingham: I think that is disappointing. You take a look at a situation like WA, adjacent to a state like South Australia. Both of them have enormous success in terms of suppressing COVID-19. None of them have recorded a new case for many, many days. There is no reason why those two jurisdictions cannot safely be open to one another. No rational justification at all. The Prime Minister initiated a call with Premier McGowan today, and it was a conversation in which the PM simply sought to seek engagement. And it’s all that we ask of each of the premiers and chief ministers to engage in the process…

Kieran Gilbert: You say there’s no rational justification, I’ll give you one. The front page of The West Australian today is [indistinct] ninety-two per cent, so it’s proving popular. That’s his justification.

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, I’d ask the Premier and all of those who might respond in that way to an opinion poll to think about the workers at the airport, the workers in the airlines, the workers in the rental car companies, the workers in the tour operators, all of those people whose jobs are in peril because of a decision there. Now the tourism industry in general has been a necessary victim, if you like, of border restrictions and shut downs as one way to contain the spread. But we see across certainly six out of eight Australian jurisdictions, and New South Wales doing an incredible job and arguably a seventh. We see the success in suppressing the spread of COVID. We see nearly all of those six jurisdictions being in a virtually identical position of hardly having any cases at all.

Kieran Gilbert: But it is popular, isn’t it? So if the Premier’s got that sort of survey showing the vast majority of his constituents want him to continue, what else is he meant to do?

Simon Birmingham: But the surveys also show that Premier Berejiklian is popular, and she has maintained open borders. The surveys show that Premier Marshall has continued to be popular as he’s open South Australia up to WA to the Northern Territory to Queensland and to Tasmania. This isn’t a partisan thing. I would say exactly the same thing about the Tasmanian Government, an economy that is even more tourism dependent than WA’s or even Queensland’s. Each of these state leaders do [indistinct] the long term in terms of the viability of businesses. The longer they face this suffering, the more those businesses are in peril of failure. And then if they fail, the rebuild is so much harder.

Kieran Gilbert: What do you say then to the WA Treasurer and the Queensland Treasurer who made the point that their states with the hard border closures are not a drag on the economy because their economies did not contract as much as some of those other states that have been more affected by the COVID crisis?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve only seen the data up to the June quarter this year. And so the fact that these states are continuing closures beyond the June quarter, here we are well into the September quarter now. And of course they’re threatening some of them to continue it through to the end of this year and into next year. All of those different parts of the tourism and travel sector that I cited before, they’re all bleeding and suffering. And I heard much complaining at the start of the year about the need to make sure we have viable domestic airlines in this country. I’m very pleased that the Virgin administration process saw somebody come along invest in that airline and restructure it for the future. But I tell you what, both of those airlines are under enormous crippling pressure the longer this uncertainty drags on. Neither of them planned the sorts of border restrict to last this long.

Kieran Gilbert: Premier Palaszczuk, on the tourism industry, she’s in north Queensland at the moment campaigning for re-election. She says the tourism industry, they’re very concerned about JobKeeper running out. That was a very constant theme from a number of operators, very, very concerned about that. That’s what she said about the tourism industry. Isn’t that a bit rich given that the Federal Government’s providing the JobKeeper support and that is being used as a prop in order for the Premier and other premiers to be able to keep their states shut?

Simon Birmingham: The comments are incredibly rich. The Federal Government is extending JobKeeper all the way out until March next year to provide that certainty. But think about the situation in North Queensland, heavily tourism dependent economy. Think about people here in the Australian Capital Territory where we are, there have been no recorded COVID cases in the ACT for more than 50 days. None at all. And yet there is still a ban on people going from Canberra to holiday in Cairns. What is the justification when you’ve got such a prolonged period of zero cases at all? What possible threat can do Canberrans pose to people in Far North Queensland? And I know that those business operators there-

Kieran Gilbert: So is it time to remove JobKeeper, remove JobKeeper from those states that are not cooperating? Why doesn’t the Commonwealth do that?

Simon Birmingham: Well because, Kieran, we recognise that there are some parts that will continue to face pain as a result of the international border restrictions, as a result of social distancing restrictions. So we’ve built JobKeeper in a way that deals with all of the different pressure points that exist. But there is no doubt that some of the states and territories are at risk of taking advantage of the generosity of the JobKeeper program by allowing it to flow in ways into their states and territories because of the maintenance of restrictions that make it harder for businesses who want to get back to work, to get back to work in a timely manner.

Kieran Gilbert: I want to play you a comment. This was the WA Tourism Minister today. Let’s have a look and then I’ll get your reaction.


Paul Papalia: …experience attractions that are world class are drawing people from all over the world normally but we’ve got it all to ourselves right now.

Unidentified Speaker: Any question for the ministers before I come back?

Paul Papalia: Tourism? Have a go at Simon Birmingham? No?

[End of excerpt]

Kieran Gilbert: The WA Tourism Minister there, saying he’s willing to have a crack. I know light hearted but is it a bit of hubris coming out of a state which is keeping the border, the hard border shut, and as you said, industry, tourism industry absolutely copping it right now?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’d invite the Minister, to come and meet me at the WA-SA border. Talk to some of those small communities there who rely upon cross-border traffic, whether they be on the South Australian side or the WA side. They’re not seeing the caravaners, the road trippers, all of those people travelling the Nullarbor who traditionally sustain those small towns and those businesses. And they’re not seeing it not because of a decision of the SA Government. The SA Government has said: well, we may have done a great job suppressing COVID. We recognise WA has too, so we’ve opened the border up. They’re not seeing the traffic because they can’t go back into WA afterwards, and that’s the problem. So, I’d say to the Minister there: don’t show the hubris, actually come and listen to the real individual examples. I was in Ceduna just a couple of weeks ago. I’ve heard from those operators.

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s talk about China briefly. You’ve got to get back to Parliament. But are you worried about this spiralling trade crisis now affecting barley? But when you’ve got say anti-dumping measures in place, you can contest them as an exporter with the World Trade Organisation. The safety option like they’ve declared by the Chinese Customs, they can destroy the product basically at the port, and you don’t have that same appeal opportunity. This is a very dangerous development, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: So Australia takes our biosecurity standards incredibly seriously. We’re a country that has strict standards when it comes to importing into Australia, but we also apply strict standards on behalf of other countries in terms of the testing and monitoring of products that leaves our country as well. And my understanding is that, in relation to the barley products that have been in question, is that there have been different tests undertaken and they demonstrate still that we have, as you would expect, standards being met that should be accepted right around the world. Now, the Department of Agriculture will work through those particular issues around that particular product and that case for that company [indistinct] Chinese authorities-

Kieran Gilbert: Is it economic coercion? Is this economic coercion we’re seeing?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, as I’ve said before, nothing is gained by merely trying to put motivations of other countries into their actions. It’s for them to defend and explain their motivations. From our perspective, we will give all help to our exporters to make sure that if there are issues, they work through addressing them and that we assist them in terms of the representations that they need to make, or that our authorities need to make, to Chinese counterparts.

Kieran Gilbert: And finally, have you got any more information on the detention of Cheng Lei? And do you think it is related to those broader bilateral issues?

Simon Birmingham: So I’m not aware of there being any further update from what was advised earlier this week, which was of course in relation to the detention that had occurred, the consular access that the Australian Government has had to date, and of course, the ongoing assistance that we are providing. And again noting that her family have indicated that they fully engaged in the process that is occurring in relation to China and they’re asking for privacy and also asking for restraint in relation to public commentary.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay. Well we’ll leave it at that. Thank you Minister. Appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Kieran. My pleasure.