Topics: Funding for Wildlife Parks, Zoos and Aquariums; Potential Travel Bubble with New Zealand; China’s Economic Coercion Threat
Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our Government’s number one priority has been the public health and wellbeing of Australians, to suppress the spread of COVID-19 to save lives. And we remain very pleased with the support of Australians through our initiatives to do that and the way in which they are embracing social distancing, accepting restrictions and indeed, downloading the new COVIDSafe app in huge numbers. Of course, we’ve also recognised associated with those restrictions are enormous economic costs on parts of Australia. First and foremost, there, our response has been about protecting the jobs of Australians where we can. Our huge multi-billion-dollar investment in the JobKeeper program has provided wage subsidies to around 6 million potential Australian recipients, huge investment keeping Australians connected to their jobs. We’ve also provided billions of dollars in support for small businesses and other services. But as we then look at some of the very particular sectoral impacts that are felt, we recognise that whether it’s exporters, fisheries or other sectors, there are some additional impacts they are facing in relation to COVID-19. And today we’re announcing $94 million of support for Australia’s exhibiting zoos and aquariums because they face particular unique circumstances that warrant additional support.
They’re already eligible for the JobKeeper program to support the wages of their staff, but they also happen to house tens of thousands of animals and fish species who can cost tens of thousands of dollars each to feed and care for each and every year. It’s just not acceptable in a country like Australia for us to leave the animals in our zoos or aquariums without food, without veterinary support, without the type of care that Australia would expect them to receive. That’s why we’re stepping forward with this $94 million package to ensure the animals get the food they need, they get the care they need, they get the veterinary support they need and ideally that some of the research into threatened species and other things that our zoos and aquariums do can manage to continue into the future.
Around Australia some 20 million paying visitors visit zoos annually, but right now those 20 million people aren’t paying and they aren’t visiting and that’s lost revenue to zoos and aquariums across Australia. And that’s why we have to step in and fill that gap to make sure the animals get the care they need and the zoos remain open and viable. Here in South Australia, and I’m thrilled to be joined by the CEO of Zoos SA today Elaine Bensted, here in South Australia, zoos attract around 700,000 paying visitors, who again, at present can’t pass through the turnstiles, aren’t making those payments to visit the zoos and that means the zoos are going without revenue that would otherwise be used to pay for care and welfare of the animals that are there. This is important for our tourism industry because so often zoos and aquariums form the central core as an attraction of a tourism ecosystem in a region. Up in Far North Queensland, around Cairns, the Cairns Aquarium is so central as part of the experience that visitors have and those visitors go there, visit the aquarium and while they’re there, spend money in hotels, restaurants and on other attractions. The same can be said on the Gold Coast we see the major theme parks, including those such as Sea World care for many animals, a central part of the economy in the region of the Gold Coast and again, we want to see the support flow through there. And from there you can travel right through regional Australia, places like Dubbo, Monarto in South Australia, Kangaroo Island, right around Australia there are so many regions who depend upon zoos and aquariums to be able to sustain their tourism industry. We want to make sure those businesses can open effectively when the time comes.
Question: Can you just clarify – so it’s wildlife parks and aquariums and zoos. How many of them is there in Australia that this fund will go towards?
Simon Birmingham: So we estimate that there are more than 100 facilities who will be eligible across zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks. And we’ve been working with the Zoos Association to structure this payment so that it’s commensurate upon the costs and the impacts of different businesses. Obviously different zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums have different numbers of animals and species that they’re caring for, each coming with different cost structures and in the case of aquariums in particular, or some of the zoo exhibits catering for reptiles or other animals, there are additional on costs in terms of their heating or cooling or the water filtration, for all of those factors that add to the fixed cost base of these wildlife reserve and these aquariums.
Question: So when you say eligible, do zoos and aquariums, like businesses have to apply and do they say how much they want and that’s worked out or?
Simon Birmingham: So we will have Austrade working with the Zoos Association to be able to structure a program that makes it clear in terms of the bands of funding that the different facilities will be able to receive based upon the analysis that we get working with industry of what the costs for each of those facilities are. This isn’t going to in any way to cover the lost revenue that these facilities have, but it will hopefully make sure that they can provide the basic care, treatment and welfare for the animals in their care.
Question: So none of that money can go towards staff [indistinct]…? For some of the smaller, like say like a wildlife park or something like that. Can they put it towards staff or?
Simon Birmingham: The small business payments are there to support the viability of small businesses. The JobKeeper payments are there to support wage subsidies for staff and this payment will be there to support the food and basic veterinary area and other treatment and care for the animals.
Question: For some zoos, say like Taronga Zoo in Sydney and probably here as well, some enclosures can cost up to half a million dollars or more to look after for a year; how long do you expect this payment? Will there be more money available and how long do you expect it to sort of last because we don’t know how long the zoos are going to be closed for.
Simon Birmingham: The payment’s being made available for a six-month period. It will be an initial payment of three months at which time we’ll then be taking a look at what the restrictions in place are and how that is impacting on the zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums, and then a further three months made available, assuming there is still need for it at that time in terms of the revenue downturns they face. We’ve always said as a government throughout this that our response is going to be targeted, proportionate, time limited and we’ll continue to assess need against that criteria as it goes on. I am hopeful that given the successful restraint that we’re seeing from Australians and the success Australia is having in slowing the rate of spread of COVID-19 that perhaps some of the outdoor attractions like wildlife parks and zoos might be able to welcome visitors back again at some point over the next few months. It’s not going to happen instantly and we need to support them during the difficult days that still lie ahead.
Question: That’s my next question for you. Obviously, spaces like this are outdoors. Do you sort of plan and hope that they will be some of the first to open? I mean, we’re seeing the downturn in numbers. How much longer have we got until they do open again?
Simon Birmingham: Everything we’re doing as a government is about following the health advice to keep Australians safe, first and foremost, and that has worked incredibly well in Australia to date. We’re going to stick with it. Logically, places where social distancing can occur in a reasonable way, in a well-regulated way, and where people are in a more outdoor environment that provides a lower risk, those types of places you would expect to be earlier in the stage of reopening. So I’m hopeful that wildlife parks, that zoos, may well be able to open their doors perhaps before some other indoor attractions can do so. And even in this announcement, there are of course businesses who will be treated potentially differently as a result of that. That aquariums may not be able to open at the same time as a wildlife park, and so we’ll have to respond to that as we go through the policy decisions to come.
Question: And in terms of tourism, a lot of these places rely on those visitor numbers and a lot of international, how do you think they’re going to survive the next six months if we do keep our borders closed not only here in SA, but international borders as well? I mean, like it’s a huge impact.
Simon Birmingham: The impact on so many of our tourism attractions is enormous as a result of the shutdown of travel and other restrictions associated with COVID-19. That’s why we’re spending, as a government, $320 billion in economic support to make sure that we provide financial assistance to small and medium-sized businesses, wage subsidies to business right across the economy, targeted assistance such as visitors’ package to make sure that we sustain the capacity within the Australian economy so that when we reopen, we’ve got those critical capabilities still there.
We’ve said all along it’s not going to be possible to save every single business and every single job, but the economic response of the Australian Government has been world leading in global terms, comprehensive in its reach across the economy, and we’re confident that it will sustain the critical capabilities of our economy to be able to bounce back once restrictions are lifted.
Question: And just one other- how essential are the theme parks to Queensland [inaudible]…?
Simon Birmingham: Queensland is Australia’s global tourism mecca in many ways. We know that the theme parks of the Gold Coast and many other attractions across Queensland are huge drivers to international visitation. This sort of support for Gold Coast theme parks along with all of the other payments made available should help those businesses to survive the tough days ahead and to reopen and bring visitors back to the Gold Coast so that they’re able to bring more people into restaurants, into hotels and businesses right across the coast.
Question: And just wanted your opinion as well on there was talk about a travel bubble, New Zealand and Australia. Just your thoughts on that too and is that something that could boost our economy in the short term?
Simon Birmingham: First and foremost, Australians are likely to see the ability to travel within their own state and then perhaps an easing of interstate borders. So, we need to look at this as very much a staged approach in terms of what is likely to occur. So travel within your own state first, travel across state borders second. And then, in terms of international restrictions, if there’s one country that we might be able to have unique travel arrangements with before the rest of the world, well, it probably is New Zealand. They, like us doing, are doing an incredibly good job of suppressing the spread of COVID-19 and broadly eliminating it in some parts. And so, hopefully, we might be in a position to work together but that’s still some way off.
Question: Minister you confirmed earlier today that the head of DFAT, Frances Adamson, had called the Chinese Ambassador to discuss some recent comments he’d made. What was involved in that discussion, Minister?
Simon Birmingham: The Government is disappointed with the statements by the Chinese Ambassador. They were inappropriate in terms of suggesting or intimating that there is potentially some form of economic coercion that China might seek to apply to Australia. Australia makes our public policy decisions, particularly in matters of health and national security, based on the best interests of Australians and the safety and wellbeing of Australians, and we will not deviate from those policy positions under any threat of economic coercion or anything else.
Question: Did the head of DFAT express displeasure with the Chinese Ambassador?
Simon Birmingham: The Government has made our displeasure with those remarks known. Our policy positions are clear. They’re based on public health principles. Let’s be honest here. COVID-19 has seen hundreds of thousands of people die around the world. Millions of people lose their jobs. Billions of people face massive disruption to their lives. The least the world can expect is a transparent inquiry into the causes of COVID-19 so that we can understand how best to prevent a repeat episode any time in the future.
Question: Is there a case here that the ambassador should be recalled or, perhaps, called in for a meeting with the Foreign Minister?
Simon Birmingham: The Government’s made our views known and what we want to do now is get on with the response to COVID-19, which is firstly keeping Australians safe and secure and secondly helping to secure the Australian economy; but is also then very much making sure that the world learns the lessons of COVID-19 and responds in a way where we can minimise the risk of such a pandemic being repeated any time into the future.
Question: But there is a precedent for ambassadors being called in – we saw it with the Russian ambassador a few years ago. I mean, is there a case here for the Chinese ambassador to be called in for a meeting with the Foreign Minister?
Simon Birmingham: The Government has made our views known and made them clear and we will continue to advocate for there to be a transparent global inquiry into the cause and management of COVID-19 so that we can minimise the risk of a repeat in the future. And we want to work with every country in terms of the application of such an inquiry and we would hope that China, like any other country around the world, would see the merits in understanding how the world can be better prepared in the future to prevent and manage any such outbreak were one to occur again.
Question: Thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.