• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID-19 impacts on Northern Queensland;
16 March 2020

Warren Entsch: Well first of all, thanks for being here. I want to thank the Minister for taking the time to be here, at a time which is very, very challenging and of course a lot of uncertainty around particularly our whole business community- our whole community and that, and of course here with Mark Olsen from TTNQ as well. I spoke to the Minister only very recently and given the- our need here for- our reliance on tourism for support that we have a look and he has a look himself at what’s happening on the ground. The fact that you’re here today and this is your first- we’re the first cab off the rank, I’ve got to say, thank you very much indeed. And we’ve had a couple of meetings so far with TTNQ and with operators, and the messages are very, very clear on- and of course, there’s a great deal of concern of what we do in the short term future and how we deal with it and how we offer support for business.

So thank you very much indeed for being here, Minister. I’m going to step aside now. At the end of the day, I think it’s important that you share your views. So please, if you could.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Entschy. And thank you very much for organising, along with TTNQ, for me to have the chance to speak with so many local businesses today and to get a broad and full understanding hopefully of just the scale of impact that is being felt here around Tropical North Queensland as a result of the coronavirus. These are completely unprecedented circumstances that we are all confronting at present because of the coronavirus. As a federal government, our plan first and foremost is to slow the spread of the virus to save the lives of more Australians. And that public health consideration of slowing the spread so that we save lives has to be the paramount consideration in everything we do.

However, we are also extraordinarily mindful of the fact that there are deep economic impacts associated with the many measures that are being taken around the world to try to slow and contain the spread of coronavirus. What we’re seeing is businesses facing unprecedented stress as a result of loss of business, loss of custom, collapsing demand driven by a whole range of different factors. And so that’s why last week we stepped up with a $17.6 billion economic response to the coronavirus to try to help see businesses through these tough times and to try to save as many jobs as we possibly could. That economic response is centred around making sure that we help businesses through it, through payments that will come through the tax system of between two and $25,000 per small and medium sized business to help them survive, to help them keep staff on the books. Cash payments that are going to flow through to pensioners and other Australians helps stimulate economic demand. Other tax and incentive measures to try to kick investment along where we possibly can, but critically we also recognise that some parts of Australia and some parts of our economy are going to be doing it tougher than others through these incredibly difficult times. That’s why a $1 billion was set aside as part of the $17.6 billion response, for me to administer as the Trade and Tourism Minister, to be able to target additional assistance to the regions and sectors that are feeling the pain most.

Transparently, Tropical North Queensland and the tourism industry are sectors feeling it disproportionately as a result of the coronavirus, having felt the economic impacts earliest of all of our different parts of the economy, and likely to feel it the longest and deepest. So today we’ve been speaking with dozens of local businesses to not only understand the depth of pain and severity of losses they’re currently suffering, but to try to get ideas from them as to how we can best target additional support into this region to try to see the communities and businesses through it.

As a federal government, we know the response is going to have to be ongoing in terms of the economic measures as well as the health measures. This won’t be limited only to what happened last week, but we will work from now through until the federal budget to make sure that not only is that $17.6 billion spent and invested wisely to save as many businesses and jobs as possible, but also that we look at what else is going to be necessary in the future to see everyone through what is going to be a long and challenging period.

But the one other thing I want to say is that while we deal with the survival of businesses and regions because of coronavirus, we’re also not losing sight of the fact there will be a time for recovery. And we also need to plan to make sure that our key tourism assets, our key tourism businesses, are still here, still viable and that when the recovery opportunities present themselves, we do everything we can to get visitors back as quickly as possible so that regions bounce back from this terrible tragedy that we’re facing across our health and economic landscapes at present.

Mark Olsen: So on behalf of the tourism industry for the region, we’re grateful to Warren for inviting the Minister here. So glad that he’s here to see firsthand just how important tourism is to our region. We know that one in five jobs here in the Tropical North is directly reliant on tourism. The impact that we’ll see from the decisions over the weekend will be immediate and they will be sustained. So we need the support that has been offered and we’re grateful for the support that’s already being offered. The stimulus is both immediate and substantial. But we know that we have already seen a $300 million impact on our industry. One in five jobs are reliant on the tourism business, and we know that over the next six months we’ll see probably in addition to a billion dollars’ worth of impact, impacting on thousands of jobs here in our community. So with the industry this morning, we’ve asked the Minister for continued support, firstly to look after the people who are employed today to provide flexibility for businesses, to respond to the immediate situation, to look at how we maintain the diversity of businesses here in our region with loans and support in the mid-term, and as the Minister quite clearly said, we need to be ready to respond, to invite the world back to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef when the time is right.

Question: Minister what ideas came out of this mornings’ meeting that you’ll be considering [inaudible] for the $1 billion regions fund?

Simon Birmingham: So, businesses have raised a range of ideas- lessons from way back in terms of assistance that flowed in relation to Cyclone Larry and support that existed then to help sustain jobs through to investment in early available infrastructure projects, the type of assistance necessary as well to make sure that we get flights back when the time is right. So, certainly business is very engaged on measures to help generate and stimulate economic activity immediately, such as those infrastructure measures, support measures for business that can help them pay wage bills and keep staff on line, but also then the measures that will be necessary to get planes back, get visitors back, and when we do reach that recovery stage.

Warren Entsch: Also included- can I just say, also making sure that there’s support for those staff- those staff, particularly the casual staff, et cetera, that are basically losing their jobs pretty much straight away. So there was a concern- a lot of the issues that were raised were serious concerns from businesses about the impacts on the staff, and that really drove it home quite hard, didn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, it- look, the care that local businesses are showing for their employees was commendable and demonstrates- you know, they, of course, would desperately want to keep as many people on the books as they can, but where they can’t, they want to know the Government is going to step up and do its job of supporting people with quick, easy access to Newstart payments and the like. We’re very cognisant of that as a government and I can assure everyone that we are looking to make sure the processes are as simple and easy for people as possible where they need help to be able to access that help to sustain them and their families.

Question: One of the initial responses to this crisis was to ramp up marketing for tourism to the area. But is the Government, I guess, cognisant of some of the risks of attracting more tourists to Far North Queensland at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Obviously, international marketing now is in a circumstance where we’re no longer driving marketing campaigns that seek to sell the product in the here and now because obviously, people aren’t making bookings, have difficulty travelling, face quarantine periods when they get here. We will maintain some presence in international markets about the long term, how we make sure we drive that intention and desire of people to still visit Australia when it’s all over, and that’s an important thing because travel decisions internationally are long-term decisions and we want to maintain that aspiration, that desire, for Australia to be people’s next holiday destination in the future.

In the domestic market, again, you’re seeing people pull back to some degree from a willingness to book and to travel and so we have to be mindful of that as to how we target investment as well. But we do still want to encourage people, where it’s safe to do so, where they’re following the medical advice, to get out and about. There are currently no restrictions in terms of public health advice on domestic travel and we would encourage people to make sure that they can and do go out and support local businesses where they can, if they still buy a meal, that they still engage in the local community, but do so within the boundaries of those public health advice warnings. So, if you are older or in an at-risk category, follow the advice that’s there. If you are concerned that there might be health problems, please stay home and practice the type of social distancing practices that are being advised. But if you can, get out there and support a local business because you might be helping that business just to survive or saving somebody’s job.

Question: A billion dollars – is the Government confident that it will be enough? And when will they sort of decide whether they need to tap into more funding to help businesses?

Simon Birmingham: Sadly, there will be business failures and there are already job losses, and the Government can’t stop or save all of those jobs or businesses on the way through. But we are investing, in record, some $17.6 billion dollars overall, $1 billion, targeted on top- or within that specifically to trade and tourism exposed sectors, and we want to help save as many businesses as we can. And we’ve said very clearly that if there are further measures that need to be taken, they will be taken. We’ve got the budget coming up in May, but if we need to do things sooner, we will.

Question: [Inaudible]… how do you imagine that being sort of rolled out?

Simon Birmingham: So, businesses, small and medium sized businesses, are already going to receive automatic payments depending on the size of their payroll of between $2000 and $25,000. So, that direct assistance is going to flow through to those businesses as well as a range of other spending and tax incentives we are pumping into the economy.

In terms of distribution of the $1 billion fund, that’s exactly why I’m talking to local businesses today to understand how that can be targeted and delivered most effectively. TTNQ are going to continue that consultation urgently with their members to refine the list of asks, to make sure that we get the best most informed advice of whether it is drought-style disaster recovery payments, or whether there are other ways, such as the type of wage subsidies that came about during Cyclone Larry, or any other type of measures that, as I say, can help save businesses, help save jobs and help to stimulate the local economy as best we can through these tough times.

Question: I guess, how frustrating is it for regions like Townsville, who’ve built this beautiful stadium in anticipation of so many NRL games, and now that this has all really been thrown to the wind basically.

Simon Birmingham: There’s going to be plenty of pain right around Australia and especially in those regions that are more heavily reliant on tourism industries for their survival. But we do have to remind everybody as well that infrastructure investments in assets that have been built are still going to be crucial for the future. There will be another side to this crisis once we get through it. And get through it, we will. Australia has one of the best public health systems in the world. We have a balance sheet as a federal government that we spent six years preparing to be able to deal with crises of the future. And now whilst we didn’t foresee or expect a crisis this deep, this long-lasting and this profound, in the end, we are still better placed than most other countries economically to get through it, as well as in terms of our health system. And we are committed to get the community through this, and when we come to the other side to make sure we rebound as quickly as possible, seize those tourism markets back again, come back stronger where we possibly can, and make sure that those critical pieces of infrastructure and assets are utilised and enjoyed by the community in the future.

Thanks guys.