• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID-19 impacts on tourism industry;
17 March 2020

Angie Bell: Well we’re here at The Star, Gold Coast today, hosting a roundtable for the Minister for Tourism and Trade Simon Birmingham, and also the Minister for Industry, Karen Andrews. And we’re here today talking about jobs, talking about keeping business in business and keeping Australians in jobs. And so I’m making sure today that the Gold Coast is very well placed for our slice of the billion dollar Regional Communities Fund.

Simon Birmingham: Well thanks very much Angie, and thanks to you and Karen, in his absence Stuart Robert as the three Gold Coast MPs for convening opportunities for me today, to be able to engage with local businesses, local tourism operators, local education operators and to hear from all of them about the impact of the current coronavirus situation on the Gold Coast economy and on local businesses. This is part of a couple of days of intensive consultations that I’ve been undertaking in Queensland following time spent yesterday around Cairns in Far North Queensland, to truly hear from those tourism businesses and the regional economies who are most reliant on tourism and most reliant on international visitation about the impacts that they are feeling. We are facing the most unprecedented of circumstances and times at present, that is putting immense pressure on tourism businesses, their operators and their employees. And that’s why the Government has stepped up in terms of our efforts to support business through last week’s $17.6 billion economic stimulus package. It’s why as part of that package we had payments to businesses of between $2000 and $25,000 depending on the size of their payroll. It’s why there’s support there to try to stimulate business investment and support that to still occur. It’s why there’s support for household payments in targeted cases to make sure the most vulnerable in our community get additional support, and to stimulate extra spending. And it’s also why there’s a targeted $1 billion regional and communities fund to support the regions and the sectors of our economy most dramatically impacted by the coronavirus downturn.

And so that fund, we are consulting hard on how to make sure we deliver it to those businesses who need it most. But things have also moved on a lot, even in the one week since we announced that economic stimulus package, and that’s why the Government is considering what else is necessary to support the Australian economy and the Australian people through these unprecedented difficult economic times. Our first and number one priority always is to deliver on our plan to reduce the spread of this virus so that we save Australian lives. And nothing will detract or deter us from putting the priority on the saving of Australian lives, but we also want to make sure we save Australian jobs, Australian businesses, and key Australian industries like our tourism sector, and I’m determined to ensure that we continue to do everything we possibly can to help our tourism businesses get through this, because there will be another side at the end of it. We will recover. We will come out of the coronavirus, and we have to make sure that we have our tour operators, our tour attractions, all of our critical tourism infrastructure and businesses able to step up and be part of that recovery as quickly as possible, so that we get people back into jobs and we get funds flowing back through our economy and we are as strong again as we possibly can be when that recovery time comes.

Question: Minister, what’s your reaction to the decision by Qantas today to ground 150 aircraft and reduce capacity even further?

Simon Birmingham: Qantas’s decision is disappointing but entirely understandable given the dramatic situation we’re seeing in terms of the downturn in international travel and the impact that’s flowing through onto domestic travel intentions as well. Both Australia’s major airlines assure me that they are viable, that they have strong cash reserves and that they have plans to work through these unprecedented circumstances at the present, and it is critical that we make sure that we do have a strong airline sector. A strong airline sector is not negotiable in terms of being a part of Australia’s recovery for the future, and I acknowledge the fact that Qantas’ decisions are in part about ensuring that they preserve their operations so that they can be part of that recovery. But I also want to acknowledge that for many Qantas staff, employees and their families, this is a very difficult time, as it is for so many other people across the tourism industry, and the government, in addition to the measures we are taking, to try to support businesses through this and to try to keep people in jobs is also making sure that all of the social safety net components of government are operating as effectively and swiftly as they possibly can too.

Question: Do you believe the viability of the airlines, both Qantas and Virgin, is under threat, though?

Simon Birmingham: I’m talking to both the airlines regularly and frequently, as are senior leaders across government. Both of them come into this position and this circumstance in a strong situation and that’s to be welcomed and it’s to the credit of the airline management in Australia that they both enter this in a strong position and have plans to be able to ride through difficult times. But of course, there are uncertainties ahead in terms of the depth and duration and scale of the crisis that we face. That’s why government will continue to work with the airlines but, as I said before, having a strong airline sector in Australia in the future is not negotiable. We have to make sure that they are not only strong today, but strong in the long-term, because when we hit that recovery phase, we need the airlines to be able to scale up again quickly too.

Question: Does that mean the Government will consider a specific bail-out package for the airlines?

Simon Birmingham: As far as I’m aware, the airlines aren’t asking for that at present, that they believe that they are viable, that they have a strong cash positions in the airlines, but we want to make sure we maintain that confidence in the airlines. Everyone should have confidence in Australia’s airlines today, and we want to make sure that’s their right through this crisis and beyond.

Question: What about the regional airlines? Do you have concerns about the smaller regional airlines?

Simon Birmingham: Equally we’re having consultations with those regional carriers, and I had some of those yesterday in Cairns as well about the regional carriers operating through parts of remote and Far North Queensland. And it’s important that not only do we maintain the viability of airlines overall and their importance for the tourism industry, but also that we recognise the crucial role airlines play in terms of social connectivity into remote regions and into regional communities and the critical services that are delivered through those airlines. And so that is being monitored, I know, not just by us as a Federal Government but also by the states responsible for service delivery into those regions.

Question: Given the new travel restrictions on cruise ships right now there’s hundreds of Aussies who are essentially stranded on cruise ships, [indistinct] going from island to island being turned away. What is the Government doing to get those people home?

Simon Birmingham: So whilst our government has put in place travel restrictions in relation to cruise ships, we’ve already also ensured that the Australian Border Force has flexibility to ensure that Australians can disembark in Australia and put in place provisions to get people off of cruise ships. Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is handling many consular cases around the world to try to help people who may be stranded on cruise ships as well, and is trying to work through practical solutions that can enable Australians to disembark, ideally here in Australia or through means that can enable them to get back to Australia, noting that they will then of course face the appropriate self-isolation periods.

Question: Are you liaising with any other nations to get permission for [indistinct]…

Simon Birmingham: Look, we’re working through solutions that are about addressing case-by-case, as we’ve done with cruise ships to date. Of course, this is one of the reasons why we’ve provided the travel advisory warning Australians now that they should not be undertaking unnecessary overseas travel. That very clearly includes cruise ships given not only some of the health questions that are raised, but the very real logistical and practical difficulties that cruise ships are encountering all over the world right now.

Question: Given tourism is the largest- one of the Gold Coast’s largest industries, it directly supports 3500 small businesses and injects about $6 billion into the economy, what steps if any is the Federal Government taking to ensure this industry doesn’t face collapse as result of this crisis?

Simon Birmingham: So, first and foremost we have our economy-wide steps. The cash injection into small and medium sized businesses of between $2000 and $25,000 depending on the size of their payroll. Other measures to stimulate economic activity as well as to stimulate investment activity. Of course, the automatic stabilisers of government in terms of support for those casual employees who might be losing their jobs or others and their access to social safety nets. But importantly, the reason that I’m here on the Gold Coast today is recognising that this region relies more upon a tourism industry than virtually any other in Australia, that this region has, of course, unique appeal as one of Australia’s leading tourism destinations and that we will, for certain parts of the industry, in this region, need to consider additional measures to make sure that they are there for the recovery. These are going to be difficult weeks and months ahead for many tourism operators and many people working in tourism. We cannot guarantee there won’t be business failures. We know that there are already job losses but what we want to make sure is that the critical assets of our tourism industry, including those critical businesses, are there so that everything can step up and scale up again when domestic and global travel returns.

Question: What kind of measures were discussed at today’s roundtable?

Simon Birmingham: Today’s round-table saw businesses raise a number of things. Firstly, to their credit, they are all concerned about their employees and support to make sure that people who may not be able to continue in their jobs get the type of assistance that they need, and government understands that and that’s why we’re working very carefully to make sure that those social security and social safety net aspects are there to support people going forward. Beyond that, businesses discussed issues in terms of pressures they face, pressures to meet bank obligations, rental obligations, insurance obligations. Pressures that they face in terms as well of investment decisions that they might have made and the viability of those. Education operators discuss the need for flexibility around these conditions. Now, again, government is not able to solve every problem for every business in Australia, but we are going to do what we can to make sure that we get as many businesses through this as possible, save as many jobs as we possibly can, and ensure that everybody here is ready for the recovery when it comes.

Question: In terms of- sorry, job losses, what sort of numbers of jobs do you expect to be lost in the tourism industry?

Simon Birmingham: I think it’s impossible to quantify yet the scale of job losses that we will see, but one in 13 Australians rely on the tourism or hospitality sector for their employment. And clearly, many of those jobs are under pressure and at risk at present. That’s why we’re applying special mechanisms to make sure that we do deliver additional support into some of these businesses, over and above what we’re providing to the rest of the economy. It’s why also we would say to Australians that whilst they must first and foremost follow the public health advice, if you can still support your local restaurant, your local cafe by picking up takeaway meals and by engaging and supporting local businesses, please do so, because then that is practical support that may well save a business or save a job.

Question: About an hour ago, the Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate called on the state and federal governments to consider ramping up or fast-tracking funding for infrastructure to stimulate the economy towards a recovery period in the future. One of the projects specifically he cited was funding for the Gold Coast Light Rail’s future stage, or a money for a business case for that, is a measure that was discussed during today’s roundtable, and would the Federal Government consider contributing funds?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll always consider infrastructure proposals that are there, but our priority at present is of making sure things that will make an immediate impact on the ground happen as the first priority. That those that can happen first and foremost as immediate actions on the ground to save businesses, to save jobs happen, but in terms of infrastructure scale-up, where people have proposals in regions that can happen quickly and make a difference, well, I’m sure governments will listen. We’re certainly working closely with state and territory governments, as is well known. The Prime Minister will meet again with the National Cabinet tonight, that brings together all of the state and territory premiers and chief ministers in an opportunity for us to collaborate. I’ll be meeting later today before we have our meetings at the Commonwealth cabinet, and associated cabinet committees I’ll be meeting with, Minister Kate Jones, to again assess the type of measures the Queensland Government’s taking, what we’re taking, and how we ensure they work as effectively together as possible.

Question: We’ve been hearing some vacancy rates at some of the big hotels are down as low as seven per cent. Do you think we’re likely to see the closure of some of the big hotels here on our Gold Coast?

Simon Birmingham: Obviously many businesses are under pressure, and we can see and understand that when you have the type of collapse in travel bookings and airline bookings that are there, that’s going to flow through into accommodation, into tour operators, a range of different sectors. And that some of those businesses will be under viability pressures. And we’re listening to those considerations and trying to look at different means that might support people through tough times. Again, I say, government won’t be able to save every single business or every single job, but we do want to make sure that the critical assets of our tourism industry are there for the recovery that will come, and that we will work where need be, case by case, to ensure that’s the case.

Question: Minister, just quickly, so when will we get details on a second stimulus?

Simon Birmingham: So, the government has our Cabinet meetings today, and we anticipate further announcements during the course of this week in terms of additional measures that might require legislation to pass through the parliament next week, and we want to make sure that everything that can be put to the parliament is done so in that one tranche to be able to deliver the support that Australians need.

Thanks guys.