Topics: Working holidaymakers; Tourism Australia’s new campaign ‘Australia Inc’; Brexit; sugar prices; Craig Laundy; energy policy.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much for coming along. It’s a thrill for me to be back in Queensland today as the Trade and Tourism Minister. In a few moments time I’m going to go into some discussions with the sugar industry, of course a critical Industry to North Queensland but also an essential export for Australia. We work very closely with the sugar industry to deal with some difficult issues such as India’s price distorting subsidies of sugar for which we’ve taken and are taking action, in the World Trade Organisation. Standing up for the rights for our cane growers and sugar millers and to be able to compete on the world stage in a fair market, we’ve worked hard to ensure that nations like Brazil, join us in that action to take a unified front for fair competition in trade. An important development related to the sugar industry and many other exporters overnight, are the continuing events in London surrounding Brexit. Obviously great uncertainty continues to surround Brexit and what could happen. However, we have been working as closely as we can, to get the best possible security for Australian exporters so that whatever happens with Brexit, we can continue to access those markets and part of the steps there, of course at the UK end with the release overnight have their proposed tariff rates, should a ‘no deal’ Brexit occur on March 29. In terms of those tariff rates, we are encouraged by the fact that the UK has indicated that they would be a more open market outside of EU membership, than they have been within the EU membership. That’s encouraging because it means that Australian exporters such as our sugar industry, our wine makers, our beef producers, all would appear to have better access into the UK should this occur. Although, there are numerous other factors we have to weigh alongside the tariff rates, such as the way in which quotas are split and divided between the EU and the UK. Nonetheless, this is an encouraging sign for the type of free trade agreement negotiations we would have with the UK if they leave the EU, and we of course will continue to stay close to the UK in terms of what unfolds. We stand ready to initiate free trade agreement negotiations with the UK, the moment they leave the EU, and we already have those FTA negotiations in place with the EU.
Later today, I will be speaking at the Destination Australia conference being held here in Brisbane by Tourism Australia. This is a critical event in terms of bringing together our marketing leaders across the tourism industry, to plan for the future. We will be launching a new campaign on the back of this conference to attract more backpackers, more working holidaymakers to Australia in the future. This is essential because working holidaymakers all 300,000 plus of them who come here at present, spend every cent they earn, spend their savings, spend their parents’ money and inject a huge amount into our tourism economy, as a result of their time in Australia. We want to see more working holiday makers to reverse a bit of a downturn and that’s why we’re initiating a seven and a half million dollar campaign that’s going to highlight Gold Coast, Magnetic Island and other locations around Australia, as great spots to come to holiday, but also to be able to spend some time working while you’re here, for young people all over the world but particularly those in the UK and Europe. To seize that rite of passage trip to Australia, to work, to holiday and of course in doing so to lift up our tourism industry. It’s not just what working holiday makers spend while they’re in Australia, it’s also the fact that they frequently undertake fruit picking jobs, tourism industry jobs, other seasonal work that we have difficulty filling and these backpackers and working holiday makers provide a real lift in terms of the seasonal workforce that is available in our agricultural and tourism sectors. That’s why we’ve made reforms to make it easier for them to come, to stay longer and we are running this campaign to hopefully attract thousands more in the future.
Journalist: So what about visas. Any changes to visas too if you get a massive influx because of the campaign?
Simon Birmingham: Well our government has taken steps to ensure that working holidaymakers can stay an extra year, as long as they spend six months in their second year working in designated areas of regional Australia, doing the hard jobs that we want to see filled and really give that win-win effect to our economy. The win of having hard, seasonal jobs filled, where we have staff and labour shortages, and the win of having more tourists spending more dollars while they are here.
Journalist: Are you concerned about the events in the UK overnight, about what that means for the rest of Europe and for us as a nation?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve long wished to see some certainty out of Brexit, at present we’ve had everything but certainty. However, we’ve done everything we can as a government to be prepared for whatever eventuality unfolds, whether the UK stays within Europe or whether it leaves Europe, we’ve made sure that we passed laws, struck agreements that put Australia in the best possible position to be able to deal with any circumstance out of Brexit. And the news overnight in terms of the tariff rates at least, will provide some encouragement for some Australian exporters that should there be an abrupt Brexit on March 29, they’ll be able to within the 12 months of those tariffs, be able to more easily access the UK market. Within that twelve-month period, we would be working flat out to make sure that we strike a free trade agreement that is ambitious, that’s comprehensive, with the complete elimination of tariffs or quotas as we can possibly secure.
Journalist: Just for our North Queensland viewers, just in relation to sugar, what sort of outcome are you looking to get from that?
Simon Birmingham: Well this really is a chance to continue what has been a very close dialogue and ongoing relationship. My office, my department have been in regular communication with sugar millers and canegrowers, as have I, with especially our hardworking LNP members up north who have been advocating strongly on behalf of the sector. Now there’s no easy, simple, silver bullet to fix the depressed local prices for sugar, but we do know that India’s trade distorting subsidies are having a negative effect. I’ve raised it with the Indian government, Prime Minister Morrison has raised it, numerous other government officials have raised it. We remain determined to hold India to account to hopefully get them to adjust their policies without having to go through the full WTO process. But we’ve started that WTO process and we are willing to execute it every step of the way, if that’s what’s required to stand up for our sugar industry.
Journalist: Simon, do you know if Craig Laundy will quit?
Simon Birmingham: Obviously, every Member of Parliament, it is their decision as to whether they choose to recontest the next election. It’s a serious question for each member of parliament, especially in the House of Reps, to make that call and to commit for a further three years because otherwise, were they to change their mind, they risk a by-election and we’d all rather see by-elections avoided.
Journalist: Have you spoken to him?
Simon Birmingham: Craig’s a great mate, we speak on numerous occasions at times and he’s made a great contribution in his time in the Parliament. His future, like that of each and every MP, is up to the them. The Labor Party has eight MPs and Senators who are not going on at the next election, it’s just part of the natural course of events that in any political party, people retire or go on to do other things with their life, just with any other job.
Journalist: Do you think he needs to make a decision sooner rather than later?
Simon Birmingham: Well everybody needs to make a decision before we get to close of nominations.
Journalist: Simon, just speaking about coal for a moment, do you think there’ll be a commitment for another coal power station, prior to the election for North Queensland?
Simon Birmingham: I think all of these issues have to be assessed on what are very complicated merits. So, we have a process in place recommended by the ACCC, to look at how we firm up reliability in the energy system, to make sure we’ve got the generation capability that Australia needs. Now, that has to be assessed in terms of application and expressions of interests that have been made, against the economics of those applications, the viability of the projects. We will of course make sure that we meet our emissions reductions targets. This is about looking at any proposals, on the full merits of the case, whether or not they meet the policy needs of the nation, it’s not about ideology of pro-coal or anti-coal or otherwise. We will meet our reductions targets and we will ensure security of reliability and supply, electricity prices and we will drive down electricity prices as well through our reforms, whereas the type of policy the Labor Party is proposing will only see prices skyrocket.
Journalist: You’re not going anywhere before the election? Just to get it on the record?
Simon Birmingham: I am elected for a six year term and it takes me all the way through until 2022 and I expect that I’ll be there then, and quite possibly beyond voters willing.
Benn Ayre: +61 428 342 325
Kathryn McFarlane: +61 419 850 201