• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Rise in domestic tourism; Business events grants program; Taliban prisoner transfer; China-Australia relationship; state border closures.
11 September 2020

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. Firstly, a little glimmer of good news in what is a horrific year for our tourism industry. We have seen from June data around domestic visitation an uptick, around $1 billion of extra spending of people across Australia getting out in support of local tourism businesses. And what this shows is that where restrictions are eased and where people can travel in a COVID safe way, they’re eager to do so. It’s wonderful to see that many regional tourism businesses are benefiting from a big boost in intrastate travel where people are getting out of the capital cities and travelling around regional areas, and that’s been a wonderful boom for many regional tourism operators. But there’s still large parts of the tourism economy who are struggling and struggling enormously. We know very well that airlines, airports, hire car companies, tour operators, big city hotels are all bleeding right now from pain as a result of the lack of visitation available to them.

We also know that our business conferences and events sector is really struggling too. This is a sector that employs around 240,000 Australians. That’s 240,000 Australian jobs that just are sustained by meetings, conferences, exhibitions, and what we want to do is make sure that those jobs can be saved into the future. That’s why today the Morrison Government has announced a $50 million injection of support for exhibitions and conferences to be planned and to take place with some certainty and some financial underpinnings. This is going to provide some grants for businesses to make the commitment, to participate in exhibitions next year, knowing that those exhibitions are going to help companies – like the one I’m at here today – hire companies, as well as those who build exhibits and construct them, as well as the people who run the audio visual side of things, the caterers, the cleaners. There are a whole raft of different jobs that depend on the meetings and conferences sector. We want to help that get back on its feet as different communities reopen and different parts of our economy reopen in a COVID safe way.

Question: This is a $36 billion industry. What are you actually going to do with $50 million and closed borders? Is it actually going to achieve very much for the industry at all with all the borders closed, or is it just a matter of this sounding like you’re trying to achieve something?

Simon Birmingham: So, we’re not expecting that this is going to see major exhibitions or conferences happening next weekend. This is really about enabling the commitments and the planning to happen right through into next year. And we know that there are long lead times when it comes to major conferences, major exhibitions. 95 per cent of major conferences and exhibitions have been cancelled this year, which is what is putting pressure on the 240,000 jobs relying on this industry. We want to make sure that next year, as many of those conferences and exhibitions go ahead, which requires planners to have confidence that people will book to exhibit at those meetings and conferences. And that’s what this fund is for. Targeted funding to ensure that small businesses, who would usually take out a stall or book a stand at an exhibition, do so with confidence with the financial support to know that if circumstances change, they won’t do their dough.

Obviously, border restrictions are an impediment, but all states nearly have made certain commitments to try to get back to normality by Christmas. So, this is building on those National Cabinet commitments to try to see opening, normality being achieved by Christmas. And from that, getting people to plan in 2021 with the confidence to hold their exhibitions, to book a slot there, to build a stand, and to support the jobs that rely on it.

Question: These grants aren’t all going to wind up in firms in Sydney and conventions in Sydney, are they? They’re going to be spread across the continent?

Simon Birmingham: This is a grants program that is open absolutely across Australia, and our expectation is that we will see conferences and exhibitions supported right across the country. But it is true, that the more open the state is, the better the opportunity for them to viably conduct a conference or exhibition is going to be. So that’s a matter for individual states to choose. But their conference, their exhibition is going to be more viable and better able to proceed if they’re open to visitors and exhibitors coming from interstate as a part of that.

Question: That seems to favour Sydney over Melbourne with lockdowns, with restrictions still going to be very tough late into the year [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: No, because as I said, to this to sustain activity that really will largely take place in 2021. It’s a very short period of time in terms of major conferences and major exhibitions, to see them go ahead or restart this year. What we want to make sure is that conferences and exhibitions that were cancelled in 2020 do happen in 2021. And this funding is going to provide some confidence for people to plan and book, and to save those jobs next year.

Question: On another matter, if you don’t mind me asking. What’s the Australian Government’s response to the Afghan soldier who killed three Australians being transported to Doha, into Qatar? Is that something that you expected?

Simon Birmingham: We have made consistent, and continue to make consistent representations that Hekmatullah should serve a full custodial sentence. Now, that custodial sentence could occur in Afghanistan, in Qatar. But the Australian Government’s position is that a full custodial sentence should be served with no reprieve.

Question: And what assurances have been given?

Simon Birmingham: We continue to make those representations. I’ll leave the direct nature of the conversations that the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and other officials have had with Afghan and U.S. authorities for them to comment on. But our position does not change by virtue of relocation from Afghanistan to Qatar. We expect a full custodial sentence to be served with no reprieve.

Question: Are you concerned that this could be a step towards his release?

Simon Birmingham: Our position hasn’t changed. We don’t want to see a release. We want to see a full sentence served without reprieve. Where that occurs, a matter for other authorities. If Qatari authorities are happy for that sentence to be served their, that is their decision. We’ve made very clear to all of the states involved as- that the full sentence must be served out.

Question: And Minister, on another matter, do you think the Australian diplomats, did they act lawfully? This is looking at the ABC and the AFR journo. Or did they disrupt Chinese investigations into two Australian journalists?

Simon Birmingham: What we saw in relation to the return to Australia of journalists from the ABC and Financial Review from China was diplomacy and our diplomatic service working as it should. They worked as it should in terms of firstly ensuring the safety of Australians and the well-being of Australians and the safe return of those two individuals. And they worked as they should in working with Chinese authorities to ensure that they could safely leave China, and that the Chinese authorities requests for interviews to be conducted prior to them leaving China were handled in an appropriate way. Those interviews were undertaken prior to their departure from China, whilst ensuring the safety of the individuals concerned.

Question: Does this mark the new low- this dispute, the new low for relations between Australia and China?

Simon Birmingham: There are clearly a number of tension points that have arisen during the course of this year in particular, but going back over a period of time. It doesn’t change the reality that the Australian Government’s position on China is still one where we welcome the fact that China’s economy has grown so successfully in recent years, creating better opportunities for hundreds of millions of people across China and our region. We want to continue to see that type of growth and we want to work in a way that is both mutually respectful and mutually beneficial to facilitate.

Question: Are you worried about the implications though for future trade?

Simon Birmingham: There are a number of tensions that have and are impacted in certain trade related sectors. That is clearly a concern and I’ve expressed my disappointment on that before but it doesn’t change the fact that from an Australian Government perspective, our position is one of consistency. Consistency in defending Australian values, Australian interests and Australian security, but also consistency in welcoming the economic growth and prosperity of China, the transformation that it’s had for hundreds of millions of people in raising their living standards, and our desire to continue to support that in a way that is mutually beneficial of China, Australia, and everyone across our region, and mutually respectful of the sovereignty of all nations involved.

Question: Staying on that, how do you intend to attract Chinese tourists given the tension to the relationship?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re a little way away from running tourism campaigns internationally at present. We obviously have strict international border restrictions in place to protect Australia from the risks associated with COVID-19. But when those border restrictions can be eased, we certainly stand ready to remind everyone from around the world the amazing experiences that they have here in Australia, the safety of Australia, of the opportunities to come be it for cultural tourism, adventure tourism, nature-based tourism. A range of different experiences that people can have, or of course to come here and undertake amazing high quality English language studies that are world class institutions.

Question: On Tiger Air, why weren’t we able to save it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this has been flagged and foreshadowed for some period of time as part of the arrangements that the buyout of Virgin entailed. What we’ve seen this year is an international and domestic aviation industry under immense pressure. The fact that the Virgin Australia administration was able to go through the proper processes, come out the other side, saving thousands of jobs and maintaining competition in our domestic database industry is a welcome result. Obviously, we feel for those directly impacted by the closure of the Tiger brand, but the closure of that brand is not an unexpected event. We can still continue to have that competition of domestic aviation industry given Virgin’s ongoing survival.

Question: And you blame the state premiers for border closures, for the demise of the aviation industry?

Simon Birmingham: Border closures are not helping in relation to airlines, airports quite clearly. The border closures create ongoing pressures on the viability of those airlines and threaten jobs across those different sectors. Now, we recognise there’s a role for border closures. It’s why we support the quarantining of Victoria, but we do want to see the states and territories exercise not just common sense but sense when it comes to the analysis and evidence and data that’s there about opening up [indistinct] being suppressed in a complimentary way. What I want to say is that states like WA or Tasmania reciprocate in the opening up that a state like South Australia has shown to them. I want to see that states like South Australia and Queensland recognise that Canberra has not had a COVID case for 62 days. And it’s pretty reasonable to expect that you should be able to facilitate travel from Canberra into Queensland, into South Australia as a result of that type of success.

Thanks guys.