• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck, state and territory border restrictions and Australian citizen detained in China.
03 September 2020

Deborah Knight: But I tell you what, Simon Birmingham, he’s got a tough gig at the moment. Our Trade Minister dealing with the tensions between Australia and China and that very fractured relationship which is getting worse. Beijing now calling us paranoid, at the same time is placing more sanctions on our exports. He’s also Tourism Minister and there’s new modelling out showing the real impact of the border lockdowns to the tourist industry. Simon Birmingham is with us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Deb. Great to be with you.

Deborah Knight: First off, the censure motion against the Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck, does the Government still stand by him?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Deb. Richard Colbeck has provided strong leadership to the aged care sector in delivering more than a billion dollars’ worth of additional support that our government has provided through this pandemic, and in helping to develop workforce plans to address the challenges that aged care providers face. These are troubling, challenging times, particularly for aged care providers in Victoria, but Richard has worked hard with them through it. The Labor Party is just trying-

Deborah Knight: He’s admitted though that he has failed. He has failed in the delivery of his role as minister and he didn’t know basics that any minister should about the number of people who are dying in aged care homes. I mean, surely, the minister under that portfolio – that’s the basics you’ve got to have in front of you.

Simon Birmingham: Well Deb, he has apologised for the fact that, when asked for a specific figure he didn’t have that to hand at that point in time. Otherwise, he has been working hard, day and night, trying to deal with the most challenging of circumstances. What we see with the Labor Party here is they are pretending in the sense that somehow the COVID-19 pandemic exists in Victoria but it isn’t having an impact on aged care homes; that somehow they are separate from all of this. The reality is that the pandemic is having a profound impact right across Victoria, and yes sadly, tragically in terms of the death of people in aged care facilities as well. But Richard Colbeck has provided strong leadership in terms of working with the sector, with the State Government, with other stakeholders to make sure that the workforce plans, the additional financial support are there to help them as they deal with that Victorian surge of cases.

Deborah Knight: Alright. Now, aged care is one thing but the tourism sector is another and this new modelling that’s been done by Tourism Research Australia – the impact on tourism, it is immense in terms of the border lockdowns.

Simon Birmingham: It is immense and tragically, whilst we might talk about billions of dollars in lost economic activity as a result of the lockdowns, what that translates into is businesses struggling to survive and Australians seeing their jobs in peril. And that’s why we don’t want to see states and territories retain border restrictions that impede the ability of the tourism industry to recover any longer than is absolutely necessary. And we urge the states and territories to engage in an evidence-based way with the discussions around hotspot definitions, and to take a more proportionate approach to border controls than some of them have been – some of whom are threatening to keep those controls in place in a blanket level across all states and territories all the way through until next year. Nobody quibbles with the fact that there should be a border and a quarantine around Victoria at present – that is self-evidently responsible and sensible. But across the rest of the country, particularly those states and territories that, together, have effectively no transmission of COVID within them – they ought to be able to have to travel across their state borders, and it’s terribly disappointing that some leaders are continuing to stand in the way of what would be sensible, proportionate and safe opening up.

Deborah Knight: Well it is disappointing and you can urge the more you like, but the reality is that they aren’t backing down. Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Queensland Premier, she’s stood firm and she’s doubled down saying that Queensland will have the tough lockdowns and that they’ll stick by the health advice that she’s been given. Urging is one thing, but if they don’t listen, what can you do then?

Simon Birmingham: Deb, this is why we’re having this conversation and many conversations to try to make sure that the consequences of this are well understood, and they need to be understood by those state and territory leaders as well. As a Commonwealth Government we’re not saying all borders should come down tomorrow, we’re simply urging for engagement around the issues of hotspots and the proportionate-

Deborah Knight: So the Queensland Premier also understands that being tough wins’ votes as she approaches an election in October.

Simon Birmingham: I would hope that nobody is doing this for electoral purposes; that nobody is playing politics with COVID-19. We might have seen that just in the Senate and with Labor Party tactics on aged care – I hope it’s not the case in different states and territories as well. Those premiers owe it to their businesses and to the people in those communities to be worried about their jobs as well as their safety. Yes, safety and saving lives is the number one priority, but we also have to save livelihoods and make sure that people’s jobs are there in the long run. Before we went into this pandemic around one in 13 Australian jobs were dependent on our tourism sector in some way – hospitality jobs associated with that, all of those different parts of the industry.

Now there are parts of the tourism industry doing quite well. If you travel out of Sydney on a drive trip to the Hunter Valley, or to Orange, or those sorts of areas, you will find businesses now enjoying a real surge in people getting out and about, and booking those short-drive holidays. But clearly if you’re an airline, or an airport, or a rental car company, or an experienced provider that takes people on multiday tours – that’s not what something- that’s not something that people do in their own backyard in their own state. And they’re the businesses that are suffering, they’re the jobs that are imperiled as a result of states keeping these borders in place far longer than necessary- and without- and doing so in the case of against other states that have no cases at all. I mean, take WA, South Australia for example. SA’s opened up to WA, but WA won’t open up to SA. Neither of them have community transmission. Neither of them have had for some time. Both have done an incredible job suppressing. It is just nonsensical. The same could be said – to make sure this isn’t seen as a partisan thing – the same could be said for the Tasmanian Government too.

Deborah Knight: Well that’s it. And it’s the lack of consistency that’s having people being deeply frustrated. I mean the fact that you’ve got- people who’ve got doctor’s appointments who want to go to hospitals from New South Wales into Queensland, they can’t do that. But there are rules for some, rules for others. The 400 AFL executives allowed into fly to Queensland from Melbourne to announce that Brisbane is hosting the AFL Grand Final. Admittedly, they’re in that bubble. But the exemptions don’t seem to be granted to anyone unless you’ve got coin and contacts.

Simon Birmingham: Well, many people see a degree of hypocrisy there about what’s happened with the AFL, and the decision of the Queensland Government to admit all of those officials, all of those players into Queensland and yet they are still playing at such an approach that it is cruel on occasion, in terms of people’s health, people being able to go and attend a family member’s funeral, people to go and see those family members in their final stages of life. These are raw, emotional issues. And Australia is one country. We cannot forget the fact that as a nation, we weren’t built to have these state borders impeding people’s movement. We came together as a country so that we could freely move across the nation.

Deborah Knight: Exactly.

Simon Birmingham: Where it is justified. In the case of Victoria, we understand – careful steps are being taken there, which we welcome both by South Australia and New South Wales to deal more openly with those cross-border communities, recognising that in regional Victoria, the situation is well and truly stabilised and improved in many of those communities. And so they’re sensible steps. We hope to see continued progress there. The New South Wales Government has been very solid in the way they have approached these issues. We just hope to see more progress from the other states.

Deborah Knight: What about the international borders? Will you be looking at lifting the international arrival cap? Because there are now 23,000 Aussies stuck overseas according to the new DFAT figures, and at least 3000 of them are considered vulnerable. They need help with these new loans that you’re offering up. Will you lift those caps? Will you put on some more charter flights to get them home?

Simon Birmingham: The arrival cap is a function of the number of places the states and territories say they can accommodate in quarantine. This is certainly something that gets reviewed by the National Cabinet and discussed there. Again, we hope that as Victoria continues to improve, their ability to be able to then process, having learnt the failures of the past, to process some returning Australians from overseas, may enable more flights, more people should be able to come than has been the case.

Deborah Knight: Okay, so under review?

Simon Birmingham: Constantly under review. And really, of course, as I say, it’s a cap that is informed and driven entirely by what the states and territories tell us they can safely accommodate through their quarantine facilities for people coming in from overseas.

Deborah Knight: Now before I let you go, put on your trade hat for me if can. You’re the Tourism and Trade Minister. China’s Foreign Minister- Ministry are now accusing us of being infected with fear and paranoia. What’s your response?

Simon Birmingham: That’s not true at all. Australia wants to have a relationship with China, one that is open, that is honest, and where we engage and cooperate where we can. And we have long welcomed China’s economic growth over recent decades, not just for the economic opportunities it’s provided to Australia, but because it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It’s provided people in China and across our region with better health outcomes, better education outcomes, better standard of living. We welcome all of those things and the Australian Government stands ready to continue to be a partner with China in its growth. The complementary natures of our economy are important. Of course, we stand also in protection of our values, of our security, of our strategic interests. And we don’t apologise or step away from that, but we believe that there is a way, as we have done in the past, for us to work together. And we certainly, certainly won’t be engaging in that type of tit for tat name calling.

Deborah Knight: Have you had any update on Cheng Lei, the Australian journalist who has been detained? Any idea yet on what the charges are?

Simon Birmingham: I have not in the last day or two, Deb. That’s a question really for the Foreign Minister.

Deborah Knight: And have you had any luck having your Beijing counterpart answer your calls yet?

Simon Birmingham: Sadly, no. Again, we stand ready to have mature discussions and dialogue, even where there are difficult issues, even where there are disagreements. The best way to move beyond those and to work in the areas of potential agreement and cooperation is for ministers to be able to have mature discussions at a government to government level. The Morrison Government will always be up for that. It’s up to others as to whether they choose to reciprocate.

Deborah Knight: Answer the call. Simple as that. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Deb. My pleasure.

Deborah Knight: Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. You’re on Afternoons with Deborah Knight.