Topics: Tourism Australia domestic campaign; ICAC; Domestic travel; Australian coal into China; Yang Hengjun;



Deborah Knight:          Now we don’t have a lot of choices in terms of travel at the moment. We are limited to our own backyard, and it’s a pretty good backyard at that. But even then, depending on which state you’re in, a lot of Australia is out of bounds. We are, though, being encouraged to get out and about, and see our great country. And very funny couple Hamish and Zoe Blake are front and centre of a new ad blitz, part of Tourism Australia’s Holiday this Year campaign. Our Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, hopes this will help give the struggling tourism industry the much needed boost it needs. And he joins us now. Minister, thanks so much for joining us.

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

Deborah Knight:          Now first of all, congratulations on your new promotion, taking over from Mathias Cormann as Finance Minister and Senate leader. But have you got enough jobs yet? You’re also keeping Trade and Tourism for now.

Simon Birmingham:     It’s going to be a busy run till the end of this year, but that’s fine. We will keep the focus squarely on helping our tourism industry, who’s been doing it so tough. Exporters and trade sector, where there’s still some gains to be had in sealing a big regional trade deal and hopefully making progress with the UK. And yes, of course, it’s a very challenging time to take on the finance portfolio given the huge economic challenges we face. But I inherit a very strong budget plan and economic recovery plan released just last week. And so we’ll get it on with Josh and the PM to make sure we deliver.

Deborah Knight:          You won’t be able to scratch yourself. You’ll be that busy. Look, I want to talk about this tourism campaign in just a tick. But the news everyone’s talking about of course is the New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Her relationship with former disgraced MP Daryl Maguire, the subject of this corruption investigation. Labor is calling for her, in New South Wales, to resign. Should she?

Simon Birmingham:     I think the people in New South Wales more likely want Gladys to keep on focusing on her job. And she has done an exemplary job leading New South Wales through the COVID-19 crisis. Keeping people safe, overcoming more obstacles than probably any other leader in the country in terms of continuously suppressing pop-ups of COVID across the state, working with the health officials, but also reopening the New South Wales economy as much as possible and saving as many jobs as possible. And, look, she’s acknowledged that she made a personal mistake in her private life. But I think people can see she’s done an exceptional job in her role as Premier, keeping New South Wales safe and ensuring the safety of jobs in New South Wales.

Deborah Knight:          Well, she’s stuffed up, plain and simple. That’s how she categorised it yesterday during a press conference, her own personal nightmare. She could’ve handled this a lot better, couldn’t she?

Simon Birmingham:     I think she’s acknowledged that, but she’s also handled COVID-19 brilliantly. And that’s saved lives of people in New South Wales and is saving their jobs. And I think most people across Sydney and right across New South Wales would be thankful and grateful for the way she’s handled the things that really have the impact on their lives and their circumstances.

Deborah Knight:          And the work of ICAC and the corruption watchdog, in New South Wales is sparking greater calls for a federal corruption watchdog, a federal ICAC. Is it time we had one?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’ve been doing work around a National Integrity Commission and the work that is entailed there. Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, has been consulting on different design details there to make sure that we strike the right framework that doesn’t duplicate from or take away from the work that current enforcement agencies do.

Deborah Knight:          We need one, though, don’t we? Will you fund it? Will you back it?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’ve got a model that the Attorney-General has been consulting on. It tries to not duplicate other things, not take away from the many existing mechanisms that we do have already to investigate and ensure that wrongdoing is identified and tackled where it needs to be.

Deborah Knight:          Well, careful what you wish for. Imagine what a federal ICAC might be able to uncover.

Simon Birmingham:     I think it’s one of those things where it is a case and this is the work that Christian has been doing. Making sure you don’t just set up a sensational star chamber, as some of them can sometimes be. But you do make sure that all of our different aspects of investigative agencies that work to prevent wrongdoing work and in an effective way. And if there’s a gap, that gap is filled. But you know, there’s a lot done already by different federal agencies to make sure the integrity in everything that we all do.

Deborah Knight:          Alright. Let’s talk about this tourism campaign featuring Hamish and Zoe Blake. They’re a fantastic choice. They are both a wonderful, very funny Aussie couple, too. And I understand it’s going to cost $7 million, this campaign across print, social media, radio, outdoor advertising. I guess my question is, do we really need a campaign, because we don’t have much of a choice to travel anywhere else but in Australia?

Simon Birmingham:     This campaign, Deb, is going to push beyond just encouraging people to have a holiday and encouraging them to think about the type of holiday and type of experiences that they undertake. Because you’re right, there’s been enormous enthusiasm by people in Sydney; hopping in their cars, driving a couple of hours out of Sydney and having a wonderful short break in some of the nearby regions. And that’s great and I want to encourage people to keep doing that where they can. But we also need to support the tourism industry, through people taking a real break and a proper holiday – something that they would usually or potentially do overseas, which is off the cards at present. So, where they’d get on a plane, head to the Northern Territory or South Australia, spend a week or two properly exploring, supporting jobs across airlines and airports and hotels and tour operators and hire care operators – these are the businesses that are doing it so incredibly tough at present. And as we ae getting some of the states opening up, and hopefully further progress in the weeks to come with Tasmania, and ideally Queensland, then you know we really do want people to plan good summer breaks where they can afford to do so, where it’s safe to do so, and save some of those one in 13 Australian jobs that have historically relied upon tourism.

Deborah Knight:          But, until we have those states opening up – I mean, the border lockdowns are remaining in place, wouldn’t it be better to spend this money to give financial assistance to those tourism businesses? That industry which is struggling so hard?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’re spending many billions of dollars in supporting those businesses, through JobKeeper, through small business payments of up to $100,000 per business that have been made through the new provisions in the last budget. That means that previously profitable businesses can deduct this year’s losses against previous year’s profits and get some money back from the tax man as a result of that, which again, will provide many thousands of dollars of support to individual tourism businesses of all manner of sizes – up to a $5 billion turnover threshold. So, there’s a lot of support to keep businesses afloat, but we also want to restimulate demand, and as I say, people are showing a willingness to get out there. We now want them to move beyond the short trips, plan a decent holiday, and that can enable them to choose to go and experience Indigenous culture in the territory and do wine tours in South Australia. Hopefully, get to the point where they can undertake- you know, make their own whiskey in Tasmania, or ideally, if Queensland gets there and opening up, go and learn to surf in Queensland as Hamish jokes in the ad.

Deborah Knight:          Yeah. We’ve got lots of options that is for sure, and the whiskey – that’s pretty appealing. Now, I want to get you to put your trade hat on now. A number of reports that Beijing has ordered state owned steel mills and power plants to stop using Australian coal. That’s quite concerning?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, these reports we take at face value in terms of at least engaging with industry and with the Chinese authorities to try to seek assurances that this is not occurring in so far as there being outright bans. We do know from the experience of the last few years that there is a bit of a cyclical pattern to coal sales into China and that there have been times previously where we’ve seen a slowdown in processing and almost a sort of semi quota system operating where we find a pause on sales for a period and then they get moving again. And so, we’re just trying to ascertain exactly the nature of what’s happening in the market at present, and certainly making those representations through Chinese authorities to ensure that they are abiding by the terms of the China-Australia free trade agreement and their WTO obligations.

Deborah Knight:          And as all these trade issues bubble away we’ve got Australian writer, Yang Hengjun, finally having his case heard by court in Beijing, accused of espionage. Are you concerned about his welfare?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, we continue to be concerned for his welfare, and that’s why our government’s made very strong representations, continue to seek consular access to him and to argue that he should be accorded appropriate natural justice and an access to legal representation.

Deborah Knight:          And I know we end our chats a lot of the time with this question. But, have you had conversations? Have you managed to speak yet with your Chinese counterpart?

Simon Birmingham:     Sadly, no, Deb. The open invitation from Australia’s perspective for ministerial dialogue stands. We see this as the relationship where we should be able to sit down, even on points of disagreement, and work through it. And that may not mean that that we come to always a point of agreement, but at least if we can better understand the points of disagreement then we can also better focus the relationship in the areas of mutual interest and agreement, such as areas of our trade. And our government certainly stands ready and willing to have that dialogue whenever they’re ready to.

Deborah Knight:          Might have to tempt him with the offer of some of that whiskey? That might get him to get over the line, you never know?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, President Xi did visit Tasmania a few years ago, so perhaps indeed – we can have him back when the border permits allow.

Deborah Knight:          Yeah. Alright, good on you, Simon. Thank you so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Deb. Cheers.

Deborah Knight:          There he is, Tourism and Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham.