Topics: exporter support package, fishing industry, JobKeeper payment

01 April 2020

John MacKenzie: Simon Birmingham, good morning and thank you for taking this call. I know you’re under a lot of pressure.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning John. Nice to speak with you again.

John MacKenzie: Let’s talk about this. Now, what are you hearing about, well, for example those in the fishing industry up here? A whole lot of them just came back to port. Why? Because there’s nobody to buy their product because the restaurants are all closed, et cetera. And the beef industry is also mentioned here. Can you give us an update?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed, John. So we keep seeing changing conditions around the world. Whilst Australia’s restaurant and hospitality sector is now closed down, while we deal with the coronavirus and limit the spread of this virus, elsewhere in the world, in China in particular, appears to be – according to their statistics – past the peak and that our industry tells us that demand is picking up for the type of premium agricultural products that we traditionally export to China. And in fact, when I was up in Cairns with Warren Entsch just a couple of weeks ago, before we all locked down to our home bases, one of the key messages I got from the local seafood industry was that they have demand for their products coming out of China at present. The problem is that with all of the air services falling over they have no way of getting it there.

And so what we’ve done, after some further consultation not only with the seafood sector but with the meat industry and horticultural producers as well, is ascertain that there is a real problem. More than 90 per cent of Australia’s airfreight traditionally leaves the country in the belly of a passenger aircraft, of course those passenger aircraft are no longer flying. So we are entering the market as a government to try to incentivise and coordinate more freight services out of Australia so that we can make sure that, where our businesses do have customers, they can still sell their goods because in all of this economic pressure we face at present the last thing we want to see is a circumstance where farmers and fishers find themselves under even more economic pain purely because they can’t get their goods onto an aircraft, even though there are willing customers at the other end of that flight.

John MacKenzie: Now, let’s talk about these hubs too – Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, but not Cairns.

Simon Birmingham: No, we’re- not Cairns, not Adelaide, not Hobart, not Darwin. But essentially, we will be supporting aggregation points. So, there will be assistance to make sure that we can get goods from Cairns to Brisbane at that aggregation point where we get then sufficient quantities of freight to get on the plane, whether it’s to Japan or China or Singapore or Dubai. We’re looking not just at the China market there but we’ve got to make sure we can get the freight consolidated at some key hubs around the country and do so in sufficient volume that we can get it of course out to those international hubs.

John MacKenzie: Just a quick point, and this is a good story so we’ve got to get it –  lifeline from the JobKeeper payment scheme has been flagged as key to retaining specialist tourism workers, with the coronavirus shutting down expected to cost the Far North industry $2500 million this year. It goes on to say-this is Mark Olsen, the boss of TTNQ – he’s expressing some relief here and with good reason. Mr Olsen said an accelerated Far North Queensland recovery on the other side of the crisis depended on retaining marine skippers and engineers, master reef guides and savannah guides. So, are you reasonably confident this can be achieved?

Simon Birmingham: I am. This JobKeeper payment is a really important one and all that we’re doing here – whether it’s supporting freight to farmers and fishers or the JobKeeper payment to support businesses that are going into essentially a mothball stage – is about preserving our economic capacity and productivity. So when we get to the other side of this crisis, when the pandemic has passed, we’re able to stand up the Australian economy and businesses as quickly as we can afterwards and keep people in jobs and keep businesses viable. And this JobKeeper payment…

John MacKenzie: Yes.

Simon Birmingham: …will enable tourism businesses to not have to retrench their staff or make redundant their staff, but instead to keep them on the books of those businesses, to directly receive a government payment to pay those employees which keeps them out of the Centrelink offices and avoid the need for them having to seek the social security safety net and instead, they can stay contracted with their employers. And it means that when we get past the crisis, they can be reengaged properly and those businesses can restart quickly thereafter.

It’s quite an unprecedented mechanism that we’re using, but these are unprecedented times we’re facing and that’s what justifies it.

John MacKenzie: Certainly. Certainly encouraging. Thanks for this, Simon. Good to talk to you this morning.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Thank you. Cheers.

John MacKenzie: He’s the Minister for Tourism, Federal Minister for Tourism, Simon Birmingham.