• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: G20 meeting; COVID-19 impacts on tourism.
26 March 2020

Tony Pilkington: He’s busy, but he makes himself available to us, and we’re appreciative of that. It is the Federal Trade Minister, flat out at the moment, Simon Birmingham, Senator from here in SA.

Senator, good afternoon. Welcome back. Tell me, Senator, right from the word go, this G20 meeting, does it hold a lot of significance for us or is it an overseas get together?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Pilko, this is a virtual G20 meeting. So our Prime Minister and other leaders of the major developed economies of the world and significant economies will be gathering virtually by teleconference to discuss, really, how they can show both leadership and enhanced collaboration. We want to make sure that everybody is learning off of one another in how to slow the spread of the virus, in how to collaborate in terms of the development of vaccines, and the delivery as effectively around the world as possible of the testing kits and other medical and personal protective equipment that’s required. And of course, it’s the 20 largest economies in the world. We all need to be showing leadership and support to those smaller ones, as Australia seeks to do, particularly with our Pacific Island neighbours.

So, look, there are serious matters for the world leaders to discuss, and this is an important chance to do so.

Tony Pilkington: I know that every country kind of thinks about their own particular interests, and that’s natural in a crisis whether it be a country or an individual or a group. But is there just a risk that some of them could start looking at the reintroduction of trade barriers to protect their local products and their local industries?

Simon Birmingham: There is that risk, and yes, of course. And we all elected National government to have a responsibility to our people first and foremost, and Australians want to know that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that we’ve got the testing kits, the medical equipment, and ultimately the development of a vaccine. And we’re seeing Australian researchers being funded across a number of institutions to work on support around that vaccine, and that’s really important. We’ve sent the army in to help in terms of scaling up the manufacture of masks and protective equipment at facilities, particularly in Victoria, so that we can really get rapid increase in domestic production there. And our foreign service and trade officials working globally to make sure that we secure as many contracts from elsewhere around the world. That’s where it’s important, that- you know, where countries have the capacity to meet their needs and to help elsewhere, well, we don’t want the potential export of that equipment from those countries, whether it’s to us or to other countries around the world, to be [indistinct] by artificial trade barriers.

And when this is all over, since there will be another side, as hard as it’s been to see that now…

Tony Pilkington: Oh, god. We hope so. Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: … but you know, when it’s all over, we don’t want to find there’s a whole lot of new trade barriers put in place that make the economic recovery so much harder. And of course, we’re also dealing with a whole range of new freight and logistical problems, not just in getting key things into Australia, but we see so much of the world with our agricultural exports and we need to make sure that they can continue so that our farmers don’t suffer the same type of pain and hardship that so many other parts of the economy is suffering at present.

Tony Pilkington: Senator, when the- these G20 leaders, they get together, when, tonight, and they do it virtually with the interlinks and all the rest of it. Will they make immediate decisions or will they go away and stew about it for a while and then kind of get back to us and eventually let us know what’s going on?

Simon Birmingham: I imagine there will be some immediate agreements out of it, and that’s certainly what Scott Morrison will be working towards. The bulk of what we’re having to do at present is the type of domestic response, which Scott is doing each and every day virtually either with members of Federal Government, rolling a series of decisions we’re making across the medical and the economic crisis that we face…

Tony Pilkington: Yeah, shivers.

Simon Birmingham: … or, of course, these regular sessions he’s having bringing together the state and territory leaders at that gathering of five Labor leaders and four Liberal leaders from around the country in the National Cabinet, quite unprecedented. And having its challenges at times because, of course- not because of partnership, but because the different states are in different circumstances in terms of the scale of the spread of the virus across the country…

Tony Pilkington: Senator, before we let you go, one of your responsibilities is tourism. You’ve got to say that tourism is on its knees at the moment. It’s going to take a while to recover, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: It is heartbreaking the conversations that I’m having with businesses every single day across the tourism and hospitality sectors.

Tony Pilkington: Yeah, they’re really struggling. Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: The pain that employees are feeling as they are unable to work and find themselves stood down or losing their jobs, and all I can say there is- you know, we’ve scaled up the help for those employees first and foremost. We’re providing payments of up to $100,000 for small and medium sized businesses to help get them through the next three to six months or however long it goes for. And we will be developing plans for how we make the recovery happen and work when we get to that point. And that’s certainly going to be a key piece of my work over the next couple of months.

Tony Pilkington: Senator, thanks for making yourself available. I can imagine how busy you are.

That’s the Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Minister for Trade and Tourism among other things.