• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: $94.6m for Zoos and Aquariums; Policy Dispute with China
28 April 2020

David Penberthy: We’re joined on 5AA Breakfast by the Tourism and Trade Minister, South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning guys. Great to be with you.

David Penberthy: You’ve announced a $94.6 million for the care of animals at zoos around the country. Fascinated to get a sense of what the process is that the Federal Government’s using to determine which industries and which businesses get some sort of financial assistance without being reductive about it. Why, for example, a zoo and why not, I don’t know, Virgin?

Simon Birmingham: Well Virgin’s got plenty of financial assistance as has the airline sector overall but to kind of answer your question at a high level, what we’ve done first and foremost is worry about the jobs of Australians and that’s why we created a $320 billion package of economic support and relief with the JobKeeper payment at its core to provide wage subsidies to employers to keep people in jobs regardless of the sector or industry, if they were facing a downturn in revenue, the money flows through to them.

So jobs firmly came first then we’ve had a range of other targeted packages of support. Obviously, lots of it focused on standing up additional capacity in health care. But in terms of economic support, we’ve had different packages made available to the airlines, including Virgin receiving millions of dollars of additional support. We hope to see Virgin come out of voluntary administration and still be a viable second carrier having thought about their debt problem, perhaps change their foreign ownership structure and going on to the future. We’re supporting our exporting sectors to be able to access freight capacity that would otherwise be unavailable or unaffordable.

So we’ve done a lot of those different things and then when we looked around at some of the other problem areas, well these live animal exhibiting zoos and aquariums have huge additional fixed costs that aren’t supported or subsidised by anything else in terms of the cost of feeding animals and veterinary support and the research they do around threatened species can run into tens of thousands of dollars per annum per animal. And of course, the current regulations have forced them to shut their doors. It’s not acceptable that they don’t feed their animals or don’t care for their animals and this support is about ensuring that care happens and they are sustained through the shutdown period so that we still have viable attractions there which are often the ecosystem of a lot of other tourism businesses once they reopen.

Will Goodings: Birmo, I know you’re not the guy who makes the call about what can and cannot open but as the curve is being flattened and particularly here in South Australia where we’ve had zero cases now five days running, do you think that zoos are something that might be on the horizon for some sort of perhaps a more- not a full open slather reopening, but you can think of a way in which you could certainly go to the city zoo here and in perhaps reduce numbers?

Simon Birmingham: If you think of outdoor attractions, then yes, you would think that they are more likely to reopen before indoor attractions.

David Penberthy: Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: Now, we’re doing incredibly well in SA both in terms of eliminating or slowing dramatically the number of cases of COVID-19. But also we’re doing pretty well, compared to the rest of the country in getting on with our lives and we never went to the two-person restriction in SA. Steven Marshall allowed South Australians to still gather in numbers up to ten people. We have kept schools open and reopened schools successfully yesterday and Steven Marshall again, drove that decision and elsewhere around the country you’ve got schools shutdown, online learning still having to happen or one-day-a-week sort of trials happening. So, SA is absolutely pushing the margins successfully, in terms of squashing the spread of COVID-19 and because of that, we’re able to reopen parts of society. But you’ve got to do it in terms of the priority and getting kids back to school is a priority. Making sure that our economy comes on in an orderly way as a priority and instead of the order we base against the risk. And yes, I would be hopeful that outdoors attractions like wildlife reserves and zoos might get the kick perhaps before some of the indoor venues can.

David Penberthy: Wearing your trade hat now, Simon Birmingham, There’s been some dark noises coming out of Beijing, suggestions that Australian imports of beef and- of particular concern here in SA, wine could be targeted as some kind of reprisal for Canberra’s support of an enquiry into the origin of the COVID-19 virus in China. Do you regard this as just sabre-rattling from the Chinese government? And is the Commonwealth here considering shifting its position on account of those threats?

Simon Birmingham: It’s inappropriate and its irresponsible rhetoric, regardless of what it’s motives are. Australia will not be varying our public health policies, our position in relation to their needing to be a transparent investigation into the origins and management of COVID-19 in response to threats of economic coercion. Just won’t change our policies position there, which is about dealing with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, in response to any threats. And frankly, Australians and people the world over should expect that when hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives, millions of people have lost their jobs, billions of people have suffered severe disruption to their lives. The least you can expect is a transparent investigation into how it happened and how we prevent it from happening again.

David Penberthy: Good answer. Here, here to that.

Will Goodings: At any cost? I mean, no one’s disagreeing with the merit of an independent investigation. But, are you prepared to be a Trade Minister that in six to 12 months is making announcement about Australian trade contracting by a certain percentage?

Simon Birmingham: Will, sadly, we’re going to see that contraction already, as a result of the loss of particular services, trade, and tourism and education. I hope that we can rebuild those markets. Our beef and our policy dispute, if there is one, is not with the people of China or the legitimate businesses of China. And I hope that the government of China considers its position and that it is just not tenable to go out and surely say that there shouldn’t be some inquiry, some investigations into this massive global impact, this pandemic that is causing such loss of life and such disruption now. And that is they type of principle, I think, that Australians would expect our Government to stand on. Just as we wouldn’t compromise on national security principles, nor should we compromise on public health principles. These are the core responsibilities of Government. We want to maintain a good, positive partnership with China, with people, businesses, communities and indeed its government. And we will work hard to try to do that; we’re not going to compromise on those core aspects. And in the meantime, we’ll continue to do all of the things we were doing before the pandemic to also, build other opportunities for Australian businesses, whether it’s our India economic strategy, our negotiation with the free trade agreement with the European Union or elsewhere.

David Penberthy: Absolutely. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll catch up again soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys, my pleasure.