Topics: Linda Reynolds; Christian Porter; Aviation and tourism support; Industrial Relations reforms



Jade Macmillan: Well, to discuss these issues, and more, I spoke to the Finance Minister Simon Birmingham a short time ago. Minister, thanks very much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, good to be with you.


Jade Macmillan: The Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has retracted a comment in which she reportedly called her former staffer Brittany Higgins a “Lying cow” – is that appropriate and why did it take this long?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I believe there have been discussions between Ms Higgins and Senator Reynolds. As I had said previously, it was appropriate for Senator Reynolds to apologise and apologise to the full satisfaction of Ms Higgins and I hope the steps that have been taken achieve that outcome.


Jade Macmillan: Ms Reynolds said she didn’t mean that comment in the sense that it was understood – what else could have been taken from that comment?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t know, I wasn’t present. But what I hope for is that Ms Higgins is satisfied with the retraction and the full apology that has been provided.


Jade Macmillan: James Hooke, the former boyfriend of the woman who made the historical rape allegation against Christian Porter says that he had relevant discussions with the woman over around 30 years, as well as relevant discussions with Mr Porter – what is your response to that news this afternoon?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t know, I haven’t seen those reports or comments, and I wouldn’t really have any knowledge in relation to what historic discussions anybody may have had.


Jade Macmillan: Mr Hooke has said that he supports an independent inquiry into the allegation made against Mr Porter, which, it must be said, Mr Porter has strenuously denied. Does this increase pressure on the government to set an inquiry up?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the South Australian Police are finalising their reports and advice to the South Australian Coroner and he will make his decision in full independence, as is appropriate, with the laws under which the Coroner operates to determine what steps may occur in relation to an inquest or other activity and I think those legal processes ought to be run and to run their course free of any form of political interference.


Jade Macmillan: Do you think, though, that there should be an independent inquiry, though, separate to what might happen in South Australia to look into this allegation?


Simon Birmingham: I think that we have a well-established rule of law in Australia, that it treats everybody equally, that there are proper processes attached to it and that we ought to let those processes run their proper course of events and that I’m sure is what will be the case in relation to the South Australian Coroner and the police who are supporting him in his work.


Jade Macmillan: Moving on to another issue, and you were the Tourism Minister up until recently – are you surprised by the backlash to yesterday’s support package and is there anything that the government should have done differently here?


Simon Birmingham: The transition from the end of JobKeeper to the next stages of economic support was always going to be challenging in some sectors, but I think people will see that this support package, which ensures the viability of our aviation industry, but also provides an enormous stimulus to demand for flights and for tourism product across the country is going to deliver in terms of supporting many regions, many businesses, and many jobs around the country. And even yesterday there was a huge surge in terms of internet searches around holiday bookings and travel across Australia, up in the order of 70 per cent, and there was a big surge in the order of around 30 per cent, I gather, in terms of bookings with the airlines, and that’s before some of these discounted flights and activities that the government is supporting flow through. So I’m very confident that we will see benefits flow from this program and that they will support, as I say, many regions, many businesses, many jobs over the months to come.


Jade Macmillan: Some tourism groups say that one of the major areas to miss out in this package is capital cities – accommodation providers, for example, or tour operators. Why aren’t they included in the discount airfares scheme?


Simon Birmingham: Because they’re supported in a number of other ways. Our domestic aviation network support program provides millions of dollars underpinning the viability of flights between capital cities and we can already see that there has been, and continues to be, extensive discounting of flights into many of those capital city regions. We also have programs that we’ve stood up in relation to support for the meetings, conferences, business events sectors, which again are important stimulus for the capital cities. We further know that, for many people, if they are travelling interstate, to a regional destination, they’ll pass through capital cities on the way and may often supplement a trip to a regional destination with a capital city stopover and stay, so there are a range of supports there and, again, we’ve made it clear that we will also, as we roll out these 800,000 discounted half-price airfares around the country, we’ll look at what’s happening in terms of the tourism industry – where booking strength lies and where there is weakness, and we will respond as necessary to adjust the deals with the airlines appropriately to make sure we get people holidaying and holidaying where they’re needed to help save businesses and jobs.


Jade Macmillan: The government has added two destinations to the initial list released yesterday in Adelaide and Darwin. How will that impact the cost of this scheme?


Simon Birmingham: Look, the scheme’s cost remains intact and indeed those discussions were under way before the announcement of the scheme in terms of how we made sure that we were truly supporting industries across each of the states and territories. We want to make sure that all the states do see some activity and support from this program, and that’s why it has been structured the way it has. We aligned the regions, based particularly on the share of jobs in a region that are dependent upon the tourism industry, recognising that there were potential real pressures in some of those regions because a large proportion, a large share of jobs in those regions depended upon tourism. But you know, Australians spent in 2019, $65 billion leaving the country on international travel and holidays. Overseas visitors to Australia spent $45 billion on holidaying here in Australia, so traditionally, pre-COVID, there was a net deficit in terms of people travelling out of the country. If we can just get two-thirds of what Australians used to spend overseas spent in domestic travel and holidays, then we can comfortably make up for the loss of those international tourists and hopefully support the industry until we get back to having open international borders.


Jade Macmillan: Are you expecting that any other destinations will be added and are there any that you would like to see added?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, I expect there will be. As I said before, we will continually monitor and adjust, in consultation with the airlines and the tourism industry, dependent upon where we see booking flows go. We’re clearly not going to maintain high levels of subsidy for flights into areas that are potentially booked out, and we’ll redirect that as the program rolls out over the months to come. That’s why it has been structured in this way – it’s around 46,000 discounted airfares per week up to that 800,000 airfare total, and so that provides plenty of scope over the weeks to come to work with industry, and to adjust to make sure we get the outcomes necessary in saving businesses, saving jobs, and the best things that Australians can do to support that, is of course to ensure that they back this program in by booking holidays and not just a quick weekend away – book a proper holiday like you would have overseas. Book not only the flights and the accommodation, but also the experiences, the visits to attractions, and make sure that, in doing so, you have a fabulous time but also you help to save the jobs of fellow Australians.


Jade Macmillan: Minister, looking ahead to Parliament’s return next week, when will the government put the industrial relations package to a vote in the Senate?


Simon Birmingham: We continue some discussions with the crossbench in this regard. Frankly, it’s disappointing that the Labor Party checked themselves out of discussions on the industrial relations reforms, because these reforms – these reforms include measures that provide greater certainty to casual employees. They include measures that deal with sham contracting, they include measures, as well, that put in place greater penalties for those engaged in wage theft. There’s plenty there that the union movement and the Labor Party have been calling for and they should be at the table willing to help support and pass this legislation. But in the meantime, we continue to work with those crossbench senators and we will seek to progress it if and when we can.


Jade Macmillan: Are you expecting it to go to a vote, then, next week?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll see. As I say, we continue to work with those crossbench senators and our priority is on getting good reform through that can provide a better environment to give jobs growth, employment growth, greater security and certainty to both businesses and to individuals. This is a very fair and balanced package, the subject of extensive consultation. It makes sense to help underpin the type of jobs growth and recovery that we’ve already seen in recent months, that has seen hundreds of thousands of additional jobs flow back into the Australian economy and has our economy outperforming basically all comparable developed economies around the world as part of our recovery from COVID, and we want this package to help build upon that and we hope that we can build that majority to secure its passage.


Jade Macmillan: A number of the crossbenchers have said that they are still unconvinced by this package. Have you agreed to any changes with them, anything that you’re offering to try to get them over the line?


Simon Birmingham: Well, nothing has been settled that hasn’t already been publicly announced in that regard, but we continue to have those discussions. As I said, it would be far preferable if the Labor Party hadn’t checked themselves out of those discussions and been irresponsible in terms of the way that they are refusing to engage constructively on these types of changes, but thankfully other senators have shown a willingness to have some of those discussions and I hope that we can continue that, if not next week then over a longer period of time.


Jade Macmillan: Alright, Simon Birmingham, Finance Minister, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.