• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Airline and domestic tourism industries.
14 April 2020

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Is the Government committed to maintaining a minimum domestic network of air travel between capital cities for goods and people that need to be moved quickly?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, that is an important consideration. We’ve already taken such steps in terms of ensuring our exports of high value goods, particularly high value, time-sensitive agriculture goods, can get out into international markets and we took that decision by putting in place an international freight assistance mechanism and we’re working through the implementation of that, with the first flight having headed off last week from Hobart, laden full of premium seafood that’s keeping Australians there in jobs and businesses afloat down in Tassie. And we’re looking importantly at the issues we now face in terms of the operation domestically to make sure that essential freight and essential people movements can be facilitated; talking to the airlines about how that is best done. It is a very careful and cautious approach we take here. We’re not looking to subsidise air travel across the line land, but we know that there are some essential movements that need to occur and need to be facilitated.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But if you’re asking the airlines to facilitate that essential travel, that may not be a very good economic proposition at this stage. You may look at subsidy, right? That’s clearly on the table.

Simon Birmingham: Those are possibilities, and these are discussions that the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated that he’s been having as the Transport Minister with both Qantas and Virgin to work through what is necessary to make sure that that essential connectivity between the major capital cities of Australia is maintained. As I said, we’ve done so for our exporters on the international horizon. We’ve also done so in support for regional airlines and ensuring that remote communities, particularly across Northern Australia, can still have confidence that they can get medical supplies and other things into them through regional aviation. And now, we find that as a result of the travel restrictions between states, that capital city and domestic aviation has really collapsed and so there’s a need there to make sure that we maintain it at the bare bones essentials, not looking to do any more than that, because obviously, we’re discouraging people from travelling. But there are some things that need to happen.

Patricia Karvelas: I know that the Government- the Deputy Prime Minister, as you mentioned, is in talks with Qantas and Virgin. Why include Virgin if you’re not planning to bail them out?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Virgin continue to operate in the Australian skies, albeit at very limited numbers. But they are. And we hope and want to see two airlines continue in this country into the future as long as that’s possible and viable.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Labor thinks the Government should take a stake in Virgin instead of offering them a bail-out. Would that be better value for taxpayers? Is that something the Government is considering?

Simon Birmingham: Look, that’s jumping into the hypotheticals –

Patricia Karvelas: Not really. It’s a live option right now, isn’t it, if Virgin looks like it could collapse unless there’s an intervention. Is that an option available to you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are many options that could be available to Government. They’re hypothetical unless the Government chooses to take them. Yes, Virgin has made public that there are issues they currently face. All airlines around the world are facing very challenging issues at present. It is not negotiable for Australia to maintain a strong and viable domestic aviation sector that’s crucial for a country like ours. As Tourism Minister, I ideally want it to be a competitive environment as well and so that’s something that weighs on my mind. But ultimately, there can be no blank cheques from Government. We’ve provided enormous support, economy-wide, to businesses right around Australia to maintain their viability and support the employment of their staff. We’ve provided additional support already in the aviation sector and we were just talking about other steps that we might be taking to support the aviation sector. And so, we do have to be mindful that all taxpayer contributions have their limits and no company can expect a blank cheque attached to it.

Patricia Karvelas: So, what would the benefits be of the Government taking a stake in Virgin?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, there’ll be considerations, if it comes to it, that we’ll have around the Cabinet table.

Patricia Karvelas: But can you tell me what you think the benefits would be of taking a stake instead of a bail-out?

Simon Birmingham: That’s something you should ask the advocates for that. I’m not-

Patricia Karvelas: But you say it’s- they’re all hypothetical but they’re clearly all on the table. I’m wondering out of those options, what that would provide for taxpayers and Australians?

Simon Birmingham: Well, they’re discussions that we should rightly have around the Cabinet table, come to a decision if one is needed to be settled in relation to matters to do with Virgin.

Patricia Karvelas: Is better to bail out Virgin and save those jobs or let them go under and leave it to the market to deliver a new second airline, as happened after Ansett collapsed?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve taken unprecedented steps to save jobs right around the Australian economy. We’re estimating some 6 million Australian jobs will be saved as a result of the JobKeeper payment being in place, keeping people attached to their employer. Of course, we’re also providing billions of dollars direct into small and medium sized businesses. Many billions more that we’ve provided through the financial system and banks to support liquidity so that it is easier for businesses, especially big business, to access finance. And we’ve seen Qantas go down that path of being able to raise additional finance, which supports them in terms of their ongoing viability. Now, Virgin’s case is one, as I say, that if it needs to be discussed, we’ll talk about it around the Cabinet table.

We want to save as in jobs as we possibly can, but we can’t save every business in Australia. We’ve been clear about that all along. There will be some, and where the circumstances are such that they just cannot be saved, and we will have to look to the market to resolve that. But if we can save jobs, we’ll do so sensibly and responsibly with taxpayer dollars. Well, that is what we’re doing already.

Patricia Karvelas: With your Tourism Minister hat on – you have so many hats – let’s just go through some of this. I know you’ve said don’t expect to book overseas holidays this year. So in terms of the domestic tourism industry, how quickly do you hope to get that up and running as an alternative?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope that we can continue to see the flattening of the curve, the reduction in new cases each day, the reduction in total active cases occurring, so that we can see some increased movement across the Australian economy. Now, there are some priorities that come well before people being able to travel freely again though.

First and foremost, I want to see kids back in schools. I want to make sure that we have an expectation that children go to school and attend school, and as a former Education Minister, I’m particularly passionate about that and wanting to make sure that, that is one of the first considerations and decisions that’s made by all states and territories if they can, but certainly, by those in the best possible position to do so as quickly as possible.

Then of course, there are a range of other considerations that the states and territories, as part of the National Cabinet, will bring to bear about other activities that they might want to see opened up – be that playgrounds or gymnasiums – before they consider domestic travel between and across the states. It is important to recognise that there may still be continued differences in terms of the rate of incidence in some states relative to another one, and that may mean it takes us a bit longer for us to see that domestic travel across state borders freed up again. But perhaps, it might free up a little sooner in some states to at least travel within those states…

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So it-

Simon Birmingham: …and anything that gets people back into tourism businesses would be very, very welcome for those many struggling tourism operators around the country.

Patricia Karvelas: So of course the next school holidays for many people is in the middle of winter and anyone down south likes to go up north. Do you think that’s a real realistic proposition? You were quite blunt about Australians not expecting to travel overseas. Will you be equally blunt to Australians like me, who like to get out of the Melbourne winter, saying, I’m not going to go to the sunny state over the July school holidays?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t want to be raising expectations, nor squashing all hope in that space. That is a decision in terms of heading up north to Queensland that will have to be made by the Queensland Government. They’re the ones who put border restrictions on entry into Queensland. They will do so, I’m sure, on the basis of the health advice at the time and based on the epidemiology in terms of-

Patricia Karvelas: But would that be your aim?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I dearly, dearly hope that we continue to see single digit reporting of cases, zero days, as we saw in South Australia a couple of days ago, where there are no cases reported on a given day. And if we can see that sort of trend, well then anything becomes possible. But right now everybody needs to keep living by the restrictions, show some patience, because the restrictions we’ve put in place are saving lives and avoiding in Australia the catastrophic scenes that we’ve seen in other parts of the world, including many countries who would usually expect to be comparable to ourselves.

Patricia Karvelas: The Australian Financial Review has reported that more people are booking cruises now than before the virus hit. Does that surprise you?

Simon Birmingham: Sounds like madness to me. That’s blunt, isn’t it?

Patricia Karvelas: Yes, what’s going on there?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t know. But I would say to Australians that now is not a time to be making bookings for travel unless you have an iron clad insurance policy, because we cannot guarantee when you will be able to undertake that travel. That clearly areas that have been proven to be higher risk are likely to be some of the last areas where that travel is permitted again. So, international travel will be sitting towards the end, cruise travel, you would expect to be sitting right towards the end if not the very last thing that is reactivated again, given the difficulties Australia has faced with the cruise sector so far.

Patricia Karvelas: You’re telling Australians – do not book cruises, even if it is next year?

Simon Birmingham: Well, if you have an iron clad insurance policy, should you still not be in a position to undertake that cruise. Go your hardest, I guess, but I would tell people at present, they should be cautious about the decisions they make. They should be patient, and really what I urge people to do above all else, is

to think about supporting Australia’s tourism operators. When you do get the opportunity to travel again, understand that there are thousands and thousands of small and medium sized businesses, the length and breadth of this country, who have been doing it so tough, right since the start of the year when Chinese travel restrictions kicked in and they need your business, they need your support and they’re the ones I hope that you can get in your car, get on a train or ultimately get on a plane and head to and support first and foremost.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. I wasn’t going to a book a cruise anyway, but I’m glad that Australians have had that absolutely clarified. Just finally, do you share the Prime Minister’s concerns about the World Health Organization’s decision to approve the reopening of wet markets in China?

Simon Birmingham: At the very least it seems premature. I think there needs to be very thorough analysis and study and research into the causes and the handling of COVID-19. It’s a real concern that we don’t seem to have had that transparent, thorough, accountability undertaken either within China, or by the World Health Organisation to date. And now we want to make sure we get back on with business as quickly as we can, when we get the opportunity, but we do have to be honest about the causes of this, how it came to spread, and make sure there is proper accountability to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, many thanks for joining us this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, thank Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: That is Simon Birmingham, he is the Minister for Tourism, Trade and Investment.