Topics: Reopening Australia’s domestic borders; trans-Tasman travel bubble with New Zealand; Virgin airlines; Black Lives Matter protests in Australia

10 June 2020

Patricia Karvelas:  Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, in fact all of the issues the Prime Minister was talking about there, and he joins us now. Minister, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Patricia, good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas:  Excellent to see you there. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, says the reluctance of some Australian states to reopen borders is delaying opening the trans-Tasman bubble. Is that really the case? Is it causing delays?

Simon Birmingham: It is a matter for New Zealand. I do agree with New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, that we shouldn’t wait for the slowest state for us to open up travel with New Zealand. Once our systems are ready, our Border Force and our airports and New Zealand are equally ready, then I hope that we can see that sort of travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand open up as quickly as possible. You know, we’ve got a circumstance now where New Zealand, having eliminated all cases of COVID-19 in their country, has lifted restrictions entirely when it comes to weddings, funerals, public gatherings, retail, hospitality, and similarly we have states and jurisdictions in Australia who have eliminated all cases of COVID- 19. And I hope that we can see them move quickly to similar opening up of their domestic economies, and also opening up to New Zealand as well as to the other states of Australia who have had such success now, right across the board, in suppressing the spread of COVID.

Patricia Karvelas:  One option is to allow travel between New Zealand and individual states, is that the most likely outcome if some of the states don’t open their borders?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, it may well be that some states maintain certain quarantine provisions and then it will presumably be a case that essentially travelers themselves, airlines themselves, market forces, if you like, will determine which capital cities’ airlines put services on to. The Government is not going to necessarily get into the business of scheduling the airlines. What we want to do is see a circumstance where it is recognised that New Zealand has had phenomenal success in suppressing the spread of COVID, Australia has had phenomenal success in suppressing the spread of COVID, and that we create a positive travel arrangement between our two countries to enable people to get back to business. This is not just about people being able to take holidays, as much as, as the Tourism Minister, I’m keen to welcome New Zealanders to Australia for a holiday, it’s also about the flow of business and conference travel and all of those other things that are very important to getting our economy functioning again.

Patricia Karvelas:  Can you confirm reports that Pacific Island nations have written to the Prime Minister and also to New Zealand pushing to actually be included in this broader travel bubble?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I wouldn’t go into specific correspondence but there are certainly discussions that I know have occurred with various Pacific Island countries. We’ve been in close contact with them right throughout the whole management of COVID-19. We recognise a very special responsibility to our Pacific family in terms of assisting them and working with them through these sorts of issues. Now, it’s important that in all of the types of steps of opening up, we do so in a way that maintains the success of suppressing COVID, not just in Australia, but also in New Zealand and, if it got to the point of looking at Pacific countries as well, then being very mindful of our responsibility in helping them to avoid the type of devastation we’ve seen in a health sense elsewhere, that we manage such circumstances very carefully with them as well.

Patricia Karvelas:  So that sounds like it might be way off. What are your concerns around including them in a sort of immediate way?

Simon Birmingham: Purely, Patricia, that we want to make sure that we get each step right as we go through, and in the case of our Pacific Island friends and family, it is as much a responsibility to make sure that we protect them, and that we have confidence that any steps that are taken, whether it’s with Australia, with New Zealand, or with anybody else, that we are confident that there is no risk of significant outbreak in those countries where particular health vulnerabilities exist.

Patricia Karvelas:  The Prime Min ister was really quite outspoken, using very strong language about states opening their borders. Why is the Prime Minister and the Government choosing to put more pressure on the states? The states have outlined their process for reopening their borders, are they violating the National Cabinet process?

Simon Birmingham: I wouldn’t say they’re violating the National Cabinet process, but each delay that comes in terms of reopening parts of the economy means that more businesses are under pressure, and more jobs are under threat. Now, we have prioritised, as a government, the health of Australians, as we should, as we’ve done and done so very successfully, working with the states and territories, to suppress that spread of COVID. We’re now in a circumstance where in the last few days the only new cases being reported in Australia are essentially people returning to Australia as international travelers, whose identification as a positive test is occurring while they are in mandatory quarantine in a hotel. That is a demonstration that every single state and territory has done a phenomenal job in suppressing the spread. Now, we have to make sure that we get Australians back into jobs, and that requires getting our economy opening up again.

As I said before, Patricia, I congratulate Prime Minister Ardern and the New Zealand Government for getting to the point now where they have reopened their hospitality sector, their retail sector, allowed people in terms of major events to get back to a point where they are functioning without restrictions…

Patricia Karvelas:  And you’re saying they are faster movers…

Simon Birmingham: …and that is doing [indistinct] effort to get people back to work.

Patricia Karvelas:  You’re saying they’re faster moves than some of our own states?

Simon Birmingham: Transparently they are. Now I want to see…

Patricia Karvelas:  And so you would prefer to work with New Zealand or feel like you can work more easily with New Zealand now on a travel bubble than you can with Annastacia Palaszczuk?

Simon Birmingham: No, I want to see Australians able to freely move across our country, too. Now, this is a matter for each state and territory to get through that process of opening up the economy within their state, getting hospitality back to normal, getting people in terms of their other activities of major events back to normal. Take those steps. Working through the health advice absolutely, but also being mindful that the longer the delays, the more the pain is in terms of businesses and jobs.

Just at present we see the various bidders for Virgin Australia working through the finalisation of their bids. Now, the more uncertainty that exists in relation to the reopening of domestic borders within Australia, the greater the uncertainty there is for those bidders about when they can fly planes and how many people they can have confidence of employing in Virgin into the future. The same can be said for Qantas or any other airline, but we do want to see an end to that uncertainty so that we can see jobs saved into the future.

Patricia Karvelas:  So let me be specific here, I was about to ask about Virgin. You’re saying that the states closing their borders is causing Virgin problems in terms of finding a solution at the moment. I mean, obviously they are in administration. Is that what you are saying, that the states’ behaviour is making this harder?

Simon Birmingham: The uncertainty over state borders clearly creates uncertainty for people running airlines. We have a circumstance at present where, by and large, airline operations in Australia are being subsidised by the taxpayer. I don’t want to see a circumstance in the future where taxpayers are continuing to

subsidise airlines not to fly planes. I want to see a circumstance where passengers are paying airlines to fly those planes, and so that they can have their pilots, have their cabin crew, have their ground staff all back in their jobs and with the confidence that they actually have the economic activity to support those jobs.

Patricia Karvelas:  Virgin administrators say the two bidders for the airline want the Federal Government to commit to providing JobKeeper for all 9000 staff for another six months, and guarantee existing tickets before they finalise their offers – will you consider that?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve been working through with the Virgin administration, with Nicholas Moore, the former head of Macquarie Bank, acting as the government’s emissary and adviser, if you like, in engaging with the Virgin administration. We continue to consider whatever comes from them. We’ve been clear around JobKeeper that there is a review occurring in June. That will be taking a look at how JobKeeper can be structured into the future, if it is necessary into the future. I think you’ve seen from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, as well as from myself, an acknowledgement that the tourism and travel sector has borne a disproportionate brunt of the restrictions from COVID, being some of the first to be impacted, and likely to be some of the last businesses impacted, and that we are very mindful of that when we consider how we approach JobKeeper into the future.

Patricia Karvelas:  So your own instinct, Minister, is to extend JobKeeper for that industry until borders are reopened?

Simon Birmingham: My responsibility is for us to go through the proper review process, which we will, but we acknowledge as a government that the tourism and travel sector has borne that disproportionate burden and brunt of economic shutdown, and that that is likely to continue to affect that sector for some period of time, because of the necessary ongoing closure of international travel borders – noting that international travellers to Australia don’t just catch an international flight into Australia, they then contribute a reasonable percentage of domestic travel within Australia as well, and that will be absent in the market for a period of time.

Patricia Karvelas:  If you refuse to do that, what they’re calling for, the extension of JobKeeper, and Virgin fails, will those job losses be on the government’s head?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, we’ve seen very strong interest in the Virgin purchase to date. There were a large number of bidders who chose to participate in the administration process. The administrators have whittled that down to two, but given the extent of interest, I remain confident that we will see a positive outcome. The government has been judicious about the way in which we’ve provided support to the airline sector. We’ve in general made sure that it is either economy-wide support, like JobKeeper, or sector-wide support such as the more than $1 billion now provided to different airlines as part of our maintenance of the national network, and the like. We don’t want to be providing particular handouts to any particular operator if we can avoid it. What we want to make sure is that we have an environment where airlines can fly with paying customers as quickly as possible, and that’s why I say getting the states to move in terms of reopening those state borders in a timely manner is so crucial, because that’s the way we can minimise the expectation on taxpayers, create the best chance of a successful bidder coming through, and know that they’re going to have paying customers to fly those planes.

Patricia Karvelas:  Universities say China’s warning to students that study here is dangerous because of racist attacks is disappointing and demonstrably untrue. Do you acknowledge, though, that there have been racist attacks and that’s clearly something that some people in that community are concerned about?

Simon Birmingham: I do acknowledge that there are instances of racism and thoroughly inappropriate behaviour, which I condemn, which the government has consistently condemned, as have state and territory leaders and those elsewhere. But I also think we should acknowledge that Australia, as a country, holds ourselves to a very high standard. In our country, racism is not tolerated. We encourage people to call it out and we condemn it. We encourage people to report it. Where it involves any type of violence, we expect it to be investigated and prosecutions to occur. We have agencies like the Australian Human Rights Commission, that report on it transparently, so that we can tackle these issues. This is a far higher standard than most other countries live to, and that is why I am so confident that there is no validity at all to a suggestion that Australia is an unsafe destination for visitors or students to come to.

Patricia Karvelas:  Just finally, Pauline Hanson has called George Floyd: a dangerous thug who should not be made a martyr. The One Nation leader says she’s angry that his death sparked protests when the death of an Australian woman didn’t spark the same protests. Her quote is : it sickened me to see people holding up signs that say Black Lives Matter in memory of this American criminal. Are you shocked by that language?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t know that I’m shocked, sadly, but I am saddened by anybody who wants to bring the type of division that we’ve seen in the United States to Australia. As I said before, racism has no place in Australia, and we condemn it and call it out wherever we can. And the type of division that we’ve seen in the US has been distressing, and the fact that you have circumstances where black communities feel that they cannot live in an environment of safety, the fact that equally you now have circumstances where police, most of whom in the United States, would still be good, law-abiding citizens, feel that they are being vilified, is creating a terrible circumstance there and I hope the US can find a way to come together and more successfully address these issues, and I don’t want to see that sort of division brought at all into the Australian political debate.

Patricia Karvelas:  But given George Floyd now represents for many people around the world, including Australians, including Indigenous Australians, a sort of- such a symbol of the unfairness of the system, it’s pretty offensive to call him an American criminal, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: As I say, I’m not surprised, but I am saddened and disappointed. I wouldn’t engage in that type of vilification. His record can speak for itself, but equally, more importantly now, as we look to the future, the acts surrounding his death, I think, speak to an injustice that needs to be addressed in terms of that incident by the US legal system, but more broadly, an injustice that, as we’ve seen, tragically in the US, the rates of deaths around COVID-19 have been disproportionately borne in communities – often black American communities. Thankfully in Australia, we have a much fairer system, a universal healthcare system, we are able to tackle many of these issues – not to the point of perfection, the job is never done in terms of stamping out racism, or driving towards creating the best environment for equality and opportunity for individuals. We have to be ever-vigilant and keep working there. But I think we can say that our system, in all of those areas, holds up amongst the best in the world, and much better than some of the challenging circumstances we’ve seen in the US.

Patricia Karvelas:  But are you ashamed of our figures when it comes to Indigenous people and incarceration?

Simon Birmingham: As I said, I think we have an ongoing job to do that we can never say that it ‘s done and we can clearly-

Patricia Karvelas:  But is it shameful for this country to have figures like that?

Simon Birmingham: I think it is- whether you call it shameful or whatever other term you want to put to it, Patricia, I think it is clearly an ongoing work in progress, that- I know when I was the Education Minister, I was pleased that one of the areas of the Closing The Gap targets that we made real progress in was in terms of Indigenous Year 12 completion rates. It’s obviously a case that we have to work right back through all aspects of Indigenous support to be able to break down barriers, to improve those sorts of completion rates in education, to improve employment rates, to improve health outcomes. And you improve all of those fundamentals, you’re also going to get a better outcome when it comes, then, to Indigenous incarceration as well. It’s not one silver bullet.

Patricia Karvelas:  No. Minister, thank you for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Patricia, my pleasure.

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