• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Impact of state and territory border closures and ADF support to control borders.
03 September 2020

Patricia Karvelas: Well, Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham is my guest this afternoon. Minister, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia. Good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: According to Tourism Research Australia, the industry is on track to lose almost $55 billion because of closed borders. What will that look like in terms of jobs and businesses lost?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, it translates potentially into many thousands of businesses and potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs. One in 13 Australian jobs, pre-pandemic, was reliant, in some way, on the tourism and hospitality industry. Now, they have been a necessary casualty, if you like, of the imposition of border restrictions, of shutdowns and other restrictions across the board and everyone has understood that, and it’s one of the reasons why, as a government, we put in place the largest support package ever in Australian history through the JobKeeper program, to sustain businesses and their employees through small business and medium business payments and a raft of other measures that we put in place. But what we don’t want to see is that businesses, and more importantly, even their employees, in peril because of a continuation of unnecessary restrictions anywhere across the country. That would be reckless and irresponsible by governments and it would put enormous hardship on those individuals, on those businesses, and it would then hurt the long-term recovery as well…

Patricia Karvelas: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: …because if we see restrictions in place too long that cause massive business failures in any of those places, then that will be a real challenge in terms of the economy.

Patricia Karvelas: WA’s Treasurer says the national accounts shows border closures aren’t a drag on his economy. Why don’t you think the economic message has cut through? He says that actually if you look at the national accounts, it demonstrates that their strategy has worked.

Simon Birmingham: Well, the WA Treasurer is talking about accounts that relate to the June quarter this year, when pretty much every state and territory was in a similar position of various levels of shutdown and areas of inactivity. Some coming out of it slightly better than others. But we’re now a couple of months on from that, and what we know for sure is that across the country, if you’re working in the airline sector, in an airport, in a car rental company, in a tour operator, businesses that rely on cross-border travel, if you’re employed in a CBD, in a big hotel or a restaurant or a cafe that relies on those big hotels or a conference centre, in any of those areas, your business, your job, is absolutely threatened because of the ongoing border restrictions. Now our government’s not calling for them all to be released and opened up. We support border controls in relation to Victoria. We see that absolutely. We want to have-

Patricia Karvelas: That’s the only one to support though, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: No. Well we also want to have an evidence-based approach, informed and being worked up as it is by both Commonwealth and state and territory health and medical advisers around how we clearly define and operate on a hotspots basis. And we simply ask the states and territories to come to the National Cabinet tomorrow and over the weeks that follow to engage in a manner where they are open-minded…

Patricia Karvelas: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: …where they’re willing to listen to evidence and willing to act on that evidence.

Patricia Karvelas: Are you suggesting that Western Australia and Queensland are coming to National Cabinet tomorrow without that open mind?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve seen some disturbing commentary from each of those state leaders, and I’d urge them, just as I urge the Liberal Premier of Tasmania as well, to come and think about how they can open up their economies. We’ve got a situation. I’m sitting here in the Australian Capital Territory, which has had more than 50 days in a row now without a single reported new case of COVID-19. More than 50 days in a row. And yet, people from Canberra are not allowed to travel to Queensland or WA or South Australia or Tasmania. I want that to change in all those states.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. You mentioned South Australia. That’s your state…

Simon Birmingham: It is.

Patricia Karvelas: …where you’re a senator. Are you disappointed that South Australia has had the same kind of impositions, the same kind of approach?

Simon Birmingham: I am Patricia. Although South Australia has, in other ways, shown leadership. SA has opened itself up to Tasmania, to WA, to Queensland and to the Northern Territory. Those other states haven’t reciprocated in the case of SA. So I hope South Australia will also adopt more of a hotspots approach and open up to the ACT as well…

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So-

Simon Birmingham: …but I do give credit where it’s due; that in their case, they’re open to people coming from WA. It’s just that those visitors from WA can’t go back…

Patricia Karvelas: No.

Simon Birmingham: …if they come to SA.

Patricia Karvelas: Let me get in here, because obviously, you’ve talked about South Australia and Tasmania, both Liberal states. Have you had talks with your counterparts there, saying: hey, guys, stop politicising this? Have you done that with your own- because they’re your side of politics. Have you had those frank conversations?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve had those frank conversations with both Liberal and Labor ministers and premiers. My ambition is firmly to make sure that we work through this in a way that saves the jobs of Australians where they can be saved. And we said at the outset of this crisis, we wouldn’t be able to save every job but we should save the ones that can be saved, and we should certainly follow the evidence as to where it can be done safely. And that’s why the Prime Minister has been working with the health officials in terms of the definitions of hotspots, has been talking to the states and territory premiers to try to bring a bit more cooperation, a bit more conciliation, a bit more open mindedness, to this issue and to get them to act on informed evidence going forward. We don’t expect there to be magic outcomes and complete unity tomorrow at the National Cabinet. But I would urge the state and territory leaders, as I say, to embrace a bit of progress and certainly to look at how and where they can make those openings to save the jobs, be they cross-border communities or be they the many parts of the travel sector that rely upon people doing more than just taking a day trip by car.

Patricia Karvelas: So tomorrow will be the definition that the Prime Minister has [indistinct] to kind of nut out with these leaders. Queensland has said it wants 28 days of zero community transmission before it opens up its border to New South Wales and Victoria. Do you think that’s feasible?

Simon Birmingham: Well that seems like a very, very high benchmark to set. Now I’m not going to say what’s feasible, I’ll leave that to the health experts. But as the health experts that the Prime Minister is talking to and the Commonwealth health experts talking to and working with their state and territory counterparts. That’s where this type of work around hotspot definitions should be based. And I would hope that the Queensland Premier is willing to listen to that, not just to have an arbitrary line in the sand somewhere, be it some date into the future or a figure that may not be as well considered or developed as what the PM is trying to bring forward in a detailed plan for the consideration of National Cabinet.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you think it’s reasonable that Queensland grants exemptions for AFL executives but won’t let people from Canberra visit?

Simon Birmingham: Well I understand entirely why people see a bit of hypocrisy there, and it’s not really just the people from Canberra there. I mean, what my heart bleeds for in that case and where I think people do see the hypocrisy, it is the very tough approach to sick people, elderly people, people needing to go to funerals or other things across the border, being denied exemptions to be able to undertake those sorts of basic activities. I mean, before we even get to a debate about whether or not one jurisdiction should open up to the other jurisdiction, we should at least have processes in place where those living and working in the cross-border communities across northern New South Wales, where again, there is no community transmission in those communities, they should be able to move with relative freedom, particularly where their health needs, their educational needs, their work needs, all those basic human instincts of going to visit a dying relative are at stake.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. You’ve rejected suggestions that the states that don’t reopen borders should be kicked off JobKeeper, for instance, but you’ve also said that they’re taking advantage of JobKeeper. Who’s taking advantage of JobKeeper?

Simon Birmingham: Well JobKeeper applies in a way where it is there for whatever parts of the economy are negatively impacted by COVID. And we’ve done that because we recognise that if you are truly geared to receive international visitors, you’re going to be hurting. If you’re still dealing with social distancing requirements that mean you can’t accommodate as many people as usual, your business is going to be hurting. These types of restrictions are why we’ve extended JobKeeper all the way out until March next year to give business certainty and to make sure that social distancing and other restrictions don’t hurt businesses unnecessarily. They’ll have that extra financial support to get them through it. But if a state or territory imposes impositions on other areas of economic activity that are not necessary, that are not justified, well those businesses too will qualify for JobKeeper, that’s where a state or territory is – to some extent – taking advantage of the fact …

Patricia Karvelas: And who’s doing that at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think if we see continued imposition of blanket unnecessary border restrictions, then that indeed is creating a circumstance where many of those parts of a state’s economy dependent on the travel industry and the tourism industry will be claiming JobKeeper when they may not have continued to need it if they’d simply been able to welcome visitors from across the border. I was in western South Australia just a couple of weeks ago, in the town of Ceduna, on its way of course towards the WA border. And many tiny small businesses there who simply rely upon traffic going across the Nullarbor. And South Australia has next to no case as we discussed before. WA has next to no cases as we discussed before. There’s no reason that caravaners, campers and others shouldn’t be able to drive across that SA-WA border.

Patricia Karvelas: Let’s work through some other things. Will the Government consider withdrawing the support of the ADF to control borders?

Simon Birmingham: Well the ADF is playing a really valuable part in controlling the borders, particularly around Victoria. And as I said before we don’t dispute the need for quarantine and border restrictions around Victoria. That makes sense. It’s providing valuable assistance to New South Wales and SA. Both of whom have acted in the last couple of weeks though to provide some greater flexibility around border communities which we welcome because we recognise that the situation in regional Victoria has been improving, as it has right across Victoria, and that the threat that people may have thought regional Victoria could pose- could impose to regional South Australians or regional communities in New South Wales, has abated. And hence you’ve seen sensible steps by those governments to facilitate that sort of travel. But the ADF is still playing an important role in helping maintain the overall approaches around Victoria. And this is the point I make, Patricia, it’s about being proportionate in the handling of border controls. Our government is not saying let’s open up to Melbourne and have people fly right across the country. What we are saying though is where a state has nipped COVID in the bud and an adjoining state has nipped COVID in the bud, why on earth wouldn’t you allow travel between the two states?

Patricia Karvelas: Is the Treasurer’s suggestion of bringing forward stage two of the income tax cuts a plan or a thought bubble?

Simon Birmingham: Well we are considering many things in the lead up to the budget.

Patricia Karvelas: Including that? Is that an under active consideration?

Simon Birmingham: These areas, in terms of how we stimulate different areas of economic activity over the next few years, are logically under consideration as we frame the budget in October. We recognise that we are facing a global economic downturn, the likes of which none of us have lived through before. So we are having to consider all manner of different policy options. We’re not going to run endless commentary on what might or might not be in the budget. I make it very clear we’re considering a lot of different things…

Patricia Karvelas: Alright.

Simon Birmingham: …and that is because we face a global downturn.

Patricia Karvelas: But I will put this to you. If you look at the national accounts figures, it says that people with jobs are saving more because they can’t go out and spend the money. So is it an effective way to give people who already have jobs more money in their pocket that they’re just pocketing in savings and not actually stimulating the economy? Wouldn’t it be better to actually direct the money to people at the lower end who will go out and spend the money?

Simon Birmingham: Well actually Patricia, there’s a fair bit of evidence that of the various supplements and additional payments that have been made during the course of the COVID period, that there’s a fairly high degree – in some estimates I’ve seen up to 40 per cent – of savings factors occurring there as well. We’ll look at all those different arguments as we consider how best to ensure that we generate the strongest possible economic recovery. It’s going to be low, it’s going to be challenging. There will be bumps along the road. We acknowledge that. Australia starts this process somewhat better than many other countries. Even Sweden that hasn’t had the type of restrictions in place that Australia has to save lives and which has had a far worse death toll, saw an eight per cent decline in their national accounts compared to our seven per cent. For many other countries which have had restrictions, it’s well and truly into the double digits. So we have been managing this well. The assistance we’re providing has been helping the economy sustain a higher level of economic activity than would have otherwise been the case. But now we also have to think about how we encourage investment in job creation, all of those things that are necessary to get the many Australians that we had got to work through creating 1.5 million extra jobs in our first six years in government, we’ve now got to re-create many of those jobs again.

Patricia Karvelas: Just a couple of very quick things. What did you make of Tony Abbott’s speech suggesting that hard conversations are needed about who is allowed to be helped from COVID and who should be essentially allowed to die?

Simon Birmingham: So look I didn’t read the whole speech or hear the whole speech. I heard snippets of it. I equally heard Senator Richard Colbeck, our Aged Care Minister, condemn those sorts of remarks in the Senate yesterday. And I would share Richard’s views.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. You think they deserve condemnation?

Simon Birmingham: I think that what we have done as a government is work to save as many lives as we can by suppressing the virus. Whilst delivering the economic support to try to get businesses and individuals through these tough times. And I think that has been absolutely necessary and the appropriate and right thing to do.

Patricia Karvelas: Before I let you go, just to some breaking news, our viewers can see right on screen Japan’s coastguard believes a ship carrying 43 people, including two Australians, may have capsized and sunk after speaking to a rescued crewman. I just want to get your initial response here, particularly obviously because Australians are involved here?

Simon Birmingham: This sounds like a terrible tragedy. I have no doubt that our embassy in Japan will provide whatever assistance it can to families, anybody injured or affected as a result of a tragedy like this.

Patricia Karvelas: Thanks, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.