• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Coronavirus; Organised flights for seafood exports; PPE equipment; Future tax cuts.
01 April 2020

Michael Rowland: But first, we’re joined by Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister good morning to you. Let’s go to those flights organised for the export of seafood. How important is that?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, these are critical sectors for Australia’s economy and this is the latest step in our Government’s actions to make sure that we save jobs as well as save lives through this crisis. Of course we’ve seen the huge step-up in terms of support and through the JobKeeper payment that we’re making and the commitment to make sure that people stay connected to their workplaces here in Australia and the assistance that’s going to provide to some 6 million Australians. But we also face challenges such as farmers and fishers who are just unable to be able to at present get that seafood, that meat and that high quality horticultural products to the marketplace. And that’s because around 90 per cent of Australian air freight usually goes out in the bellies of passenger aircraft. Of course, those passenger flights are no longer coming and so we’ve got to look at freight solutions so that we can save jobs in those critical agricultural sectors as well.

Michael Rowland: And it’s a very competitive marketplace around the world. How important therefore is it that these export market lifelines are kept open during this crisis?

Simon Birmingham: It’s crucial for the long term that our farmers, our fishers are able to continue to get their product into market, because if they don’t, then there is the risk that they will be replaced by others. We’re seeing now a growth in demand in marketplaces such as China and we want to make sure that where we can keep the Australian economy going, we firmly do. So this is really about making sure that we save the jobs and businesses in those sectors, and that we don’t find a situation where those jobs are lost, purely because there aren’t planes or flights going to be able to get that produce onto. But it is solely about freight, and making sure that we can get that important, high-value Australian cargo that is always exported out to the world, to help feed the world, still on those flights into those countries.

Michael Rowland: As cargo holds will leave with leave Australian with, as you say, some great Australian produce, they’ll come back, Minister, with medical supplies much needed on the ground by health workers. At the same time, we’re learning this morning, the Government is moving to ban and heavily penalise the unauthorised export of face masks and hand santitiers- sanitisers, rather. What can you tell us about that?

Simon Birmingham: Where we possibly can, the backhaul on these flights will absolutely be medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, the types of goods that Australia needs at present. And, yes, we’ve taken the steps in to protect Australia’s interest, to stop unauthorised, inappropriate exporting of those things that we rely upon for our health care and so on at present. The night before last, I spent the evening on the phone to trade ministers from around the world where we discussed the importance of keeping these freight lines open, of course, protecting medical equipment where countries need it, scaling up production as we’re doing as a country at the present, with the military sent in to help in some cases to make more face masks, but crucially we’re working together with other countries around the world to make sure that we don’t just have what we need, but also that we can hopefully supply what is needed into less developed countries and those who are even more vulnerable to coronavirus.

Michael Rowland: And while we’re speaking of flights and wearing your Tourism Minister cap for the moment, is the Government prepared to offer the $1.4 billion Virgin might need to stay afloat?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve made a huge effort already in terms of the support that we are providing to Australian business, to sustain Australian jobs, and to the airline sector with a particular package already. Now, I’ve made very clear it’s not negotiable that Australia has to have viable airlines at the end of this crisis, but we have put on the table enormous assistance already into those sectors, and of course now we will look through this freight mechanism, that where it’s feasible, where it’s possible, there’ll be further support in terms of activity for those airlines to undertake, noting that we do have to make sure that we’re using where we can freight-specific aircraft and aircraft that is able to get the best value deal for our farmers, for our fishermen and ultimately for the Australian taxpayer as well in supporting the cost of these flights.

Michael Rowland: Okay. I’ll ask the question a different way: Do you believe at the end of this, Australia should still have a competitive aviation market?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think we will see recovery in the time to come, that we will have an aviation market that can be competitive, that will absolutely get tourists moving again, trade moving again. The coronavirus is a temporary thing. Of course, we have to get through it, it’s serious, it’s a health crisis first and foremost, but it’s an economic crisis now too. But we should have confidence that the steps we’re taking as a Government will effectively mothball the parts of the economy that need to be mothballed but also have plans in place, such as keeping workers tied to their employers so that we can reactivate things as quick as we can when we get to the other side.

Michael Rowland: And just finally, of course, it’s a massive amount of public money being spent on the wage subsidies, the JobSeeker allowances and the like. There is talk this morning that after all this is over and as the Government seeks to pay for all of this, those promised, those planned tax cuts might be sidelined. Could that be the case?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, what we have done as a government is put in place, yes indeed, hundreds of billions of dollars of support for the Australian economy at present, but it’s temporary. Not only is it targeted, not only is it proportionate to the problem we face, but it is also temporary. And that’s been a key part because what we want when this crisis is over, is to be able to bring spending back to normal levels quickly, not have baked into the budget for the long term, higher spending which we saw in the problems of some of the GFC measures that were put in place. We want to make these measures temporary so that we can get spending back under control and continue with our plans for lower taxes in the future because lower taxes are going to be a crucial part of continuing the economic recovery for Australians and Australian business.

Michael Rowland: Okay. So those legislated tax cuts will still happen based on that?

Simon Birmingham: We absolutely stand by the tax cuts that we’ve legislated for the future. They will be a key part of our economic recovery. The spending that’s in the system at present is temporary spending. We’ll take that spending off as we recover and those tax cuts will be delivered to help Australians in the future.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Simon Birmingham, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining News Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.