Topics: Qantas evacuation flight; Effect of bushfires and coronavirus on tourism; Bridget McKenzie.

03 February 2020

Michael Rowland: Let’s take you back to Federal politics now. We’re joined by the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham from Canberra. Minister, good morning to you. Let’s firstly talk about this Wuhan evacuation flight. A Qantas flight is in China as far as we know. What’s the latest information you have on that?

Simon Birmingham: Well good morning Michael. As you’ve been reporting, this operation is under way. Now we want to thank in particular, the Chinese authorities for their cooperation with this, as well as Qantas and our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials and others, have been engaged in assisting with this matter. A full update and account of it will clearly be provided once people have been safely transport through to Christmas Island.

Michael Rowland: We heard from an Australian, Tim Mclean, on the show a bit earlier, he lives just outside Wuhan. He says the Australian officials there have his details, have his number, but he hasn’t been contacted. So is the Australian Government confident you’ve got in touch with every Australian affected? And for that matter, every Australian who wants to be on board that Qantas flight?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, I’m confident that our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials, noting that we moved consular staff into Wuhan, and I really pay tribute to those staff who did that work, of course. That those staff working together with the rest of the consular team based here in Canberra, have firstly been in touch with, by phone or email, all of those who registered, to provide them with details about the uplift. And then working through the process of making sure that everybody who could be and wanted to be was on the manifest to be able to leave on that flight. But look, if there’s a particular case there, I have no doubt those consular staff will be trying to get in touch with that person again.

Michael Rowland: Okay. You’re both the trade and the Trade and the Tourism Minister, so how concerned are you about the economic impact of this? Certainly if the virus drags on, on Australia’s economy, given that China is our most important trading partner?

Simon Birmingham: Very concerned Michael. This is a devastating blow to Australia’s tourism industry, to our international education sector, especially coming on top of some of the impact of the bushfires over this summer and the effect that they’re having elsewhere in terms of international visitation. So we are having a look at all options in terms of the way in which we recalibrate our approach to tourism, investment and support at present. Tourism Australia already has a record budget. We supplemented that in our response to the bushfires with a further $76 million. Took the quite unprecedented step in recent times of Tourism Australia running a domestic marketing campaign and that’s something that we’ll certainly be pushing hard over the coming weeks and months, encouraging Australians to think that if you’re going to take a break this year, if you’re going to take a holiday, there’s no better year in which to holiday here in Australia, because doing so, you’ll not only have a fabulous time, but you’ll also probably be helping to save someone’s business and save someone’s job.

Michael Rowland: Yeah. Especially in those bushfire affected areas certainly. Let’s talk about Bridget McKenzie – your now former Cabinet colleague. Minister, how can the head of the Prime Minister’s Department arrive at the view that there was no political bias in her doling out of those sports grants, when the independent Auditor-General, found exactly the opposite?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what was found was that in the analysis of the proportion of seats that were awarded grants relative to the applications that were received from those seats, they were all broadly within keeping. That’s the analysis that was undertaken. Of course, Bridget McKenzie has resigned from Cabinet as a result of this report and the findings within it. And we now move particularly to implement the key recommendations of the Auditor-General’s report in relation to transparency and accountability and the administration of these types of programs.

Michael Rowland: But the Auditor-General found that there was evidence of distribution bias in the handing out of the grants. So I’ll ask you again – how can anybody possibly arrive at a different view?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, as I said, my understanding is that the data very clearly shows that if you look at the proportion of applications received relative to the proportion of grants, that there was a correlation between those seats where there were lots of applications also receiving higher proportionality of grants. And that is what the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet found. But I think the policy going forward is what matters here, and that is implementing that key recommendation of the Auditor-General and of course acknowledging that Bridget McKenzie, who, can I say, as Trade Minister, I really thought Bridget made an outstanding contribution as Australia’s Agriculture Minister, and I’m sorry that she won’t be continuing in that role because she really did do a great job championing Australian farmers and their opportunities into our export markets.

Michael Rowland: In the interest of the transparency of which you speak, why not release this report?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s a Cabinet document and it’s handled in exactly the same way all such other investigations into the ministerial Code of Conduct are handled.

Michael Rowland: Given the amount of public interest in this, again, why won’t you release this so we can all, us, and more importantly, our viewers, understanding of what the head of the Prime Minister’s Department arrived at?

Simon Birmingham: As I said, it’s a Cabinet document, it’s being handled exactly the same way any other such Cabinet documents are handled in relation to these matters, Michael.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Finally, there’s talk of Barnaby Joyce throwing his hat into the ring in a possible National Party leadership spill. Are you happy with the prospect of Barnaby Joyce potentially becoming, once again, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the National Party leadership is a matter for National Party MPs. But Michael McCormack is an outstanding and valued colleague. He’s a great leader of the National Party and the true tradition of Coalition leaders who works cooperatively, collaboratively with Scott Morrison, and in doing so, gets great results for rural and regional Australia.

Michael Rowland: We’ll see how that pans out. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Michael, my pleasure.