Michael Clarke: The Federal Minister for Trade and Tourism, Simon Birmingham, is in Townsville today for a meeting with all of the state and territory tourism ministers and he’s popped in ahead of that meeting to have a chat with you this morning. Minister, welcome.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael. Great to be with you.
Michael Clarke: Yeah good to have you here. Why have Townsville as the location for this meeting of the ministers?
Simon Birmingham: Well these meetings tend to rotate in terms of state by state and it was Queensland’s turn. And when we were last meeting down in Tasmania last year Kate Jones said well let’s go somewhere to North Queensland and I said, well, I’m about due to visit Townsville again so let’s come to Townsville and so Kate and I aligned paths here. And of course it’s a key part of what we’re trying to do in terms of driving tourism into the future to encourage regional dispersal of tourists, to get more people — whether they’re Australians holidaying at home or international visitors — out of the cities, beyond the icons and visiting other parts of Australia, and Townsville is a wonderful example of that. And of course there’s also the trade ministers meeting in Townsville being a key port and key hub across North Queensland for export activity and economic activity that we’re seeing step up and up into the future.
Michael Clarke: Obviously it’s going to be a busy day for discussions for everyone involved but is there a sense in a way that the tourism ministers from other states will get a chance to have a look at Townsville and maybe they can take that message back to their homes and you know, encourage a boost in Australian tourism to this part of the world?
Simon Birmingham: Well I think individually they’ll have different opportunities to do so. I know that one of them was out on Magnetic Island last night visiting people that they knew there, given they got in just in time to be able to do that. Others will have the chance to see certain things I’m sure around Townsville depending on their flight times in and out. And of course what we’re really trying to do in bringing trade ministers from around the country and tourism ministers from around the country together is to get greater cooperation. As the Federal Tourism and Trade Minister, I want to see that every dollar we spend in promoting Australia in international markets is about growing the pie overall, not just competing against one another. And so trying to make sure we best align state and territory ministers towards our national campaigns to work cooperatively and collaboratively. Yes of course, they’ve got things they’re competing for from time to time but internationally there’s more than enough tourists to go around and let’s make sure we grow that overall size as we’ve been doing so successfully in recent years.
Michael Clarke: Is that working? Are people coming together or is it still a case of no, we want them to go to South Australia, we don’t want them to come to Queensland?
Simon Birmingham: There’s always a competitive edge, and of course what Australians tend to see is the domestic marketing campaigns that state and territory tourism agencies run and that’s fine that’s about encouraging Queenslanders to come to South Australia or South Australians come to Queensland and vice versa. internationally we do have good cooperation through Tourism Australia and we’re funding Tourism Australia at record levels. And we’ve just seen off the back of a very intense and innovative ad campaign in the United States that our visitor spend from the US has gone up substantially. It’s at record levels and what we get the states and territories to do is we provide the architecture there of a big headline campaign and then just as we might partner with airlines or targeted parts of that campaign, we also encourage the states to slot in there and if they want to spend money in the US market, they can use those campaign images, messaging but bring it back to their part of the world.
Michael Clarke: You mentioned airlines there, Minister. Townsville has been pushing to get more international flights to come here for a long time. We know we have an international airport, it can accept international flights, but we just haven’t been able to attract those carriers to sort of make those long term commitments. What do we need to do to capture those markets?
Simon Birmingham: Look, it is about trying to make sure that every aspect of what an airline is looking at is ticked off. So Phil Thompson last night had me catch up with the Townsville Enterprise Limited group. Of course they represent a diverse range of interests across different areas of economic activity around the Townsville region in North Queensland. And that came up in talking about the commercial reality of how you secure international airlines, and I think there’s absolutely a strong case for us to continue to make for destinations or other countries like Singapore to look at Townsville as a potential point of connection. But they’ve got to be persuaded as an airline that the front of the plane will be full and [indistinct] you’ve got to be able to attract business travellers to make it commercially viable, and that the belly of the plane will be full. So it’s not just about loading up with tourists or passengers up the back, there’s a whole commercial proposition there now. This is a great economic hub, and so as a region there‘s a strong case to say well yes you can get exports and loads into the belly of the plane.
There’s probably enough business activity here as well as defence and other activities to say you’ll get some people on the front of the plane, but airlines take a long time to do that. We recently hosted the World Routes Conference in Adelaide which is the biggest airline conference in the world, bringing airports and airlines together. At the other part of that equation Queensland, Brisbane’s soon to be hosting the World Slots Conference which is the other aspect of airline and aviation planning. Together that’s really about showcasing Australia, and certainly as a Federal Government we’ve put the investment into Townsville Airport as we have a number of other locations around the country to try to build the case to say well, we think that international flights can be justified in these locations, but ultimately they are commercial decisions.
Michael Clarke: Speaking this morning with the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham who’s in Townsville today meeting with the tourism ministers from across the country. You mentioned Singapore there before. Recently we’ve seen that deal with the Singapore for defence and work progressing with the defence zone near Townsville. Does that perhaps pave the way for more positive promises for flights to Singapore perhaps? Or is there any talk in that aspect happening?
Simon Birmingham: Well I mentioned Singapore because it did come up in those discussions between Phil and Townsville Enterprise last night and I think Singapore is as(*) significant hub in the region and of course the ties that have been established thanks to the securing of the defence training operations here is a natural location to have those discussions. Now I wouldn’t want to overrate the possibility of it, because it comes down to brutal commercial realities in terms of whether or not they think they can make it stack up, but I certainly think it is worth the effort in having those discussions with them.
Michael Clarke: Does it surprise you that a region or an area like Townsville, as large as it is and with all of the different industries that it supports, doesn’t have the- or doesn’t support the international flights?
Simon Birmingham: No look it is it is very challenging to get international flights off the ground. I mean, Tasmania does not have international flights, the entire state. And yes we we’re providing support there in terms of the upgrade of Hobart Airport and we hope that that may see international flights come in and out of there, especially given the big growth that the Government down there has seen in their tourism numbers in recent years coming out of China in particular.
So it’s a demonstration though it is a challenge, but once you break through then if it is sustainable — and that’s the critical thing as to why the assessment’s got to be there in the first place — it can make a profound difference and it can start of course to become more self-fulfilling at that stage in terms of the possibility to attract others. I mean in my home state, in South Australia, that’s been the lived experience where it’s not that long ago we had very limited international air access but gradually other airlines have added on in recent years.
Michael Clarke: And I understand you’re a Minister that yesterday afternoon donned a hi-vis vest to be part of- you’re part of a world breaking team?
Simon Birmingham: I had to come to Townsville to be able to break a world record but I was thrilled to be able to join that amazing community event and to be out there to see people engaging in the community for those from Mental Health Australia who’d put in such effort alongside local volunteers to make it happen, it’s to their credit. An amazing, very worthy cause to get people talking about mental health issues and, but also a very proud accomplishment for Townsville. I keep sort of wondering whether I’ll have more command in chairing the territory- the state and territory tourism and trade ministers today if I wear my hi-vis yellow vest into the meeting.
Michael Clarke: Well I was thinking if it gets out of hand or if Question Time ever gets a bit nasty then maybe everyone might need to wear the hi-vis vest to protect themselves.
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.
Michael Clarke: Good to have you here, thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Mike.
Michael Clarke: That is the Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, stopping by for a chat ahead of that meeting today with tourism ministers from across the country, having those discussions about tourism issues across the country but also a good showcase for Townsville today.