• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Coronavirus; trade deal with post-Brexit Britain.
31 January 2020

Ali Clarke: As you’ve also been hearing in the news, the question then becomes well, what happens now to trade? What happens now to finance and even tourism? Simon Birmingham is the Liberal Senator for South Australia and is the Minister for Trade and Tourism.

Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Ali.

Ali Clarke: So what does the Federal Government and what does this declaration from the World Health Organisation actually mean?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the declaration from the World Health Organisation doesn’t dramatically change the public health advice that is out there. And obviously we have been updating information for Australians as we go in terms of ensuring that people understand that if they have returned from Hubei province over- recently, then they ought to go into a quarantine period for 14 days. Similarly, if they’ve had contact with anybody suspected of having coronavirus and of course if anybody shows any symptoms, they should immediately contact their medical practitioner and make arrangements to go and be tested and undertake medical consultation. So, all of the- all of those precautions that we’re taking in terms of at Australian airports, at Australian ports where cruise ships are coming in, the type of advice being provided and information to reinforce all of those factors are in place and we are continually monitoring other steps that need be taken to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of people in Australia.

Ali Clarke: But given the Chinese market is worth $2.73 billion or thereabouts in trade alone, what do you need to do as Trade Minister to monitor this and ensure that any changes or tighter border controls that might have to come in won’t actually affect producers and people here on the ground?

Simon Birmingham: Look, from a tourism and trade perspective this is a potentially devastating blow, especially to our tourism industry. China is our largest source market for international visitors to Australia nowadays, and coming on top of the downturn in international tourist bookings we’d already seen from the bushfires, it really is a significant blow to so many tourism operators. And I had a hook-up yesterday of all the state and territory tourism ministers to try to get a better understanding at a regional level of where it’s hurting most and understanding of how the current measures we’ve kicked off, such as the holiday in Australia campaign, the holiday here this year campaign, are resonating and we will have to double down each end(*) of our efforts to encourage Australians at a time when the tourism industry is doing it tough and to think about …

Ali Clarke: So by that, by doubling down, Simon Birmingham, do you mean that the Federal Government will put more money in to these programs?

Simon Birmingham: Well, first and foremost we’re going to make sure that the money we’re spending is effective and look at the record Tourism Australian budget plus the $76 billion- million we’ve already announced as to whether we might need to recalibrate some of that as to where it’s spent and how it’s spent. So it may mean we invest more in that domestic market, urging people to not take an overseas break this year but to support the Australian tourism industry and Australian jobs by holidaying here. Equally on the trade front, we know that seafood producers in particular are feeling the effects of the quarantine restrictions in China already because essentially many Chinese people are not going out. And so, seafood which tends to be exported in a just-in-time manner so that it arrives fresh to market is facing the first downturn, but I would expect our high-quality meat producers, our wine industry and others to equally feel some of those effects over coming weeks and months, dependent upon how long this crisis lasts.

Ali Clarke: And specifically I guess the premium beef market for us here in South Australia as well. I guess while we are talking on trade, 10 o’clock tomorrow our time the UK or Britain will leave and Brexit, finally, after all of this talking. What will you be doing to make the most of opportunities that that might present to us here in SA for trade?

Simon Birmingham: So we’ll be working as hard as we can to try to seal within this year if possible a comprehensive and ambitious free trade agreement with the UK. The likes of which we, of course, have done over recent years with China and Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, most recently Indonesia and what we’ve seen from those agreements is they create new opportunities for Australian exporters and given the discussion we were just having about the uncertainties that can crop up in any one large market like China, the more opportunities for diversification we give our exporters the better. And we hope that the UK and indeed the EU can be markets where we secure such new opportunities through new free trade agreements that we are currently negotiating.

Ali Clarke: Will you be asking directly for no tariffs at all, or will you accept just a lower form of tariff?

Simon Birmingham: Look, Australia would love to see an agreement that essentially eliminated tariffs, quotas, trade barriers as much as is possible. But of course it’s a negotiation and that will depend upon the perspective that the UK take. Now, there’s goodwill on both sides to get this agreement done quickly. I think good will for it to be an ambitious agreement, but just how far the UK will go in terms of tariff and quota elimination, we’ll have to see.

Ali Clarke: And what about the timeline on this? When do you expect to be able to have this deal locked away, which sounds strange, talking about timelines and Brexit because it seems like that’s been going on forever.

Simon Birmingham: It feels like it’s been a never-ending story, but finally at least the first page of the last chapter in a sense begins- begins Saturday, tomorrow. Look, we will start negotiations as quickly as we can. I spoke to my UK counterpart again last night to reconfirm that Australia’s ready to go as soon as the UK is ready to start. Our ambition is to conclude this year. These types of trade agreements often take many years, but I have reinforced to our trade officials — and I think the same is felt on the UK side — that everyone wants to seize the goodwill, the momentum that’s there and also to try to get it done before that final deadline where the UK doesn’t just cease to be a political member of the European Union, of course at the end of this year they will cease to be, essentially, an economic member of the European Union and that is where new trade agreements need to come into force at their end and we want to make sure that we’re part of that.

Ali Clarke: Minister Birmingham, before I let you go, just a couple of text messages coming through along the same lines: we’re speaking to you ostensibly because the World Health Organisation has declared the coronavirus an emergency, a worldwide emergency. What has to happen before the Australian Government, and you are the Minister for Tourism, would actually look at stopping planes, direct flights in from China?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, well that is- what would have to happen is that would have to be the advice of the public health officials that that is necessary for the safety and prevention of the spread of this disease and the protection of Australians. The Chinese Government has — as is well known — already stopped travel out of the main province that has been affected. Now, we’re working to help assist Australians who are stranded there to get out and they will go into a period of quarantine once they are airlifted out of there. But in terms of other provinces across China, the advice of health authorities at present is that it is not necessary to prevent travel. But what we have done is step up checks at airports and well and truly the advice to individuals, not just those travelling in but to air crews, to hotel operators, across the Chinese community and elsewhere to make sure that people are well aware of what to do if indeed symptoms present themselves on anybody who arrives. And to date, yes, there are a number of cases in Australia but in all of those cases they seem to have been managed well and effectively by our health authorities.

Ali Clarke: Okay. Thank you very much Minister for Trade and Tourism Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much Ali.