• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: West Australia’s hard border; Impact of border closures on tourism businesses; Definition of hotspots.
03 September 2020

Russell Woolf: Federal Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, says: inconsistent and disproportionate approaches to border restrictions are causing job losses and could cost the tourism industry up to $33 billion this financial year. We spoke to the Minister a short time ago.


Russell Woolf: Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

Russell Woolf: What do you consider to be a sensible and proportionate approach to state borders?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think what we’ve seen is that the South Australian Premier has taken an approach of opening up to Western Australia, to Northern Territory, to Queensland, to Tasmania. All states that have had similar levels of success in suppressing COVID-19. I hope that he will go further, in terms of considering hotspots in the ACT, who’ve had more than 50 days of not having a recorded case of COVID and yet remain isolated from the rest of the country. So I think that is a proportionate approach that, obviously, nobody expects a state to open up to Victoria right now. The quarantine measures in place in Victoria make sense. They are there for good reason and the Commonwealth fully supports them. But, elsewhere around the country, we have states all enjoying remarkable levels of success of suppression, common levels of success of suppression and where they have those common outcomes, then there’s no reason to maintain the types of restrictions that some are proposing could kick on well into next year.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: Some like Western Australia? Are you losing patience with our Premier and his refusal to open the WA border?

Simon Birmingham: It’s not a matter of my patience. It’s a matter of the fact that jobs are being lost as a result of these types of ongoing restrictions, being in place longer than is necessary or justifiable for health reasons. There’s an absolute reason why you keep it shut to Victoria. I understand the debate that will be had about New South Wales, but elsewhere whether it’s people flying or driving, there are real impacts. I was over in Ceduna on South Australian west coast in the last couple of weeks and unsurprisingly, lots of tourism operators there who rely upon people driving across the Nullarbor, are really feeling the pain. And I have no doubt that if I were able to go to Eucla on the WA side of the border, I’d hear exactly the same story. Businesses suffering, jobs being lost and unnecessarily so, when clearly South Australians pose no risk to West Australians and just as West Australians pose no risk to South Australia.

Russell Woolf: The hard border policy, Minister, is incredibly popular here in WA, with people feeling that it keeps them safe. Why would they risk that?

Simon Birmingham: Because it’s not a risk; because if you take a proportionate approach, you would remain closed to Victoria. You would indeed look at the hotspot definitions that are being put out and that may well see you remain closed, certainly to Sydney, possibly even to New South Wales, depending on the approach that is taken. Those are all understandable proportionate approaches. It’s the blanket approach that is of concern and that blanket approach has real impacts. WA received $2.4 billion last year in international travel spending. Nobody’s seeing that coming back any time soon. We all understand why internationally, there are genuine threats, risks and costs associated. The WA also receive $2.6 billion from interstate visitors last year. And now that is a huge loss, that doesn’t have to all be realised for the WA economy. But some of it will be realised, because we won’t be able to have those Victorians coming across, we wouldn’t have some Sydneysiders coming across. So, there’s no reason why the West couldn’t be sharing some of its amazing tourism experiences, with people from Tasmania or from South Australia, where the outcomes, in terms of suppressing COVID have been similarly successful. And I’d say the same about the Tasmanian situation. Their economy is even more tourism dependent and they’re a Liberal government. I don’t see this as a partisan issue. I see this is being about saving the jobs and businesses that we can save; rather than unnecessarily destroying them by being too blanket, too over the top, in relation to border restrictions.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: That figure out today, the $33 billion lost in the tourism industry this financial year from- as a result of those state borders being closed. How did you do that modelling? How did you calculate and come to that figure?

Simon Birmingham: So that figure is a combination of what we would normally expect in terms of interstate travel and together with small substitution effect where some Australians will clearly spend what they would have spent on an overseas holiday or some of that in the domestic economy instead. So it recognises the fact that there will probably be some substitution as well into intrastate travel, and I recognise that. Parts of WA’s regional tourism industry are booming with visitors from Perth at present, just as is occurring elsewhere. But that’s only helping some businesses. It certainly doesn’t help those whose jobs depend upon the cross-border travel like communities – as I said, like Eucla or Mandurah, or others. It doesn’t help those whose jobs depend on the aviation sector; airlines or airport workers. It doesn’t help you if you’re a rental car or a hire car operator, generally speaking. It’s many of the experience operators where people book tours that they’ll do if they travelling interstate across the country. They’ll undertake those types of deeper experiential tours. When you’re holidaying in your own backyard, in your own state, you’re less likely to do that. And so there’s lots of tourism businesses I’m still hearing from who are really bleeding, suffering, struggling to be viable. JobKeeper, the Federal Government support program, is the only thing that’s really keeping those businesses afloat and those employees intact. And it’s unnecessary for some of them when they could actually safely accommodate visitors from states, who just like WA, have had remarkable success at suppressing COVID and poses, as I say, next to no risk to one another.

Russell Woolf: The impacts of coronavirus are complex; I think we can say that. I know there’ll be people listening now that are affected by it. People in the tourism industry, we’d love to hear your stories. You know, do you feel like you’re being overlooked? 1300-222-720 if you would like to call and share your story with us

Senator Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Tourism and Trade. I wonder- you’ve mentioned the hotspot approach a couple of times. Can you practically explain to us how it works?

Simon Birmingham: So this is being worked up by Commonwealth medical officials. It’s an expert based approach that essentially is looking at either a regional area or a metropolitan area and identifying a fixed number of cases that would occur only over a three-day period that would result in that area being recognised as a hotspot, and therefore that would be potentially a definition that states and territories could use as part of their decisions around border travel and interstate travel.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: And then what happens if that’s declared a hotspot? What, you shut a suburb down?

Simon Birmingham: That would be part of the flow on effect for a state within its own area as to how they restrict movement in those communities or what type of levels of restriction they put in place within that area. So the hotspot definition can be used both by a state where the hotspot is as to how they apply certain restrictions and what assistance flows into that community to contain any spread, but it can also be used by those who want to maintain border restrictions and limits, to make sure that you don’t have any flow out of that region. But it’s not the only approach, as I said before, I think a proportionate approach to border restrictions is the right thing to do. And even little steps like recognising that South Australia has gone many days without having any cases of COVID; so too has Tasmania, so too has the ACT. WA could, with absolute confidence, open up to those communities who are in exactly the same position as the West when it comes to successfully managing COVID. Some of them even in a better position.

Russell Woolf: The hard border in WA seems to have cost us the chance to host the AFL Grand Final. Your home state is in second spot if it should fall over at Brisbane. You’re the Tourism Minister, where do you think it should have been staged?

Simon Birmingham: Well I would have loved to have seen it staged in an AFL state. Obviously, I’m South Australian Senator, so I’d love to have had it in Adelaide — a little bit of parochialism there — much as my beloved Adelaide Crows long ago crashed out of contention for playing in the finals this year. But I think Perth could, would have done a magnificent job as well. The guys understand that Queensland has worked with the AFL in terms of hosting matches and games this year, but I also am a bit concerned that that it may have been the dollar driving the AFL’s behaviour there rather than recognising the fanbase, the love of the game, supporters, where in the West or in the SA you’d have had pretty enthusiastic crowds, true Aussie Rules fans who would’ve just loved the opportunity to host the grand finals.

Nadia Mitsopoulos: And I think there are many West Australians that will share those sentiments. Senator Simon Birmingham, the Federal Minister for Tourism and Trade, thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, guys. My pleasure.