Transcript, E&OE

Topics: Bridget McKenzie sports grant scheme; Matt Kean; small businesses loan; bushfire crisis.
20 January 2020

Peter van Onselen: Well, Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Senator, thanks for joining us.

If it’s true that concerns over the sports grant scheme were raised with the Federal Liberal Party director, how on earth could the PM’s office not know about it?

Simon Birmingham: Not aware of that at all in terms of whether or not such matters were raised. There’s an Auditor-General’s report, we take the findings of that seriously and we’ll work through them.

Peter van Onselen: When it comes to the Prime Minister’s office, though, I have had it confirmed that his senior adviser for infrastructure and sport was part of the process with Bridget McKenzie’s office in selecting where these grants go. That is the process which the Auditor-General has said effectively looks like pork barrelling. That’s a problem for the Prime Minister’s office, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: It’s not unusual that MPs will make advocacy to ministers, to the Prime Minister. MPs do that from all sides of politics. As I’ve said, we’ve got an Auditor-General’s report, we take its findings seriously and we’ll get on- we’ll work on those.

Peter van Onselen: [Interrupts] But Minister- with respect, Minister, this is more than just advocacy, this is literally a senior adviser from the PMO sitting down and making political calculations of which marginal seats require more funding ahead of an election – a process which the Auditor-General has serious concerns about. It goes all the way to the PMO; it’s not just Senator Bridget McKenzie.

Simon Birmingham: And Peter, as I said, we take the report seriously. Now, each of those who received the funds were eligible potential recipients. As I understand it, more Labor grant seats received grants than were actually recommended by Sports Australia, but that doesn’t take away from the fact we take the report seriously and we will work through it.

Peter Helliar: Senator, we heard just before the Prime Minister said that most people in his cabinet wouldn’t know who Matt Kean is. You are in his cabinet; I can ask you…

Simon Birmingham: I am.

Peter Helliar: Can you pick him out of a line-up? We have a line-up here, and see if you can tell me which one is Matt Kean. Which one is he?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re definitely rolling with the second from the left of screen from what I can see there.

Peter Helliar: And you are correct, you are correct.

Simon Birmingham: There we go. Is there a prize for me?

Peter Helliar: No prize, no prize.

Carrie Bickmore: Are you confident he knows who you are?

Simon Birmingham: You’ll have to ask Matt that.

Steve Price: Senator, the Government’s announced a new range of loans for small businesses affected by the bushfires. Is that the feedback you’re getting, that that’s what they really need – more debt?

Simon Birmingham: Well, importantly these are loans to help with rebuilding where people may not have insurance. Their loans do also help businesses that might need some assistance with their working capital, and these are interest-free loans for the first two years and then highly concessional thereafter, and they’re on top of the $50,000 grants that are available. The grants are focused on those directly fire-affected businesses, but the loans will be able to sought also by businesses who have exceptional circumstances who are in the broader fire-affected region.

Peter van Onselen: As the Tourism Minister, what are the things you are doing to try and help the communities ravaged by fire?

Simon Birmingham: As the Tourism Minister, first and foremost, is to help those communities by allowing them to run events, different things, to get people back into those communities’ to also make it very clear that in most instances those direct communities are now open for business again in one way or another. Of course, people ought to heed any warnings from authorities, but where they are open for business, please get back out there.

Carrie Bickmore: So- but given these are seasonal towns, how are they ever meant to ever repay it? If we’re talking about- you know, it’s not until next year that they may see business again. Is it feasible that these loans are going to be of any help?

Simon Birmingham: These are interest-free for two years, then highly concessional loans. And what we’re trying to do in the interim is to also get people moving again. We want, through our tourism efforts, to be able to get people into those communities, generating cash flow in those businesses again. We’ve put in place a $10 million fund dedicated to those fire-affected communities for them to run events, festivals, put on attractions that bring people out of the regular tourist season so that they get that cash flow stimulated and get those businesses back on their own two feet.

Peter van Onselen: Minister, thanks very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.