• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID-19 affected tourism and trade on the West Coast.
12 August 2020

Jason Regan: Joining me on the line at the moment, Federal Senator and the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham. He’s on the West Coast of South Australia as we speak. Simon, welcome to Country View Point. How are you?

Simon Birmingham: G’day, it’s great to be with you. I am enjoying a magnificent time on the West Coast.

Jason Regan: Well, let’s talk about first of all why you are on the West Coast. What brings you to Ceduna, and I believe right now you’re in Smoky Bay.

Simon Birmingham: I am, just heading out of Smoky Bay right now. I’ve come across with Rowan Ramsey, of course the great local member covering most of the state, but especially passionately the western coast regions. And Anne Ruston, my senate colleague, who’s also the Social Services Minister. So, we’ve descended on the local patch a little bit; Anne in particular engaging in her portfolio space, social services, looking at some of the local policy issues and meeting with the community, and me branching out as the Trade and Tourism Minister, taking the time to work to connect with local investment such as the team driving the Southern Launch rocket facilities, local trade and tourism operators such as the oyster producers around Smoky Bay, and wildlife adventure activities and marine products in Streaky Bay. So, we’re really just trying to reach out and use this time to hear from local businesses how COVID and local things are impacting on them, and equally where they’re seeing the opportunities for the future.

Jason Regan: Indeed. One of the great local festivals on the West Coast, and I’ve been to it a number of times myself and always look forward to it, is Oysterfest. Now unfortunately it won’t be going ahead this year, and it’s had its difficulties in the past as well. We had a rather large storm a couple of years ago, you may remember, that unfortunately wiped it out. Have you had an opportunity to talk to anyone there involved in the tourism industry about events and in particular about the future of that event? Because my understanding is it’s under a bit of a cloud.

Simon Birmingham: Well, certainly Oysterfest has come up in conversations already and I know there are unsurprisingly some producers in the oyster industry who are very keen to see it go ahead, and I think it is an event of somewhat iconic status. It’s existed for many years. People talk about the journey, the experience that they have there, the quality of course of the produce. And as we’re seeing, the tourism experiences in different oyster regions, be it Coffin Bay closer to Lincoln, but of course Smoky Bay. You’re getting some really high-quality premium tourism product – tours, experiences – that are being offered through the region now. And Oysterfest has the potential to be the real centrepiece around that. So I hope that they can manage to get the event back on track and recover from not having it this year, and use it as a promotional piece for the region knowing that it’s not just the visitors who come for that weekend or a few days, but it’s about making sure that you have people hearing about the region, the different experiences, and coming throughout the year as much as possible.

Jason Regan: Spot on. Events is such a big part of what we do on the West Coast and getting people to the region to have a look in the first place. Now, I think it’s really important that you’re on the West Coast in two of the capacities – obviously trade and tourism. We’re touching on tourism at the moment. What are the locals telling you about their struggles? What things are they worried the most about in this COVID landscape we find ourselves in now, and what are their biggest challenges?

Simon Birmingham: COVID’s certainly thrown up lots of different changes. The increase in freight costs and the disruption in many global markets is a real concern, particularly for those playing in some of the premium product spaces like the oyster sectors(*) we were just talking about before, and others in premium seafood. We’ve been helping industries through those challenges by making sure that we keep freight flights flying out of Australia. More than 95 per cent of what flies out of this country in exports normally goes at the bellies of the passenger aircraft. Well, passenger aircraft aren’t flying right now, so we’ve put in hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that freight capacity is still maintained out of the country. That’s helping to underpin more than a billion dollars in exports from Australia, including premium exports out of the West Coast of SA. But of course, as always, there are worries of climate conditions and also trade uncertainty, the tensions as a result of the application of the anti-dumping duties, quite probably we think by China in relation to barley. And we want to make sure that our grains industry is supported, for barley producers to successfully find alternate markets. And we’re reaching out right around the world through our different embassies and trade representatives to try to help the grains sector ensure that they’ve got as many choices as possible to shift product. Hoping of course for a bit more rain as well to ensure that it’s a decent crop too.

Jason Regan: No doubt about that. Logistics are obviously a big part of the COVID situation in all industry, whether it be seafood as you rightly pointed out or the grains industry. At the moment we’re having some issues getting product moved around the country at the moment. We know that the hard border lockdown with Victoria is a concern. We know other border restrictions are in place making life difficult for our truckies. Have you had constant communication with that industry, and the trials and tribulations that they are facing at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I have. In May, the Transport Minister has been working with the trucking and logistics industry within Australia to help ensure that in crossing state borders, dealing with shut downs and different rules regulations around the country, that they’re getting the support that they need, and that there’s some degree of consistency around testing and restrictions on trucking. And these are very tough times for people working in that sector, and the stress as well of course, driving in and out of areas of higher risk is the responsibility that comes with looking after yourself to make sure that you’re not posing a threat or a risk to your loved ones, [indistinct], communities that you pass through. But certainly, from my perspective, we’ve had to continue to rely on making sure those domestic logistical channels are working because they’re so important in the way they feed to the exporting activities for our country. And now’s a time where we can’t afford to lose any of our export markets. I’m off talking to other countries and trying to make sure that we open up as many markets and market opportunities for Australian goods, produced, services to get out around the world, because our farmers, our businesses are doing a great job of it.

Jason Regan: I’m chatting with the Federal Senator Simon Birmingham today here on Country View Point. Of course, also the Minister for Trade and Tourism, and on the West Coast at the moment as we’ve gone through. Now just as we finish off, Simon, if you wouldn’t mind telling us how are people going over there on the West Coast? I know that’s a very generalised question, but what is the mood like? West Coast folk by nature are fairly resilient, but it’s been a tough time for everyone. Are they coping okay?

Simon Birmingham: Jason, this is a year that’s tested absolutely everybody as things have been turned off and on again. They’ve seen disruptions not only from COVID but fears in terms of the way that global politics impacts on markets like barley as we were discussing before. But there is that always sense of resilience from people in West Coast communities, looking for new markets where they have to in terms of some of the aquaculture sector and seafood sectors, looking increasingly to what they could do in Singapore, if they’re facing challenges in Hong Kong, how they can grow the domestic market as well in Australia. Tourism operators – I think I’m definitely seeing that South Australians are willing to get out and experience their state in ways that we haven’t seen for a while, and that’s a big opportunity for regions like this. So I think there is a there’s a sense of, yes, annoyance, frustration, but a realisation that that is beyond the control of governments in terms of a global pandemic, that we’re all doing the best we can to manage our way through it, but also a focus on what’s too impossible for the future and how to make the best of the challenging times we’re facing. That’s why it’s so good to be able to get out across the region like this, talk to people who are always used to dealing with harsh conditions and disruptions, but really are also quite able to look beyond the immediate problems and try to focus on the solutions. And that’s what we all need to do.

Jason Regan: Yeah, spot on. And obviously as a minister and as a senator, your electorate is quite vast given that it’s the entire state. And in terms of the ministry, it’s the entire nation. So look, I imagine that in itself brings plenty of challenges, and people around the country and around the state will have different challenges. What’s next for you? Where will you be heading after you leave the West Coast?

Simon Birmingham: So after I spend some time across Ceduna, Smoky Bay, Streaky Bay, Port Lincoln, it’ll be back to back to Adelaide and Cabinet responsibilities and other things for a bit. Hoping to get up to the Riverland next week and spend a day or two up there, similarly talking to different exporters, producers, businesses, tourism operators, really using the lockdown time where I can’t get out to do some of the things that the Trade Minister is usually expected to do, to instead reconnect with parts of my electorate across the great state of SA and understand how they’re seeing things. And then we’re back into Parliament for a couple of weeks. Of course, some of my Victorian colleagues already in Canberra doing 14 days quarantining before the Parliament sit so they can participate, they can participate in a way where the rest of the country can have confidence that we can work, socially distancing while there but still work in a safe enough environment for all the rest of us to be able to come and go without posing a threat to the rest of the country.

Jason Regan: Excellent. Well I don’t think it’s ever been more important for our politicians around the country, be it state or federal, to get out and get on the ground and speak with people who are who are living what’s going on at the moment in terms of COVID-19, not just in our state but around the country where they can. And we appreciate you spending some time with us today, telling us about your trip. For our Riverland listeners, particularly around Waikerie, keep an eye out for Senator Simon Birmingham next week. And, Simon, we wish you well. Enjoy the rest of your trip. And thanks for joining us here on Country View Point today.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much, Jason. My pleasure. Any time.