Topics: International and Domestic Tourism; Free Trade Agreement with the UK.

18 June 2020

Aaron Stevens: We’ve got the chance this morning to go straight to the Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham. Good morning, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Aaron, great to be with you.

Aaron Stevens: Are you concerned that borders, not just Tassie’s, are still closed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is a concern. One in 13 jobs across Australia is tourism dependent, and of course, that is significant as well in Tasmania in particular. And so, what we’re trying to do at present having had such success right across Australia in suppressing the spread of COVID-19 is to also now make sure that we get businesses reopened and people back into jobs. Because the longer they’re shut; the greater the risk that these businesses may never reopen again, and that would be incredibly harmful to so many parts of our economy and to so many jobs and people and families around Australia.

Aaron Stevens: Have you got a view on when Tasmania’s borders may reopen?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t know exactly when that might be likely. I hope and trust that the Premier who has shown great leadership in terms of managing COVID to date is looking at the evidence now that shows each state has had success in its management of COVID, and that we can actually progress to opening up those borders so that Tasmania’s hotels and accommodation providers, attractions and otherwise, and it can actually start to get visitors back. You know, we’ve got no choice but to keep our international borders closed, the threat of transmission of COVID from international visitors into Australia is far too great. And so, the only savior that we can offer to our tourism industry are domestic travelers and tourists.

Aaron Stevens: So, it’s interesting this morning that The Mercury newspaper has the results from a poll that they’ve done; 78 per cent of people have said that the borders should remain closed. From polling we’ve done here through our Facebook page and the discussions we’ve had on Tasmania Talks, the majority of the opinion is that borders in Tasmania should open after winter into spring. So, how do you react to that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s no magical thing of timing as to whether it’s winter or spring or otherwise, and the key timing is around the spread of COVID. What we’ve seen, as I say, is success across states, the majority of cases, significant majority of new cases being identified in Australia now, are purely people who are returning Australians from overseas who are in mandatory quarantine when they test positive, and therefore are being managed in a way that doesn’t pose a threat to the public. I think people should have confidence that each state has done an exceptional job, some have reached a virtual point of elimination, but everybody has suppressed it well.

Remember what our ambitions a few months ago were when we embarked on this journey, it was to suppress the spread so that our hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. Well, everybody’s by far and away exceeded those expectations, we have firmly avoided the scenes of mass graves in New York or overflowing hospitals in parts of Europe, or devastation elsewhere. In fact, you know, it’s notable. Yesterday was, globally, the largest reported number of cases of new incidents of COVID around the world were reported. And that’s why we’ve got to keep our international borders shut. But in Australia, we have successfully suppressed it, and we’re winning that battle. Now we have to win the battle of keeping businesses viable and people in jobs.

Aaron Stevens: So, are you satisfied with what South Australia’s done, announcing that states — well, most states except for New South Wales and Victoria — borders are open? Can you see Tasmania doing the same thing, and how do you feel about leaving Victoria and New South Wales out of the equation?

Simon Birmingham: I think Steven Marshall, the South Australian Premier, has shown great leadership in what is a two stage approach there. Stage one is to open up to those states with low incidents, or nearly no incidents of COVID. Stage two, is indicated 20 July is opening up to everybody. That’s working on the basis of the epidemiology, the study of the number of cases and so on, continues to track in the positive direction that it has been in New South Wales and Victoria as well as continued success in all the other states and territories.

And look, I think it is a good model, that I would love to see Tasmania follow what South Australia has done. Tasmania is such a tourism dependent state; it’s got so many wonderful things to offer visitors to Tassie. As the Federal Tourism Minister, I’m desperate for us to be able to start getting out there, marketing the attractions of Tasmania, and to other states of Australia so that we can encourage Australians who might usually go overseas — and in fact Australians usually spend $20 billion more overseas than international visitors to Australia spend. So, if we can actually harness that spending of Australians that usually goes out of our country and get it to happen around Australia; that’s going to save so many businesses and jobs.

Aaron Stevens: So, we’ve obviously got a good opportunity here, as you said, to holiday in Australia, and hopefully Tasmania benefits form that. When we’re talking international borders, what are you expecting? Will they open this year at all?

Simon Birmingham: We may see progress in relation to New Zealand, which has been widely speculated, and Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Ardern have been talking about just how we might be able to open up with New Zealand given the consistent rate of success between both countries in managing COVID.

Beyond that, we’re now having a look at some of those long stay visitors to Australia, like international students, where it’s feasible for them to undergo the same mandatory 14-day quarantine arrangements. But in terms of widespread, tourism based, international travel, that’s going to be off the cards right through- through this year I suspect. And that’s simply an acknowledgement that those international border restrictions have been perhaps the most important decision we made to keep Australia safe — they continue to be essential to keep Australia safe.

And if you look back, Scott Morrison acted against the advice of the World Health Organization when he put those border restrictions in place, but it’s certainly been proven to be the great protector of Australian lives. And that means that we won’t be able to be ducking off to enjoy an overseas holiday, and sadly we won’t have international visitors coming here to enjoy an overseas holiday. But what I want to see is that Australians who are lucky enough to have the money and have the time are encouraged to get out there and spend up across Australia because in doing so they won’t just be having a great experience, they’ll potentially be saving the job or the business of a fellow Australian.

Aaron Stevens: So we’re expecting the Premier to make an announcement next Friday on when borders will close. Just tell us in your mind what damage closing borders or keeping the borders closed is doing to our tourism industry?

Simon Birmingham: Every additional week that there are unnecessary restrictions on interstate travel is an additional week that some businesses are essentially closed, unable to open, losing their viability, burning through their cash reserves that any business may have, and jeopardising the viability of that job, of that business, and the viability of the jobs that depend upon that business.

And so it is crucial that we do see the states and territories recognise that tourism — as such a big employer across the country, such a big employer in Tasmania — gets opened up again to at least those domestic travelers so that we can save those jobs.

Aaron Stevens: On trade, there could be some big benefits for Tasmanian producers in discussions with the UK?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we are absolutely enthusiastic about the opportunity for UK trade — 67 million consumers there; as well as the European Union who are negotiating with more — than 400 million consumers. In both cases markets that like high value, clean, green produce and Tasmania is an exceptional provider of such wonderful produce and we see real opportunities across the UK and EU markets for Tassie growers and farmers.

Aaron Stevens: Any particular products that you can see being the most beneficial?

Simon Birmingham: I think, particularly in the UK with its separation from the EU, the chance for not just winemakers who already do an exceptional job, but also dairy producers and potentially, the- everything from truffles, to chocolates, to salmon. You know, Tasmania’s reputation for high value, clean, green produce is exceptional and I’ve got no doubt that the UK market and EU markets will revel in it.

Aaron Stevens: Maybe making up some of the shortfall that we might see as- as the dispute with China continues?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s about creating more choice for- for our farmers, and businesses, and exporters. You know, Australia, for the last 28 months in a row, has recorded a trade surplus — exporting more than we import as a country each and every month now routinely — that’s to the credit of so many exporting businesses right around the country. And we want to give those exporters choice and that’s why we got a new trade deal with Indonesia coming into force on 5 July — it’s why we’ve done deals not just with China, but with Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Canada and Mexico. And why we are determined to make sure that we try to strike these further deals with the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Aaron Stevens: Great to see you this morning, hopefully we can catch up again soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Aaron. My pleasure.

Aaron Stevens: Simon Birmingham, the Liberal Senator for South Australia and the Federal Minister for Tourism Trade and Investment joining us on Tasmania Talks this morning.