Transcript, E&OE

Topics: Free Trade Agreement with the UK; Australia’s Tourism Industry; JobKeeper
18 June 2020

Sabra Lane: To talk more about the potential for this agreement, I spoke with the Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham.


Trade Minister, good morning, and welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Great to be with you.

Sabra Lane: The Brits are keen to knock off a really quick deal on this to illustrate that leaving the European Union has been a good idea, a good thing for economic independence. What guarantees can you give that Australian producers won’t be worse off or dudded by a quick deal to help Boris Johnson?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll only do a quick deal if it’s in the national interest – if it’s a good deal. Now, the UK is a market of some 67 million people. It’s a country where we used to have much stronger goods trade. We used to, in fact, have the UK as our third largest goods trading market. It’s now only our 12th. We saw significant drop in areas like sheep meat and grains and other sectors as a result of the UK’s entry into the EU in the 1970’s. So, we’re going to do a deal that is definitely good for our farmers, for businesses. Whether you are a winemaker or a sheep grazier, or indeed a healthcare provider, we see opportunities in a whole range of different sectors.

Sabra Lane: This is all overshadowed by China. The Embassy here has attacked Marise Payne’s speech earlier this week about China and Russia spreading disinformation. They say it’s baseless accusations and completely rubbish. And China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman’s accused Australia of spreading disinformation and manipulating the pandemic for its own gain. What’s your response to that?

Simon Birmingham: Let’s look at the facts. At the start of this week, Twitter shut off more than 30,000 accounts. And they did that on the basis of disinformation that was being spread. Now, they were accounts from across a number of countries around the world, and Marise Payne, in her speech, acknowledged that these were issues coming out of a number of countries around the world. But disinformation is damaging all of the time, but it is especially damaging when you’re in the middle of a pandemic and people are trying to get accurate information about public health advice, and facts upon which to inform their decisions.

Sabra Lane: Specifically, baseless accusations and completely rubbish – that’s what the Chinese are saying. You haven’t been able to talk to your own counterpart in China for more than a month. How are we going to resume normal relations with China? Looks like we’re in the deep freeze for some time.

Simon Birmingham: Well in all of these matters it takes two. The Australian Government’s approach is that we still value the partnership with China. We acknowledge that there are differences of opinion in a number of areas, and that we are very different systems of government. And so, the fact that we have different systems of government, different values in some ways, and therefore it’s unsurprising that there would be differences of opinion. But we are open to sitting down and having proper, thoughtful, grown-up dialogue with any of our partner nations, and we’d encourage them to do likewise, because it’s through dialogue that we can best resolve our differences.

Sabra Lane: You’re not engaging directly in their reaction. Is that a sign that you’re trying to make this a circuit breaker?

Simon Birmingham: Our approach is to respect other nations. We respect their sovereignty. Now, yes, we have the areas of difference, and we will make sure that we stand true always to Australian values and we don’t compromise on those. And we won’t compromise in terms of policies that are in Australia’s national interest. But it doesn’t matter who the partner is in this region or elsewhere around the world, Australia goes about our business trying to be respectful, trying to be engaging, and trying to make sure that we are all working towards the peace and prosperity objectives that is in the best interests of all of our peoples.

Sabra Lane: Confirmation that international borders won’t probably open until next year means that a lot of tourism related businesses will need additional support beyond the September-slated cut-off for JobKeeper. How long might the government have to support them?

Simon Birmingham: The government’s very conscious of the pain that so many tourism operators are facing right now as a result of there not being any international travel but also the closure of many state borders and the restrictions that have been put in place. We want to see those restrictions coming off as they are. We want to see the state borders open up. But the international borders have been a core pillar in keeping Australia safe from the spread of COVID, and they will sadly remain so for some period of time. Our first priority is to actually get Australians travelling across Australia again. You know, we spend $65 billion as tourists leaving Australia each year, usually. Tourists visiting Australia are only worth about $45 billion. So if we can, we can actually fill a lot of that tourism activity by getting Australians travelling across the country. And that will be very much our call to arms, and it’s why it’s so important for the states and territories to enable Australians to travel freely.

Sabra Lane: Sure. The government’s been signalling, though, to the tourism industry that more help is coming. Will that be outlined in the mini-budget next month?

Simon Birmingham: We’re certainly consulting with the tourism industry and working through analysis of affected sectors. The Prime Minister, the Treasurer, and I – and other members of the government – have acknowledged that the tourism industry is a case in point where they were the first affected, not only by coronavirus, but also by the bushfires at the start of the year, and they will likely be the last out of this. And so, we’re very conscious of that in shaping the policy direction of the future.

Sabra Lane: The sad truth is some businesses will not survive. You can’t save everyone. How will the government make sure that you’re just not propping up unviable businesses and stopping the inevitable from happening?

Simon Birmingham: I think we’ve been very honest about that. It was months ago where I publicly acknowledged, as did other members of the government, that we wouldn’t be able to save every business or every job and that’s heartbreaking. But it is the consequence of a recession like this. It is also a key part of our consideration right now, that JobKeeper has been crucial to underpinning confidence and economic stability through the period of massive shutdown of so many parts of our economy. We are now entering a more nuanced phase, and that means we come back to the principles that guided us at the start of this, which is that where assistance is necessary, it should be temporary, it should be targeted, it should be proportionate. And they are the types of guiding factors that will inform our policy decisions on who needs support, what support that might look like, and how we ensure that we’re not propping up unviable businesses, but are giving the Australian economy the assistance it needs to rebound from this crisis.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: That’s Simon Birmingham, the Trade and Tourism Minister.