• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Tourism sector in Australia.
13 August 2020

Fran Kelly: There’s no relief in sight for the country’s beleaguered tourism sector. With no foreigners coming in and restrictions on state and territory borders now hampering domestic tourism, the industry’s, well in some quarters, ground to a halt. Now, the Federal Government says if states and territories keep their gates shut longer than needed, it will be up to those jurisdictions to prop up businesses that rely on tourism. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Tourism Minister. Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Nice to be with you.

Fran Kelly: You’ve told the Nine papers that your Government won’t be picking up the tab to prop up the tourism sector if the borders are kept closed for longer than needed, for one day longer than needed. But every border closure is based on health advice at the moment, isn’t it? Are you challenging that?

Simon Birmingham: No. I’m not at all, Fran. And that’s not exactly an accurate interpretation of what I told the Nine papers. Our Government’s committed to keeping JobKeeper in place all the way through until the end of March; that’s providing a huge lifeline to the tourism industry. And there’s no doubt about that. That will flow to any business who meets the eligibility criteria across the country.

What I was observing was that borders have a place, but they should be proportionate to the risks across different jurisdictions. Nobody’s quibbling at all with the fact that the quarantine is there in Victoria at present. All the states are making fair judgments across the board. But if we get to a point where some states choose to keep their border restrictions in place longer than even reasonable health advice would suggest, well then those states need to stump up and also help to support the tourism industry.

The Federal Government’s providing many billions of dollars of assistance to those tourism businesses and to the employees. And if the states are going to cripple their markets even further than is necessary, then they should be helping out too.

Fran Kelly: Yeah. But there’s a lot of qualifiers there – even further than necessary, shouldn’t keep them shut longer than the health advice- I mean who’s judging this? How do you judge this? That’s the issue here, isn’t it? We’re a federation. The states and territories are making their own decisions.

Simon Birmingham: The states and territories are making their own decisions. But they also need to be responsible for those decisions. So if we end up in a circumstance where some states and territories are applying tougher restrictions than seems to be necessary and than any of the other states and territories are, well then it’s going to be hard to structure federal programs just for that state or territory. That’s why a state will have to take more responsibility for assistance.

Obviously, right now, the Victorian situation means the assistance there has to flow through. So we’re seeing in the states that have relaxed their internal restrictions, big movements of people willing to get out to the regions in Western Australia and South Australia. It would be nice to think that at some stage, perhaps sooner than Premier McGowan has suggested, people might be able to cross that Western Australian-South Australian border. They’re two states with very similar health outcomes.

Fran Kelly: Yeah. I understand what you’re saying. It’d be nice to think that and tourism operators might think that too. But generally, the citizens of those states seem to be really backing their premiers and chief ministers who are keeping the borders closed and the, as you say, people are moving around WA, the economy does seem to be doing alright. You know, a lot of people in WA think: well let’s keep it as it is; keep this virus out. Can you understand that? Or is that frustrating for you?

Simon Birmingham: I understand that. Well, it’s frustrating for many tourism operators who rely on-

Fran Kelly: Well, of course. Yes.

Simon Birmingham: … cross border flows. And, Fran, we had a situation where South Australia has opened up to Western Australia, but WA is retaining a quarantine on those returning. The other states have very similar outcomes in terms of their management of COVID – they’ve done incredibly well in that regard. And it would make sense that at some stage, far sooner than either of them could open up to Victoria, that they should be able to completely open up with two-way travel to one another. And there would be other examples across the country where that should be the case, and that is important to tourism businesses who rely on that sort of cross-border travel – not just the ability to try to get people out of their own capital cities.

Fran Kelly: As I say though; the federation – many states and Premiers and Chief Ministers can do this as they see fit. Is that frustrating for you? And do we need to, I don’t know if you can do this through a National Cabinet, or needs to- perhaps some kind of agreement – I think this is what the tourism sector would like – where you get national standards, national agreed standards over what triggers a border closure? Are you trying to work towards something like that? Or not?

Simon Birmingham: I would hope that the Premiers might be able to give some more clarity to the tourism industry and the travel sector around that so that people can plan with greater confidence for these things and have some idea of the fact that perhaps WA could open up to South Australia before it opens up to Victoria. It would be good to hear that was a possibility rather than keeping the blanket national restrictions in place.

Fran Kelly: What did you think about the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Michael Gunner, this week who said it’s likely that the Northern Territory border will be shut for 18 months?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that just seems to be a very long period of time to make that prediction when- what happens if you have no community transmission occur in Western Australia throughout the entire time? Why would the Northern Territory need to keep its borders to WA shut if it was achieving the same health outcomes as that jurisdiction? Now, this is not something that we’re seeking to expect states to move on in a hurry, or to resolve quickly. We respect the decisions that are being made at a state and territory level, but I do think they’ve got to be thinking about the economic consequences for the many, many tourism businesses; who, prior to this pandemic, supported around one in 13 Australian jobs. It’s a huge, huge employer. We are providing billions of dollars of lifeline assistance from the Federal Government through JobKeeper, but we do want to make sure that people can get back to viable businesses and real jobs as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Fran Kelly: Yeah, but what are you saying? Are you saying that if the Northern Territory does stick to that, that suggestion – that the border be closed for 18 months – that the Federal Government will cut off support that is there generally for the national tourism sector? Is that what you’re saying?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the JobKeeper is there until the end of March.

Fran Kelly: Not JobKeeper, beyond that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, JobKeeper is there until the end of March. We will assess what’s necessary when we get closer to it in that point in time in terms of any assistance that’s required across the nation. But if you do have one jurisdiction operating completely out of whack, potentially, with all others then it is less likely that that sort of assistance might continue in the same ways, and more necessary for that jurisdiction to take responsibility for providing assistance. But they’re hypotheticals – it’s a long way away.

I hope that we continue to see the enormous success that most other states are having, outside of Victoria, in suppressing that community transmission. But particularly those outside of the big two states enjoy a really great success they’re having, and that they may find pathways to be able to better open up to one another. As I say, a number of jurisdictions have done so outside of opening up to Victoria and New South Wales and I think they’ve shown a proportionate approach in terms of opening up to those states and territories who are having very similar results in terms of their outcomes.

Fran Kelly: With the elections coming up in the Northern Territory Queensland and the WA, and WA in the not too distant future, there are plenty who accuse the state and territory leaders of keeping their borders closed because it’s electorally popular. Do you think that’s what’s happening?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope not, Fran. I’m not going to try to get into the minds of state leaders, I think they have all done a pretty good job, particularly outside of Victoria, a very good job in terms of managing the pandemic to date. But they have to be mindful of the business viability and the jobs as well. And so you keep the restrictions in place as long as it’s necessary to keep your population safe – that’s entirely understandable. But, you shouldn’t have them there longer –

Fran Kelly: And that’s subjective to interpretation though, isn’t it? I mean, that can be interpreted? Your health advice can be interpreted?

Simon Birmingham: Well, these things can always be interpreted, Fran, but at some point it passes the point of being reasonable or acceptable. And so, we can’t predict when the restrictions need to come off but I would hope that based on the success most of our states have had; based on the fact that some states, like SA who had complete border controls in place before but has now opened up to Queensland, the Northern Territory, WA and Tasmania – done so successfully; done so without any detrimental impacts – provides an example for the other states to at least think about similarly opening up, opening up to other states that have similar health outcomes.

Fran Kelly: Just one final question, Minister, on another issue, well same issue another jurisdiction. New Zealand this week recorded its first infections of COVID-19 in more than three months. Has that scuttled hopes of a travel bubble this year? The industry is still hoping there could be a New Zealand-Australia travel bubble before Christmas?

Simon Birmingham: I remain hopeful that we can see something in place before Christmas, but nobody should get ahead of themselves or expect that there’ll be movement within weeks, or even the next couple of months. I think this is obviously a case where New Zealand will have been watching closely what’s been happening in Victoria in particular, and equally now they have their own challenges which is a reminder that, that even with the tightest of border restrictions in place, you need all of the other protections there. And that is a point that we’ve emphasized to the states and territories – you need your high levels of testing, you need highly capable tracing units, you need to enforce isolation when it’s there. You can’t just rely on border controls because you may just find that you have, as New Zealand has, got a case that pops up by unknown means. And if you don’t get on top of it quickly that’s when you can end up in a Victorian situation.

Fran Kelly: That takes us back to border closures. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Fran. Thank you.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Tourism and Trade Minister.