• Transcript
Topics: Coronavirus
06 March 2020

Hamish Macdonald: With coronavirus travel bans now in place for China, South Korea and Iran, and international tourists cancelling their holidays down under in droves, Australia’s tourism sector is facing an unprecedented crisis. Of course all of this comes on top of the impact of the bushfires over the summer.

State and territory tourism ministers will meet their federal counterpart, Simon Birmingham, in Canberra today to discuss a possible lifeline for the industry. The Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment is Simon Birmingham, he’s in our Parliament House studios. Good morning to you, Senator.

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

Hamish Macdonald: The numbers are pretty staggering, bookings for some key markets down around 70 per cent; bookings down 47 per cent from Britain, 52 per cent from the US. What are you going to do to help the sector?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, these are quite unprecedented times for the Australian tourism industry. As you say, bookings on average over the last month are down some 56 per cent of international visitors planning to come to Australia. Now, that obviously has profound implications for those internationally facing and oriented tourism businesses, there viability, their cash flow and the jobs of their employees.
That’s why we’re consulting very carefully with industry, with the states and territories and why the Prime Minister and Treasurer have made it clear that there is a response package that’s under development at present and that we will clearly be bringing that forward as soon as we possibly can to make sure that Australian businesses have the certainty that support is there to see them through these tough times.

Hamish Macdonald: Can we be a little more specific about the sorts of things you’re considering to do to help the tourism industry.

Simon Birmingham: So look, there’s I guess two tracks of work that occur, Hamish. One is in relation to targeted assistance to businesses and understanding how we can help them, some of which – as we saw in the bushfires – can be through the tax system, others may be more direct measures to assist those businesses, those small businesses to stay afloat, to manage their cash flow, to keep their employees in jobs.

The other is about broader implications for the tourism industry and making sure that Australia doesn’t vanish from international markets, that we recover as quickly as we can from this crisis and that we get our fair share of visitors in the future.

Hamish Macdonald: So on the first component of that, what are we talking about? Delays for submitting BAS statements? Are we talking about tax breaks? Are we talking about cash being given to small business operators?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, industries, states and territories are raising all of those sorts of ideas with me. Now, the government’s going through a thorough and a proper process to work out what is going to be most effective at targeting assistance to those who need it most.

As the Prime Minister’s been clear, we’re not about to repeat the mistakes of past stimulus’ where we overspend, lock in spending for too long into the future and end up wasting taxpayer dollars, but we are clearly going to invest in targeted ways to help those who need it to get through this crisis. And what we’re doing at present is consulting, developing the policy and we’ll go through all of those proper government processes to analyse what is going to be most effective.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. I understand that you don’t want to sort of confirm what the outcome is going to be, I’m just trying to help our listeners understand what sort of things appeal to you the most given that context that you’ve just provided. I mean we’ve talked openly about some of the policy options that are available, I’m just interested to know what- where your thinking is at.

Simon Birmingham: So Hamish, I think we’ve been clear, as a government, that protecting people’s jobs is critical to us through this sort of downturn and protecting the viability of small businesses. Now how you do that – obviously their cash flow situations are a crucial determinant of whether or not a small business is going to survive and whether or not they can keep staff on board. So looking at the type of very targeted assistance that could be possible for those businesses logically is an approach the governments taking. But there are different ways you could deliver that and that’s- they’re not things I’m going to pre-empt in a conversation at present, they’re matters for Cabinet to finalise over the coming short while.

Hamish Macdonald: Michael Outram, Head of Border Force in conversation with us this morning indicated that there’s a points at which the role of Border operations in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Australia become less impactful, the utility is diminished as the spread occurs anyway, domestically. Do you take a view as to whether the travel bans actually not really particularly useful and may do more harm than good?

Simon Birmingham: The travel restrictions we’ve put in place were incredibly successful in the early days and did have the effect of basically preventing further presentations in Australia for a period of time. Clearly, sadly, they weren’t applied in the same sort of way by other countries, and that saw caseloads get away from the containment that was occurring in China and start to spread into other countries, and ultimately that’s caught up with somewhere like Australia. Now there will be a turning point where if this takes off within the Australian community, then restrictions on travel to Australia no longer play a useful role in terms of trying to contain or prevent the entry into Australia of the virus, and that it is fully then about how we manage the public health systems and the other responses within Australia to ensure that they cope with the load of this. And that so far as possible, we flatten out the peak that occurs from this virus so that the health systems can cope with it. But we’re not going up on those containment measures at present, and certainly the advice is still there that preventing new cases from entering Australia at present, even if it doesn’t stop us from seeing an ultimate escalation in the case load in Australia, it does probably still buy us a bit more time in terms of the preparedness of all of the health systems.

Hamish Macdonald: We’ve obviously been talking to the tourism industry in recent weeks, and it’s pretty clear that the health situation that currently presents itself is compounding an already difficult situation given the bushfires over the summer. Do you think that the reality is that actually some parts of Australia, small operators are just not going to be able to see out this year, given the combination of those circumstances?

Simon Birmingham: There’s always a risk that businesses who may have already been marginal in their viability may not be able to see through the type of stresses that are being applied as a result of these events. What we saw from the bushfires was it was a very significant early impact on booking intentions. That was actually starting to recover towards the end of January, particularly in some of the key western markets like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, we were seeing a recovery in those booking numbers. Only then, of course, at the beginning of February and right through now into March, for that to be hit for six by a coronavirus or COVID-19. That’s why firstly, we put in place a response to the bushfires, which was predominantly for the tourism industry across Australia about trying to drive demand back into those businesses by stimulating the domestic tourism market, and that message is still there for Australians, that if you want to help struggling tourism businesses, you want to save people’s jobs in tourism regions, then the best thing Australians can do is to make a booking to holiday somewhere in Australia this year. And that booking is going to help the viability of those businesses. And [indistinct] maintain that campaign, but clearly now as we’ve just been discussing, there are those businesses facing real stress, real pressures, and that’s going to require a broader government response than simply stimulating tourism demand, which has limits on its capacity given the coronavirus.

Hamish Macdonald: But on that very point, as you rightly mentioned, there’s many Australians that are not going ahead with their overseas travel plans this year, at the same time as many overseas are not going to come here. Is there some kind of increased coordination that could be managed to ensure that actually Australians are going to these regions that are already suffering?

Simon Birmingham: This is a big part of what we’re doing at present. And it’s also a really important message when we say to people to plan to go about your normal lives at presents. That yes, we understand the fears that people have, but Australia has a world class public health system. We’re able to cope and deal with these sorts of circumstances, and people should book a holiday within Australia with confidence. Today in talking to the state and territory tourism ministers, we’ll be getting an update around the Holiday Here this Year campaign that we’ve been rolling out firmly in conjunction with the states and territories. The bulk of the money that we budgeted for that is being delivered by the states and territories through partnership agreements that really enable them to target those regions and communities that they think need it most in terms of driving bookings into those areas.

Hamish Macdonald: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald: Simon Birmingham is the Trade and Tourism Minister.