Topics: State border closures; tourism industry; trade diversification; Australia-China trade relationship




Julie Snook:     Joining me now from Adelaide is the Trade, Tourism and Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, thank you so much for your time this afternoon. First of all, states have slammed their borders shut on people hoping to visit from greater Sydney and other parts of New South Wales. Given the year we’ve had, what are the ramifications likely to be on the tourism industry?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, thanks for the opportunity to be with you today. Look, it is a very distressing and troubling time for many people, and my heart goes out to those individuals whose Christmas plans, holiday travel plans, and particularly family reunion plans have been disrupted by what has occurred. But also, my heart goes out to the many tourism operators and businesses right across the country, who were just starting to see things, at least in the domestic tourism market, return to normal. Of course, the still face the ongoing international travel restrictions. And so this will have real impacts around those forward bookings, the confidence that people have to travel, and will again be a further step back for many of those businesses and operators on their path to recovery. Now, hopefully New South Wales can get on top of things quickly. We have seen time and time again through this year that the type of systems New South Wales has to generate massive numbers of testing, to undertake comprehensive contact tracing and then to successfully isolate risks and quarantine risks from the rest of the community have worked, and they’ve consistently worked throughout the year. And if we can see that working quickly again on this occasion, then I hope that the states who’ve taken action to restrict cross-border movements can also take similarly swift action to ease some of those restrictions.


Julie Snook:     Do you think the WA Premier has overreacted to his decision to lock out the entire state of New South Wales, which is made most- much of, I should say, regional parts, who are thousands away from the Northern Beaches?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Western Australia has shown a particularly hard line when it’s come to state border approaches during the course of this year. That’s been their decision, and of course, we understand and respect in some ways the fact that each of the states have their own powers and rely on their own advice in these matters. But it is a contrast to the fact that pretty much other states and territories are at least applying restrictions to the Greater Sydney area whilst recognising that border communities, regional communities are a distinct and separate category and, of course, do not appear to have the same types of challenges that Greater Sydney has, let alone the very specific challenges that the Northern Beaches area has. So again, look, I would urge all the states and territories to be considered, thoughtful, proportionate in the approaches that they take to what’s happening in New South Wales. It is for them to make these decisions, and they will ultimately be answerable for these decisions that they make as well. But let’s all remember that there are people’s lives and relationships on the line in terms of being able to reunite at this time of year and over the holiday period. There are people’s livelihoods, jobs, and businesses on the line as well, and that as soon as people have sufficient confidence to relax these types of restrictions, they should do so to enable people to get back on with their plans and to restore some of the confidence in these important parts of our economy.


Julie Snook:     Just quickly before we move on, what would be your message to those in the tourism industry, as I said, given how tough this year has been? We’re now in December and it has just been one thing after the next for this particularly industry here in Australia.


Simon Birmingham:     Tourism operators have shown incredible resilience and strength during this year. It’s been so crucial that we have been able to offer them the types of small business payments and assistance and measures like JobKeeper that have kept many of them afloat through these tough times along with many, many other businesses. And so we’ve been able to work very closely, and I am grateful to so many parts of the tourism industry for the way in which they have engaged with government, worked with government. And I think the whole nation should show those across, particularly the tourism and hospitality sectors, an enormous debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that those businesses and people working in those industries have had to make during the course of this year to keep the rest of us safe. And so the first thing I would say is an overwhelming thank you for your sacrifice, for what you have done to enable us as a country to be world-leading in the suppression of COVID-19 and in doing so to save many thousands of lives. But also, I think there is- needs to remain that message of hope that we have got this well under control, despite what is happening in Sydney at present, that people should have confidence that they can and will be able to travel within their states and hopefully across our country through the course of next year, and that the fundamentals that make Australia such an attractive tourism destination, our adventure-based tourism, our nature-based tourism, the cultural attractions that we can offer. These are the core attributes that will see our industry come back and come back strongly when the conditions allow it to.


Julie Snook:     I think it’s safe to say we’re all very much looking forward to getting back on the road, Minister. Let’s turn to trade now. The Government has today announced that it will pursue trade deals with Israel, Switzerland, Norway, the Middle East nations next year. Is this all about diversifying in the wake of China’s trade actions?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’ve always had a policy of providing the maximum number of opportunities for Australian exporters and making sure that they have the chance to diversify their trade relations as much as possible. And that’s what’s driven us over the last few years as a government to secure trade deals, not only with China, but also with Japan and Korea, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Canada and Mexico for the first time ever, to strengthen our trade relations with countries like Vietnam, to do a new trade agreement with Indonesia, and to pursue current negotiations that are already underway with the UK in the EU. Now, we hope to expand that network even further, that the ambition should be to conclude those UK and EU negotiations next year. And so it makes sense then to try to secure complimentary trade agreements with the non-EU countries that are within Europe, the so-called European Free Trade Agreement nations. And so that group of four is a logical add on. Israel is an important partner for Australia, where we’ve seen increasing degrees of cooperation in terms of technology and innovation. And so the opportunity for us to secure a trade agreement there, again, makes sense to build that range of additional choices for Australian businesses and is consistent with what we’ve done, frankly, for the last six, seven years.


Julie Snook:     We should mention today is your last day in the portfolio. It’s been no secret you’ve been unable to get a phone call with your Chinese counterpart. Do you think that Dan Tehan’s move to Trade Minister will allow Australia to restart this dialogue?


Simon Birmingham:     I think we have to keep all expectations in check there. China should, of course, come to the table and show the courtesy to a new trade minister in being willing to have dialogue. But the honest truth is that the challenges in terms of government-to-government engagement and ministerial level engagement between China and Australia go back many years and predate even my appointment as Trade Minister. Now, I think this has been an error on China’s part that the, in a sense, first thing they cut was a willingness to actually sit down and talk, whereas that should be the last thing that you take off the table, because the way you work through problems and differences and issues is to engage in dialogue. But I don’t think we should have, given the history of recent years that goes back several years and to previous trade ministers and prime ministers, I don’t think we should expect there’s going to be some silver bullet that comes. Dan, I know, will do an exceptional job, and I would urge Chinese authorities to show him the courtesy of engaging and having that dialogue and those discussions, but nor should we anticipate that they’re just going to change their approach or their policies because we’ve got a new Trade Minister. Dan, I know, will get on, do his best to secure and finalise the agreements currently under negotiation to support our exporters, to diversify wherever possible, to work alongside of them in the pursuit and resolution of issues with China. And I know that he will be ready and willing to have that thoughtful dialogue with China when they’re ready to come to the table. But it’s up to them to decide to be willing to have that mature, necessary dialogue that we seek.


Julie Snook:     Minister, thank you very much for your time this afternoon. We certainly appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you. My pleasure.