Kieran Gilbert: Now, for more on this issue, I caught up with the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham a short time ago.
Tourism and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time. On the 4th of September, the National Cabinet agreed that all the states and territories would work with the Commonwealth to boost the number of international arrivals, to lift their cap on international arrivals. Have they been receptive to the proposal put by the Federal Government today?
Simon Birmingham: There are some really encouraging noises from a number of the state premiers, Labor and Liberal, and that is to be welcomed. What we want to see is a careful, safe increase in the number of Australians who can return to Australia, do so through our quarantine system, and do so without any of the risk of failures that we saw in Victoria. And of course, it was the Victorian failures that saw all of the different states and territories ask for caps to be put in place in the first place. And now they’ve had some time working through those caps. We’re proposing cautious, steady increases in those caps that can enable us to facilitate then the return of more Australians faster, more speedily, and by allowing more people onto planes, hopefully drive down some of the costs that Australians are incurring in relation to those returns as well.
Kieran Gilbert: Why don’t you take up the proposal put by Anthony Albanese – use the Government’s fleet of aircraft, the Air Force?
Simon Birmingham: Because most of the planes arriving in Australia right now have got lots of empty seats on them. So, the issue isn’t about the number of seats that are available to get into Australia. The issue is that the quarantine capacity has set a cap. Before the pandemic, before the pandemic, we had arrivals tracking at around 7700- wait, sorry, before Victorian second wave, we had arrivals tracking at around 7700 a week. Then the new caps put in place following that saw them reduced to about 4000 per week. And part of that is that Melbourne, our second largest city, second busiest airport, isn’t taking any arrivals right now, and of course all the other states reacted to the failure of Victoria’s quarantine by putting caps in place. So what we can see is that the issue isn’t a lack of seats on planes, despite Mr Albanese suggesting we should put more government planes in the sky. The issue is a lack of quarantine rooms that are available. Now there are thousands, tens of thousands of hotel rooms across the country that could be used. What we’re proposing with the states and territories is that they agree to a careful, steady increase in that cap, lift the capacity a little closer to where it was before, give us then that ability, with Commonwealth support if need be, through our Defence Forces or otherwise to safely return more in a way that helps to address the pressure points.
Kieran Gilbert: So the Commonwealth has told the states that the ADF will help with the repatriation where need be and the quarantining where need be, that the Defence Force is on standby?
Simon Birmingham: We have more than 3000 ADF personnel who are helping with the COVID response at present, including helping states and territories with quarantining issues, helping Victoria with their very specific issues as well, and we will continue to deploy that support where the states and territories need it and where that aligns with ADF capability. So, we absolutely see this as a partnership – one where we want to work with the states and territories to get an outcome – and we are pleased that today those states and territories have responded relatively positively in some of their public comments and we hope that National Cabinet on Friday can enable the states and territories to agree a pathway forward here that sees everybody carry their fair share, do their bit. These are Australians who come from right across our country and they need to be supported by all the states of this nation in terms of their return.
Kieran Gilbert: Looking at the numbers thus far, the current average sees New South Wales take in more than 2200 return citizens every week. The second to that is Queensland with 526 and then WA, 512. Now obviously, Victoria is not in a position to do so at the moment, but given New South Wales is taking on the lion’s share at the moment, would you like the other states to step up?
Simon Birmingham: We do want to see all the states carry a fair load and I’m pleased that Premier McGowan from WA and Premier Marshall from SA have both made positive indications today about their potential capacity to increase the number of arrivals into their states. I hope that both of them can follow through in terms of committing to detailed plans, to play a role there in supporting the other states and territories. If we can get the types of increases that we’ve proposed to the states and territories agreed at National Cabinet on Friday, then eventually, when Victoria can come back online and Melbourne can again safely receive arrivals from overseas, we can potentially have even more places available than we had prior to that Victorian second wave. So, this is about charting though, a careful, steady course. Nobody wants to jeopardise the safety and integrity of hotel quarantine. We’ve seen from the way in which Victoria occurred the devastating consequences that that can have. But equally, everybody I think recognises there are Australians overseas doing it tough right now. They need a pathway back into the country. That pathway is not what the Labor Party pretends it is by putting government planes in the sky; that pathway is by creating more places in safe hotel quarantine facilities.
Kieran Gilbert: There’s been some slight progress in terms of the state border issue, South Australia moving to allow people from the ACT. Would you like to see that sort of thing replicated with Tasmania, with Queensland, with WA?
Simon Birmingham: I would. I was thrilled last week to see the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory take steps in relation to New South Wales and the Premier of South Australia yesterday take steps in relation to the ACT. I think these are sensible steps that are clearly being informed by evidence in terms of looking at the degree of spread of COVID in those jurisdictions. The ACT of course having had no cases now for getting close to 70 days, and so we really do want to see states and territories recognise those parts of Australia that have done extremely well and open up borders in ways that are mutually respectful of one another. It is really problematic that some jurisdictions like the NT and SA have opened up to other jurisdictions like WA and Tasmania, but that’s not been reciprocated, when all four of those jurisdictions have had remarkable success in suppressing COVID and there can be no justifiable reason for those states to maintain restrictions against one another. It’s just hurting in terms of the sustainment of jobs. Jobs in airlines, jobs in airports, jobs for hire car operators, jobs for tour operators. There are a whole range of different parts of our economy where people’s employment and the viability of their businesses depend upon people being able to move across those borders. And the reason for those restrictions still being in place is clearly not justifiable when you look at the health data and the successful suppression of COVID.
Kieran Gilbert: And one of those businesses you referred to is the airline industry. We’ve seen Qantas with a big announcement this week in terms of its headquarters, that it’s looking to centralise that. Where should they do, centralise their headquarters of the national carrier? What’s your reaction to that?
Simon Birmingham: Well it’s a commercial decision for Qantas to undertake. I fully acknowledge that Qantas has faced, and is facing enormous pressures, some of which we were just talking about. And that’s why our Government has responded with what tallies up to hundreds of millions of dollars in support through JobKeeper, through our aviation support measures, assistance that has helped Virgin through its administration process and to come out the other side, and helped Qantas and helped regional airlines. And that’s all critical in total billions of assistance flowing across all of the different components of the aviation industry. Where Qantas chooses to have their head office staff or consolidate aspects of their operations is their commercial decision. I have seen reports that seem to be encouraging states to enter into a bidding war, if you like, about attracting those businesses there. And I know that regrettably, that happened in relation to aspects of Virgin’s headquarters where we saw bidding wars from the states and territories. I’d urge the states to show a little caution there. Bidding to simply shuffle jobs around Australia doesn’t create any extra jobs for Australians. Where states and territories should spend money is absolutely in things that can help ensure business viability for airlines, especially those states who are keeping their borders shut. They ought to invest in areas of infrastructure and encouraging investment in their states and territories that can generate additional jobs, additional economic activity, not just trying to pinch it from one another.
Kieran Gilbert: Finally, on to the China relations at the moment. We’re ahead of a major annual import expo. You’ve attended the last two in China. It’s coming up in Shanghai in November. Have you been invited to attend that expo this year? Will you attend?
Simon Birmingham: I haven’t been invited at this stage, Kieran. But to my knowledge, nor have other trade ministers from around the world. The last couple of years, China has run a ministerial program sitting alongside the trade expo that has provided an opportunity for us to have policy dialogue on a range of global trade issues and World Trade Organization matters. It doesn’t look like China is planning a similar event this year, so that means that we haven’t seen invitations coming. Obviously on the whole, there are a lot of logistical challenges given travel restrictions with sending a large trade delegation from Australia to Shanghai for this wonderful event that China do host. But I welcome the fact that many Australian businesses, using China-based representatives, are looking at how they can still participate. And they’ll certainly have the support of our Austrade and Foreign Affairs teams.
Kieran Gilbert: Would you attend if you were to receive an invitation?
Simon Birmingham: Look, if an invite is forthcoming, then we’ll take a look at it. I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. There are all of the logistical challenges, as I’ve said. But China remains a very important trading market. If it is helpful to Australian industry and would provide an opportunity for valuable dialogue, then of course we’d consider that at the time.
Kieran Gilbert: Paul Kelly, the Editor-at-large of The Australian says we need to curb the fatalism and to put a new priority on trying to halt the vicious spiral. He’s talking about the bilateral relationship. Do you agree with him? Do we need to avoid fatalism in this debate around Australia-China relations?
Simon Birmingham: Well there certainly shouldn’t be an attitude of fatalism. China and Australia share a place in the same region of the world, and we are both G20 economies; China the world’s second largest, Australia the world’s thirteenth largest. It is important that we find ways to engage and to co-operate, but also do so in a manner that is entirely respectful of each other and each other’s sovereignty and each other’s security and stability. That’s the approach that Australia brings to bear on these issues. We welcome the opportunity to partner with and to engage with China where it meets all of those criteria. We have been good for each other in terms of our mutual growth. And China’s growth in recent decades has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It is something that humanity should celebrate. We welcome the continued economic growth of China and the opportunities that provides right across the region, not just in terms of the trade opportunities between China and Australia. But all of it has to be underpinned by respect for each other, respect for international law and international norms, and respect for the sovereignty of all nations across the region.
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Kieran Gilbert: The Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham speaking to me a short time ago from Adelaide.