• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Trans-Tasman bubble with New Zealand; opening borders to Pacific Island nations; domestic tourism; Australia’s hydrogen industry.
28 September 2020

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live to Adelaide now. Simon Birmingham joins me, the Trade and Tourism Minister. Thanks for your time. How important or significant would it be to have that travel bubble with New Zealand open up?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, it’s good to be with you. It clearly would be very significant because we have essentially had all parts of the world, all elements of international travel closed to arrivals into Australia, unless they are firstly returning Australians or individuals able to get an exemption under very narrow criteria. And then secondly, requiring people to undertake that 14-day quarantine. So, if we can reach a point where with New Zealand, we acknowledge that there can be a freer movement of people without them necessarily needing to meet the defined criteria, and that they can come in without facing quarantine, then that would be a very big step forward and it would be a recognition by New Zealand of Australia’s success in suppressing COVID, just as it will be by Australia of New Zealand’s success in suppressing COVID, and recognition that done in the right way, carefully managed, we can facilitate safe movement between our two countries just as at present we are now seeing increased safe movement between some of the Australian states who have opened up again to each other.

Kieran Gilbert: Would you see it working that the New Zealand bubble- the trans-Tasman bubble would go straight to one of the major gateways like Sydney, or would it be possible to open up, say, with other states and territories?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s a couple of criteria there. There’s obviously the nature of the approvals process by both countries in terms of agreeing which points of entry and movement have got the systems in place to ensure safety, both in terms of the suppression of COVID overall but also the management practices at international airports and approaches that need to be taken there in a careful way to keep travellers from New Zealand separate from travellers who might be arriving, returning Australians from Europe, the UK, the US or other parts of the world where of course there is greater risk of COVID and where they would be going into quarantine. There’s also of course a decision for New Zealand to make itself about whether they see certain jurisdictions as being preferable to others. But lastly, there’s a commercial decision for the airlines to make as to where they go. Now, Air New Zealand previously has had direct flights not only into Sydney but has had them into Adelaide. And if you look at states that are similarly open to the rest of the country at present, those two stand out, New South Wales and South Australia, and clearly I would love to see an approach taken where perhaps we can see that the states that have had the success in suppressing COVID and have taken a responsible approach in the opening of their own domestic borders to one another who are similarly safe in the management of COVID, are at least accorded the opportunity if the airlines choose to come to be able to open up to New Zealand as well.

Kieran Gilbert: What sort of timeline are you looking at, do you have in your mind as being realistic, and would you extend that travel bubble to the Pacific? Because the economies of the Pacific, our neighbours, the islands so dependent on tourism have been absolutely decimated by the COVID pandemic.

Simon Birmingham: Well, in timelines, ideally, we want to see as much breakthrough pre-Christmas as we possibly can. Let’s see something happen if it can this year that can not only provide the economic lift that comes with increased travel, increased movement, and the gains that will attribute to our tourism sector, but also of course the reunification of families, of loved ones, and the opportunities for those connections to be reestablished that are so important. And doing that pre-Christmas, if it can be achieved, will be wonderful. And I really do warmly welcome the positive messaging from Jacinda Ardern in that regard, and we look forward to continuing to conversations and discussions with her and her government to get that resolved.

In terms of the Pacific, it is one step at a time. Let’s get this built up in a model that everyone has confidence in before we necessarily jump to the next step. You are right. Many of our Pacific Island friends and family nations are struggling. At present they are very tourism and travel dependent economies, and they would warmly welcome the return of Australian and New Zealand travellers to underpin their economies. But we have to make sure that we protect not only our safety but also their safety and ensure their resilience when it comes to the management of COVID. And so, we will work with them just as carefully as we are working with New Zealand. But let’s get the first step in the first model undertaken.

Kieran Gilbert: But would you like to see, say, with Fiji, other nations in the Pacific, borders reopen within months?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I’m not going to put a timeline on that. This is something that we will do very cautiously with those Pacific Island nations to ensure their safety as much as our safety, and to ensure that we are respecting their sovereignty and their concerns on the way through. So yes, there’s big opportunities for them from a tourism and travel and economic perspective, but we have to make sure that we always put the health considerations first. We’ve invested much as Australia in terms of supporting them through COVID, helping them with personal protective equipment, helping them with testing equipment, helping them to ensure the resilience of their countries is there. And thankfully, our Pacific family have largely avoided the threat of COVID. We want to make sure that continues. They are of course a big part of our considerations when it comes to our vaccine, vaccine purchases and contracting and commitments we’re making. So, their safety is at the forefront of our mind, but if we can, once we’ve got a model proven working with New Zealand, have absolute confidence of safely extending that, well then, we would love to be able to help them further in their economic recovery as well.

Kieran Gilbert: The Deputy Prime Minister confirmed additional subsidies for domestic flights in Australia. That becomes less important, doesn’t it, once the state borders reopen. Given how well Victoria is doing, would you like to see that happen sooner rather than later, the reopening of the borders?

Simon Birmingham: I want to see borders reopen in a safe way, and I think we’ve now got models in place where jurisdictions are doing that. The Labor Government in the Northern Territory, the Liberal Government in South Australia, both of them taking positive steps in terms of opening up to New South Wales. That is warmly welcomed. I want to see the other states follow suit. Queensland, Tasmania, WA, these are jurisdictions that need to continue to look at the evidence and make sure they follow that. And we really should have great confidence in the successful management of COVID by New South Wales and of course by all of the other Australian jurisdictions with that challenge though of Victoria. The encouraging numbers in Victoria is something to be welcomed. It does give us hope that we will be able to see border restrictions lifted there at some point, but I wouldn’t want to put a timeline firmly on that yet. Let’s make sure that we try to get the rest of the country as open as possible, bring the community with us, ensure they’ve got confidence in the robustness of the systems that are there, and we need to get Victoria to a point where we are seeing a community transmission ceasing and absolute confidence in the robustness of their testing, their tracing, their isolating systems as well.

Kieran Gilbert: You announced a $250 million support plan for tourism in regions. The regional tourism apparently looks like it’s picking up. How do you get people back to the cities though, given they would be so dependent on international tourists which, other than New Zealand, is not going to be opening anytime soon?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed Kieran. Well, a couple of things there. The funding we announced yesterday, particularly some of the regional funding, is really targeted at those regions that are dependent on international visitors. Think of regions like Tropical North Queensland or Central Australia – these are parts of the country that don’t have people getting in their cars from Sydney or Perth and just driving out for a day trip. They still need people going on proper holidays, getting on planes, travelling longer distances, and that’s why we’re providing some extra support for them to be able to really try to get more Australians who aren’t taking international holidays right now, to substitute them for thoroughly extended good length of time interstate holidays to these sorts of destinations.

In terms of the cities, we’ve already announced a $50 million package focusing on the meetings, conferences, business events, exhibitions sector and so that we can try to give confidence for them to move ahead next year with events, planning them, making the bookings, getting people committed to attend those sorts of events that are so crucial to CBD hotels and conference centres and those types of destinations. But the more we can see both that business travel market and the leisure travel market returning, the more we will help our cities as well as some of those internationally dependent tourism regions too.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally, I was reading comments from the German minister responsible for energy and so on. They’re talking about hydrogen imports from Australia. How advanced is our industry? Is it advanced sufficiently to capitalise on hydrogen exports to power a Germany looking to decarbonize?

Simon Birmingham: Australia is really well placed to take advantage of global interest in hydrogen. It’s why we’ve struck partnerships with Japan, Korea, Germany, forging investment opportunities across those countries with Singapore and others who have really significant interest in the potential of hydrogen, especially green hydrogen, and how it can be a substitute fuel of the future. And part of the interest in Australia is because of our history as a reliable supplier of affordable energy across the region and of course our capacity as a renewable energy powerhouse. Now, our government has committed, through our technology roadmap, to hydrogen as a priority, and we’ve identified the target of making sure production of it is commercially viable because that’s what’s going to really spark investment and drive demand for hydrogen around the world. And if we can drive technology through cooperation with these global partners to a point where production can be commercially viable, then Australia has huge opportunities for the future, and it’s great to see that sort of recognition and enthusiasm coming from Germany.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate it. We’ll talk to you soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran.