Topics: Qantas; International travel; Airline support; JobKeeper & JobSeeker; University research; International students; Parliament workplace practices



Laura Jayes: Qantas will consider bargain airfares to help stimulate travel after the pandemic dealt a billion dollar blow to the company’s balance sheet, the nation’s carrier half year results confirm lockdowns and border closures have had a significant impact, but there’s hope international flights could resume by October. Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister who joins me now. October, could we be travelling overseas?


Simon Birmingham: Laura, look, it’s possible and I would share those hopes, but there are many uncertainties between now and October. Obviously, we need the vaccine rollout to go well. Within that we need to see how the evidence plays out around the world about the emergence of other strains and variants of covid-19 and the vaccine’s resistance to those and the protections that it gives to individual people. So I think it is indeed something that we can hope may be possible, but we can’t necessarily put a likelihood on it or a probability to it just at present until we see further research, just to really confirm whether the vaccine is going to provide us with all of the protections that we think are necessary to keep Australians safe and secure.


Laura Jayes: It sounds like you’re saying October is a little too optimistic from Alan Joyce, is that right?


Simon Birmingham: I’m only saying that we just we can’t be certain about it at present. If it all goes well with the vaccine rollout. And vaccine provides sufficient protection for Australians, which we know from the evidence that it currently does, to the strains that it’s being tested against in terms of ensuring that people do see a dramatically reduced risk of hospitalisation or serious illness. Well, then I would hope that we can see a return to normality. Let’s remember that what we’re looking for this vaccine to do is to keep people safe and secure. What our original ambitions around COVID-19 always were, was to make sure that our health system wasn’t overwhelmed, that we suppressed the virus such that we could provide the type of world class treatment that Australia prides itself on providing to everybody. Now, the vaccine is going to change the risk profile for us over a period of time as we get quarantine workers and medi hotel, workers vaccinated, as we get those working in frontline jobs, in health care vaccinated, as we get our aged population vaccinated. All of those different steps will reduce the risk for the Australian population overall. And hopefully that will enable everybody to make decisions, to keep things a little bit more open over time and ultimately see us take that leap to re-open international borders. But we do have to be mindful of different strains from South Africa, from Brazil, from the United Kingdom that that are emerging and showing different impact points. And so we have to continue to be guided by the science and the health advice in terms of the protections the vaccines will offer to those. But we hope that they will offer good protections and that will enable opening to occur.


Laura Jayes: Okay, October at the absolute earliest. A billion and a half dollar loss for Qantas yesterday and JobKeeper ending in March. What will Qantas need and get post March?


Simon Birmingham: So Qantas has shown incredible resilience through the pandemic. We’ve provided enormous support around two point seven billion dollars in support available to the aviation sector through the pandemic. But to Qantas’s credit, they’ve also gone out into equity markets and raised more equity themselves. And they have a strong balance sheet that underpins their position. And that’s why they went into this pandemic, like Australia, in a very strong position relative to many international airlines. And they’ve demonstrated their strength and resilience through it with a significant amount of government support, backing all of the airlines across Australia. Ours is a country where having a viable aviation network and strong airlines is not negotiable, we have to make sure that they are strong going into the future.


Laura Jayes: So what we will require and what will it receive?


Simon Birmingham: So we’ve made very clear that with the end of JobKeeper at the end of March, we’re looking at targeted types of support for different sectors that might really need it now. We’re still working through analysis around precisely how best to target that. Our best target in terms of sectors, how best target it in terms of supporting the operation of a sector versus also trying to stimulate demand in the sector. And we know that if we can get more planes flying with more people on them, that’s good news for Qantas and Virgin and for Rex. But it’s also incredibly important for all of the other components of the tourism and travel industry.


Laura Jayes: So what’s the government’s role in that, Finance Minister? Is it to stimulate further that economy, the tourism and travel sector, or is it to support those workers?


Simon Birmingham: That indeed, Laura is the work that we’re undertaking at present to look closely at where it is best to continue just to support the sustainment of a sector or a business versus to take further steps or initiatives if they are possible to generate greater demand and activity and recovery in that sector. I mean, ultimately right across the Australian economy where it is viable to do so, we want to see businesses come back strongly on their own two feet, just as they do if they have to make difficult structural adjustments along the way to do that, that’s going to be necessary. Unfortunately, in some cases, too. Not everything will come back exactly the way it was in parts of the travel sector, like corporate travel may well be ones that see a more permanent structural adjustment as businesses get used to using remote communications and telepresence and the like a little more than they had before. But where we can and we do want to see all of these sectors open back up. Open borders are an important part of that. That changed risk profile around the vaccine that I was discussing before is an important part of that. And so what we want to do is limit as much as we possibly can the degree of taxpayer support that goes there. But we do realise that there will be some targeted support necessary. And obviously the aviation sector is one that has very strong and credible arguments as to how the continued border restrictions and impacts of COVID play out for them.


Laura Jayes: Okay, you are giving nothing away as to what that target assistance might look like? But can you give us a date? We’re now a month away from when JobKeeper will end. When will you make an announcement? Weeks or days?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the government made the announcement this week in relation to the cessation of the JobSeeker supplement and the nine billion dollar decision that was made to create a permanent ongoing fifty dollar per fortnight, lifting JobSeeker. You can see we are working through these different issues that relate to -.


Laura Jayes: But, business need certainty Minister. So when will you give them that certainty?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we are working through these issues. We want to do it in the same careful approach that we’ve taken right through the pandemic. And so we’ll have more to say over the next couple of weeks. But we do need to make sure that we strike that balance right, target support where it is really going to make a difference whilst being prudent with taxpayer dollars, knowing that we are running the biggest budget deficit in this financial year in Australia’s peacetime history. So we do have to be prudent in making sure that as we target, it’s genuinely targeted and will hit the right spot in terms of sustaining industries in a viable way going forward.


Laura Jayes: Okay, you talk about structural change at some businesses may operate completely differently than they did pre COVID. The university sector seems to be identified as one of those today in an article by Simon Benson. And we’re going to see a speech today by Alan Tudge talking about moving forward with universities and the way they get grants will be tied to research. Is this a pre-emptive move, really? Are you anticipating that universities can no longer and will no longer be able to rely on the international student market, which has been so lucrative?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we want to see international students come back. And many universities are still providing really viable and important services, valuable services to international students. And they’re doing that with the students that were already in Australia. They’re doing that through the provision of services. And international student engagement will and must remain an important part of what our university sector does because it enriches the university sector. It provides greater diversity on campus in terms of the learning experience and the internationalisation of our universities-.


Laura Jayes: Are universities over reliant on them though, international students?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we’ve seen some universities have a greater exposure in terms of the share of their income to international students. But we’ve also seen enormous resilience in the last year there that operating surpluses were still recorded for some of our biggest universities that had the biggest cohorts of international students. Now, the government stepped in, provided guarantees about the continuation of Australian government funding to the universities through the pandemic, stepped up and committed a further one billion dollars to make sure that research programmes could continue. But I think Minister Tudge remarks are rightly targeted in the space of identifying that as government seeks to grow our manufacturing strategies, as we seek to create more high value jobs in different sectors of the economy, it is essential that we’re university research is undertaken and supported we really see a translation of that research into commercial outcomes as much as possible, and we encourage universities to do that and support that by working as closely as possible with industry and business to ensure that research is relevant to job creation and to and outcomes across a range of different sectors, be they industrial or manufacturing, be they in supporting our climate change ambitions and clean technology developments, be they in relation to research that helps to deliver improved care, for example, in sectors like aged care. These are all important outcomes that our universities do provide world leading research in. They are often some of the most highly cited research papers in the world. But what we don’t do as well at is translating that research into commercial outcomes. And that is where there’s big opportunities for Australia to do much better.


Laura Jayes: Ok, the development in Parliament this week, the AFP commissioner wrote to the PM, which the PM requested, reminded us all, but particularly ministers, that delays in reporting of crime can lead to reoffending. When should have this been reported to police and by whom?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it is important to remember that the defence minister and then defence industry minister, Linda Reynolds, and her office did facilitate meetings between Miss Britney Higgins and the Australian Federal Police in the couple of weeks after the incident occurred. I think police would always say that it is best that they have matters reported as quickly as possible. But there are a range of different factors at play, understandably, in terms of the emotional reactions and the thought process that the victim or an individual may face in those circumstances. And that’s why getting maximum support and assistance to two individuals is crucial. The piece of work that I’m working with all political parties on commissioning really will have at its core. How do we first and foremost prevent harassment, bullying and of course, incidents of sexual assault and ensure we have a safe and respectful workplaces across the whole parliamentary environment that set an example for the rest of the country. But also, how do we ensure we have the best possible support frameworks there to enable people to feel confident in going and accessing those supports and to assist them to make decisions when it comes to matters such as reporting.


Laura Jayes: Ok, Simon Birmingham, Finance Minister, appreciate your time this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.