• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Tourism figures for June; Border closures; Exemption to cross border on compassionate grounds; Business events grants program.
11 September 2020

Tom Connell: The number of domestic tourists doubled in June before the second COVID-19 wave struck. Figures show the number of people traveling within Australia jumped from 3 million to 5.7 million; Australians of course unable to go overseas. To discuss this, I’m joined by the Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham. Always good to start with some good news. But where does it leave us in a net sense? I mean, tourism’s still getting smashed at the moment, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Tom. Well tourism is very much getting smashed. It is a bit of a tale of two worlds in the tourism industry at present. There are lots of regional destinations that are frankly enjoying a bit of a mini boom, and what this data shows is that there is enormous enthusiasm from the Australian public that when restrictions are eased, they want to get out there and resume life and travel where they can. And so as states have eased some of their internal restrictions, and what we saw was that it was a big boom of people leaving the major cities, heading out to regional communities and that’s wonderful for those regional communities and some of the tourism operators there, particularly accommodation venues and dining venues and the like. But we still have huge parts of the tourism industry who are well and truly missing out on anything. They usually rely on international visitors or interstate travel. Airlines, airports, CBD hotels, conference venues, tour operators, hire car operators. This means we’ve got hundreds of thousands of jobs that are still in jeopardy as a result of the types of activities that can’t currently be undertaken.

Tom Connell: You seemingly can’t change the mind, despite all of this, of state and territory leaders at the moment. Not all of them, but the vast majority. Is the Federal Government keeping on the table the option of trying to overrule the states on borders either in court or by legislation?

Simon Birmingham: Well there are court matters that others have been pursuing, that’s for them. We are going to continue to try to present calmly and factually the evidence to the states and territories. We recognise that there is a role for border restrictions in a place like Victoria at present. Great as the gains are being made, there is still a role there to make sure that the spread of COVID in Victoria doesn’t spread into other jurisdictions. But equally what we’re seeing now is that Gladys Berejiklian and her government have set not only a national standard, but frankly a global standard for how you can contain the spread through effective testing, tracing, and isolating and quarantining of individuals and dealing on a hotspot-based approach, and dealing with individual clusters. And that has been very successful. I’d just like to see some of the states at least take some of the initial steps that, for example, South Australia’s taken by agreeing to open up to WA, the Northern Territory, to Queensland, to Tasmania, but we haven’t even seen in the case of Tasmania and WA a reciprocal opening up in those cases. So if we can just get some of that cross-border flow from jurisdictions who have next to no cases happening, and if we can get some recognition of a region like the Australian Capital Territory, 62 days now without a COVID case and yet we’ve got this tragic terrible debate happening in relation to the young woman in Queensland unable to attend her father’s funeral before we even get to the economic impacts of such closures.

Tom Connell: What do you make then, because we’ve heard Annastacia Palaszczuk say it’s not my decision, under the Act, I can’t even make the decision. Are you looking into that? Is that accurate? I mean, does a premier not even have the power to make decisions on these things?

Simon Birmingham: Well I do know that it depends from state to state on how they’re different emergency management powers are created, that in some cases police commissioners are all powerful in terms of the making of those laws. But I find it astonishing to think that a health officer or a police commissioner would not be responsive to a request from a premier if it was made to show a little bit more compassion in such exceptional circumstances. And that’s what these clearly are, and if you are looking at somebody who’s travelled from the ACT, 62 days without a COVID case in Canberra, no cases in the immediately surrounding regions around the ACT, you should be able to show some compassion, grant an exemption and if the exemptions policy can’t work in a case like this, then the Queensland Premier and her authorities need to go back and look again at that exemptions policy, because it is clearly lacking compassion, lacking flexibility, and not even looking at the health evidence and facts of where that person has come from in the case of Canberra.

Tom Connell: Well Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has said other exemptions have been made. She was pressed on why people were able to get in straight away from Tom Hanks, to sports officials and so on, because of the economic benefit. Is it unusual for a CHO to talk about economic benefit when they’re supposed to be making health decisions?

Simon Birmingham: Well on every level, all of us should be putting the health issues first, and I’m sure even Queensland’s health officer is doing that. But it’s not unreasonable for them to also think about other impacts – economic impacts but also human impacts. And so what I find quite startling, I guess, about that admission is to suggest that they are prioritising the economic impacts over basic humanity, the right to be able to see a dying parent and to be able to farewell them and to grieve with your loved ones. And that I find extraordinary that if you’re dealing on an exemption based approach, and look, that’s Queensland’s decision to keep its hard border there. I disagree with it when it comes particularly to the ACT where I think the evidence is very clear that COVID has been suppressed, is not in the community, and therefore people pose little risk, but they’ve kept that border there. They’re doing it on an exemptions approach. If you’re dealing it on an exemptions approach, well then surely you should be showing compassion as well as economic consideration.

Tom Connell: Okay. Just finally as well, I was surprised to read this from your release. So business events makes up a quarter of Australian tourism, we’re talking trade shows, exhibitions, these types of things. You’re offering $50 million to help reboot this because this has really been hit hard by COVID. But it’s a $36 billion industry. Will 50 million do much?

Simon Birmingham: So this is about 240,000 Australian jobs. And what we’re trying to do is to provide confidence for planning and recovery in that sector. It’s not saying that we expect major exhibitions to get underway and big conferences next weekend. It’s about looking well into next year and backing in business to have confidence and get some financial support of between ten and $250,000 to be able to book a spot at a conference or an exhibition, to build their stands which generates jobs for the tradies. To participate in those exhibitions and conferences which generates jobs for the audio visual companies, for the cleaners, for the caterers. There’s a range of different jobs that are dependent in this space, and we do need to get that corporate events activity moving and happening again to save those jobs. And that’s why this fund is there, not to subsidise all of the jobs in that sector – because most of them will be receiving JobKeeper support already – but to give the confidence to make bookings and plan for those events to actually start and happen again over the course of the next year or so.

Tom Connell: Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time today.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Tom. My pleasure.