Transcript, E&OE

Topics: Queensland border restrictions; Trans-Tasman travel bubble; Australian trade relationship with China; JobMaker.
26 May 2020

Peter Stefanovic: Well joining us live now is the Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks for joining us. Thanks for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you.

Peter Stefanovic: So just on that story that we were just talking about, I mean Clive Palmer’s gotten involved now. He’s taken the West Australian Government to the High Court. You’ve got Pauline Hanson who’s doing the same when it comes to Queensland. Do you support them?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s their right, it’s anybody’s right to initiate legal challenges. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope these matters can be resolved before it gets to the determination of the High Court. In the end, we are having enormous success across Australia in suppressing the spread of COVID-19 and every state and territory has played a role in that and every state and territory’s enjoying that success. And they are now safely, successfully re-opening schools, getting pubs and restaurants back open, getting people back to work which is the most important thing.

But ultimately, and hopefully well before September, as the health advice allows, I want to see those interstate border restrictions come down because one in 13 Australian jobs relies on our tourism industry and yet of course with no international travellers coming now or for the foreseeable future, we need to see domestic tourism recover to sustain some of those jobs and businesses.

Peter Stefanovic: Are you expecting Annastacia Palaszczuk to backflip because surely she can’t hold out until September?

Simon Birmingham: Queensland is the state in Australia most heavily dependent on tourism to sustain small businesses and jobs and Queenslanders have the most at stake and the most to lose if these border restrictions stay in place too long, it will be businesses in Queensland and jobs in Queensland that will suffer.

Nobody’s encouraging anybody to do anything that isn’t safe but every state in Australia has been enjoying success at suppressing the spread of COVID-19. Things have improved greatly from where they were a couple of months ago when these restrictions were put in place. And as long as each of the steps of opening up within states can be done safely, then we should see the step taken to open up across states as well.

Peter Stefanovic: There is quite an alarming forecast in the Cairns Post today, Minister, that suggests that unemployment in the Far North Queensland region could- could reach in excess of 18 per cent. Do you expect figures to get that high?

Simon Birmingham: I am deeply concerned about regions like Far North Queensland, Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast. These were some of the last tourism regions that I visited when travel was still being facilitated and allowed and I had some of the most heartbreaking conversations of my life talking to small business operators who were deeply concerned about the viability of their business and therefore the employment of the many people who depended upon it. And the only thing that can ultimately sustain those businesses in the long term is to get visitors back there and spending in those businesses. And that’s what we want to see happen as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Peter Stefanovic: That’s double the national average though. I mean do you expect those figures to be that high?

Simon Birmingham: I think you can safely say that regions that are more heavily dependent upon the tourism industry will of course feel a greater impact from the downturn caused by COVID-19. The tourism industry was the first sector to feel the pain of this crisis and because the international border restrictions are so crucial to keeping Australians safe and will stay in place for some period of time, that means the tourism industry is going to continue to feel that pain.

That’s why we’ve stumped up in terms of the JobKeeper support to date. It’s why we’ve made sure we’ve provided significant payments of up to $100,000 to small businesses across the country. But ultimately, we don’t want to see a circumstance where that pain is made worse by unnecessary decisions and it is unnecessary to be threatening interstate border restrictions in place indefinitely into the future when we’re having such success already at suppressing the spread of COVID.

Peter Stefanovic: When it comes to interstate travel, may we well be travelling to New Zealand first? Is that a real option?

Simon Birmingham: It’s possible. I would hope that we can address these issues across the states and territories of Australia before we get to the point of New Zealand. But in the end, I don’t want to see a circumstance where some states hold the progress of other states back. So if New Zealand were willing, and we actually had a circumstance where the health advice said it was fine to happen, then of course it would be great to get back to the point where that Trans-Tasman travel could occur. I don’t want a circumstance where the decisions of Queensland hold up the progress of other states of Australia.

Peter Stefanovic: Have you actually had conversations with Jacinda Ardern about this?

Simon Birmingham: These matters have been discussed prime minister to prime minister, and Prime Minister Ardern addressed the National cabinet and engaged in one of those National Cabinet meetings a couple of weeks ago. We know that New Zealand is open to the concept as well. Both countries have led the world in terms of the way in which we’ve successfully handled this, successfully stopped it spreading across our communities and avoided the scenes of mass graves in New York, or overflowing hospitals in Europe. We’re all determined to make sure that we continue to avoid that, which is why nobody’s going to do anything that jeopardises that safety of Australians or of New Zealanders. But equally, we’re both at a point where you can look across the ditch and say with a fair degree of confidence that travel between the two countries could be restored sometime in the foreseeable future without it presenting any health problems.

Peter Stefanovic: But there wouldn’t be any need for quarantine, because that would defeat the purpose of overseas travel, right? So you’d have to do it without having people in hotel quarantine for two weeks.

Simon Birmingham: That is the key decision to be made. That’s why it’s got to be based on the health advice. Obviously forcing a 14-day quarantine period on travellers and visitors makes tourism travel and leisure travel unviable. So for it to be a viable proposition, both countries would have to agree that the health advice was clear, that neither presented a significant risk to the other.

Peter Stefanovic: Just onto international calls. Did you end up getting a call with your counterpart in China?

Simon Birmingham: No, that still hasn’t been scheduled, and it remains disappointing. The Australian Government will always front up to have a conversation even where we have disagreements. We think the best way to work through those disagreements is to engage in dialogue.

Peter Stefanovic: Yeah. Well there’s a quote this morning in The Australian Financial Review, it’s from your counterpart in China, the Commerce Minister says China has been cautious and restrained in trade remedy measures and they only launched one trade remedy investigation almost 50 years compared to 100 probes into goods from China by Australia. I mean. is that right?

Simon Birmingham: Well this isn’t about keeping a tally or about doing things in a tit for tat way. Each country has its own anti-dumping system. Anti-dumping systems are there to prevent goods from being dropped in a market at below cost value and therefore distorting that market and driving local producers out of business. Yes, Australia has an anti-dumping system that we use, and our decisions are open to appeal through the World Trade Organization. China’s not chosen to do that with any of our decisions to date, but it remains their right to do so. China has now made this decision on an anti-dumping matter in relation to our barley industry. We reject the basis upon which those findings have been made. We don’t think the evidence is there, and we are certainly undertaking investigations now as to what the next steps in defense of our barley growers might be and that could well include a WTO appeal.

Peter Stefanovic: Just one more Minister, there was JobSeeker, then JobKeeper, and now it’s JobMaker. What sort of an impact do you hope or expect that to have on the economy? This is the Prime Minister’s speech later on today.

Simon Birmingham: We face the most challenging economic times of any government since World War II, because of the devastating impact COVID-19’s had on economies, not just in Australia but right around the world, and on suppressing investment and suppressing trade flows around the world. And so we’ve really got to now double down on things that we’ve done before. In our first six years in office, we created 1.5 million new jobs. We brought the budget back to the state of balance. We’ve been down this difficult task before. It’s much, much harder now, and that’s why we’re reaching out to make sure that we get our vocational education and training system functioning more effectively for those who need the training, be they students or employers. That we get our workplace relations system functioning more efficiently for employees and employers, because these are going to be crucial elements to recreate the jobs that have been lost by COVID and to get us back to a position of success in the future.

Peter Stefanovic: Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Thank you.