• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Qatar Airways flights from Adelaide to Doha; Clean Seas; COVID-19 vaccine; JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
16 August 2020

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. I’m thrilled to be here with the South Australian Minister for Trade and Investment, Stephen Patterson, and it’s wonderful to do my first public event with Stephen and congratulate him on his appointment as SA’s Trade Minister, and I know he will bring great passion and expertise to the role, with Rob and the team from Clean Seas as well to celebrate the fact that we are seeing yet another export opportunity recovering for South Australian industry from the challenges caused by the pandemic.

What we’ve seen ever since we had the shutdown of international borders and the collapse of global air travel is of course a huge impact on exporters leaving Australia, and we’ve stepped up as a government providing hundreds of millions of dollars in support to keep planes flying so that exports keep leaving our country. And that’s supported more than $1 billion worth of export out of the country to date. Those exports are high value premium seafood, chilled meat, horticultural produce that’s in high demand but needs to get to its markets really quickly. And these are export opportunities that companies like Clean Seas have worked damned hard to win over the years, and it’s crucial to them that they’re able to reliably service those contracts around the world. That’s why we’re thrilled now to see the additional service flying out of Adelaide into Doha that opens up market opportunities for companies like Clean Seas right across Europe, and indeed frankly around the world by getting back into that key hub.

These flights with Qatar are not requiring direct subsidy although the government is continuing to provide support available to exporters. So, it is essentially the next step that we’re seeing in the recovery of international air, that having provided support to get flights out of many Australian cities, including to Doha, and get flights out of Adelaide to cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, we’re now seeing airlines make the decision to put a route back on from Adelaide to Doha, and without that direct contracting but certainly with support available for the exporters to make sure they can afford the freight costs that are attached to this.

Now, I hope we see enormous success there. Not only are we celebrating though the departure of seafood to Doha today, we’re also noting that South Australia will begin a pilot of bringing students back to Adelaide, and this is a very important next step in terms of the recovery from the economic disaster of COVID. International education is a huge services export industry for Australia and for South Australia. It underpins many thousands of jobs and it is important that we work out how we can get international students back to Australia safely and appropriately. This pilot of around 300 students coming into Adelaide is going to be used to test just exactly how we’re going to manage that, but it’s being done with the absolute utmost of safety requirements in place. All of the quarantine requirements, all of the testing requirements, all of those factors are built in with this having been approved, the highest levels, state and federal, by health authorities to make sure everyone can have confidence that this is not going to pose any risk in terms of COVID transmission, but is going to allow our universities to work out how they can safely return international students to our shores.

So, we welcome this as a small step on the road to recovery for international education, and I thank the South Australian Government for putting forward this pilot proposal with South Australian universities. It is indeed a testament to South Australia’s successful management of COVID to date that SA’s pilot has been selected as the one to go forward in terms of welcoming international students back, because all of the health authorities have the utmost of confidence that South Australia is going to manage this safely, securely, and provide a model that hopefully the rest of the country can follow in terms of international students returning.

I’ll hand over to Stephen and then Rob, then happy to take a few questions. hand over to Stephen. And then Rob and then having to take two questions. Thanks guys.

Stephen Patterson: Thank you Senator Birmingham. It is fantastic to be here today at Clean Seas and see up close and personal their highly sought-after kingfish and how it’s packaged up. Today really is another important step forward as Qatar Airways resumes their flights, their direct flights from Adelaide into the Middle East. That’s fantastic news for South Australian producers as it opens them up to one of our emerging markets so that then we can export our high-quality produce such as beef and lamb, and also our seafood into those markets. It’s also a vote of confidence in the South Australian market itself and the handling of South Australia, how it’s gone about its way with the COVID-19.

In terms of these air freights, they’re vital to opening up export markets, and the Middle East is one of the fastest growing markets for South Australia for our high-quality beef, lamb and clean seafoods. And so one of the first focus areas of the Marshall Government was to set up an export recovery taskforce to really focus and work with key industry players, freight forwarders, companies such as Clean Seas to keep these air freight routes open. So, it’s fantastic to be here today to see air flights resume into the Middle East.

Question: So the flights were grounded because…

Stephen Patterson: Importantly, these flights in the Middle East also open up access to European markets, and Clean Seas today will be able to harvest their fresh clean highly sought-after kingfish and ship them direct into European restaurants within days. That’s fantastic for our economic recovery and it’s good for South Australian jobs.

Question: Sorry, I just wanted to ask how long has it been? So, they were grounded because of the pandemic, so how long…

Stephen Patterson: Certainly. So, flights, of course, because of the pandemic, international air travel really grounded to a halt, and so that happened in March. Since then, the South Australian Government was one of the first governments to set up its export recovery taskforce focused on reopening these vital arteries to our international markets. The Middle East is one of them. It’s where our high-quality beef and lamb can export into it, so it’s great news for us South Australians.

Question: From today, it’ll be regular…?

Stephen Patterson: These flights into Doha from Qatar Airways are looking at flying twice a week up to Christmas. And certainly, it’s really good news for our exporters to be able to put their high-quality produce into the belly of its planes. We’re really looking forward to- as things open up, other markets emerging as well.

Question: What had to be done to get Qatar back onboard to get these flights going again? What was the sort of the carrot and stick?

Stephen Patterson: Well, certainly, it’s fantastic news that Qatar Airways are resuming direct flights from Adelaide into the Middle East. Of course, South Australia’s handling of the coronavirus, making us a safe and healthy place for people to come to is important. But also I think it’s a vote of confidence in our markets. We’ve got high quality produce: beef, lamb and chilled seafood. It’s vital that they get out into these emerging markets such as the Middle East. I think that’s a clear traction for Qatar Airways.

Question: But did the Government had to approach Qatar and say we’re really keen to get this going again, what do we have to do, when are you going to do it?

Stephen Patterson: Well, as I said before, the Marshall Government in the early days set up its export recovery taskforce. This allowed work with key industry players — Adelaide Airport’s one of them. Our exporters, Qatar Airways of course, vital that we get those air freight routes open. And this is the result. It’s fantastic news for South Australian producers, as they get further access to vital international markets. That means we can recover our economy and that means jobs for South Australians.

Simon Birmingham: I’ll handle over to Rob.

Question: What does this unlock for you guys? I mean, are people in these European nations- are they going out and eating food?

Rob Grattan: So, Clean Says, who you may know is the current South Australian Exporter of the Year, and half of our produce goes to international markets, mostly in the belly of passenger jets. So, obviously when the pandemic struck and those flights stopped going, our capacity and our ability to deliver fresh fish into these international markets was greatly reduced. So yeah, the great thing about these Qatar flights and the support that we’ve had from State and Federal Government that means that we can once again get our fresh fish out the door. The shipment today, we’ve got nearly 2000 tonnes of fish going, being routed through to Rome. And so next week in the restaurants of Italy, will have our Spencer Gulf Kingfish and the brand of South Australia on those tables.

Question: But are we seeing lots of people going out and eating in these markets? Is there a demand there?

Rob Grattan: Well, we’re obviously still a pretty small presence in those markets. There’s a lot of- you know, ability for us to increase our sales even with the restaurants sort of being at lower capacity. So, we’ve managed to find new markets, new channels into Europe and actually come out ahead of where we were before the pandemic.

Question: What have you been doing previously? Have you not been able to export anywhere near as much, and how much is that costing the bottom line?

Rob Grattan: Well, it’s just more the complexity to our supply chain. So, we like to get fresh fish out of the water and on the restaurant tables in four days, and not having the direct flights out of Adelaide means we need to ship to Melbourne, wait for longer connections. Having these direct flights means that we can connect from Doha to anywhere in the world which is fantastic.

Question: Has it been tough since the start of the pandemic for the industry?

Rob Grattan: Yeah. I think all industries have been suffering, and all export industries have been so this is all welcome news, the Qatar announcement and the support from State and Federal Government.

Question: Is there- have you been able to push out the same amount of products via Melbourne, and did you have to scale that back slightly?

Rob Grattan: Look, capacity’s been an issue. As I said, sort of 90 per cent of our air freight was in the hold of passenger jets, so when those jets stopped flying, the capacity wasn’t there which has an impact on price as well, but that’s where the Government’s IFAM subsidies come in. And that’s led us to keep the business ticking along.

Question: And have you been able to manage that level of throughput in the jets for the intermediary period?

Rob Grattan: Yeah, it’s just taken a lot of juggling to get capacity.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Rob. There you go, great South Australian kingfish back on the menus in Rome next week.

Question: Can I just ask, is there an acceptance that it’ll be a very hard sell to some people in the community about bringing the international students back in?

Simon Birmingham: We are taking a very cautious approach in terms of the return of international students to Australia. We have those successfully demonstrated, particularly states like South Australia, that they can return Australians from all corners of the world, safely quarantine them, and provide no exposure to the South Australian community in that process. And so, the same cautious careful approach is being brought to bear when it comes to international students. We have to work through these steps very carefully. But that’s why a careful pilot program is the right approach to take and I’m confident the SA Government having done such an exemplary job in terms of managing quarantine facilities and the return of international arrivals to date will be able to do exactly the same thing with international students.

Question: How much longer can the Government keep Australians from travelling overseas [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: This cautious approach to how we manage our borders and who comes and goes and how they come and go has been an essential part of protecting Australia from COVID-19, and it’s going to remain very important well into the future, and it’s why we’re taking small steps whether it be in relation to international students, or cautious approaches in terms of the numbers and processing of returning Australians. But we’re confident we can manage all of these things. I know that for many Australians it’s a challenging, difficult time where they can’t easily access their loved ones or other interests that they have overseas. But ultimately, this has enabled Australia to manage this crisis better than most other countries in the world.

Question: But is there a timeline? Is there a plan in place for when we can travel overseas?

Simon Birmingham: We continue to review all of the health advice including as it relates to travel circumstances. But we can’t and won’t put just random timelines in terms of advice as to when borders might reopen. They’ll reopen when the health advice gives us sufficient confidence together with all of the precautions we’re putting in place that they can safely reopen.

Question: Senator, got a Defence query for you. I understand that Defence advises of an extreme threat of espionage to Australian maritime [indistinct] and are you confident that defence companies here have adequate [indistinct] against foreign operatives?

Simon Birmingham: The Australian Government takes all threats in terms of national security very seriously, and indeed the story that I see today is in part because Defence has refused a request by Rex Patrick to publicly release information about our Defence naval capability building program. Now that’s part of the cautious approach we take, that not all information can be publicly released when you’re talking about building new naval capability for the future, nor should it be publicly released. But we have high standards in place to protect the information, to protect the build program, and to protect Australia from espionage, interference, or cyber activities.

Question: There’s been a- also a bit… about the size of the yet to open Chinese consulate in Adelaide. Do you buy into that debate at all, whether it’s a suitable size?

Simon Birmingham: There are well-established protocols when it comes to the accreditation and recognition of diplomatic missions in Australia. We make sure that they are followed by all countries in Australia and that includes the size and the type of roles within those missions. It’s a careful approach that’s taken in accordance with established international rules and norms by all countries when it comes to consulates, embassies, or otherwise. I would say that people like Rex Patrick that they should be careful in not playing politics with sensitive national security issues or sensitive diplomatic relations.

Question: With the state of Victoria, should JobKeeper and JobSeeker be extended beyond September?

Simon Birmingham: Well, JobKeeper has been extended well and truly to the end of March next year. JobSeeker, in terms of the coronavirus supplement, has also been extended until the end of this year, and the Government will continue to monitor the importance and contribution of those additional supports to our economy and to businesses and to individuals carefully as we get to the other points in terms of the time that they’ve been extended to. These are crucial supports that we have provided and injected into the Australian economy, and they have been extended by our government to continue to provide that support as many businesses and individuals deal with the pandemic.

Question: Just for the university sectors in other states, they can take some comfort- you know, this is- Adelaide’s going to be a test case for unlocking the rest of the nation as far as universities go? and higher education.

Simon Birmingham: The Australian Government has approved South Australia as a pilot and a model that will provide lessons for the rest of the country. Ultimately be up to each state and territory working in conjunction with their universities as to how they choose to progress because we want to make sure that anything that happens in relation to international arrivals coming into Australia is done with the strictest of safety standards in place. I also want to stress as well that no taxpayer dollars will be used in terms of supporting students flying into Australia or quarantining as is required. All of those costs will have to be met in the ordinary course of events certainly not by taxpayers.

Question: On the issue, related issue, can you provide an insight on how Australia’s going in terms of access to a possible vaccine?

Simon Birmingham: I think the Health Minister Greg Hunt spoke this morning in relation to vaccine that we are working closely with manufacturers and potential developers of vaccines around the world and that he has expressed cautious optimism about the likelihood of a vaccine, and that is something that we all hope to see materialize. And there are more than 100 different vaccines around the world undergoing different types of clinical trials at present, and several of them — clinical trials in Australia — are at different stages, and as a government we are working very closely where required with manufacturers, with vaccine developers, to make sure that Australia can get our hands on a vaccine as quickly as possible. The Prime Minister’s been clear that he thinks every country should make the same commitment that Australia has, which is that if it gets the vaccine breakthrough, it must share it with the rest of the world, and the Health Minister has happily expressed cautious optimism about the progress in nailing down a vaccine, and that’s a wonderful hopeful sign for all of us.

Question: Thanks, I’ve just gone one for you as well quite quickly. There’ve been concerns raised in the press this morning that the masks manufactured by Detmold perhaps aren’t living up to the standards that was expected, staff being told to wear an extra facecover. Were they properly tested? Will the government confirm they were properly tested?

Stephen Patterson: Well, certainly my focus has been on the exports in this fantastic announcement today in terms of having direct flights from Qatar Airways out from Adelaide and to the Middle East. In terms of that question itself, I think that’s a question to be directed to the Health Minister. I’m certain he’ll be able to provide you with information.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.