Interview on ABC Far North, Drive, with Adam Stephen
Adam Stephen: Alright, we’re 21 past 3. I’ve got a special guest with us this afternoon who has been in North Queensland to get a bit of the lay of the land for some of the fallout that we’ve already seen related to COVID-19 on the tourism sector. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Tourism Minister and he’s with us on ABC Drive radio. We were just lamenting the fact, Minister Birmingham, that we couldn’t even shake hands. We’re being told that that is something that we probably just need to put in the back pocket for the moment. It does feel strange though, doesn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: It does feel very strange. Thanks for the opportunity to come into the studio, Adam.
You know, yes, I’ve spent the day meeting with representatives of the local tourism industry, with trade export sectors like the fishing and seafood sector, and of course, a politician’s job is to get out there, to talk to people, and usually the first thing you do is, you know, look them in the eye, shake their hand – and probably the last thing you do when you see them as well. And so, it takes a bit of self-consciousness to pull back from that. But everybody gets it at present. And it is just a case that, you know, we want as much normality to continue as possible, but we also need people to take some sensible precautions that can just help to slow the spread of this virus. Because our number one objective as a government is to slow the spread so that we save lives, because if we slow the spread we know that the peak pressures on our public health systems will then be minimised, and if we can reduce those peak pressures, well that means that there should be enough hospital beds, enough respirators, enough support for everyone. But if those peaks get out of control then we have problems. And that’s why we’re taking these types of preventative measures.
Adam Stephen: Tourism is a key economic pillar to North Queensland. Both the Far North and the Whitsundays very reliant on tourism; both reporting big impact, big fallout already from what we've seen with international travel. And I guess the restrictions that are going to be placed on people coming into Australia are only going to mean that there are less people coming to Australia in the short term. What are you hearing from operators in the north today?
Simon Birmingham: It's been a horror 2020 for the tourism industry across the country. The bushfires initially created concerns about reputational damage overseas and a downturn in bookings from some parts of the world that hit regions like Tropical North Queensland, that are completely unaffected by bushfires, but nonetheless, they saw some downturns in bookings. And just as we thought we were recovering towards the end of January of course, COVID-19 comes along and has now well and truly hit the industry in a much, much more serious way. We were seeing before the weekend's decisions about entrance to Australia – that bookings from key markets like the US were down about 90 per cent in forward booking terms. So, visitor numbers were drying up already. But of course we've taken decisions, because we're trying to protect the public from a health perspective, to further restrict visitors into Australia and to make those isolation requirements. And you know, we've been quite world-leading as a government in the approaches we took, and initially the restrictions on travel from China did manage to help keep Australians safe and they did manage to contain the spread in Australia. Other countries didn't take those same types of measures and it spread across into those other countries, which has created now this global pandemic.
So, the tourism industry, we know, is doing it very tough. So are trade-exposed sectors like the fisheries industry and seafood sector as well. That's why last week we announced some $17.6 billion in government stimulus and economic support that include direct payments of between $2000 and $25,000 going into small and medium sized businesses that will flow through the tax system to them; a range of other measures, including payments to pensioners and those on disability pensions, age pensions and the like. And also a $1 billion fund that is specific for regions and sectors facing a disproport- [audio skip] Tropical North Queensland, the tourism sector, trade-exposed sectors are at the forefront of that, and that's what I've been talking to businesses about today.
Adam Stephen: You're hearing here from Simon Birmingham, Federal Tourism Minister.
You were told today that the anticipated economic impact on just Tropical North Queensland alone is $1 billion in lost opportunity as a result of COVID-19. The fund that has been created is only $1 billion and it needs to be spread across multiple [audio skip] going to get their share of that package.
Simon Birmingham: So, government can't of course run every business or prop-up every business across the country. And we are dealing with quite unprecedented times. Tragically, there are already job losses, there are no doubt already some business failures, and sadly more to come. What we are looking to do though, is make sure we target the funds as best we possibly can to protect as many businesses as we can for the future, and to save as many jobs as we can and to stimulate as much economic activity as we can in the short term. And that's the type of discussion I've been having with Tourism Tropical North Queensland today – with their members, with the many businesses and with others – to say: look, give me the priorities right now as to how we can make sure we get this $1 billion out the door as quickly as we can, in the most effective way possible, to save businesses, to save jobs and to ensure that when we do reach the recovery phase, which will come down the track, that we have the critical businesses and the critical infrastructure there to be able to bounce back quickly.
Adam Stephen: Minister Birmingham, for those that have lost employment or face the prospect of it, it is increasingly a casualised workforce within tourism. The government, in your $17.6 billion stimulus package, didn't have any specific measures for casuals. Is that going to be reassessed potentially down the track?
Simon Birmingham: We're certainly very conscious of the fact that people who are losing their jobs – casuals, permanents as well in some numbers – do need to get swift and appropriate access to the welfare system. That's the natural stabiliser in a sense that we rely on at times like this, that if dramatic disruptions to the economy come along and people are losing their jobs then they should be able to access that welfare system quickly and easily. And the Prime Minister and I have spoken a couple of times today while I've been in Cairns so that I can give him real time feedback about what's happening on the ground, what businesses are saying. And a credit to the businesses that I've met today. Usually, the first thing they talk about is the welfare and well-being of their staff. Their concern is that if those staff don't have jobs anymore or won't have jobs in the future, making sure they're going to get quick access to Newstart, and that we make that process as easy as possible for them. And certainly, government is very mindful of that and trying to stand up the additional support within Centrelink to help people through those processes.
Adam Stephen: Minister Birmingham, thank you for joining us this afternoon on ABC Radio in North Queensland. You'll be back, no doubt, over the coming weeks and months and we'll check in with you again.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much.
Adam Stephen: That is the Tourism and Trade Minister for Australia, Simon Birmingham, in North Queensland getting a sense for what's playing out on the ground when it comes to the fallout from COVID-19.