Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland and Lisa

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Global investigation into China; COVIDSafe App; Children going back to school
28 April 2020

Lisa Millar: The Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Adelaide. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Lisa.

Lisa Millar: Who knew how much it costs to keep elephants and lions fed? I've had an education this morning.

Simon Birmingham: It's quite amazing, the costs of maintaining the many of those animals who live in our various zoos and aquariums right across the country. You know, Sea Life Sydney keep a dugong called Pig and it costs them $50,000 a year in buying 20,000 kilos of lettuce to feed Pig the dugong. Now, that's an enormous cost and it's replicated so many times over. And, seriously, our economic response to this has been to put, of course, hundreds of billions of dollars into saving jobs, protecting businesses, helping people to maintain their lives and their livelihoods.

But when we get down to the detail of it, we also see that, in the case of these zoos and aquariums, we need to make sure that the animals can still be fed, cared for, receive the veterinary support, and often the essential research that's undertaken. And that's what this package will help to do, and to ensure that those businesses can reopen and continue to be at the heart of tourism ecosystems, whether it's in Cairns or Dubbo or Kangaroo Island, when we get on the other side of this pandemic.

Lisa Millar: Yes, you've encouraged Australians to start planning holidays at home, but the reality is that it could be a long time before any Australians are seriously spending money or moving around the country?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. We have to wait and see and abide firmly by the health advice. That is working for Australia, it is suppressing new cases of COVID-19. And that's why we encourage Australians to continue to download the COVIDSafe app, to do their bit by social distancing, and to follow all of the regulations.

But yes, there will be another side. And now is also a time when people may not be able to travel, but they can dream - dream of travelling. And I do encourage them, as Tourism Minister, to have those dreams, to make those plans if they're in a financial position to do so, so that when we get to the state where some of the travel restrictions are lifted, they can get out there, holiday in Australia, support our tourism regions' businesses and sustain those jobs where people have been doing it so incredibly tough as a result of the shutdown and of the cessation of international travel and visitors as well.

Lisa Millar: Well, our relationship with China is key to a lot of those industries. How devastating would a Chinese boycott of tourism and education be in Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it would be inappropriate. Australia's position is very clear that we believe it is entirely reasonable to have- and entirely responsible for there to be a genuine inquiry and investigation into the cause of the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. In fact, it would be

irresponsible for there not to be some global cooperation around such an investigation and inquiry. And we won't be changing our public policy position on the face of such a serious public health matter in the face of any threats of coercion from any other nation.

Lisa Millar: You've got commentators this morning, like Peter Hartcher in the Nine newspapers suggesting that these threats have taken the mask off China, describing China as a gangster.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I'm not going to deploy that sort of language. There is, clearly, it seems a policy difference at present between the governments of Australia and China.

Lisa Millar: A bit more than a policy difference, isn't it, Minister really? We've been on the roller-coaster before of this relationship, but this looks far more serious.

Simon Birmingham: We would hope that the Chinese government, along with all governments around the world, recognise that when hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives, when millions of people lose their jobs, when billions of people face serious consequences to their lives, there ought to be a thorough investigation into the causes of such a pandemic, to ensure that we can do everything possible to prevent it from being repeated again in the future. That's only a responsible thing to do, it's the bare minimum of what people would expect. And certainly, the Australian Government will continue to work with all countries around the world, to try to achieve that outcome.

Lisa Millar: Well, is one of the other things we need to do reducing our economic reliance on China?

Simon Birmingham: No doubt we will continue to see Australian people want to engage with Chinese people, Australian businesses want to engage with Chinese businesses and we want to continue to encourage that because that is good for relations at every level.

China is still the world's second-largest economy, the largest consumer market in our region. But we'll also continue to help Australian businesses to find other markets, as we were doing before this pandemic as part of our India economic strategy, as part of our free trade negotiations with the European Union - we want to give Australian businesses as many choices as possible. It's for them as to how they then engage in those choices. But we would urge all governments to maintain as open a trading relationship as they possibly can with each other, because that's going to be crucial to the strongest possible economic recovery globally and within countries.

Lisa Millar: Minister, last question on China, just to be absolutely clear - it is the heavyweight of Asia. You're saying, despite threats that it could take away billions of dollars of trade in the tourism and education, that the Australian Government is not going to back down on this?

Simon Birmingham: We no more trade public health policy in response to threats of economic coercion than we would trade national security policy in response to such threats. Now, we have to be clear in terms of protecting the security of Australians, the health of Australians - they're the core responsibilities of the Australian Government. Of course we want to also protect the economic wellbeing of Australia too.

And we urge all countries to act in a responsible manner, as they deal with this pandemic and that includes making sure that we get to the bottom of the causes of it, how different countries around the world have responded to it so that we can all learn lessons for the future, to make sure that it's not repeated or, if it is that it's handled more effectively, transparently, and that lives are saved in the future.

Lisa Millar: Many believe one of the keys to getting the economy back on its feet is to get children back in schools, and there's a report that's been released today by the Federal Government suggesting there is no reason not to have children back in school. And, in fact, they are being negligent, would you say, that they are missing out by being homeschooled - remote learning?

Simon Birmingham: I think it's obvious that it's to the detriment of children if they are not able to access school and that's why we have school-based education, because it's crucial to a generation in terms of their upbringing, their wellbeing, and, indeed, our future economic prosperity as they will be the next contributors and drivers of our economy. Now, I'm pleased here in South Australia, where schools are open and children are encouraged by the Government to attend school, that more than half of children did so yesterday at the start of term two. I hope that we can see more of that across Australia. My children are thrilled to be back at school. I'm incredibly grateful to their hardworking teachers and the staff at the school who are making that possible, as I am to all across the country.

But the health advice is very clear - it is safe for schools to be open, it is safe for children to be at school and that's what we want to see where possible because that is where, school is where, children will get the best possible education.

Lisa Millar: Simon Birmingham, looks like it's a lovely morning there in Adelaide. Thanks for joining us.

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