Interview on ABC News, News Breakfast with Lisa Millar

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: South Australian COVID-19 outbreak; SA disruption to tourism, China-Australia trade relationship;
19 November 2020

Lisa Millar: Well, returning to South Australia's lockdown and at this stage it's expected to last for six days, with some restrictions remaining after that. But what effect will it have, on not only the state's economy, but Australia's economy? Finance and Trade Minister, and South Australian Senator, Simon Birmingham, joins us from Adelaide. Good morning, Senator. You are living through this.

Simon Birmingham: Well that's, that's right. Lisa, I will be staying at home today, just as pretty much all other South Australians will be, as the State Government applies this six-day lockdown. South Australian authorities have decided to go hard, go early, in an attempt to make sure that they can get this over and done with as quickly as possible in terms of crushing this latest cluster. We understand the logic of their approach there, these are their decisions. They're calling it a circuit-breaker and that's exactly what it needs to be - short, sharp and effective so that lives and businesses, can get back to a COVID-safe normality as quickly as possible.

Lisa Millar: What if it's not short? We've already had leading epidemiologists on the program suggesting that South Australians really need to get used to the idea this won't be six days; it'll be at least 14 days.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think authorities have already said that they expect 14 days of restrictions, but it is six days in terms of the extreme nature of this lockdown, that is partly to enable authorities to be able to get right across all of the contact-tracing elements. We already have thousands of people who were in isolation prior to this lockdown as a result of the extensive work authorities are doing. Now of course, we have to keep following the health advice to act appropriately in that regard, to get across it. But, I think we also should have a fair degree of confidence that authorities believe they intervened in terms of this cluster early, that their contact-tracing has been effective. And this lockdown has really been driven by the fact that there was just so many points of contact that the initial positive cases had that they see the need just to have this pause, this circuit-breaker as they're calling it.

Lisa Millar: Senator, can Australians confidently plan summer holidays?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope so. But this is perhaps, from the Tourism Minister's perspective, one of the greatest disappointments of what's happened in the last week - that the disruption to travel plans, the risks that people will see are real and I understand the concern people would have. What I would re-enforce to Australians there is that airlines, accommodation providers and others have really pivoted to the times and are providing far more flexibility, easier access to refunds, all of the types of changes to enable and encourage travel across Australia. So, I do urge people, where it's safe to do so, to plan those holidays, to get out there and support our many tourism businesses and small businesses across the country, because they certainly need it.

Lisa Millar: But, it's very difficult to encourage people to do that when you don't know what's going to happen with borders? We've had numerous people who are in South Australia right now, who've been there on holidays, people who were trekking through Tasmania suddenly being pulled off trails. I mean, this is a massive blow, not just for South Australia, but for the nation.

Simon Birmingham: It is a massive blow to the tourism industry, there's no getting away from that. I do hope - particularly if South Australia demonstrates that all of the immediate steps it's taken prove to be successful and this is short, sharp and effective, that it is the circuit-breaker they say - that we can then try to bring the states together again to apply common approaches in terms of, not only the hot spot definitions, but then how they go about closing borders if that becomes necessary in the future. Because it is the different approaches, and the extreme approaches in some instances, that have really caused particular disruption. People often only need a day or two to be able to correct their plans, to get, to get that refund from their airline but if they get no notice at all then that really does exacerbate the disruption.

Lisa Millar: Senator, I need to ask you about China because there have been developments overnight. The nine newspapers this morning reporting this sort of background briefing from a Chinese official in Canberra who reportedly said to them, China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy. This looks like the relationship between Australia and China is heading in one direction only here.

Simon Birmingham: Well, those sorts of comments certainly aren't helpful, but the Australian Government will maintain our consistent posture, and it's consistent in every level. The list I've seen identifies a number of areas. Now, we make no apologies for Australia having foreign investment laws that act in Australia's national interest for protecting communications networks. But, on all of these things, we do it in a non-discriminatory way. It's not about any one country it is about ensuring that Australia's interest-

Lisa Millar: They're saying you're poisoning bilateral relations.

Simon Birmingham: I don't accept that at all. Now, I'm not going to respond to nameless allegations that have been made by alleged officials. What I will do is re-enforce that, from the Australian perspective, we value the bilateral relationship; we seek to have a mutually-beneficial one in the areas of mutual interest; and, we are willing to have dialogue with our officials from- with our counterparts from China. Those things remain the case and we will continue that calm posture, and equally though, continue from an Australian perspective, to protect our areas of sovereignty and national interest. But I re-enforce, we do that on a non-discriminatory basis, regardless of the nature of the country or that we're talking about.

Lisa Millar: You, You say you're willing to have conversations and negotiations. They won't talk to you.

Simon Birmingham: And that's why I say, the ball is in their court. We have been very clear that, from an Australian perspective, we are willing to sit down, have that dialogue. Nothing has changed in terms of Australia, we have always had foreign investment laws that are operating in the national interest and that require checks and balances there - that is common place for countries right around the world, including China.

Lisa Millar: Senator, it's good to have you on. Good luck with the personal experience of lockdown - we're all feeling it for South Australia having gone through it and Victoria. Thanks for being on the program.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Lisa, much appreciated.

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