Interview on ABC News, News Breakfast with Michael Rowland
Michael Rowland: For those planning to travel overseas when the crisis is over, the advice from the Government is consider seeing Australia first. The Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Adelaide. Minister, good morning to you. Is it realistic to say that there’ll be no international travel by Australians until at least the end of this year or well into next year?
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Michael. Look, it’s impossible to tell at present precisely when travel restrictions will be removed, because that will be a matter dependent upon the health advice at the time. And the travel restrictions we have put in place to date are working in terms of reducing the curve and the spread of coronavirus here in Australia, and that means that we’re avoiding some of those worst case scenarios that we're seeing elsewhere around the world, with terrible death tolls, horrific, horrific incidences in terms of overstretching of hospital resources.
And so, we have to maintain our vigilance there, and I do want to say to Australians at this time, a big thank you for the way in which over this Easter weekend people have heeded the message, not gone on short trips, not gone to their holiday houses, have stayed at home and that really is important in terms of the work we’re applying to slow down the spread of this virus.
Michael Rowland: Okay. One of our big benefits, of course, is that Australia is an island and as that curve continues to flatten, again, thanks to the great work of all Australians and our health authorities. The last thing we want though isn’t it, that Australians go overseas and potentially bring it back? Or overseas travellers come to Australia and bring the virus with them?
Simon Birmingham: That’s right, Michael. Look, I think the international travel restrictions have played a key role and will continue to play a key role. The only people returning to Australia at present or entering the country are effectively those Australians receiving assistance through a range of different ways or undertaking their own flights to get back to Australia, and they, of course, are going into then strict 14 days’ quarantine.
This is a time where, unfortunately, people can't undertake holidays and they won't be able to overseas for quite some time to come. And there may be a slightly earlier point in time where it becomes feasible to think about domestic travel again. We're not there yet but certainly this time is a good time for a bit of dreaming, a bit of planning, think about that Aussie break that you might take when we do finally get to the other side of this.
Michael Rowland: So many great places in Australia, as you well know, to visit. But you say quite some time for international travel, and apologies for harbouring on the point. I’ll come at it this way for arguments sake, Minister, if I booked an overseas trip in December, would it be wise for me to reconsider that plan?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I wouldn't put any guarantees that you could undertake that overseas trip in December. December’s a long time away, and very hard to make predictions about what will happen then. But we could be in this circumstance for quite some period of time.
The success we are having in terms of slowing the spread of the virus in Australia, does mean that we could be at risk in terms of exposure to people from overseas and countries who have not controlled it so well for quite some period of time. So we’re going to have to be very mindful of that, follow the public health advice. And that’s why I say to Australians you’ve got to, firstly, keep doing the right thing to keep yourself and your fellow Australians safe, and then there may come a time where at least we can relax some of those travel restrictions within Australia and that will give you a chance to be able to get out, if you're in a position where you can afford to do so — perhaps to support some of those regions who at the start of the year were dealing with bushfires, or indeed the many other tourism regions who are struggling at present because of the loss of business.
Michael Rowland: I know lots of people, if they could, would love to hop on a plane and travel somewhere domestically once this crisis ends and once those restrictions are loosened. On that front, Minister, what do you know about this plan under consideration to subsidise domestic travel on both Qantas and Virgin flights?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think we’ve got to take everything one step at a time at present, We are protecting lives by restricting travel, we are protecting jobs as a Government by putting in place measures such as the JobKeeper payment as well as additional support for businesses — including a lot of support for the airlines. So, step by step we’ve been working through this and, as we’ve said all along our response will continue to be targeted, proportionate and deal with the circumstances as we find them.
Michael Rowland: And w ill that include the subsidising of domestic flights by the two big airlines?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think that is an unlikely step, but ultimately we’re going to keep working through very carefully through this crisis. And at present, our focus is on telling people don't travel. Our gratitude is to Australians who have heeded that message and not travelled over this Easter break.
You’ve got to stay at that for a while to come; travel is still off the books for people for the foreseeable future. But there will come a time, and on this public holiday, Monday, perhaps for those Australians who can it’s a good chance to do a little bit of dreaming by looking up your favourite Australian tourism destination, or the one you might love to visit in the future, and think about what you can do in the months and years ahead when you get back into a position to do so.
Michael Rowland: Okay. Just before we go, you represent the great state of South Australia, a traditional manufacturing hub in this country; There’s been a lot of discussion within Government ranks about what we can do to build up, again, our manufacturing capability in Australia. Do you believe we have been dangerously exposed on that front by this crisis?
Simon Birmingham: Not necessarily. I think our manufacturing sector has shown its agility during this crisis, even just here in South Australia. We’ve had drinks manufacturers pivot to making hand sanitiser, those who manufacture wrappers for fast food companies pivot to manufacture face masks. So, you can see that our manufacturing sector has a capability to be able to pivot and change gear.
Of course, when we get to the end of this there will be a time where, I expect, all countries will take a bit of a look at what their essential national capabilities are. But I do think that our manufacturing sector has done well, and it is crucial that Australia does resist and push back on any drive towards protectionism or increased barriers around the world. We’re a country that grows enough food to feed 75 million people, produces enough energy and resources to power many more countries than just our own. And being able to continue to export freely into the rest of the world is crucial to our economic wellbeing into the future.
Michael Rowland: Simon Birmingham in Adelaide, thank you so much for joining us on News Breakfast this morning.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Thanks, Michael.
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