Interview on ABC North and West, Late Afternoons with Narelle Graham

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID-19 impacts on tourism; Virgin Australia; JobKeeper.
14 April 2020

Narelle Graham: Now is your chance if you have got questions for the Federal Government. Senior member of the Liberal Party, South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, who is also the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment is making himself available to this program on a regular basis. The phone number you need is 1-300-160-222.

Senator Simon Birmingham, welcome to you.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Narelle, and good afternoon to your listeners.

Narelle Graham: Let’s start with today and maybe work back to some of the things that have happened, So, South Australia seems to have flattened the curve, but we have seen what can happen with this. Just a few people travelled through the Barossa Valley, and there’s been this cluster of cases and a death. There’s been a cluster of cases at Adelaide Airport. Is a vaccine our only realistic hope of getting out of this situation?

Simon Birmingham: Long term, a vaccine I think will be essential. But look, we have to see how we continue to go. Australians have responded magnificently, really, to the requirements to shut down a lot of activity, to social distance, and to practice with extreme caution. And certainly over the Easter Weekend, I really want to extend my thanks and gratitude on behalf of the Government to everybody who did desist from getting out and about in the ways they usually would, and I know that would’ve been so tough for so many people to do so.

But it’s making a difference by flattening that curve, reducing the daily number of new cases, reducing the total number of active cases. And if we can continue that trend as well as then have real confidence that testing remains at world leading levels and that we’re able to undertake strict contact tracing of individuals who might still present with the occasional case, then we might be able to manage our way through it. But we’ve got a little way to go yet before we can have confidence around that, and people need to exercise patience, continue to comply with the restrictions that are in place. And if we keep doing that, we may well be able to find a way to at least, within Australia, live with it, work with it, get back to some degree of some normality at some stage, whilst all critical work on a vaccine continues here and around the world.

Narelle Graham: Senator Simon Birmingham, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around that. So, perhaps, even if we had no new cases in South Australia and we have people recover and then sadly, you know, lives will be lost, so people with COVID-19 will die. South Australia, even if there are no new cases, needs to stay locked off from the rest of the world. And then if that’s Australia with no new cases, they need to- the whole of Australia needs to stay off, stay locked off from the rest of the world. What is the plan?

Simon Birmingham: You think it’s hard to get your head around it…

Narelle Graham: Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: … try it as the Tourism and Trade Minister. My job’s all meant to be about supporting Australian international engagement, and that is- it is really challenging, and that is why we have to be very cautious in all of the decisions that we take. But if Australia- and there are the odd other countries, New Zealand being another one, does track towards almost zero new cases, then we do have to contemplate how we actually handle these things. So it’s difficult for us to know exactly how it will all unfold. At present, it’s a case of working with the public health officials, continuing to follow their advice.

The Prime Minister, the premiers, will all sit down on Thursday as part of the National Cabinet to actually discuss how it is that we might get out of this, what the steps are in terms of relieving any of the restrictions. And those steps will be looking crucially at the medical evidence, and what is required in terms of absolute confidence that we’re testing enough, that we’re tracing and checking on any cases that present, and that we can have confidence that if we’re only dealing with an isolated case here or there, we are able to stamp it out very, very quickly. And they’re the prerequisites, and we’ve just got to see whether we can build that confidence over a long enough period of time to perhaps relax some of the restrictions that are in place.

Narelle Graham: Okay. To make sure that it’s not going to get away from us? So, we have to adjust our lockdowns accordingly so that we can’t allow it to take off again, and cases just to skyrocket.

Simon Birmingham: We have sadly seen in other parts of the world where they thought they had it under control, only to lose that confidence. And we do know just how quickly, as you said in the opening question, Narelle, how quickly it can get away from us. It only takes a handful of cases that go undetected for long enough to then create a serious cluster that can spread very quickly. And so that's why we've got all these restrictions in place, and that's why we’ve got to be very cautious about how and when we relinquish them or relieve ourselves of them, and in the meantime, please just continue, everyone, to exercise their patience to go about business as best you can under these circumstances of maintaining social distancing, and where you can at least, to pick up the phone, to go online, to keep in touch with people, and to support local businesses where possible.

Narelle Graham: That is the voice of Simon Birmingham, our Federal Tourism and Trade Minister. So, is the Federal Government considering lifting lockdowns? You talk about this special briefing to National Cabinet when everybody meets on Thursday. But are you having conversations about should we start lifting lockdowns, because that would frighten a lot of people, thinking-

Simon Birmingham: No.

Narelle Graham: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: No. What’s happening on Thursday, to be really clear, is that the Prime Minister and the premiers will be talking about essentially what are the conditions precedent for contemplating the easing of restrictions, what do we have to see in terms of the decline in cases, the confidence in the way the health systems are managing the ability to detect and to trace, for us to be able to remove any of the restrictions that are in place. And so there's- it's really about- now that there seems to be some degree of stabilisation, taking the breath and the cause time to talk about what do we have to have absolute confidence in to even have that discussion about lifting lockdowns. So, we're not having a discussion about lifting them yet, that is still some way off by- I anticipate, in terms of the restrictions. But it is a case of using this time when things appear to be working well to at least start to assess the evidence and understand what else we might need to build in terms of capability in our public health systems to have confidence to lift some of these restrictions sometime down the track.

Narelle Graham: A lot of the discussion today on how the Federal Government is going to help airlines. So, you know, Virgin Australia has put its hand up for a bailout package. But is it true that they haven't paid any tax for years?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Virgin haven't recorded much of a profit for years. Now, they will have paid a lot of tax in terms of GST that they've collected in selling tickets, in terms of income tax they've collected in paying wages, payroll tax that they've collected in paying wages as well. So, a whole range of areas where they absolutely would have paid a lot of tax but they haven't been the most profitable outfit so their company tax payments probably haven't looked quite so crash hot. The airline sector is important to Australia, You and I have discussed this a couple of times over the last month or so. And as the Government, we put in place whole of economy measures like the JobKeeper payment, which the airlines are receiving. We put in place some specific measures for the airline sector that provided particular support in rebates, fees and charges and otherwise for Qantas and Virgin, and they were to the tunes of hundreds of millions of dollars. We put in place support for regional aviation to keep critical services going into regional areas and we're having a close look at how we make sure that essential connectivity between the Australian states is now maintained as well.

So there's a lot that we've done already to try to ensure the viability of the airlines, but we've tried to do it on a very even handed basis without picking winners and also without wasting taxpayers’ money either.

Narelle Graham: Well, what you say is- I just looked up an article from the ABC, August 2019, So there was a loss of $349 million for Virgin then. So, does that mean if the company wasn't overly profitable, that it's not worth the Government's while to try and bail them out?

Simon Birmingham: We have to be very prudent and careful with the taxpayer dollars that we do invest at a time like this. We've already committed more than $320 billion in responding to COVID-19 in terms of a range of economic measures and there are additional health costs and impacts that the states are committing as well. So there’s huge unprecedented sums of money that we are investing to try to keep things ticking over, to put the parts of the economy in hibernation that need to be and ensure that they can bounce back afterwards. Now, I'm not saying never in terms of what we need to consider around maintaining competition in our domestic aviation sector, which is crucial, but we need to be very, very cautious and people should be assured that as airlines talk to Government, we understand the essential service they provide, but we are also very careful about committing any further taxpayer dollars without having absolute confidence around the outcomes.

Narelle Graham: And that is the voice of Simon Birmingham, Tourism and Trade Minister. One of the first high profile cases have COVID-19 in Australia that we heard of was the Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton. How is Minister Dutton?

Simon Birmingham: Peter is travelling well. I saw him at least across the screen when we had a leadership meeting at the Government early this morning. So he's been participating in all of those meetings and he’s diving in.

Narelle Graham: Has he recovered?

Simon Birmingham: I'm actually- to be honest, Narelle, I’m not completely sure…

Narelle Graham: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: …on his status in terms of whether he is completely clear of the virus, but he’s certainly well and participating in all of his ministerial duties, like all of us doing so using the remote technologies that are available to us.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham, a question that's through on the text line, 0467-922-783: are you able to answer for people who are on the cashless welfare card, the $750 economic support payment? Is that money coming on the card?

Simon Birmingham: I will have to come back to you on that one, Narelle. I don't know offhand. So, I’ll happily check as I would assume that the answer is yes and that the same provisions around restricting where and how it's spent would apply. But we'll double check and make sure that you can inform listeners of that as soon as possible.

Narelle Graham: Now, Simon Birmingham, it's not by any means a gotcha (*) moment, but do you listen to MAD AS HELL? Do you watch MAD AS HELL on the ABC?

Simon Birmingham: Sometimes. Not very frequently though.

Narelle Graham: You might be familiar with a character Darius. Now, this was an explanation- I just thought there was- did a very good explanation of the JobKeeper payment.

[Excerpt]

Darius: Shaun, you’re being an economic girly man. These people aren't working, they are employed.

Shaun: But they're working.

Darius: Hello. Is there anybody home?

Shaun: So they’re unemployed?

Darius: The people remain employed because the Government is paying their employers $130 billion to pay them even if they're doing nothing because their place of employment is closed due to the coronavirus.

Shaun: So the Government is paying people money to do nothing?

Darius: No. The Government is paying people money to do nothing to keep the unemployment rate from spiking to 17 per cent in June.

Shaun: Well then we can have an unemployment rate of zero if we just reclassified anyone on any form of welfare as employed by the Government.

Darius: But that would be welfare, Shaun, and this isn't welfare. Welfare is a dirty, lousy, rotten thing and I hate it. This is the private sector paying the wages to the employees like everything is normal. La, la, la, la…

[End of excerpt]

Narelle Graham: So is the- well, I think the point that he was making there is that the unemployment rate would be at 17 per cent if not for JobSeeker. So if that was delivered in a different way rather than being through people's employers, then we would see an unemployment rate in this country spike. Is that the case?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, absolutely. And the Treasurer and the Government has been very frank about that reality that we would see the unemployment rate 5 per cent or even more higher than that it will move without the JobKeeper payment in place. And it's there, not to keep the technical unemployment rate down but to serve a couple of functions. One is to ease the burden at Centrelink and to make sure that Centrelink is dealing with those cases it needs to deal with but to use other mechanisms to get support out to people.

But even more importantly, we put in JobKeeper to ensure that businesses can actually restart effectively when this is all over. And there are two things that would have happened without JobKeeper. Many businesses would have found that they might have needed to make their staff redundant, and in actually going down that path of redundancy, they would've had to pay out all of their entitlements. And in doing that, it may well have tipped many businesses over the edge. So those businesses themselves would have gone out of business, the business wouldn't have existed when the restrictions were eased, and the person would have had no job to go back to.

The other thing it does is practically it keeps people connected and essentially employed with that business. They stay on the books. The business then, when JobKeeper comes off, is expected to re-engage that person in work, if they weren't already doing so, and they still have the obligation that were they to make the person redundant, they'd need to be paying those redundancies then later down the track.

So, essentially, we're making sure that we minimise business failures through this program and maximise people's ongoing connection to their place of employment and give them the best chance of still being employed again when normal trading resumes.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham, Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you. Also the Minister for Tourism and Trade in Australia

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