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

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID-19 impacts on tourism; JobKeeper allowance; Andrew Forrest; Australian exports.
03 April 2020

Narelle Graham: Joining me is Senator Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Welcome to you, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Narelle, good to be with you again.

Narelle Graham: Yes. Thank you again for making yourself available. Let’s get right to what is happening throughout some regional towns. And there seems to be some unrest when people who have licence plates, perhaps that are numbers that are associated with another state, are coming- passing through their town. Wilcannia locals are very worried, the fact that they have a steady stream of travelers coming through their town, despite the community pleading for visitors to stay away.

Simon Birmingham: So, Narelle, look, certainly people should be staying home and ceasing movement around the country or indeed across regions. Now, there may be people who are heading home, and if they’re headed home they’re doing the right thing as long as they don’t undertake sight-seeing excursions on the way through, and I’d ask people who are on routes where it’s reasonable that people might be heading home, to show some tolerance there because that is the message that we’ve been giving people firmly. Because there may also be some who are true grey nomads who’ve sold their homes and are staying put in certain regions, and in that case, they should firmly be staying put, work out long-term arrangements at the caravan park or wherever they are that they are at present. And simply staying in that community as others would, so as not to heighten the risk of transmission from one community to another.

Narelle Graham: Have you heard of incidents where people who are- don’t have the right sort of licence plates are being picked on, told to leave, their tyres slashed, that sort of thing?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve only heard of one or two very anecdotal and sort of fourth, fifth hand type incidents. And, look, I’d urge people to remain calm. Governments are putting out firm messages to discourage people from moving around, and to encourage people to stay at home. But that doesn’t mean that people need to live in fear of somebody who has a different licence plate or may come from another region. Clearly, as I say, they shouldn’t be touristing around different areas. It pains me as the Tourism Minister to say that, but they should be staying at home. But if they have been on the road for some time, like grey nomads may be, then it may be that the most sensible thing for them and for the community they’re in and for other communities, is for them just to stay put in that community, to, say, enter into a longer term arrangement with the local caravan park, stay in place, and that may well be a perfectly reasonable explanation for somebody with different licence plates to be visiting the local shop, because they are actually staying put and essentially living as a local for the duration of this crisis.

Narelle Graham: I’ve been guilty in the past of not necessarily updating my registration plates as quickly as I should have when I moved interstate for work, so it’s quite possible that people have moved, they’ve been in the state for quite some time, and the licence plates just haven’t caught up yet.

Simon Birmingham: I share that guilt myself from many years ago, Narelle.

Narelle Graham: That is Senator Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Also, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. The Minister for Tourism, telling you not to travel anywhere. Ah, these are strange times, aren’t they Simon?

Simon Birmingham: It sounds like a Monty Python sketch.

Narelle Graham: It does, doesn’t it. It does a bit. So, David has sent through a text saying he’s worried that the Federal Government hasn’t done- hasn’t got financial support for non-citizens. It’s hard to be precise, he says, but I reckon about 8.5 per cent of the workforce are temporary work visas, many of them still have children, but they haven’t got access to any of the payments so far that have been announced by the Federal Government. So, people who are here on work visas, what is the situation for them, Senator Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: So, people who come to Australia on temporary work visas or study visas or the like, do come on the expectation that they will support themselves whilst they’re here in Australia. The measures that we’ve announced today in terms of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker allowances, and additional coronavirus payments and so on, are payments for Australian citizens, permanent residents in Australia, or New Zealanders, where we have reciprocal arrangements in place with New Zealand so that Australians can be treated similarly in New Zealand. They don’t require to temporary work rights holders. Those individuals can access the superannuation that they would’ve been paid while they’re here and draw that down, but the expectation is very much that people need to be able to support themselves while they’re in Australia.

There are certain visa flexibilities that we’re giving to people to be able to have greater work rights, particularly those who are here on visas with specialist expertise in the healthcare sectors, the limited number of hours they might be entitled to work has been lifted so that they can contribute more as part of the response. But, you know, we’re obviously spending more than $300 billion as a government already in financial assistance, and the line has to be drawn somewhere. And unfortunately, for those who are not permanent residents, not citizens, not falling in that category of New Zealanders, or not in some very limited cases — humanitarian or other visa holders with exceptional circumstances — might be able to access certain payments. So, there’s a tiny carve out there, but I wouldn’t want to pretend that that exists for those who are generally here on visiting work rights.

Narelle Graham: We’re going through some of the issues that have been raised from Federal Government announcements, getting some clarification at the moment from Senator Simon Birmingham. So, I’ll throw out that text line again, it is 0467-922-783. He is also, as you know, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

I want to ask you about the announcements this week that are going to support trade, but Sarah has sent through a text because you mentioned just then, Senator, about the JobKeeper payment. So, Sarah wants some clarification. Sarah has kept her jo, but her hours have been reduced. Does she therefore have access to the JobKeeper payment?

Simon Birmingham: That depends on her employer’s circumstances. So, employers who have- who are businesses with a turnover of less than $1 billion, if they have seen a 30 per cent drop in their revenue in any one month, they can- compared with the same time last year- then they can register for the JobKeeper payment and pay that to their staff. And all of those staff would then receive the $1500 per fortnight payment, under the JobKeeper scheme. If it happened to a business with a turnover of more than $1 billion, then they have to record a 50 per cent drop in their revenue as a result of the coronavirus. So, we’ve had, I think, something like 600,000 businesses register for this payment already. So, many obviously see that they are meeting that eligibility criteria and are reaching out to do so. And it’s a given, Sarah’s hours have been cut, and I assume it is highly likely that her business has seen significant drop in revenue.

Narelle Graham: Yes, that’s right. So, let’s just say for example that Sarah’s business does qualify for JobKeeper. The fact that she still has some hours of work- now, I don’t know, she’s not saying, but let’s just say she used to work 40 hours now she’s down to 10 hours of work. That’s all that they can afford to pay her for. That’s all the work that they’ve got. Does she get the full JobKeeper payment? The 1500 a fortnight?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, she does.

Narelle Graham: And then she’s able to top it up with any work that she can get?

Simon Birmingham: Well, she gets that payment. And this is- and it’s paid to the employers, so essentially it is a wage subsidy. So, that’s the minimum amount that an employee would get, so Sarah would get the $1500. If she is working more hours than what the $1500 would entitle- would pay her for usually, then the employer may well be topping that up with further contributions. But if she is only working limited hours, then it’s likely the $1500 which the Government would give the employer, and the employer would give to Sarah.

Narelle Graham: Okay, a few people are worried about the announcement with childcare, that there will be an increased demand for childcare following the announcement. So, Senator Simon Birmingham, just clarify for us what the Federal Government has announced in terms of childcare. It’s going to be free for everyone? Or for those essential workers?

Simon Birmingham: So, look, it is free, that said we don’t anticipate a flood of people moving into the childcare market. Childcare was very heavily subsidised already, particularly for people on low incomes, they were usually able to access childcare for very little or next to nothing and in some cases already a full subsidy. So, it doesn’t make a significant difference at that end. What we are doing is guaranteeing a degree of payments to childcare centres because what they’re seeing unsurprisingly is that enrolments have dropped off a cliff. Some of that being people keeping their kids away for social distancing reasons and health concerns. Some of it being people who’ve lost their employment or been stood down from their employment and keeping their kids away. This will give the opportunity for the latter category of individuals who have lost their jobs and may have had an income reduction themselves to perhaps keep their kids there, knowing they won’t face the financial end cost of those fees. And that can maintain some of the early educational benefits for those children in that setting. But importantly it helps maintain the viability of the childcare centres, meaning that nurses, healthcare workers, et cetera, can have some confidence that their childcare centre will be able to keep its doors open and support them as they go about their essential work.

Narelle Graham: Now, Alex Antic has been saying this week that we should be suing China for what has happened with the COVID-19 virus. Is that something that the Government is considering doing?

Simon Birmingham: I think the idea that there’d be some global action that secures financial recompense from China is unlikely to materialise. There are some technical provisions of international health regulations that I’m sure will be explored. But there will certainly need to be a thorough global analysis once it’s all done and dusted over matters of transparency, appropriate reporting, accountability and adherence to the International Health Regulation that are laid out as part of the WHO chapters in making sure that those things have been adhered to, or if there were failures, that proper processes were put in place to prevent that in the future.

Narelle Graham: So, if it comes to pass, that China has not been transparent, then there is some sort of recourse that other countries can take to say: you weren't transparent, this virus spread, now we want- we’re going to sue you, ultimately.

Simon Birmingham: Theoretically, there could be. That’s really one for the international law experts to argue over. It's probably a bit of a stretch but I’m certain that the lawyers have that debate. The point that I'd make is what's most important, firstly, now, in dealing with the public health crisis we have and the economic challenges we've got. After it's all done and dusted, we do need to go back over the public health crisis where it started, how it started, whether or not there was appropriate transparency, reporting and accountability in those early stages and what else could have been done, either within China or by other countries, to stop its spread in the way that it has.

Now, in Australia's case, we ignored the World Health Organization when they weren't recommending travel restrictions and actually put in place travel restrictions. And we banned travel from China to Australia and then we subsequently did that in places like Iran and Italy, in South Korea, as the virus spread. And that, I think, has helped Australia immeasurably in terms of the fact that we have delayed significantly its onslaught here compared to other countries despite the fact that we have a far higher exposure per head of population to Chinese visitation than many of the countries who are now suffering from the very extreme consequences of COVID-19. So, I think there are lessons like that in terms of Australia's successful application of travel restrictions that the WHO needs to learn and other countries will need to have a look at.

Narelle Graham: Okay. Senator, let's talk very briefly now about trade. Now, first of all, let me talk about Border Force because there have been reports this week that more than 69,000 face masks were seized from 44 consignments that were bound for overseas; 30 consignments containing disinfecting products including sanitiser and wipes and five shipments with other personal protective equipment like gloves and masks. So, we now have Australian Border Force cracking down on that. I'm wondering about how that will affect our regional ports, if at all.

The other question that I have for you is that we hear this week that Andrew Forrest from the- in his Minderoo Foundation have bought 90 tonnes of medical supplies from Chinese suppliers to be flown into Perth and then distributed across Western Australia. So, is he allowed to do that?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. Look, legal trade arrangements in terms of purchasing medical goods and so on still exists. What we've clamped down on firmly are illegal trading in such things. So, what we did have was a circumstance where people — some purely to help out other people overseas; others sort of doing it as part of covert operations to make an illicit buck on the side — were secretly buying up stocks and then trying to export them out illegitimately. So, Border Force have been upping the scanning and so on of items bound for export and clamping down on that and we've got some strong restrictions in place. But if it is somebody’s usual business to trade in these goods, then they're able to do so in terms of export markets. That said, Australian governments have basically filled all of the purchase orders for everybody who makes face masks or could possibly make face masks or other protective equipment in Australia for our own needs. And when our needs are met, then we will be doing our best to look after our neighbours, particularly the small Pacific Island states as best that we can.

In terms of Andrew Forrest, obviously, he’s importing and so the export of those goods from China is a matter for the Chinese Government, but they are facilitating export to a number of countries, as are many others. And the Australian Government, our state and territory governments, are all making a range of purchases where we can from around the world. And in my role as Trade Minister, the freight mechanism we've put in place this week to help with agricultural exports from Australia, we're going to filter back all of that, with flights coming back from overseas into Australia, a crate of medical equipment and supplies wherever we possibly can.

Narelle Graham: Okay. What does the Government announce this week for- to support our industries that do trade with overseas countries?

Simon Birmingham: So, what we've seen is that, of course, with the collapse of passenger air services, it's become really hard to get premium meats, horticultural products, seafood products out of the country in the way that we used to. More than 90 per cent of our airfreight used to go in the bellies of passenger aircraft and they're basically not flying anymore. So, we need to get more freight movement happening in freight-specific or freight-only cargo aircraft, and we've stepped up with a $110 million package that we think will support more than $500 million worth of exports by our farmers and fishers to still be able to reach markets. They're going to head to Japan, to China, to Singapore, to Dubai, to Hong Kong, the usual trade hubs and big markets for us, because what we don't want is with all of the economic depression that's happening around us across the hospitality and tourism and other sectors of our economy at present, we don't want those farmers and fishers, who can still sell their products, unable to do so just because they can't find a plane to put it on.

Narelle Graham: Can we keep it here?

Simon Birmingham: We don't need to keep it here. We generate enough food in Australia to feed more than 70 million people, and there's only 26 or so million of us and so-

Narelle Graham: Okay. Are they paying more for it though? This premium stuff?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. So, we're not doing this for free. Farmers and fishers who are exporting their premium goods, like they always do, they'll have to continue to pay freight rates; and not just normal freight rates but premium freight rates to get it on these aircrafts. Government is essentially playing a bit of a facilitation and underwriting role because of the exceptional circumstances of losing those normal freight routes and the need to find abnormal ways to get airlines operating additional cargo capacity.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham, thank you. He is the Liberal Senator for South Australia, also Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Thank you to those who sent through questions.

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