Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Return to normal after restrictions; caller Q&A; Twiggy Forest.
01 May 2020

David Bevan: Let's welcome Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment to the program. Good morning, sir.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, and what a magnificent week it’s been.

David Bevan: What? In terms of rain?

Simon Birmingham: Well a magnificent week — zero new cases of COVID-19 for eight days. South Australian kids back at school. And yes, plenty, and plenty, and plenty of rain for our farmers. It's awesome.

David Bevan: And huge expectations that those restrictions will be lifted soon.

Simon Birmingham: Well certainly, we are tracking in the right direction. I know that Steven Marshall is working closely with the health officials to look at where those restrictions can be lifted. Still always going to be taking a very cautious approach to make sure that we don't have an outbreak. But if South Australians can keep up the social distancing, keep up the hygiene practices, do all of those sensible things, then I think we will be able to see hopefully some lifting of some of the other restrictions. I had been a huge step this week, they say it really lead the country in successfully having kids go back to school in very large numbers. And thanks again to our teachers and principals who’ve made that possible, but it shows that it can be done and can be done safely while still containing the virus.

David Bevan: Now, you're the Minister for Tourism, the Federal Minister for Tourism. There have been reports in the last 24 hours or so of may be lifting travel restrictions between WA, South Australia and the Northern Territory because we've all done so very well. Does that have some merit for you? Get some tourism going between those three states?

Simon Birmingham: Anything that enables us to get parts of the economy functioning again in a more normal way is going to be a good thing. It should only happen so long as everybody's confident around the health advice. But certainly, all three jurisdictions have been doing a fantastic job in suppressing the spread of COVID-19, and it would seem as if it might be a logical positive thing to entertain. So look, I hope that we can see a bit of a glimmer of hope for our tourism industry. Shortly after finishing up talking to your listeners, I'll do a webinar with tourism stakeholders from across Australia, and we'll be talking about some of the plans we're undertaking at present to be ready for any lifting of borders around Australia, so that we can actually encourage people who can afford to, who are in that lucky and fortunate position to be able to get out and take a break. Because when they can, they'll be supporting local businesses, local jobs, and helping people get back on their feet.

David Bevan: I think people are prepared to be generous towards governments – State, Territory and Federal — as they deal with this because they realise that the stakes are very high, and it's- sometimes it's just making an educated guess. So people- nobody’s trying to pin you down to an exact time and they would understand if you had to shift any indica- away from any indication.

But the flip side of that, Minister, is that people who are running businesses need to know whether, you know, should I be ready now or in four weeks, or in eight weeks? Do you think a lifting — you described it as logical -lifting of restrictions between WA, Northern Territory, and South Australia, is there some logic to that? Is that the sort of thing that could happen within a month, or are we still talking about two, three, four months away?

Simon Birmingham: I think so much of it does depend on exactly how the case load tracks. And we saw officials- health officials talking earlier this week about the fact that if you can get through two whole cycles worth of the 14-day incubation period without seeing any new cases, or sort of that four-week period, 28 days, then that provides a good benchmark to think about perhaps broader lifting than would have previously been possible. And it does look like all three of those jurisdictions could track towards that, that sort of magical two cycle period. You have to be doing plenty of testing in that time as well, and that's where the State Government has again led the country by expanding the testing criteria, firstly to pretty much any type of symptom that could possibly exist — a mere sniffle being eligible for testing, and now looking to take that testing regime beyond that, so that you've got confidence when you say there are no new cases, that the data is actually genuine to back it up. And if we have that confidence across a cluster of jurisdictions, we’ll then happily, rather than talking about clusters of cases, perhaps we can talk about clusters of free movement and that would be a great thing to see. And perhaps, as I say, that timeline, if it occurs, might be the type of thing that's possible.

David Bevan: Okay. So that's 28 days. That's two whole cycles. That's a significant milestone and that's when people could reasonably expect changes to be made.

Let's go to Steven. Steven’s called ABC Radio Adelaide. Hello, Steven.

Caller Steven: Good morning, guys.

David Bevan: What's your question?

Caller Steven: I've got a different sort of question. I’m actually a professional golfer and I play on the Champions Tour in America, and I have some friends who also play professional golf tours all over the world. They're looking at restarting in July, and I’m wondering how I can possibly get there and how my friends can get all over the world to play golf when they restart. And what happens to the quarantining if we happen to come back?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Steven. Well, a couple of things there — at present, the restrictions firmly remain in place, and those restrictions prohibit Australians from travelling overseas. We’ve had to spend enormous time, effort and some funds, in terms of helping to get Australians back from all corners of the world who found themselves stranded because of the collapse of aviation and restrictions of other countries, all those other sorts of factors. And so, to keep Australians safe, but also to ensure that we don’t have people getting stranded again who then expect the Government to help them out, we have restrictions around leaving the country that are in place.

As I sort of intimated before around other things, if we see that across Australia we have higher levels of confidence about our managing of the situation, and of course we have done an impeccable job in recent weeks of bringing those Australians back from overseas, handling their arrival at airports, putting them into mandatory quarantine facilities, and all of that has happened with thousands of people coming back into the country without transmission of the virus, so we can manage arrivals from overseas. So, that’s the positive side, that perhaps we can look at certain exceptional circumstances as time goes on and we get that confidence as to how we can manage it. But, I would be pretty surprised if June, which is only next month, we were in a position where those exceptional circumstances extended to competing in golf tours. But those decisions will all be made, so case by case as we look at the circumstances. But I think it's a little way off before we're likely to see quite that degree of freedom of movement.

David Bevan: That might not have been the answer you were looking for or hoping for, Steven. How does this work? Is it illegal to travel overseas from Australia because what, you've removed the licenses to the carriers so they're not allowed to land or is it illegal to sell a ticket — how is the ban actually imposed?

Simon Birmingham: So, it's imposed under the federal Biosecurity Act, and the Health Minister put that ban in place, I think back in early March if my memory’s correct, early to mid-March. And it is indeed a ban on leaving the country on a passenger aircraft or by vessel, so essentially the ban applies more to the individual's movements and all those who might facilitate the movement of people have to comply with that. Obviously, there's a list of exemptions for the types of aircrew who are flying, the freight carriers and the shipping services that carry cargo, and all of those sorts of things that are deemed essential. But in the main, we are all locked in Australia at present — but it's a pretty good place to be locked into.

David Bevan: Okay. Kerry has called ABC Radio Adelaide. Hello, Kerry.

Caller Kerry: Good morning.

David Bevan: Your thoughts?

Caller Kerry: Look, I've got a question. My daughter works at Bedford, so she's on a disability pension and gets, you know, her- she only works a couple of days a fortnight, five days a fortnight. And I had a phone call from Bedford saying that she was entitled to this JobKeeper allowance. Now, my concerns are because she's, you know, limited income and it's like a support pe- I wanted to know, I, as I said, Bedford rang- sorry, I'm very nervous.

David Bevan: No, you're doing a great job. You're doing an excellent job, Kerry.

Caller Kerry: Bedford rang me, she only earns $100 a fortnight, so of course that doesn't affect her pension. Now, they told me that she was entitled to the $1500 a fortnight. Now, my questions was, how would that affect her pension that she is now, you know, entitled to? Because of course that makes it, she's, with the JobKeeper, she's earning $1400 a fortnight. I mean, well $1500 compared to- sorry, $1500 compared to $100, so there's $1400 that they’re saying she's entitled to. How will this affect her disability pension?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kerry. And she's obviously very lucky to have an- both the opportunity to be at Bedford who do a magnificent job, but such a caring and engaged mum as yourself. And I'd encourage you to help her, in terms of making sure that she reports that change in her income circumstances back to Centrelink — that's the case in terms of anybody in receipt of particular payments, that if their income goes up then they should be making those reports around that change in income. And it may mean that she receives less by way of her disability pension while she is receiving more in terms of the JobKeeper payment. And that should net itself out, she’s certainly not going to be worse off, she's far more likely to be better off. And the other thing there in circumstances like that with engaged parents or carers such as yourself, is to help people to make sure they manage that money appropriately, that this is the opportunity to, perhaps, make some savings or make the investment in buying certain types of household goods or other things that they might need that might be a little further out of reach.

David Bevan: The tricky bit, Minister, the tricky bit might be when JobKeeper eventually ends — and it will end — and then Kerry's daughter has to resume with Centrelink. And you'd hope that there- when the music stops, she's not left without funds. That- this is going to be a nightmare for Anne Ruston, who looks after Centrelink, to make sure that everything smooths- goes back to normal smoothly.

Simon Birmingham: It will be a test. But unlike the scale up phase for this which has been done in just the space of a few weeks, and Centrelink have managed to process, in terms of JobSeeker claims, I think more than their normal annual claim figures in the space of just a few weeks. And so, it's been a huge exercise in scaling up and we've brought in thousands of additional people to help make that happen. When it comes to the transition off of JobKeeper and back to a more normal social security safety net, they'll obviously be some time to plan that and to give people certainty and to put the systems in place to hopefully make sure that is seamless. But it is a huge exercise and job and again, I think our public service have shown themselves to be doing an incredible job in being able to stand up these new programs and this additional support for Australians relatively smoothly, not without hiccup or issues, but all up, it's been a pretty impressive effort.

David Bevan: Well good luck, Kerry. And good on you for looking after your daughter and yeah you need to get back in touch with Centrelink and let them know what you're getting in terms of JobKeeper. Let's go to Mackenzie from Norwood. Hello Mackenzie.

Caller Mackenzie: Hi, how are you.

David Bevan: Good. What are your thoughts?

Caller Mackenzie: Well I was wondering if you could help me. So which would also help dozens of other people in my position. So I was fully eligible for the JobKeeper payment prior to the 24th, receiving one payment so far. But my issue is with the new law stopping people, 16 and 17, being eligible, I'm actually 18 in less than two weeks and my employer pointed out that I had to be 18 before the first March. However, after I researched that online, that couldn't- I couldn't find anything about that. So my overall point is that I think those who actually turn of age within the shutdown period should be still eligible for the JobKeeper payment or to reapply.

David Bevan: Fair enough.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Mackenzie and thanks for- thanks for calling in. As we've done a couple of times during the session, it might be good to get your details and we can see if we can resolve that off line. The changes that that we made to JobKeeper were to make sure that in the case of primarily students who are still living at home and possibly only working- working a few hours a week or the like, that we aren't creating such extraordinary windfall gains under JobKeeper. But there are circumstances where we can have a look at cases if somebody has- doesn't fit that criteria or indeed is turning 18 during the timeframe.

David Bevan: So the Government’s clawed back some of the JobKeeper payments, did it? By saying: well hang on, we were handing them out to everybody and then a week ago said: well if you're under 18, you won't get it or you won't get any more.

Simon Birmingham: That's essentially right, David, that we, in looking at the way it was applying, found that there was a category there which was not justified. I've always acknowledged on airthat to maintain the simplicity of the program is why it's a fixed figure and that some people, yes, will receive more than they usually would. But that's sort of the price we're paying for having a simple quick to stand up wage subsidy program that keeps people employed. But when it came to the idea of minors who work limited hours and are primarily still at school, then obviously it, sort of, made no sense to quite allow that to flow through. So that's just been a little bit of a tightening of the criteria or eligibility there. But happy to deal with individual cases like Mackenzie’s

David Bevan: Well we'll get Mackenzie's details and pass them on to your office. Before you leave, you’re the Trade Minister. Now, we've seen this row between China and Australia escalate over the last few days. What is the big- what are the big exporters telling you, as Trade Minister, about relations with China?

Simon Birmingham: Well the large exporters have a few messages I guess that they give me. Firstly, in the main, they tell me that so long as they can get to market, they are still enjoying positive trade and relations with their Chinese customers and that they are determined to continue to maintain that. They usually understand though the position that the Government has taken, which is that we can't be trading health policy or national security policy or indeed any of Australia's sovereignty for our trading relationships.

We have to make sure that, as a country, we stand firm in terms of what is in the best interests of Australians; their health and safety, their security and wellbeing and that's what we've done as a Government. But we do it not seeking to ascribe blame to any particular country, not wanting to seek in any way that some penalty is levered on a particular country. We simply seek a transparent investigation into COVID-19 because hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives; millions of people have lost their jobs; billions of people have suffered disruption to their lives. And we think we ought to learn the lessons out of this to make sure that if the world can avoid a repeat scenario in the future, we do.

David Bevan: Was Twiggy Forrest unfair to bring a Chinese official unannounced to a press conference with the Federal Health Minister?

Simon Birmingham: I think, in general, I would think it inappropriate if I was conducting a press conference with somebody, for them to not let me know anybody who was coming that was unexpected. Usually, I like to know who I'm standing in front of a camera with before I get in front of the camera.

David Bevan: So that won't be forgiven for some time.

Simon Birmingham: Oh look, Twiggy is a successful Australian businessman. The work in terms of helping to secure further medical equipment into Australia is work that we appreciate. At the early stages of this pandemic …

David Bevan: Just don't do it again, Twiggy.

Simon Birmingham: Well indeed. But at the early stage of this pandemic, Australia was providing some additional support to the people of China and to the Wuhan province in particular and we do still cooperate in terms of a range of these ways and sometimes the media headlines blow things a little bit out of proportion and we certainly have to maintain a long term perspective to the China relationship.

We're going to continue to occupy the same dynamic Asia-Pacific region of the world together forever and so we have to make sure that we have effective dialogue, effective engagement. We won't always agree; we don't share all of the same values; we certainly don't share the same systems of government but we have to make sure that we hold true to our values and to the interests of Australians while engaging as successfully as we can with China and with any other nation in the region.

David Bevan: Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham. Thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, David. Thank you.

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