Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Future of Virgin Australia, Government support to through JobKeeper, Cape Jervis boat berth.
17 April 2020

David Bevan: If you’ve got a question or a comment for Simon Birmingham who joins us now. Good morning, the Federal Minister for Trade and Tourism and Investment.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, and good morning listeners.

David Bevan: How’s your week been?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s been another week. Pretty much at home- working from home. [Laughs] It’s a- I’m certainly getting to know the four walls of the house exceptionally well.

David Bevan: Are you getting much work done from home?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. And I’ve got to get the work done but it’s a …

David Bevan: I imagine you’ve got a library at the Birmingham estate which is lined with books and very sophisticated TV’S, and communications channels. It looks- that’s what I’m imagining.

Simon Birmingham: I wish it were that elegant, David, I do. I do. There are- in fact, our study had been the room where kind of the boxes just never quite got unpacked and there’s still a few boxes that are not quite unpacked. And it’s been a very haphazard stand up capacity to be able to work at home. And of course, working at home, being school holidays, there are also two small children who hopefully won’t come barging in when we’re having a chat — though they might.

David Bevan: You’re not negotiating or re-negotiating enormous trade deals surrounded by the washing, are you?

Simon Birmingham: Not quite. But I did, I had a teleconference- telepresence meeting where you video, or Skype in with the G20 trade ministers in the sort of early of the morning a few nights back. And certainly, at that stage, I was a bit more conscious of making sure that the backdrop behind me looked somewhat professional but equally, keeping the volume down low enough so I didn’t wake the rest of the house up.

David Bevan: Fair enough. I think I like this. I like trade deals being negotiated in a very domestic situation. It keeps you grounded.

Now, Simon Birmingham, on to more serious matters. The states- the country is heading towards double digit unemployment and that’s if things work out well. We’ve got our airlines in more trouble than the early settlers. We’ve got people who want to know how they can keep their jobs, how they can get hold of benefits. Let’s go straight to calls.

Now, Sia contacted me last night and you’re aware that we’re going to talk to her. Sia, you are a Virgin Airlines cabin crew employee. Is that right?

Caller Sia: Yes. That’s correct. I’ve been with the company for ten years now.

David Bevan: What would you like to say to the Minister?

Caller Sia: I just want to say to the Minister that, you know, myself, so many of my colleagues are in such a difficult time at the moment — it’s a real nerve-wracking time. We really need two carriers, we need two airlines in the air not just to keep myself and thousands of people in jobs but also, you know, for the good of the Australian public. We need consumer choice and we need to the airs fair.

David Bevan: Sia, you represent- is it ten thousand people who work for Virgin?

Caller Sia: It’s ten thousand cabin crew and pilots — I’m not talking about all the people behind the scenes. And not just the people behind the scenes but also the other industries that Virgin Australia employs. So it doesn’t just affect us at its core, it also has a- it’s going to have a knock-on effect as well.

David Bevan: Right. And you just don’t know how long you’re going to have a job.

Caller Sia: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I was stood down from my role three weeks ago and it’s literally a waiting game. So it’s a nerve-wracking time at the moment as you can imagine.

David Bevan: Has- now, we know Virgin is in trouble — it was in trouble before all of this. But is Virgin negotiating, as far as you’re aware, to have JobKeeper? I mean because they’re- they would more than qualify in terms of a downturn.

Caller Sia: Absolutely. Look, as far as I’m aware — I'm not across all of negotiation — as far as I'm aware the company have moved towards that and have requested that. In terms of myself, I'm not receiving JobKeeper at the moment and as far as I'm aware, none of my colleagues are either at this stage.

David Bevan: Are you sleeping?

Caller Sia: Not very well. Not very well. It’s a- you know, like I said, it's- it's a difficult time. There's a lot of uncertainty. So yes, sleep hasn't- hasn't been that great in the last few weeks.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, what can your Government do for Sia and the other 10,000 Virgin employees?

Simon Birmingham: I feel so enormously for Sia and all of her colleagues at Virgin. I unquestionably want to see a country in which we have a strong aviation sector going forward that I think requires us to have two airlines and competition in the aviation sector. And- and ideally, we see both of the big carriers — Qantas and Virgin — survive through this crisis.

And that's why we've already done so many significant things in terms of trying to support the airlines with specific financial support delivered to the airlines in terms of fee waivers, refunds and the like that’s required millions of dollars of extra support to them on top, of course, the eligibility for JobKeeper — which I understand both airlines are and will access in terms of providing those payments to their employees.

Obviously, it's a tougher time still for Virgin employees because of much of the speculation that exists surrounding the ongoing viability of the airline. Now, that's a very difficult issue. We, as a Government, want to see a commercial operator like that, that is owned primarily by overseas interests, explore every possible commercial avenue to ensure it survives into the future rather than looking to taxpayers to- to bail out an entity like that.

But if all of those avenues are explored and it still fails, well then of course there will have to be some hard discussions had about what is required and whether that is a sound decision and investment for the Australian taxpayer to make or not.

David Bevan: Are you saying a final decision hasn't been made on Virgin? That the Federal Government isn't rushing to commit to bail the thing out? But you are watching it very closely and if you have to change your response, you will?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve shown right through this crisis that we are willing to change our responses when necessary and, of course, first and foremost, any commercial company — whether it’s Virgin or any other private business — ought to follow the tried and tested commercial means of getting more funds out of the equity partners, out of the owners of the airline; of seeking other commercial financial solutions to their problems. And we’ve seen Qantas, during this crisis, raise further capital and funds themselves and that’s enabled them to have greater certainty in terms of how long they can, essentially, not operate for and still be viable coming out the other side.

And so, tax payers should rightly expect the government not to come rushing in, saying that we’re just going to give a blank cheque to underwrite a business like this, or any other business. They should expect us to expect the owners and the board of that company to do everything possible. But if we get to a point where everything possible has been done and that has failed, well obviously there are policy implications concerning a failure — the size of Virgin and from the loss of that competition in terms of our domestic aviation market. And perhaps a look we’ll have to look at those policy consequences relative to the cost to tax payers of any other action — that becomes a very difficult decision.

David Bevan: And I was- as you’re balancing all of these things up, you‘ve got people like Sia and the 10,000 employees — they’re just Australians, ordinary people as opposed to equity partners from overseas companies. And you’re not in the business of bailing out overseas companies. But you’ve also got to decide how important it is to have two carriers.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, David, I mean they’re the dilemma’s we face. If- we’ve put in place something like JobKeeper to be able to save and sustain the jobs of people like Sia and that’s been a really important decision in the structure that we’ve put there. But obviously if the whole company itself goes under for other reasons because of going into a crisis like this in a weak position around its own financial circumstances or the like, well then that JobKeeper payment, it may not be enough — so that’s where we’ve got to weigh into consideration.

And we don’t want to be bailing out foreign shareholders and owners, and saving their equity, but we do want to, wherever we can, be saving the jobs of Australians like Sia and that’s why we’ve structured the JobKeeper payment. And, as I say, that if all other commercial avenues are exhausted, well then government has to balance the policy implications of the failure in an airline versus the cost to taxpayers of whatever it might be in terms of supporting its survival.

David Bevan: Well see, I hope Sia I hope you take some comfort from that. And, Simon Birmingham, look, the point here is you’re not going to show your hand on ABC Radio — I think it’s pointless for me to press you any further. And frankly, nor should you because if you say: I’m going to hand over a blank cheque to Virgin today, then well, they’re not going to go- they’re not going to do the hard yards trying to get money out of their own, their own owners overseas. So that’s really where this is at, at the moment and you’ll just continue those negotiations behind closed doors.

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s right. And look, there’s been no shortage of discussions with the airlines through this crisis — both of them, and indeed all of the smaller carriers as well to whom we’ve delivered additional support. And the extent of that additional support continues, even overnight with a resolution around creating a domestic essential network and funding for the airlines to be able to fly that so that, for example, the South Australians who are currently stranded in Perth, having completed their 14 days isolation getting back from overseas, actually need an option in terms of a plane to get on to get home to Adelaide — and that hasn’t been possible for them in the last few days. And that’s why we’re now funding the airlines with another package so that they’re at least flying routes that can get people in those sorts of terrible circumstances back home again.

David Bevan: Okay. Well, Sia, good luck and we will stay in touch. Let’s go to Gary from Saint Georges. Hello Garry.

Caller Gary: Hi, how are you going?

David Bevan: Good.

Caller Gary: My questions relates to Centrelink and well obviously, everyone’s very grateful to the Federal Government for the changes they’ve made with JobKeeper. But the load on Centrelink seems to have effected some of the processes to do with JobSeeker where people are finding it difficult to report, reluctant to go into the offices and they don’t want to add to the crowd and the app and the website won’t upload the report and they’re unable to get through on the phone and that means losing the JobSeeker payment for that period and then having to lodge an application. Is there anything that can be done to relax the reporting requirements at this time which seem to be onerous both on the report and on Centrelink?

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you and the pressure on Centrelink is enormous. That's acknowledged and it's why we've taken some significant steps in terms of putting thousands of extra staff into working on keeping up with the processes around Centrelink, and they've processed numbers that are well I think now above what the usual annual operation would do just in the space of a month basically. In terms of the processes, we have streamlined around those on the JobSeeker. Some of the reporting that they need to undertake and also waive- waived certain things such as the application of the assets test and so on in that regard, which should have streamlined some of those processes. People, in making their initial claim through JobSeeker, are able to simply go online and register a basic intention to claim and their payment then applies from that date even if they don't get the rest of the paperwork settled with Centrelink for some days thereafter. So we've made sure there's a quick easy first step in, But I would also say to anybody who's having particular difficulties in terms of getting information uploaded or into the Centrelink system — feel free to contact my office or indeed any other Federal Member of Parliament’s offices and we can try to help people who might be having any Centrelink difficulties, to break through barriers to.

David Bevan: Okay. Well good luck Gary from St Georges. On the text line, could you ask Minister Birmingham if he thinks it’s appropriate for teachers to go back to school without masks for the staff, sanitiser for the students and the staff, disinfectant to clean the desks, door handles, and a bio clean of the school once a week?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think on masks, we should be really clear that the health advice has not changed, and that is that masks are really only necessary, either for those in direct contact with potential cases such as healthcare workers or particularly for those who may have symptoms or have the virus, then they should be wearing masks to avoid the spread to others. And it’s why we don’t have people across the country using masks and we don’t want them using masks unnecessarily against that health advice. In terms of schools going back more generally, they should, of course, have access to hygiene products that are to help schools ensure the best possible work environment for those teachers.

But let’s understand that in South Australia we are now happily down to only reporting a couple of cases a day, and these are very small numbers that we’ve successfully worked to. It’s no time for us to relax in that regard but we’re reporting fewer cases now in this first week of the school holidays than we were a couple of weeks ago when schools were still open and operating normally. And hopefully we can keep this small number tracking into school returning at term two, and if that’s the case there should be very little for teachers to be concerned about. But yes, of course the education departments, the schools should be making sure that they have the hygiene products they need.

David Bevan: Will you be sending your kids to school?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, David. I have been sending my children to school, they will be going back to school, I am very pleased that the schools will be open and I think it is so very important in terms of, if we think about the different functions and things in society. We shouldn’t rush to say we want to be able to get back into a restaurant or a pub, but of course we should want our children not to miss out on their education, and a proper education. There’s only so much you can do online. As our school principal put it to us in one of her communications, when children look back on their education, they’ll remember the amazing teacher who changed their life, they won’t remember the online platform that changed their life.

David Bevan: David has called from Kangaroo Island Connect Ferries. Hello, David… Good morning, David.

Caller David: Gidday, how are you going?

David Bevan: Good. What’s your question for the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham?

Caller David: I was wondering if Mr Birmingham could contact the Department of Transport to get back to us to see if we could develop a Cape Jervis boat round berth area whilst the ferries are not running, or our ferry’s not running. We’ve approached them some- or a month or so ago, we’ve been in constant contact. We’ve got plans, we think we can fund it with Boating Industry Council [sic] and bushfire funds. We just need to know — they’re the landlord — we need to know whether they’re going to let us do it.

Simon Birmingham: Sure, David. Let’s have a chat offline so that I can get some more details round exactly the works and so on. But this is absolutely a time where businesses who can invest and get things done, ought to do so. And where there are upgrades that we can make happen because normal services may not be occurring, well it’s a great time to get those upgrades underway and we want to make sure that as much work is done as possible. So, very happy to get some more details of what you’re proposing and to talk to Stephan Knoll and the State Transport Department about how we might make that happen.

David Bevan: Thanks for your call, David. On the text line a listener says, I’m disgusted that I cannot visit my mother but I must work with 18 year olds at a high school — not all school children are seven. What do you say to that person?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what I would say is, the advice we have at present is not that you cannot visit your mother, there are limits in South Australia to make sure that people don't have gatherings of greater than 10 and-

David Bevan: Well, her mum might be in a nursing home and they’re all locked down.

Simon Birmingham: That’s true, David, that's a fair point. So, depending on the circumstances there, nursing homes are obviously highly vulnerable places and that's why the limitations exist there. But if somebody’s mother lives in other normal residential facilities and so on, then the opportunity is there to visit but the expectation is that people should practice significant hygiene, social distancing, all of those factors to make sure that they keep older citizens safe.

Around school children, the advice has been, again, consistent that children do not appear to be carriers when it comes to COVID-19, that the rate of incidents around the world shows that transmission from children is very low risk. And indeed, in South Australia, thus far, so far as I'm aware, there hasn't been a teacher who has caught COVID-19 from a student, and long may that continue to be the case.

David Bevan: Okay. Your Liberal MP colleague, David Sharma, who’s a former diplomat, has suggested that the World Health Organization be given extra powers. Not defunded as Donald Trump wants, but he suggested it be given more powers to impose spot checks and inspections on its member states. You’re the Trade and Tourism Minister, do you think he's right?

Simon Birmingham: I think there's some attractiveness to Dave’s proposal there. We need to make sure that the WHO operates with independence so that it is not unduly influenced by any of its member states. Of course, it's a function of the countries who fund and operate the WHO. But all of those countries ought to support something like the WHO having full independence in its operations, transparency around those operations and the ability to hold countries of the world accountable in terms of their conduct. And I think there will be many things for us to look at on the other side of this around how we improve structures within countries but also globally to better respond to any competitive situation in the future, and improving the function and operation of the WHO is part of that. Walking away from it is a pointless exercise that will just leave the world less well prepared for the future. So we do need to make sure that what we do is engage with the WHO and ensure that it does an even better job in the future.

David Bevan: So is Donald Trump wrong to defund it?

Simon Birmingham: Yes.

David Bevan: Okay. Do you think he's attacking the WHO to draw attention away from his own failings?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don't want to ascribe motives there. The concerns are-

David Bevan: You're a politician- you're a politician by trade…watching another politician. What do you think is going on here?

Simon Birmingham: Well, he's a unique politician too. There’s no doubt about that.

David Bevan: Yes, he is.

Simon Birmingham: Look, the concerns around the WHO’s handling of this, genuine that people have as to, whether they went hard enough in the first instance in terms of the advice they gave the world. They were advising against travel restrictions while Australia was ignoring that advice and applying travel restrictions. We're now the envy of much of the rest of the world for how we've handled this. So I think there will be things about Australia's policy response that the WHO can learn from in terms of the advice they give in the future. There are concerns about the way the WHO handled matters in terms of holding China to account and whether it's being fully transparent at every step of this outbreak around its severity and what was unfolding in China, particularly in those early days.

And so, I can understand why President Trump or any other leader around the world has some misgivings about the way the WHO has handled things because I share some of those misgivings. But as I said before, walking away from it only will leave the world in an even worse state in the future to handle, not just pandemics but a whole range of other health situations that the WHO plays a very key role in, particularly in less developed countries such as our Pacific Island family who really do rely upon the WHO for a whole range of other health advice, information and resources.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, just quickly before you leave, on the text line: if children aren't carriers, why are playgrounds closed?

Simon Birmingham: Playgrounds, predominantly, as I understand it, that relates to the congregation of parents around playgrounds. So, playgrounds tend to have small children there and with each of those small children are parents congregating and standing around together and so on. But I hope, as we're looking at how we get out of some of these restrictions, if we continue to successfully keep the numbers low with the commitment to really ramp up further testing, which we’re already world leading, the tracing of cases and then the isolation of those cases where they're identified, I hope that playgrounds can be one of the first areas of restriction that are lifted because I know that for people with very small children, it’s a real barrier for them not to be able to get out of the house and run around.

David Bevan: Is this a reasonable expectation for our listeners that there could be some relaxation of these measures over the next few weeks, such as playgrounds, maybe cafes and restaurants — if we're really, really good, maybe elective surgery? They’re the sorts of things that might be relaxed in a few weeks. Interstate travel — that might be further down the track. And then when you look at things like international flights, well that could be way off in the never-never. Is that a fair expectation?

Simon Birmingham: David, I think so. In broad terms, I think essential and highly important and critical activities like elective surgery, just as like children going to school, we want to make sure those things happen, are happening or happen again as soon as possible. And so, there'll be where you see first initial relaxation, I would have thought. Some of those things like playgrounds and perhaps, outdoor exercise activities and so on, that were some of the last restrictions put in place, you would think could be among the earlier ones that are relaxed.

I think we’re probably a way off, restaurants and hotels and so on, unfortunately. They continue to apply fairly strong messaging around social distancing and reducing unnecessary congregations of people. It will be an important part for a little while to come. But yes, then on travel, I think will be up to the states but I expect they will maintain some of those interstate travel restrictions for a while to come and the international ones are certainly where there’s, insofar as the eye can see right now.

David Bevan: Would you expect anybody to be able to make, except if it's absolutely essential, an international flight next year?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope so. I hope so. That really does depend, I guess, on where the world has evolved to and particularly work around vaccines. Obviously, that is the big game changer if we get that breakthrough around vaccination and or treatment options to some extent.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you David.

David Bevan: Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

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