Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings, with Spence Denny

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Coronavirus; Social distancing; Sydney Airport; Financial Supports from the Government.
27 March 2020

Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Spence. Thank you for the opportunity. Hello from my home to your home.

Spence Denny: There you go. Look, logistically, how are the majority of our elected representatives actually operating at the moment, Senator Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Spence, it'll be a little bit case by case. I, along with a number of others, returned from Canberra earlier this week, where we legislated the $189 billion package of support for Australia and obviously, by the time we got back, the State Government had put in place quarantine restrictions for people returning from interstate. Now, there are exemptions for people undertaking essential work and clearly, the sitting of the Parliament are essential work. But nonetheless, we agreed across party lines to do the best we could to comply with those quarantine provisions despite that exemption. And so, I have the laptop on the phone, on the back deck as the sun is rising at present. I've got the secure Cabinet communication device in the study at home to be able to dial in and to participate in the very regular Cabinet committee meetings that we're having. And my staff are diligently dropping off briefs to me every day and picking them up as we go about business as usual as we can in quite extraordinary times.

Spence Denny: Our phone lines are open. If you have a question for our most senior Cabinet member in South Australia, you are welcome to give us a call, 1300-222-891. That's the telephone number you can use.

This morning, Senator Simon Birmingham — and we're probably going to see examples of this fairly often — but obviously, we saw the arrival of an international flight at Sydney Airport yesterday. And well, obviously, somebody who was very concerned by the way they were being processed posted on social media a clear breach of any sort of social distancing guidelines. And this is what we are being urged to avoid. I mean, I don't know how much blame the Government can assume for circumstances like this because these are people who were doing their own thing. But I guess, in many ways, it could be seen as an indication that we still don't really understand the ramifications.

Simon Birmingham: They were really concerning images, Spence. And I trust we’re seeing a real step-up in terms of communications with those arriving planes. And the first thing to reassure people — planes arriving in Australia now are basically of Australians returning from overseas. But we have essentially shut off the borders and preventing people from other nations from entering Australia except in exceptional circumstances. So, those coming in are Australians returning home.

Yesterday, we saw a big step-up in terms of the screening and the health checks and other things being performed on individuals as they came through Sydney Airport. That's a good thing. But clearly, the system failed a little bit there, where people didn’t get the message as they were waiting for those screened checks to take place, to keep their distance from one another. And I trust that today, from the air crew, who have been doing amazing jobs flying planes through the current conditions. But the advice that they're giving to passengers. They get off the plane. The message is in the airports. The notification from Border Force staff, the work of the health authorities at the airports, are all just driving home that message — that we’re all here now; keep that 1.5 metre distance, maintain that distance and that's going to really help to slow the spread.

Spence Denny: Well, the first thing that spring to mind for me, Senator Birmingham, when we see this line of people trying to get processed through Customs, is that they’d just come off a plane where they would have been a similar distance apart anyway. So, what's the big deal here? I mean, if these are all people who've just been in a confined tube for a number of hours and are being processed, as long as they are keeping their distance from those people who are processing them and then they go into isolation, and the people who are transporting them to isolation maintain all that sort of social distancing, what's the big deal?

Simon Birmingham: A few factors there. The ventilation systems on planes are actually pretty good. Now, there's still been a lot of contact tracing done to make sure that people who were sitting close to somebody with a diagnosed case are aware. But the airlines have rightly pointed out that the ventilation systems on planes are very good and minimise some of the spread there.

The next is that obviously, when you get into the terminal, you potentially have multiple planes landing at the same time from different locations. So it's not just the people that you were sitting alongside of. But ultimately, it's just about the one thing that we all need to remember at present: the longer you are closer to somebody else, the higher the risk of transmission becomes. And so, if you can heed those public health messages, of keeping that 1.5 metre distance and do that as much as you can throughout the day, then that's going to do the best to keep you safe. So even if you've found yourself on a bus or a train or a plane, where you've got people sitting a little bit closer and if it's too crowded to be able to spread out that distance, that's the circumstance you face. But then, once you’re off it, make sure you reapply those social distancing rules.

Spence Denny: Quarter past nine is the time. You are listening to ABC Radio Adelaide, the Morning program, with Spence Denny, filling in for David Bevan at the moment. We are speaking with Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. I’d like to talk to those portfolios shortly but we have been encouraging you to call. So, I'd like to give you a chance to speak with our most senior Member of Parliament here in South Australia.

Rose is on the phone. Hello Rose.

Caller Rose: Hello. How are you?

Spence Denny: Good, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Rose.

Caller Rose: Hi. I'd like to know what's the actual date the pension supplement is going to be in our bank account because I want to spend it before we get locked down. And that’s the local business I want to help out.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Rose. The $750 supplement, the first of them — there are now going to be two of them — but the first of them will be paid from the 31st of March. So that will start to flow from next week and hitting people's bank accounts. It may take a couple of weeks to get into every bank account of those various eligible Australians, the millions of Australians who will receive that. But we certainly encourage you to spend it where you can, to spend it in ways that support Australian businesses, our small businesses. And I know that my family tonight will be getting some takeaway from local restaurants. We're fortunate we're able to be able to do that, able to afford to do that and we'll be picking- well my wife will be picking that up and bringing it home so that we're supporting them, just as we might have on other circumstances, the family marking the end of the working week by ducking out for a meal. We’ll at least still do that same thing to support local business.

Spence Denny: Senator, Rose asked about the ability to use that payment at local businesses before we go into lockdown. If and when is that likely to happen? As a nation, does the Federal Government have the authority to say: enough is enough, stay home, you're not allowed out unless you are this, this and this?

Simon Birmingham: Well firstly, many businesses are doing what they can, whether it’s restaurants going to takeaway, or other businesses offering more online support and services. So, I encourage people in supporting businesses that, even if they can’t do so by conventional means, look at those unconventional ways, look at what the online opportunities to support those…

Spence Denny: No, no, no. With respect Senator, I don’t think that’s the- that’s not really the question I asked.

Simon Birmingham: No, no, no…

Spence Denny: Are we likely to go into a scenario similar to New Zealand or the UK?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t know, Spence. I hope that the measures we have taken this week following all the public health advice to close pubs, restaurants, churches, gyms, to put in place a range of other restrictions, to limit the number of people who can gather, and to enforce this one person per four square metre rule in various settings, does effectively slow the spread quickly enough that enables us to not have to go much further in terms of restrictions. But if it doesn’t and if the health advice says it’s not having that effect fast enough; then we will have to apply other restrictions.

That’s why we’ve brought together this National Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister but with all the Premiers and the Chief Ministers, five Labor Premiers and Chief Ministers, three Liberal, plus a Liberal Prime Minister, so a very balanced National Cabinet there. Some states will have to do some things at different rates to others because the rate of transmission differs in some states to others. But our ambition here is to slow the spread so that our health system can cope so that we save lives, and that's really what we're making sure we do. And we don't want to go so far ahead of what's necessary at present that we put more Australians out of work and out of jobs and threaten more businesses. This is about trying to slow the spread, and as long as the health advice says that we are succeeding in that, well, then that's great. If it says we're not, well, obviously we will have to do more, and we may enter those lockdown conditions.

Spence Denny: Twenty past nine is the time, Nigel’s on the phone. Morning, Nigel.

Caller Nigel: Yeah, good morning. I’d like to get an explanation of why hairdressers are allowed to open and have discretionary activity, such as, you know, hair colour or shampoo, or what have you, and yet gyms, football, churches are closing, and why the Government is flip-flopping and changing its mind? Personally, I’m planning to maybe even cut my own hair or wear a hat or a cap. What’s happening?

Simon Birmingham: So, I think the other examples you gave tend to be areas of large and unregulated congregation, so people going into churches in terms of the numbers that would turn up, or the numbers that turn up to a gymnasium in the morning, all those sorts of things, and that's where it's just impractical to be able to say that we could enforce limitations. In terms of hairdressers, obviously there’s a bit of debate this week. After getting feedback from the industry and more particularly, from the public, the view was that we could manage with really strict application of that four square metre rule. So, one person per four square metres. That means the person cutting the hair and the person having their haircut, they're going to have to need eight square metres within a hairdressing salon. Many hairdressers, that means they're going to have to significantly limit the number of people working there and the number of people who can be there at any one time, but it creates sufficient space to minimise the risk of transmission, and very much urging people to make sure their visits are as short as possible without having that arbitrary 30-minute limit there. But the social distancing requirements really come in there in terms of the amount of space people are allowed to take up.

Spence Denny: Hmm… It does seem pretty clear though that hairdressers are very susceptible because of the contact they’re having with people, and then you have that added complication of then somebody else coming in, dealing with that hairdresser who may have been in contact with somebody who is coronavirus positive. I mean, isn't that just, you know, logical?

Simon Birmingham: It's- these things are a fine balance and a difficult balance on the way through. We've said no to nail salons and beauty salons, and I guess circumstances where people are engaging face to face and up close in a face to face setting. Hairdressers do at least tend to stand behind the individual that they are working on. But that's why we're still applying the other safeguards of saying, there's got to be a large degree of spacing out in the hairdressing salon, that four square metre rule, that one and a half metres, two metre distance from another person is critical, aside from the two individuals involved in undertaking the haircut. And even then, it's got to be done at least as quickly as it possibly can.

Spence Denny: Okay. And just before we take another call, just a couple of text messages that come through in reference to what we were talking about, you know, whether or not more severe restrictions might come into place in Australia similar to those in New Zealand and the UK. Via text, what is the critical mass that has to be reached before it's deemed safe to release communi- release society? The aim, I know, is to flatten out the curve — I'm reading directly from this text — how does this happen when there are millions of people and the virus cannot be eradicated? So, when do we reach the critical point, one, where some more severe measures need to be put in place, and when do we reach the critical point where we can then go back to something that's close to normal?

Simon Birmingham: So as we've discussed before, in terms of more severe lockdown provisions occurring, that will have to happen if we don't see at the rate of transmission contained at adequate levels. So, the public health…

Spence Denny: But is there a benchmark figure for that?

Simon Birmingham: That really is one where the public health and epidemiology experts are looking at recovery rates and how quickly people come out; the number of people needing medical care and particularly intensive medical care; and how all of that aligns with the number of reported cases that are happening.

So it’s a complex mix of formulations, it’ll be far better to have those public health experts who I know have been doing plenty of interviews as well, explain how they put that together than having a politician who will — I can say we will be acting on their advice in that sense.

In looking at the other end, when do these sorts of measures come off and these restrictions lifted? Well, that really is once we have passed a peak, and successfully passed a peak with our public health system having coped with that peak hopefully, and knowing that then for the remainder of the community if transmission may still occur that we can have complete confidence that the health system will still cope because we've passed the peak. And how long into that future is, again, we don't know but it is likely to be months. And that the point that the Prime Minister has made time and time again, that the type of restrictions we put in place today we have to accept are likely to be there for quite some time to come until we do get past that peak.

Spence Denny: Time is zipping along. I might just try and squeeze — we’ve had a lot of calls and my apologies to those who haven't been able to get through — but I might just try and squeeze two more quick calls if we can, please, Simon Birmingham. Wayne good morning.

Caller Wayne: Good morning. How are you, Spence?

Spence Denny: Good thank you. Good.

Caller Wayne: So, can I go?

Spence Denny: Yeah. Yes, you can, you're on air.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely Wayne.

Caller Wayne: Good morning, Senator. How are you?

Simon Birmingham: Great, thank you.

Caller Wayne: I'm seventy-five years of age, recently retired. I've got three small investment properties in the Murray Bridge area. I still owe $221,000 dollars to the Bendigo Bank on them. The rentals are my only income now, I don't have any other income or Super. After expenses — water repairs, property manager, et cetera — I make about a $100 per week. Now I am supposed, apparently, to let tenants live for free in my rentals when, at the moment, a couple of them have got a form of rent assistance from the Government. And the banks still want their money, Simon. Tenants all have a legal lease on the properties made out by my property managers correctly. I will not be able to pay the bank monthly for these properties or have a living — I will be bankrupted. I have agreed with nearly everything that the Government’s done so far but if they let that go through, well that's the end of things for a lot of people.

Spence Denny: Wayne. Senator Birmingham what sort of support is off- is open to somebody like, in Wayne’s situation? And I'm sure he's not on his own.

Simon Birmingham: Wayne, you've put together quite a complex chain of events there. The simple thing I'd say there is if your tenants are in a circumstance where they do need rent relief and you do need, potentially, to waive the rent, then you should be going to your bank as well.

Banks are putting in place many provisions for small and medium businesses and this needs to flow through to property owners as well who are doing the right thing by offering rent reductions to people under stress. The bank needs to put in place the same sort of provisions where they defer repayments, defer interest in relation to those sorts of properties so that the pain and the difficulty there is spread. But of course, for tenants, if none of their circumstances have changed, may not be in a circumstance that they need that type of rent relief either.

Spence Denny: Okay. So I think it's pretty clear that he's in a difficult situation. I mean, that's his only form of income. Can he go and apply for the aged pension?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. Again we have- we've relaxed, essentially removed for the new payments that we're putting in place, the assets test. We’ve made provisions there that allow for people who might be sole traders or other types of operators to able to access these types of benefits while still conducting their business if their income has come down sufficiently, so that they can access the JobSeeker Allowance, receive the coronavirus supplements that’s being paid to get those types of support. So yes, there may be assistance there depending on the circumstances, but also in terms of that rent relief decision, is one to be made based on whether the tenant’s circumstances have changed and they need that rent relief, then should certainly be seeking support from the bank. And yes there may be assistance at Centrelink too.

Spence Denny: You would hope so because otherwise someone like Wayne, or people in similar situations — as you say sole traders who- I mean you look at a barber who makes a decision based on the health risks who might be operating a shop on their own, who decides to close. I mean, I- in fact I spoke to somebody in this exact situation and he was unclear as to a number of things — as to whether he can access his Super; if he can do so, can he do it because he's decided to close or because he'd be made redundant; if he can seek any sort of- any other one-off payments from the Government and things like that. It's such a complex situation for people who are sole traders or someone like Wayne who has this set form of income.

Simon Birmingham: It is, but, essentially, for people in those sorts of circumstances, if your income drops sufficiently and it's around $1085, I think, a fortnight — but let me just double check on that — if your income drops sufficiently, then you can continue to conduct your business, but you can also claim the Jobseeker Allowance, the coronavirus supplement — receive the additional one-off payments in various cases.

So it does depend a bit on the case by case circumstance, of course, as to what other streams of income somebody may have. The access to superannuation for those who choose to take out that $10,000 this year and, or $10,000 next financial year — that is a relatively straightforward process in terms of indicating that they are experiencing financial hardship or difficulties as a result of their circumstances, and they will be able to access that money straightaway.

Spence Denny: Alright. Senator Simon Birmingham, we didn't really get much a chance to talk about the tourism, trade and investment aspect, but we must go. But we're actually about to talk with the Executive Director of South Australian Road Transport Association about the border checks and things like that.

Simon Birmingham: If I can Spence, just as I go? australia.gov.au. The source, single source of information to get the public health advice and information but also the links through to that type of assistance that people need to see themselves through the financially difficult times as well — australia.gov.au.

Spence Denny: Okay. So that's australia.gov.au.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.

Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Spence.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555