Interview on ABC Radio Canberra, AM, with Sabra Lane

Topics: Impact of the coronavirus and travel ban to tourism, Bridget McKenzie.
03 February 2020

Sabra Lane: A short time ago, I spoke with the Trade and Tourism Minister.

[Excerpt]

Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: Do you have an estimate of how many Chinese tourists have been turned around or have cancelled their trips as a result of the new travel ban?

Simon Birmingham: I don't have a precise estimate there, Sabra, but the impact of this is great and significant for Australia's tourism industry, for our international education sector, and also for Australian exporters as well, who will find it increasingly challenging, in some instances, to either access the China market or already facing the downturn in terms of demand in China as a result of slowing in their economy and consumption.

Sabra Lane: You’re Tourism Minister, how many tourists were you expecting from China in the next fortnight?

Simon Birmingham: Look, China is our largest international market. We expect in terms of Chinese tourists over the course of the year that they generate around $11 billion worth of spend across Australia. Now that's spread relatively evenly through the course of the year. Now- and that is concentrated more in some of the significant eastern city markets. So we can sort of isolate, to some extent, where it will have an impact. But we know as well that in certain regional areas like the Gold Coast, North Queensland as well, they have significant proportions of Chinese tourist.

Sabra Lane: You’d have a ballpark figure, though. Surely.

Simon Birmingham: Look, in terms of the fortnight, Sabra, I can’t put a precise figure there on it. We are obviously talking, though, thousands of tourists and travelers.

Sabra Lane:     What's the economic impact of this? When you look at the cancelled trips, plus Chinese university students being forced to delay a return, putting off the first semester, $13 billion is the figure that's been floated around this morning. Is that about right?

Simon Birmingham: It’s as I said, we estimate in terms of tourism contribution around $11 billion or so. But this is our largest tourism market, our largest international education market, our largest trading partner. So of course, it is significant and severe impact.

Sabra Lane: Should Australia be prepared for a recession from all of this?

Simon Birmingham: The goal that the economic analysts make their predictions in that regard. We, as a government, are not underestimating the gravity and the severity of the decision that had to be taken. Of course, Australians expect public health comes first and we have followed and acted every step of the way on the advice of our public health officials. In terms of our tourism industry, we already had a record budget for Tourism Australia. We added and injected a further $76 million as part of our bushfire response, and we will now work very carefully to see how we can recalibrate our investment in our tourism industry to help them through this tough time.

Sabra Lane: All right. This will be a triple whammy for some businesses - they've been affected by the bushfires, downturn in domestic tourism, now this. You just touched on the fact that there was a package for tourism operators in January. Are you considering additional financial help for these people?

Simon Birmingham: I will sit down today and talk to the tourism industry. We had consultations over the weekend, I had directly, with a number of industry figures, the Tourism Australia board convened for an extraordinary meeting on Saturday night, which I addressed. And we will continue to, as I say firstly, look at how we can recalibrate within existing resources, our campaigns, and particularly the domestic campaign which we have not launched from Tourism Australia in recent years, a domestic campaign urging Australians to holiday here this year. And I really would encourage everybody, if you're planning a break at some point this year, you may well be saving the jobs and the small businesses of fellow Australians by doing so. And you'll have a fantastic time. And so please heed that campaign.

Sabra Lane: To Bridget McKenzie's departure, on a technicality and not on how she awarded the taxpayer dollars to community groups, how comfortable are you with that?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, I think Bridget, indeed having resigned, has taken responsibility for the failure that was identified in the report undertaken by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Government's also made clear that we're going to act on the Auditor-General's key recommendations in relation to how such schemes are operated in future, and that's what we'll get on and do.

Sabra Lane: Your colleague Darren Chester said last week that one of the biggest problems in politics right now is the trust deficit between politicians and the people you represent. Surely, this isn't helping close that gap.

Simon Birmingham: These types of issues never help, Sabra. I think though you've been around politics a long time, you know that these types of issues come up from time to time. What's important is how government responds to them, and we're going to respond with the minister having resigned, and with the government getting on and implementing the key recommendations from the Auditor-General.

Sabra Lane: But it was on a technicality. There are many voters who are disillusioned with politics right now. How do you think that they’ll regard the Auditor-General's finding on this program that decisions were not informed by appropriate assessment processes and sound advice? That political considerations trumped that?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, we're going to get on and implement and act on the Auditor-General's recommendation, that is what we do to address these issues in terms of- for the future, and making sure that the ministers who do need to have an opportunity to be able to make decisions in relation to grants. I know that when I was education minister, I had to overrule decisions, for example, in relation to the Healthy Harold program that I know many New South Wales listeners in particular, is a school education program, had been defunded in an official level and required my decision as minister to overrule that determination. So you do have to step in at certain times, but we clearly take the Auditor-General's findings seriously and we're going to act on them.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for joining AM this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.

[End of excerpt]

Sabra Lane: And that's the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.

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