Interview on ABC Riverland SA, Drive, with Narelle Graham

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID-19
23 March 2020

Narelle Graham: And Senator Simon Birmingham, the Liberal Senator for South Australia and also the Minister for Tourism at the federal level, has very generously promised to be a part of this program at least once a week. And I very much appreciate that. We've got a lot of questions for you.

Minister Simon Birmingham welcome.

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

Narelle Graham: Can we start with this first question that has come through on the text line here. This is in relation to the restrictions that have been announced by the Federal Government Over the weekend. They're asking whether or not caravan parks will be able to open under the restrictions that have been set?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Narelle. Well, we've outlined a clear list of businesses and entities that are impacted. Caravan parks do not sit on that list. So essentially it is a negative list. If you're on it, then you need to close down. To my knowledge caravan parks are not on that list. That said, people - the message is clear now - should not be undertaking unnecessary travel. So whilst caravan parks who often cater to permanent residents and semi-permanent residents obviously have a market there and a need to continue to be open. The tourist trade is essentially shut down from here on in.

Narelle Graham: Okay so it is possible is what I'm hearing you say that maybe you'll be able to stay in a caravan park but it will probably be one within your own state.

Simon Birmingham: Well, well and truly within your own state given the travel restrictions there. But the message clearly now is for people not to undertake unnecessary travel. And much as the Tourism Minister, I like to encourage people to go on a holiday, that unfortunately is unnecessary travel now. So caravan parks, as I say, where they're providing for permanent and semi-permanent accommodation for individuals should be able to continue to operate, but not in terms of the tourism and travel trade.

Narelle Graham: That is Senator Simon Birmingham Liberal Senator for South Australia. The text messages and the questions are coming through pretty thick and fast, Minister, and I know that we want to get to some of the details of the stimulus package but I might hit you with some of these questions first. Somebody asking: if we all stayed inside and we isolated for two weeks, would that stop the spread? Like, could we do an absolute maximum, everybody shut down for two weeks, and then the virus wouldn't be able to spread.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I probably should leave those sorts of questions to the public health experts to answer. I mean, there's a practicality element there as to whether you could physically expect that everybody actually locked down for two weeks. It's quite a hypothetical question given the need for access to health services, the need for policing, the need ultimately for people to be able to get basic food and groceries and those sorts of things as well. So I think hypothetically I'd leave that to the public health experts. Practically that's unlikely to be able to be done. And the mission really is, as we've all been clear, about slowing the spread so that we save lives, slowing the spread so that we have fewer hospital admissions, fewer intensive care admissions. So that we can have confidence that where we do have those hospital admissions in those intensive care needs, there are enough beds and are enough facilities. The state government in SA is doing a magnificent job in scaling up resources in the health sector but we still need to flatten the curve, reduce the peak to be able to cope with it even with those additional resources that Steven Marshall was putting in.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham, somebody is asking: can I even go to the local skate park?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the- at the local skate park at present, individual outdoor recreational activities are not expressly prohibited. It's- indoor recreational facilities and sporting facilities are part of that shut down order but outdoor ones are not. But people should be very mindful of the social distancing arrangements, keep that one and a half two meters' distance from other people there. And so if it's a quiet skate park then you're probably all good, if it's a bit crowded then give it a skip.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham there. The Federal Government's second stimulus package, so $66 billion worth of measures that have been announced over the weekend, not for profit small businesses going to be given up to $100,000 to keep their staff employed during the coronavirus crisis. Will there be- what sort of checkups, I guess, are they going to be on that, you know? Is it possible for a small business or- to let their staff go and still have the $100,000? Or does it need to- there's got to be some sort of proof obviously that it's going to their staff?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no. The funds are going to flow straight through to employers. It flows through to them on the basis of what they're reporting on their business activity statement for what they have been paying staff. So essentially, it's scaled so that it goes automatically to businesses without them having to make any application and they simply fill out their usual regular tax statements, the Business Activity Statement. Usually in that they'd be identifying what they are withholding from giving to employees as tax. What we're doing now is saying that they can keep up to $100,000 of that. In most instances we hope and trust that it's going to help keep people in jobs and fuel extra business investment and activity. In some cases, we have to be honest that it's going to hopefully instead just keep that business afloat till we get to the other side, and they may still shed staff or stand down staff in the interim. And many of the hotels and restaurants who are being forced to close today under these tragic circumstances, they will be eligible for these payments but they're going to need these payments just to be able to reopen the doors when the time comes and when we say it's okay for them to do so.

Narelle Graham: Goodness me. The more we talk about it, the, you know, the bigger you realise the situation is. That is Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator four South Australia, and it's ABC Radio South Australia and Broken Hill. If you want to flick through a quick question, text me on 0467922783.

Senator, perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of that stimulus package that was announced has been- you know, people are not exactly in agreement on this and that is that to allow individuals in financial stress, people will have access up to $10,000 worth of their superannuation in 2019/2020 in that financial year and then a further $10,000 for next financial year, so starting on 1 July 2020. Is that, do you think, responsible decision making given that the share- you know, the superannuation relies on the share market in the share market is plummeting?

Simon Birmingham: So, few things on that. Firstly, we already have provisions that are always there for people in times of immense financial stress to be able to access limited amounts of their superannuation. What we're doing here is trying to ease the process around that, so that rather than it being a cumbersome and detailed process that is challenging but feasible when you're only handling a small number of these cases, we're going to make it a much simpler process so that people can actually just get through it faster and easier and indeed all of the admin flows quickly as you'd want at a time like this.

It's entirely optional. Nobody needs to withdraw any of their superannuation. And of course, we have made the decisions to make access to the jobseeker payment easier, to provide the extra payments of $750 in lump sums and to create the new coronavirus supplement which is another $550 per fortnight. So we've really stepped up and significantly increased the scale of financial support the government will provide direct to households. But individuals still think that they need that support out of their superannuation fund – ultimately, it's their money. Yes, fund values have declined, stock markets declined. The superannuation funds in Australia are still worth around about $3 trillion. Our understanding is that they hold around about $300 billion of that in cash at present. So that cash holding is obviously not impacted by the stock market variations. And our estimate in terms of what Australians might access out of this early release of superannuation provision is $27 billion. So that's less than 10 per cent of the cash holdings of super funds and a very small fraction of the overall $3 trillion in holdings. So it shouldn't impact in that sense on the value proportionate to the stock market in terms of that question. But it's a choice that's there for people to access some of their money if they really need it on top of the additional government support that we are pushing out the door to help them.

Narelle Graham: Okay. Senator, I won't keep you much longer. In a moment, I'm going to be speaking with the Rural Doctors' Association about the impact of having Rex pull out of all of its flights throughout regional South Australia, as of 6 April. So that's only a couple of weeks away. And John Sharp was saying: yes, we will revisit that, should we be able to get some sort of assistance from the Federal Government. Here is just a reminder of what John Sharp said.

[Excerpt]

John Sharp: Without doubt, if Federal Government was to say to us: look, we'll cover your losses, or we'll help you with your losses. Or if the State Government in South Australia was to say to us: well look, we will help you out in South Australia to cover some of the losses. And if the local councils were to chip in, yes, we would definitely keep going, because we don't want to shut this thing down. It's not a good outcome for anybody.

[End of excerpt]

Narelle Graham: Yeah. So, Senator, we're seeing there that- the domino effect of this. So, Rex is saying: we're not going to be able to offer those services anymore, and that's going to affect the ability of specialists to be able to deliver the services that they need to deliver in regional areas. So, is there more discussion happening about what can happen for regional airlines like Rex?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. The Transport Minister, the Federal Transport Minister, had a hook up of all of the state and territory transport ministers yesterday. I actually had a similar one with tourism and trade ministers today. This has been a topic of discussion in those calls. The transport agencies are trying to work through an analysis of what are essential routes and what are essential frequencies for flights on those routes, so that we can then consider a proposal as to whether there is a justification for particular support from either state governments or the Federal Government to make sure that critical air services are maintained.

Narelle Graham: Is Rex a critical airline?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Rex only is a critical part of our long-term air services arrangements. And I want to see Rex survive in the long run. Obviously at present, while we are advising people not to undertake any unnecessary travel, there is a much, much, much reduced demand for air services. But there may be some routes where, indeed, for medical purposes and for essential services into those communities or for freight purposes in terms of goods getting in and out, that we do need to maintain some frequency on those routes. And that's what everybody is trying to assess quickly right now, so that we can then work with Rex or others.

Narelle Graham: Okay. Are you saying it's not all over for internal flights within South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Not necessarily. I mean, many things in SA will still work on the basis of land and ground transport. But we do know that there are some instances where you do need that air connectivity. It's not just Rex. And of course, across the country there are often quite specific regional operators, often especially across Northern Australia, servicing quite remote, individual communities as well that we are needing to be quite mindful of at present too.

Narelle Graham: Senator, thank you. Senator Simon Birmingham there. He's also Australia's Federal Minister for Tourism and Trade.

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