Interview on Radio National, Breakfast with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: G20 leaders meeting, supply chains, international co-operation.
26 March 2020

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is Australia’s Trade and Tourism Minister. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Fran, Thank you for the opportunity.

Fran Kelly: Minister, G20 leaders will hold this virtual meeting tonight. What is the most pressing issue, for the Australian Government, in terms of what other countries do when it comes to combatting the COVID-19 virus and safeguarding the global economy?

Simon Birmingham: The G20 meeting is an opportunity for leadership and cooperation; now cooperation is that we seek to work with as many nations in the world to fight in the race against time for a vaccine — to make sure we share and cooperate around knowledge as to what is working in terms of the scaling up of ability of testing regimes, of other support to control and limit the spread of COVID-19.

Our work with G20 leaders really will be focused on sharing that knowledge but also seeking the types of commitments from countries that can ensure that there’s collaboration across research fields, that there’s flow of medical goods and supplies and continued flow of those that feed into supply chains. So, the elements of supply chains that are essential to ensure that as many countries as possible are well placed to be able to combat this.

Fran Kelly: And is there a concern about that? Because, really, nothing hard and fast in terms of commitments came from the G7 recently. Keeping those supply chains open is obviously critical and sharing that kind of research, but a number of countries have already applied export restrictions on vital medical supplies. The EU, I think, won’t allow the sale of hospital supplies outside of the EU and given Europe’s the epicenter of the pandemic, I guess you can understand that. But, are you seeing problems there in terms of global cooperation?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, of course it’s understandable that the countries will seek to secure the supplies that they need in their own nation. But, it can cripple those- the ability of them and other countries if they break down the sale of different components, different elements of supply chains that are necessary too if we’re to succeed. And so we do need countries to be really sensible and rational about the approaches that they take.

And there are, of course, a range of logistical challenges that are increasingly faced as we see the collapse of global aviation and the need to supplement much of the cargo that previously was transmitted in the bellies of passenger aircraft into a dedicated, now, freight routes. And so again, they’re conversations that I’ve been having with my counterparts around the world and we are looking at, as a Government, the things that are necessary. Of course first and foremost, to help with the health response but also to make sure that we can continue to get quality Australian food out in to the region and around the world — necessary for our farmers and their livelihoods, but also of course, for the very life and quality of food that those who receive that and rely upon us depend upon.

Fran Kelly: Sure. I’ll come to the freight issue in a moment too. But is it, and are you concerned, that there’s a bit of a mindset of every country for itself at the moment? That there is a temptation, if not in practice, to already start reinstating trade barriers, tariffs, quotas. Do you think we’re going to head back that way? Is that a concern, particularly when you talk about the future for Australia’s farmers?

Simon Birmingham: It’s a real concern, Fran, if it goes beyond the absolutely essential. Australians would expect our Government-

Fran Kelly: And is it? Sorry to break it in, but are you seeing that already?

Simon Birmingham: We’re seeing elements of that in terms of the thinking that is occurring in some places. And there is a real risk, indeed, that Australia as a trading nation needs at the end of this to see that we can get back on with supplying our quality goods, services right around the world. And so we want to make sure that we hold fast, because the economic recovery here and in many other nations would be hurt if we come out of this health crisis and find that there are higher barriers, more restrictions to trade in the future than we had had going into it.

Fran Kelly: You’re listening to RN Breakfast; our guest is Simon Birmingham, he is the Federal Tourism and Trade Minister. Minister, there’s a lot of anxiety about cruise ship passengers disembarking in Australia without being tested and it’s happened in New South Wales with absolutely catastrophic results. But maritime workers are also alarmed at the arrival of container vessels. Now as you said; more and more freight will be coming in via shipping lines because the airlines aren’t flying. Why are these people still allowed to come in when you banned all other international travelers from flying into the country?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, we have maintained the freight routes and have done so because it’s essential in terms of not just freight going out of Australia but also freight coming into Australia. And that we would cripple our supplies in a number of areas if we were to see some sort of blanket ban on freight routes. Also very important in any of these cases, we have the knowledge that those ships have spent 14 days at sea and that we are able to monitor very carefully, in terms of the condition on those ships. And of course we're talking far, far smaller numbers of individuals when it comes to the crew of a freight ship as against, of course, the enormity of these thousands of people on cruise liners. And that allows us to more carefully monitor the circumstances on that ship and have greater confidence as it comes into berth.

Fran Kelly: But are we doing that? I mean, I personally have heard anecdotal evidence of someone who lives in a port town who said that the wor- this is up until, this is probably four days ago, the workers were just coming in off their ships from all over the world. They’re just wandering into the local pub, and are wandering around the local town. What kind of checking is going on?

Simon Birmingham: Well that's certainly not meant to be the case. Now, if individuals in a ship have been at sea for sufficient length of time …

Fran Kelly: Two weeks.

Simon Birmingham: … and no symptoms and no testing — so the two-week period — then of course we can have confidence there, if there's no symptoms at all during that two-week period, they have essentially spent their time in quarantine.

Fran Kelly: But we are believing the ship master aren’t we? We're not going on and testing? That's the weak- that's the weak link there, isn't it?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, well that is- it’s consistent with the approach that we've been taking in terms of arrivals, by any means, the same approach taken in terms of Australians coming back into Australia — that there is an expectation that they spend 14 days clearly in quarantine and that we’ve scaled up and stepped up, the type of approach that the states and territories are taking to check that that happens. And in the case of these ships we are, as I say, there's a risk assessment that occurs to make sure that we're able as best we possibly can to have confidence that from where they've come, the time they've been at sea, the reports that we have from the master of the ship in terms of the condition of the crew – that then those relevant conditions are put in place thereafter.

Fran Kelly: They’re ministerial — so the Tourism Minister, there's the whole interview to be done on the tourism sector and perhaps we can get you back for that on another day. But, you know, the tourism sector was already reeling from the devastating effects of the bushfires, now its hit by this virus as borders close and people can't get to holiday spots, we're not allowed to move around. But there's a lot of confusion still about some of what we can do and what we can't do. For instance, can you go walking in a national park? Are you allowed to do that?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, Fran, you are allowed to get out and go for a walk. But the message really is you shouldn't be undertaking any non-essential travel. So don't go on holiday and it's a terrible thing for the Tourism Minister to have to say and it is devastating to see what has happened to so many businesses and jobs across the tourism and hospitality sector at present. But the message is clear — don't go on a holiday, don't congregate in numbers with friends, don't undertake the type of social activities. But yes, you can get out into the outdoors and take a walk.

Fran Kelly: Okay. And just on clarification of what we can and can't do, I understand there's been an update on whether you can go to the hairdressers, barbers and also changes to funerals. There's going to be a lifting on the 30-minute rule per person for the hairdressers, and also the rules around attendance at funerals, and cases of hardship have changed, as I understand. Can you confirm that? And if so, why would we be dialling this back now when we're hearing from some of the major states that they're going to put in tougher restrictions? Isn't that contradictory?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, that- we've been clear. The states are at different levels in terms of the rate of spread across them. And whilst the work of the National Cabinet — bringing together the five Labor leaders and four Liberal leaders working collaboratively to adopt common position is really important, and we want that to be as consistent as possible — there will be instances where some states need to move slightly ahead of others as the nature of this pandemic evolves in different ways in those different jurisdictions.

People who want up to date information in terms of the restrictions that are in place should go through australia.gov.au and that provides a range of information about how to keep safe, what the restrictions are and links through to various state portals.

Fran Kelly: Okay. We- but can you confirm there has been a lifting of that 30-minute rule for patrons for hairdressers?

Simon Birmingham: Fran, I'm not going to- I don't have the details of that in front of me,

Fran Kelly: Okay. It's just come through, so fair enough. People, will- stay tuned to the ABC for the latest. But as the Minister says, what was that website again Minister?

Simon Birmingham: australia.gov.au — that's where you can get your health information and links to the relevant pieces of information. And of course, support information for those who have lost their job or lost work, and the advice around the support that is available to them, their employers and businesses who are trying to stay afloat and the various measures that we’re taking at this stage.

Fran Kelly: Alright. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran.

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