Madeleine Morris: Well as we heard this morning, hard borders around the country are being reinstated in response to the growing Sydney cluster. It is a devastating blow for many people, but particularly for Australia’s domestic tourism sector which was just getting back on its feet after a tough year of lockdowns. The outgoing Federal Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us now. Minister, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Good to be with you.
Madeleine Morris: Thank you. And look, in Adelaide where you are in your home state, they will certainly be suffering. They would have been hoping to get many tourists from Sydney, Greater Sydney this region- this holiday season. We just heard from a tourism operator in Port Douglas who said that he’s really struggling and needs more Federal help. Is that going to be on the agenda?
Simon Birmingham: Look, what we’ve managed to do through this year is always respond to the circumstances as they’re there. So the assistance for many businesses in the form of JobKeeper was, of course, extended right until the end of March; the various payments of up to $100,000 that were made to small businesses; the changes made just in the October budget to enable businesses to carry back losses from this year to claim deductions, essentially, against previous years’ profits – these are all in place still in terms of the support for the industry. And we’ll continue to assess what is necessary as we move forward. These are tough days, certainly for-
Madeleine Morris: They sure are tough days and in particular, he was talking about JobKeeper saying that it needed to be extended and the amount needed to be increased again. Is that- given the- I suppose it depends a little bit with what happens with today’s numbers and over the next couple of days, but would that ever be in your consideration? You’ve extended it ’til March. If we do have a growing cluster here in Sydney that affects more and more businesses, could extending JobKeeper further be on the agenda?
Simon Birmingham: We will, as we have right throughout the pandemic, respond to the circumstances and we’ve done that against some consistent principles that support to deal with this crisis has to be temporary – these things can’t last forever; they need to be targeted to where there is real need; and, they need to be proportionate to the circumstances. And they’re the principles that have guided us well at every step so far, and it’s the approach that we’ll take.
We have, of course, seen Australia come through this far better than almost any other nation on earth. Around the rest of the world we’re seeing around 600,000 new cases reported a day. In Australia, yesterday, we had 15 in relation to the Sydney cluster. So we’ve got to keep a sense of proportionality about this.
But if you’re a tourism business who’s just seen, of course, huge cancellations come through for what you had hoped would be the real revival period of this summer break, then your concerns are real, they’re understandable. And that’s why we’ll keep talking and working closely with the industry and respond to their needs, where we hope, though, that we can see New South Wales get on top of this cluster quickly, and that in doing so, other states and territories recognise that will again be a case of New South Wales succeeding in suppressing COVID, in crushing a cluster, and that therefore, those state borders should come back up again so that people can rebook and plan their arrangements as quickly as possible.
Madeleine Morris: Just on that rebooking and planning, I understand that you’ve got some concerns about some tourism operators not providing the credits and refunds that is really crucial to providing confidence in booking in the first place.
Simon Birmingham: I’d really urge both businesses and consumers to show a bit of consideration and a bit of patience in both directions. That for tourism operators, wherever they possibly can, to process refunds swiftly, to arrange travel credits as quickly as possible – that’s all important to maintain confidence around future bookings and to get people back travelling as quickly as they possibly can.
But for consumers, they should also recognise that these are businesses, often small businesses, dealing with huge waves of changes and cancellations coming at short notice with lots of customer inquiries. And so please, show a little patience, show a little understanding. And if you’re in a position to do so, please make plans to rebook your travel; to take credits instead of a refund, so that in doing you can offer maximum support to those small Australian businesses who are so doing it so tough right now.
Madeleine Morris: Yeah, important to take a credit if people can. Just finally, I mean, isn’t the thing that’s going to give the most confidence in travel and really to the entire country, the rollout of the vaccine. Now, when we spoke to the Health Minister yesterday, he said that it was still on track to be approved by March. We now have cases of countries right around the world getting early approval access to the vaccine, including in Chile. Why are we not pushing this faster?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t think that Australians want us to rush it – they want us to get it right. At every step of the way this year, Australia’s world class health system has managed to get it right. That’s what’s kept us safe and secure as a country, and we want to take the same approach with the vaccine. It will be approved as quickly as possible, but with the appropriate testing and standards in place.
I have full confidence that when it actually comes to the final approval, manufacture, distribution, rollout, take-up of a vaccination, that what we’ll find is that Australia will get to population-wide vaccination levels probably far quicker than many other countries around the world. So we may not be the first just to be out there putting the needle in people’s arms, but I think we will be world leading when it comes to effectively getting it across the population because of the multiple contracts we’ve put in place as a Government to secure the supply of the vaccinations because of Australia’s historic success in having very high vaccination rates – all of which will enable us to use the types of systems and processes to reach the population very quickly.
So it will still take most of next year. We shouldn’t, shouldn’t understate just how long it will be to get across the whole country, but I do think that our systems and processes are very, very strong and Australians should have confidence that we will get the balance right to ensure their safety, to get a fast vaccination rollout under way as soon as we possibly can, and to deliver that then population wide.
Madeleine Morris: Okay. Simon Birmingham, outgoing Tourism Minister, incoming Finance Minister. Thank you very much.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much.