Interview with John Mackenzie, 4CA

15 Oct 2020
Prime Minister

John Mackenzie: Good morning.

Prime Minister: Good morning, John.

Mackenzie: Oh, clear as a bell. You're in town, obviously?

Prime Minister: Oh on my way, I’m in Townsville at the moment, so we won't be, there too long.

Mackenzie: Okay. I'm pleased to hear that, you've got an excellent day's weather up here. Obviously, lots of people wanting to speak to you. Scott Morrison, let's go straight to the pandemic. It's had this crippling impact on tourism. No surprises to you, your early days of course, your working career was in tourism. So I'm pleased to be here to talk to you today about a crisis on our doorstep up here. In fact, perhaps nowhere else in the country when it comes to, with the impact on our tourism industry is suffering like we are up here, the thousands of people basically living one day at a time, some of them wondering if they'll ever work again. You're getting daily updates, I presume, from the people who would know best about how this is going to play out over the next few months. What are you hearing about, for example, the possibility of getting these international borders open, whether it be bubbles or otherwise, about the sort of response we might expect in international visitors when these borders are open to ultimately bring us some relief from this nightmare up here?

Prime Minister: Well, I'd love to see Kiwi holidaymakers coming to Queensland from Friday, but they won't be, they'll be going to New South Wales. They'll be going to the Northern Territory and they'll be going to the ACT. The Queensland Government is still insisting on two weeks quarantine for visitors coming from New Zealand, but New South Wales is not. And they'll be arriving from Friday. So we're, we're opening up to New Zealand visitors to Australia, and that's the only thing that stands in the way. And as you know, New Zealand has a very good COVID record. And as we move through the back end of this year and into next year, of course, we're working to get a vaccine. And I was down at University of Queensland the other day. To see the great work that's being done there. But we've got a plan with or without a vaccine, and that means we've got to start looking at ways to, to be able to have people come to Australia, safely and that's possible. And so we've already had discussions at an early, very early stage I stress, I wouldn’t want to raise expectations, but with countries like Japan and South Korea in particular, and we'll continue to progress that and ways that we can get, start getting some of the international education business back as well.

Mackenzie: Yes.

Prime Minister: We've got to proceed cautiously for that. But the big part of it, though, John, is domestic tourism, now you know, everyone knows that about seventy or eighty per cent, depending on where you are in the country, of our tourism industry is domestic. And the Queensland tourism industry, which has had a claw back of jobs since the fall off of 44 per cent, in New South Wales they have had 70, in South Australia that had 70 per cent. And I think that goes to the point you’re making, that the tourism and hospitality industry in Queensland has been the most affected. And that's why we've put the measures in to support through JobKeeper and JobSeeker and all of these things. And that has supported a large number of businesses and people up in \North Queensland, as you know. And that support will continue. It's saved, you know, thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of jobs, almost 17,000 people, it received the coronavirus supplement up there, 7,000 businesses are being supported by JobKeeper. Our cash flow boost has helped 6,200 small and medium businesses stay afloat. And then there's the additional payments to pensioners. So, but, you know, the domestic tourism industry can have an enormous help to Queensland. And that's why I mean, health borders should only be there for health reasons and only so long as it is absolutely necessary. And, I understand why the Queensland government made the decision to have a border. But, you know, it should only be there as long as possible as needed, I should say.

Mackenzie: Let me just ask you about the point you've made about JobKeeper. What is it? March isn’t it, I just had a lengthy discussion with one of the operators going out to the reef this morning who said their wage bill is, is very, very high indeed. I won't go into the details of how much, but he has said, this deadline coming up in March is terrifying for him and of course, for his employees. The point he was making was, our low season is fundamentally February through to June. And with that support drying up in March, he is really, really fearful about the fate of those people that won't be able to have the income that they've got at the moment, even though it's only a relatively small amount. The point he's making is, please take on board how difficult it's going to be up here at the end of March and consider some sort of drip feed situation, at least through to June and possibly a bit beyond.

Prime Minister: What we've demonstrated, John, is a willingness to deal with the situation as we find it, and in COVID-19 right from the start, we've dealt with the information as it's presented now we've extended it out to the end of March. That's still six months away at the moment. And a lot can happen we've learnt in six months. I mean, in the last six months across the country, in fact, just the last three months or thereabouts, we've seen 760,000 jobs come back into the Australian economy. And now, you know, this is why things like getting the domestic tourism market open again, getting New Zealanders coming and holidaying in Australia, you know how many Kiwis come on holiday in North Queensland, they haven't got a North Queensland in New Zealand. So they come there and there will still be, for the foreseeable future, restrictions on Australians leaving the country. So there are still great opportunities for Queensland so long as it can receive visitors from all around the country. I mean, there is a net import of tourism to Australia. What that means is the amount spent by Australians overseas is very significant. And so there will be a period of time while those external - you know those borders for people going out of the country except for business and compassionate grounds, then Queensland, and particularly North Queensland, having the opportunity to capture that market. So I think a lot can happen between now and the end of March. We'll watch it closely. But I can tell you, particularly in the aviation sector, the tourism sector, travel agents, all of them we know are feeling the full force of this and so we're working with that sector very closely.

Mackenzie: Scott Morrison, I’d get you to hark back to your early days in tourism. Back in the mid 90s, you would remember very well what was happening up here. We were enjoying the visitation of up to a quarter of a million Japanese visitors per year. You just intimated a few minutes ago that Japan's in the, if you like, the early hitlist. When you're thinking about when I mean, even if you talk about early next year to mid next year or whatever, when might we be able to open the borders again to Japan?

Prime Minister: I can't give you an honest answer to that at the moment, John and when I can I will and because I don't want to falsely raise expectations. What I can tell you is we're working on it. And I know, I mean, I've spoken to both the current and former Japanese Prime Ministers about this and we're in a lot of discussions with the Japanese about a range of issues at the moment. The Foreign Minister was just in Japan the other day. So look, that is, I mean, Japan has done very well through the COVID-19 crisis. So has South Korea as well,

Mackenzie: Yes.

Prime Minister: and that is also an important market, but parts of obviously of China have also done very well. So, and Singapore is another one that I've mentioned that I think we can work with. And then there's the issues within the Pacific. But that's a separate I think, set of issues to the ones that we're talking about here. So what I can say is it is very high on my agenda. The other one is I mean, we're still trying to get a lot of Australians home. And it's a decision of the Queensland Government whether the quarantine arrangements are done. But I do know there's been quite a few empty rooms in Cairns which could have been doing that. But the Queensland Government decided that that was all to be done down south, not up north.

Mackenzie: Let me ask you.

Prime Minister: That was that was a shame.

Mackenzie: It is certainly a shame, according to some of the operators up here and the people desperate for work. I'm sure Warren Entsch would have taken this up with you. I think it's a really creative idea. We've got these freight flights exiting Cairns four times a week. They're going into South-East Asia. The point he's making is they're coming back to Australia empty. All those seats at the top level are empty. He's saying why can't we look at bringing those students back to finish their studies perhaps, or even start studies here in Far North Queensland, and they can do their 14 day quarantine when they get here et cetera. And we'll be giving ourselves a little early mark. Given the sort of misery being endured up here, I thought it was a great idea.

Prime Minister: These are the sort of things we already are working on and we've got a trial running now in the Northern Territory and South Australia because those governments are working with us on those issues.

Mackenzie: Yes.

Prime Minister: and with the trial, bringing students back into both of those states. I would like to see how we can get to the start of next year’s university year and seek to restore as much of what we had safely for next year. And that can be done through proper quarantine arrangements. As you know, the health orders, they are decided by the states. The Commonwealth Government doesn't decide who has to quarantine and who doesn’t. That's the subject of state health orders and those quarantine arrangements require people currently to quarantine in those officially designated state health facilities, which are the hotels down south. So the hotels down south are getting quite a lot of that but up north, there hasn't been the opportunity to do that because of those decisions in Brisbane by the Labor Government. So, that's one of the roadblocks in the way of it and I hope we might be able to work through that with the Queensland Government. And I am pretty sure I know which way Deb Fecklington will be going on that. So it is important because I know it's so tough up in North Queensland. I know how important the tourism industry is to North Queensland. And, you know, you've seen these tough times before. I remember when, you know, when the Japanese market collapsed and those short haul flights out of Japan were going to Guam and other places, the closer flights to Japan and we lost out there and, of course, the pilots strike of many, many, many years ago. You know, Cairns understands these things and they push through, but, you know, we're trying to give as much help as we can. And Warren has been, you know, a lion on this. He has really been great trying to connect as much and those freight flights you talking were about, they’re a god send too to your fishing industry and we've been supporting, subsidising those flights from the get go.

Mackenzie: I want to take this one up because I know you know a hell of a hurry. I was listening to your Health Minister yesterday, Greg Hunt. I thought this was fascinating, this national definition of a hotspot. This has got to be addressed because this is aiding in this, I think, ridiculously over extended period of having our border closed between Queensland and New South Wales. Can you explain to the listeners the importance of this national definition of a hotspot?

Prime Minister: Well, our Chief Medical Officer, so you know it wasn't dreamed up by, you know a couple of Treasury officials, it was by Professor Paul Kelly, who's an epidemiologist, was able to define our hotspot as one where there was a three day average of 10 cases. Now, you know, the Chief Health Officer here in Queensland has a different view to that and they have a more stringent definition. And what that means is they won't allow people to come from anywhere else in the country, I think it's 28 days, with zero cases. I mean, that's very different as you can see and the likelihood of that being achieved out of New South Wales and indeed  Victoria. I mean, Victoria's done amazingly well to get back to where they are now. But you've got to have realistic goals. I mean, you've got to do with the health issues. I totally agree with that. So I understand why the borders were put there. But a national hotspot definition, which I think balances the economic and the health interests is, I think, wisely is what is needed. So, I mean, New South Wales, I mean, put a border in with Victoria. I was part of that process and it was needed. But I can assure you, the New South Wales Premier does not want that border there a day longer than it has to be. She’ll get rid of it the second it's safe to do so and we're working towards that at the moment and Victoria's doing so much better now. But when New South Wales and Victorians can travel to Queensland again safely, then that's going to be great for North Queensland.

Mackenzie: Scott Morrison…

Prime Minister: Actually probably more important, John, in many respects than some of the international business. Particularly because when you had that big drop off Japanese tourism all those years ago, you still have the domestic business. I mean, this is a double whammy.

Mackenzie: I know what you're saying, but I've just had a discussion this morning with one of the top operators and he said there's an aspect to this that most people don't understand. Australians coming to Far North Queensland at the moment, they're largely from the southern part of our state. They're coming up here, they're getting their hotel accommodation or whatever, but they don't do the activities. They don't go on a raft, they don't go sky diving. They don't even go out to the Reef very often. So as much as, yes, we're pleased to see our accommodation houses getting some help, the operators of those experiences up here have been left disappointed.

Prime Minister: You know, that is true. Domestic travellers behave differently in a place like North Queensland or for that matter, you know, other parts of the country, Tasmania or wherever they're going, differently from international experiences.

Mackenzie: Exactly.

Prime Minister: Let's not forget that once these borders open up again, Australians aren't going to be travelling to, you know, Mexico for those experiences or South America or India or places like this. People who are looking for those sorts of experiences will be travelling within Australia.

Mackenzie: Yes.

Prime Minister: And so I think there is an opportunity to connect with them as operators and so much of the tourism, I mean, I think sometimes people think the tourism industry is just hotels. Of course it's not. It's all of these, those operators and the investment, the capital investment that's made in, you know, in marine infrastructure and all these sorts of things, it's significant. And so we're going to continue to stand by the tourism industry there and the hospitality industry and, look, it is an area of passion for me and I'm looking forward to coming up and sitting down with business leaders up there today and hearing more from them. Warren's got a lot of them together today, and I'll sit down with them and Entschy and we’ll work through some of those issues.

Mackenzie: Well, that early career of yours is coming in very handy, your career all those years in tourism so that insight is going to be very, very handy indeed in handling this crisis up here. As is your past in job creation. You'll certainly be needing to be on your toes in that regard as well.

Prime Minister: Well, that's true. And we've got the job hiring credit, which has come in as a result of the Budget. This will be important for tourism businesses, too, and I know we're focusing a lot on tourism this morning, John, but that's very relevant. The loss carryback, now, it's not an easy thing to explain, but what it basically means is, is if you make a loss this year and there'll be many tourism and hospitality business, restaurants, others, tour operators, reef operators, all of them, aviation and so on, they'll make a loss this year at no fault of theirs. And what we're saying is you can take that loss for your business this year and you can set that against the tax you paid in the years going into this recession. So that means you'll be able to get a rebate on your tax return, you'll be able to get that from this year's tax year. Normally, what would happen, you'd get hit with that loss. You'd have to wait several years while you trade yourself out of the situation, and then you can use those losses against future. Well, we're saying we're shareholders for you guys now. You've got those losses now, through no fault of your own, we'll give you tax back from what you paid before in your good years to get you through this period. Now, obviously you can't use your losses twice down the road, but we're going to take the risk with you.

Mackenzie: Ok. This is really interesting, but I'm getting an urgent flashing message from Townsville, let the Prime Minister go. Good to talk to you, Scott Morrison.

Prime Minister: It's always good to talk to you, John, it’s always good to talk to you and I look forward to coming up there today. All the best

Mackenzie: Excellent. Prime Minister Scott Morrison actually is in Townsville at the moment and probably boarding a plane in the next hour or so to come to Cairns.