Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates from the Australian Government

Foreign Affairs and Trade

The Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio works to make Australia stronger, safer and more prosperous. The Portfolio comprises the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade), Export Finance Australia (EFA), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Tourism Australia and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

The Portfolio pivoted its resources to support whole-of-government responses to the national bushfires over the summer of 2019-20 and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. DFAT undertook the largest and most complex consular response in Australia’s history to help Australians to return, and drew heavily on Australia’s foreign and trade policy capabilities to protect and promote Australia’s national interests during these crises.

The Australian Government, including through Australia’s embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world, continue to work with airlines and other governments to help Australians, including those from regional areas, to return on commercial flights. Consular officials are also assisting Australians overseas impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trade, tourism and investment remain crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity, as set out in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The Portfolio has continued to work bilaterally, and through multilateral channels, to reduce barriers to trade for Australian exporters and importers; and to assist businesses in regional areas to pursue commercial opportunities overseas. Through Export Finance Australia, the Portfolio provides financial expertise and solutions to help regional businesses take advantage of overseas export and investment opportunities. The Portfolio also develops marketing campaigns to attract tourists to Australia, including into regional areas.

The Portfolio negotiates trade and investment agreements and supports the effective implementation and utilisation of Australia’s free trade agreements (FTAs). Australia currently has 14 FTAs in force, providing preferential market access to 20 economies. Australia’s FTA network opens new export opportunities for Australia’s regional producers and makes the overseas-sourced inputs used in Australian production more affordable. Australia’s FTAs also deliver a greater range of goods and services to regional Australian consumers at more competitive prices. The Government will continue to promote awareness and use of free trade agreements through active engagement with stakeholders. Between October 2019 and March 2020, Austrade held seven regional FTA seminars with 235 business people in attendance. Due to         COVID-19, Austrade commenced delivery of a 12-part digital FTA seminar series from 26 May 2020. Nine national digital seminars have currently been conducted with 736 attendees from regional Australia, representing 17 per cent of total participants.

The Australian Government also works to secure and maintain access for our agricultural products under other countries’ technical and biosecurity regulations. We continue to lead whole-of-government efforts to remove non-tariff barriers, assisting exporters in accessing new markets and further expanding into existing ones. During the pandemic, the Government worked closely with key trading partners to minimise the impact of, and remove, export restrictions on important medical products and personal protective equipment.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Government launched a new development strategy Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response, which has a greater focus on working with our near neighbours, especially in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, to support health security, economic recovery and stability in our region. The Portfolio is continuing to implement Australia’s stepped-up engagement with the Pacific to support a more resilient region and provide flow-on benefits to regional Australia.

As at 30 June 2020, the Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio employed 4,536 staff under the Public Service Act 1999 (excluding locally engaged staff). Of this total, 3,453 staff (76 per cent) are employed in Canberra, central Melbourne and central Sydney, 177 staff (3.9 per cent) in other capital cities. DFAT also employs 906 staff overseas as at 30 June 2020.

The Portfolio also employs a significant number of contracted staff in regional areas, where they work alongside staff employed under the Pubic Service Act to understand local issues and support the needs of local communities and businesses, including through the TradeStart program (www.austrade.gov.au/Australian/How-Austrade-can-help/Trade-services/TradeStart).

The Portfolio has staff in each state and territory, working from offices in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin, Hobart, and Thursday Island. In addition, the Australian Passport Information Service (APIS) is based in Hobart.

New initiatives

Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement

The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) entered into force on 5 July 2020. We are now working to fully implement the Agreement so that both countries secure the maximum benefit from it. The Agreement secures preferential agreements for Australian exporters for a range of key agricultural goods. For example, cattle producers in Northern Australia are set to benefit from improved access including reduced tariffs on live cattle and beef. Agricultural products from regional areas, including mandarins from Queensland and other citrus from the Riverina will also have improved access and reduced tariffs under IA-CEPA.

The Australian Government has committed $40 million over five years from 2020-21 for an economic cooperation program supporting IA-CEPA which will build linkages between Australia’s agriculture, services and manufacturing sectors to better position Australian businesses to supply the rapidly growing Indonesian consumer market. For instance, the program will support grain growers across Australia, including those in regional Western Australia, through a grains partnership between Australia and Indonesia. The first initiative under the partnership will be a feed grains demand study to support the duty free export of wheat, sorghum and barley under IA-CEPA’s tariff rate quotas.

Expanding and Diversifying Trade to Contribute to Australia’s Post-COVID-19 Recovery

As part of the JobMaker Plan, the Australian Government will invest $6.6 million over four years from 2020-21 to support the recovery of Australian businesses from the COVID-19 pandemic by expanding and diversifying trade through increasing the share of two-way trade covered by FTAs and by bolstering international regional digital trade. New FTAs may boost trade opportunities for exporters in regional Australia and provide opportunities for market expansion. The Regional Digital Trade Strategy will have a positive impact on e-commerce and digitally-enabled businesses in regional Australia, including through increased ease of doing business.

Pacific Labour Mobility

Pacific workers already in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme had their visas extended for 12 months in April 2020 to enable continued availability of workers in regional Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government has also announced in August 2020 a National Cabinet decision to re-start recruitment through these Pacific labour mobility programs, and has supported a successful pilot recruitment of 162 workers from Vanuatu to the Northern Territory in September 2020. Pacific labour mobility is a win-win for Australia and our Pacific family, providing much needed labour for Australian rural and regional industries experiencing a shortage of workers, and generating employment and remittances from earnings for communities in Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste. The Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus) is expected to enter into force in late 2020 and will deliver sustained benefits to the region and support long-term growth. DFAT is providing support in readiness for Pacific island countries to ratify PACER Plus.

Measures under the $1 billion Relief and Recovery Fund

As part of the COVID-19 Response Package, the Australian Government has established a $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund to support regions, communities and industry sectors that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiatives announced under the Fund are supporting industries including aviation, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and the arts.

Recovery for Regional Tourism

The Australian Government will invest $50 million over two years from 2020-21 through the Recovery for Regional Tourism package to assist Australian regions that are most reliant on international visitors. This package will support tourism businesses and help retain and create jobs in these regions by delivering integrated packages of support tailored to the needs of the regions. Measures will help drive domestic visitation to those regions and ensure there is a vibrant, internationally focused tourism industry still in place when visitor numbers return to more normal levels, and when international borders reopen. The Australian Government will work closely with state and territory governments and local tourism authorities to design a tailored package of support measures for each region. The package will assist tourism businesses in those regions by delivering assistance measures tailored to the needs, visitor demographic and geography of the region.

International Freight Assistance Mechanism

The Government is providing $317 million in the 2020-21 Budget to extend the International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) until 30 June 2021. This is in addition to over $350 million already invested since 1 April 2020. The Government established IFAM as a temporary emergency mechanism to support international supply chains during COVID-19. Since April, IFAM has brought in vital medical supplies including gloves, goggles, surgical gowns, N95 masks and ventilators to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As at 30 June 2020, IFAM has delivered over 85,000 tonnes of fresh Australian produce including salmon, beef, lamb, live lobster, pork and strawberries to key export markets, including in Asia and the Middle-East. IFAM has assisted Australian exporters of premium, perishable products to deliver on their trade commitments, maintaining hard-won market share. IFAM has also helped ensure that, despite the pandemic, Australian fresh food supplies have been able to reach our trading partners contributing to regional and global food security, despite serious disruptions to the air-freight and logistics sectors from restrictions on international travel.

Business Events Grants Program

The Government has invested $50 million in the Business Events Grants Program (the Program) to generate demand for events, conferences and trade exhibitions, including those in regional Australia. The Program, funded through the COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund, will support exhibiting at events in 2021, with payments finalised by 30 June 2021. Australian businesses participating at an approved business event in 2021 will be able to apply for upfront grants to cover up to 50 per cent of their costs of $10,000 up to $250,000. By directly supporting exhibitors, the Program enhances supply chain resilience and enables businesses across priority sectors of the economy to pivot back to the domestic market while international markets are disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Program stimulates jobs in tourism and other sectors of the economy by encouraging Australians to undertake domestic business travel, and shop and spend locally when safe to do so, including for events held in regional Australia. It will improve connectivity with regional Australia by growing people-to-people links, innovation through the sharing of ideas, and the facilitation of direct business-to-business economic cooperation. The pivoting of businesses to the domestic market will support regional businesses in sectors that have had international markets disrupted, which are disproportionately represented in regional Australia.

Supporting Australia’s Exhibiting Zoos and Aquariums Program

Through the Supporting Australia’s Exhibiting Zoos and Aquariums Program, the Government announced $94.6 million funded by the COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund, to provide vital funding to exhibiting zoos and aquariums whose tourism revenue stream has stopped as a result of the travel and social distancing restrictions.

Of the 140 eligible zoos and aquariums under the program, 113 are regionally-based businesses (outside the metro regions of Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane). By October 2020, regional recipients are expected to have received a total of over $21.2 million through the program for the period April to September 2020.

This funding has assisted businesses with fixed operational costs associated with caring for animals, and helps zoos and aquariums remain viable and ready to welcome tourists when restrictions are eased.

Tourism Australia Funding

In 2020-21 the Australian Government will deliver funding of $191.9 million to Tourism Australia. An additional $39.7 million in 2020-21 has been authorised, bringing Tourism Australia’s total available funding to $231.6 million. This will assist in driving the recovery of Australia’s tourism industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, through targeted and strategic marketing initiatives. Of this funding, $29.5 million has been specifically allocated to support those regions both directly and indirectly impacted by last summer’s bushfires, by driving domestic demand and encouraging tourists to get back into areas that need it most.

Tourism Bushfire Recovery Package

The Australian Government’s $76 million tourism bushfire recovery package, announced on 19 January 2020, included $61 million in funding for Tourism Australia for a national domestic campaign in partnership with the states and territories                 ($20 million); funding for an international recovery campaign ($25 million); an increase in international media hosting activities ($9.5 million); and increased support to the tourism sector through the Australian Tourism Exchange ($6.5 million). The domestic campaign (Holiday Here This Year) was launched on 23 January 2020 and the international campaign (There’s Still Nothing Like Australia) in February 2020. Some of this activity has been paused due to COVID-19, however Tourism Australia plans to resume activity when the time is right.

From a domestic perspective, Tourism Australia will roll out the next iteration of its Holiday Here This Year campaign, which seeks to galvanise Australians to support the tourism industry and help businesses get back on their feet by booking a domestic holiday if they have the means to. The campaign will continue to showcase some of the worst-hit bushfire areas, along with popular tourism destinations that have been badly impacted as a result of widespread and negative media coverage of the bushfires and of COVID-19. Upcoming campaign activity will feature several regional destinations and icons, such as Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef. Tourism Australia’s international activity will also feature content initiatives that showcase several regional destinations, such as Baird Bay, South Australia; Hervey Bay, Queensland; Esperance, Western Australia; Daintree Rainforest, Queensland; Great Ocean Road, Victoria; Arnhem Land, Northern Territory; Rottnest Island, Western Australia; and the Blue Mountains, New South Wales.

Austrade’s Regional Tourism Bushfire Recovery Grants Program is part of the tourism bushfire recovery package and commenced in February 2020. This program is intended to protect jobs, small businesses and local economies by encouraging tourists to travel into bushfire affected regions. The program has two funding streams, which together support events, concerts, festivals and visitor attractions in fire affected regions to assist with recovery efforts and encourage visitors to return.

Bushfire Recovery Package – International Surge Support

As part of the tourism bushfire recovery package announced on 19 January 2020, the Australian Government allocated $4.1 million to DFAT and $0.9 million to Austrade respectively in 2019-20 to support the recovery of bushfire-affected areas of regional Australia. As at 30 July 2020, $0.6 million of the $0.9 million allocated to Austrade has been committed to International Sentiment Tracking. Under this initiative Austrade, in collaboration with DFAT and Tourism Australia, undertook quantitative and qualitative research to understand international perceptions, along with analysis of international media coverage and social media monitoring to understand, manage and address global perceptions of Australia during and post bushfires. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a reset by DFAT of planned international promotions and communications activities. DFAT produced a bank of ‘evergreen’ communications content, and digital materials and initiatives to be used across key markets at the appropriate time. DFAT and the National Bushfire Recovery Authority worked with councils in bushfire-affected regions on promotional products for use at future events, directly benefiting those areas. The bushfire-related spend for DFAT and Austrade was $3.3 million in 2019-20.

Supporting Australians Overseas

When Australians face problems overseas, the Government will provide appropriate consular services focused on those most in need, including through the Hardship Program and the provision of Traveller Emergency Loans as part of the COVID-19 Response Package. The loans are intended to cover temporary accommodation and daily living expenses until they can return. Loans may also be available to help vulnerable Australians purchase tickets for commercial flights. These initiatives will benefit all Australians, including those in regional areas.