Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates from the Australian Government

Foreign Affairs and Trade: Supporting Regional Recovery and Growth

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 emergence of COVID-19 has caused significant disruptions to people, to health systems and economies around the world. DFAT continues to assist whole-of-government responses during the COVID-19 pandemic and is undertaking the largest and most complex consular response in Australia’s history to help Australians to return. Australia is relying heavily on DFAT’s foreign affairs, trade and development capabilities to protect and promote Australia’s national interests during these crises. The Portfolio is supporting COVID-19 vaccine access and roll out in our immediate region, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, helping to purchase and safely distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

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, to return on scheduled and facilitated 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. The Portfolio has continued to work through all channels to reduce barriers to trade for Australian exporters and importers; and to assist businesses in regional areas to pursue commercial opportunities overseas. Through EFA, 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 15 FTAs in force with 26 countries, providing new trade and investment opportunities for regional businesses. Australia is seeking to expand the current FTA network by negotiating and implementing new agreements, including with the United Kingdom and European Union. Australia’s FTA network opens new export opportunities for Australia’s 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 Australian consumers at more competitive prices. The Government will continue to promote awareness and use of FTAs through active engagement with stakeholders.

Drawing on market insights from the DFAT global network, DFAT has commenced delivery, in partnership with the Export Council of Australia, of a pilot six-part digital Global Market Insights seminar series to promote market expansion and diversification opportunities to businesses, including regional businesses, with 636 participants in the first 3 seminars in the series, 37 per cent from regional Australia

As a further contribution to Australia’s economic recovery, DFAT has launched a pilot capacity-building program in partnership with the Regional Australia Institute for economic development officers in local government areas across regional Australia, focussing on bringing the benefits of international trade, foreign direct investment and international tourism to regional Australia.

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. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has 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. Australia reshaped its development program to meet the profoundly changed needs of the region, including pivoting existing investments to respond to COVID-19. A safe, healthy and prosperous region is firmly in Australia’s national interest and will provide flow-on benefits to regional Australia.

The Portfolio’s efforts to support rural and regional Australia, through our engagement with the Pacific, is most visible through access to a reliable and productive workforce through the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Worker Programme (administered by Department of Education, Skills and Employment). Faced with COVID-19 and border closures, which presented unprecedented challenges to labour mobility, the Portfolio has dedicated significant resources to ensuring Pacific workers have been able to enter every state and territory across Australia (except for the Australian Capital Territory) in support of critical industries including agriculture, horticulture, tourism and aged care in rural and regional locations.

The Portfolio also employs a significant number of contracted staff in regional areas, where they work alongside staff employed under the Pubic Service Act 1999 to understand local issues and support the needs of local communities and businesses, including through the TradeStart program accessible at https://www.austrade.gov.au/Australian/How-Austrade-can-help/Trade-serv….

As at 31 December 2020, the Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio employed 4,520 staff under the Public Service Act 1999. Of this total, 3,470 staff (77 per cent) are employed in Canberra, central Melbourne and central Sydney, 189 staff (4 per cent) in other capital cities. The Portfolio also employs 861 staff overseas as at 31 December 2020. 

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 is based in Hobart and Austrade has offices in Wollongong and Newcastle.

New initiatives

Strengthening our engagement in the World Trade Organization

The multilateral rules-based trading system, with the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its core, is critical for the next stage of our COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery and future prosperity. The Government is boosting its resources to support Australia’s engagement in the WTO. To ensure the system continues to serve Australian interests, particularly for producers and exporters in regional Australia.

New resources will also support Australia’s continued use of the WTO’s dispute settlement system to address trade disagreements when they arise, so that Australian businesses can complete fairly in markets around the world. Enforcing existing and new rules in the WTO will help support businesses in regional areas that rely on a stable, predictable rules-based system for global trade.

Improving Australia’s Trade Diversification

The Government will provide funding to work with Australian businesses wanting to expand and diversify their markets, and maximise opportunities for exporters in regional Australia. DFAT will coordinate a whole-of-government effort, working closely with Austrade.

DFAT is focused on keeping global trade markets open and functioning including through the WTO, G20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. The Government is persistent in securing an edge for our regional exporters through our expanding network of FTAs. International trade and investment are central to regional Australia’s prosperity and our recovery from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Agri-Business Expansion Initiative

The Agri-Business Expansion Initiative (ABEI) is a targeted measure to help Australian farming, forestry and fishing exporters expand and diversify their export markets and support agri-food sectors that have been most impacted by trade disruptions in 2020. The Government announced the $72.7 million package on 23 December 2020, to be delivered over 2 and a half years from 1 January 2021. 

The agri-business industry operates outside the metropolitan regions and underpins rural economies. The initiative will deliver services to exporters across diverse sub-sectors of the industry including, but not limited to, grains, seafood, wine, forestry, horticulture, dairy, red meat, packaged food, cotton and wool. As such, it will reach and benefit exporters in every Australian state and territory.

The ABEI will help Australian farmers, fishers, foresters, and other agri-food exporters to understand and mitigate risks in an increasingly uncertain trading environment. The initiative builds on the Australian Government’s work to expand FTAs and market access for Australia’s globally competitive and market-based agriculture sector.

The ABEI is being jointly delivered by Austrade and the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE). Austrade will deliver scaled-up support to over 2,000 agri-food exporters each year through Austrade’s export services, including:

  • One-on-one exporter services to 800 clients per annum.
  • Group services delivered to approximately 1,500 clients per annum through a variety of mechanisms including “one to many” and “one to few” events, digital platforms and Austrade’s Advisory Centre.

These services will be delivered in conjunction with industry organisations to provide targeted advice and events such as trade missions to help exporters expand their markets.

The balance of the program will be delivered by DAWE and includes expansion of the Agricultural Trade and Market Access program, expansion to the short-term Agriculture Counsellor network, investment in enhanced scientific and technical market access capability and improvements in the dissemination of practical market intelligence.

Simplified Trade System

The Government will invest $37.4 million between 2021-22 and 2024-25, including $19.9 million for Austrade, to progress implementation of the Simplified Trade System (STS) agenda. An STS Implementation Taskforce will be established to lead a review and reforms of Australia’s trade and border regulations and supporting information and communication technology systems. The STS reform agenda will have a positive impact on regional Australia by reducing trade and border related regulatory costs, and facilitating trade. Many Australian traders are based in regional Australia, especially food exporters.

Reimagining the Visitor Economy Expert Panel

The Government has established the Reimagining the Visitor Economy Expert Panel which will help chart a course for sustainable long-term growth of the Australian visitor economy after the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be led by the Hon Martin Ferguson AO. Over the next six months the Panel will conduct extensive stakeholder consultations on what industry and governments can do to position the visitor economy for success over the next ten years. The Panel will provide advice on the actions needed to ensure Australia maintains a competitive visitor economy, informing development of the next ten-year strategy for the visitor economy, which encompasses domestic and international tourism, including international students, business and leisure travellers, business and major events, and short-term overseas workers, as well as associated industries such as hospitality, aviation, and accommodation.

Current Initiatives

Export Market Development Grants

The Government will invest $157.9 million in 2021-22 and $137.9 million in 2022-23 in the Export Market Development Grants (EMDG) scheme. The EMDG is the key Australian Government financial assistance scheme for exporters, operating since 1974. Administered by Austrade, it provides financial assistance to aspiring and growing small to medium-sized exporters for marketing expenses related to promoting their Australian products offshore. Claimants are able to access up to eight years of assistance. Austrade’s TradeStart network, which delivers services through local and state governments, industry organisations and business chambers throughout Australia, supports access to EMDG. TradeStart Advisers work with a broad range of exporters and many Advisers are located in regional Australia.

In 2020-21, 906 rural and regional businesses applied for EMDG, representing around 18 per cent of all claimants. These rural and regional businesses represent 65 different industries and bring significant benefits to their regions, through export earnings and employment. Austrade estimates $781 million in exports were delivered by rural and regional EMDG claimants, and rural and regional claimants provided over 11,500 jobs in 2020-21.

The EMDG scheme is being reformed to reorient it to a more traditional grants program with upfront funding certainty provided to eligible SME applicants through two to three year funding agreements. Eligible small medium enterprise exporters will be able to apply for grants when they are exporting for the first time, when they are expanding, and when they are making a strategic shift in their export activities, including to diversify into new markets. The program is also being simplified and streamlined to reduce the regulatory burden on SME exporters. The new EMDG scheme will commence on 1 July 2021.

Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement

The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) entered into force on 5 July 2020. The IA-CEPA secures preferential access for Australian exporters for a range of key agricultural goods. For example, cattle producers in Northern Australia are benefitting from reduced tariffs on live cattle and beef. Under IA-CEPA, agricultural products−including mandarins from Queensland and other citrus from the Riverina− have improved access into the Indonesian market and reduced tariffs.

The Government has committed $40 million over five years from 2021 for an economic cooperation program supporting IA-CEPA implementation. This will support linkages between Australia’s agriculture, services and advanced manufacturing sectors to better position Australian businesses to supply the rapidly growing Indonesian consumer market. For instance, the program supports grain growers across Australia, including those in regional Western Australia, through a grains partnership between Australia and Indonesia.

Pacific Labour Mobility

Pacific labour mobility, and the contribution of Pacific workers to Australian regional and rural industry, remains a high priority issue for the Government. This is reflected in the high level of interest and agreement on Pacific labour initiatives by the National Cabinet over the past 12 months. 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 Australian Government has confirmed these arrangements will remain in place until April 2022 in recognition of the ongoing impact of border closures and lack of flight connectivity across the Pacific region. Following an August 2020 National Cabinet decision to re-start recruitment through these Pacific labour mobility programs, more than 4000 Pacific workers have arrived in Australia. 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) commenced in late 2020 and delivered sustained benefits to the region and support for long-term growth. DFAT is providing support in readiness for Pacific island countries to ratify PACER Plus.

Supporting Australia’s Exhibiting Zoos and Aquariums

Through the Supporting Australia’s Exhibiting Zoos and Aquariums Program, the Government announced $94.6 million 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 in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. Of the 140 eligible zoos and aquariums under the program, 113 are regional-based businesses (outside the metro regions of Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane). As at April 2021, approximately $45 million had been paid out to assist businesses with fixed operational costs associated with caring for animals, and helping zoos and aquariums remain viable and ready to welcome tourists when restrictions are eased. On 11 March 2021, the Government announced an extension to the Program for a further six months to September 2021.

 National Tourism Icons Program

The National Tourism Icons Program is a $50 million 2019 election commitment for five regional infrastructure projects. In Queensland, $8 million is being provided for the Wangetti Trail, in New South Wales $7.5 million for the Northern Rivers Rail Trail, in Western Australia $17.2 million for Rottnest Island, in Victoria $10.1 million for Sovereign Hill and in Tasmania $7.2 million for Freycinet National Park. The funding to develop these iconic experiences will provide a catalyst to drive international and domestic tourism to regional Australia and boost local communities by creating jobs and diversifying regional economies. All projects are tracking well and are due for completion by June 2022.

Recovery for Regional Tourism

The Government has invested $50 million over two years from 2020-21 through the Recovery for Regional Tourism package to assist nine Australian regions that are most reliant on international visitors.

This program will help businesses and regions heavily reliant on international tourism to create and retain jobs by driving visitation, increasing demand and improving product diversity to attract visitors. The assistance delivered under this program will help regions make the most of the opportunities presented by the domestic tourism market and also help ensure there is a vibrant, internationally-focused tourism industry in place when international visitors return. The Government is working closely with State and Territory governments and local tourism authorities to design packages tailored to the needs, visitor demographic and geography of the region.

International Freight Assistance Mechanism

The Australian Government has committed a total of $781.7 million to 30 September 2021 to keep global air links open and reconnect supply chains by maintaining international airfreight routes and flights in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this, the Government is providing an additional $112.8 million to extend the International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) from 30 June 2021 to 30 September 2021 as businesses continue to adjust to the ongoing effects of the pandemic and transition to a recalibrated international trading environment.

As an island nation, it is essential that Australia maintains air connectivity to key markets. As at 14 March 2021 IFAM has assisted the movement of perishable goods, including salmon, beef, lamb, pork, live lobsters and fish, native flowers, dairy products and various fruit and vegetables to 66 international locations in Asia, the Americas and Europe. IFAM also helps secure the import of equipment and goods critical to Australia’s national interest and COVID-19 response, and is assisting in the logistical planning required for vaccine production and distribution. Over 27 tonnes of products have been imported under the national interest objectives of IFAM, including: ventilators, personal protective equipment, input supplies for mask and ventilator manufacture, infrared thermometers, critical medicines and blood products, radio-active medicines, reagents for genomic testing, live mice for COVID-19 vaccine research.

The IFAM supports regions reliant on international airfreight for perishable, time dependant, agricultural and seafood products by keeping broken air links open. Some examples include producers of:

  • tropical rock lobsters in Cairns and broccoli in Gatton, Queensland
  • oysters in Pambula and tuna in Ulladulla, New South Wales
  • asparagus in Koo Wee Rup and meat in Warrnambool, Victoria
  • abalone in Port Lincoln and brussels sprouts in Mount Barker, Nairne, and Langhorne Creek, South Australia
  • meat in Tammin and rock lobster in Geraldton and Cervantes, Western Australia
  • mangos in Northern Territory
  • dairy in King Island and meat in Cressy, Tasmania.

Tourism Bushfire Recovery Package

The Government’s $76 million Tourism Bushfire Recovery Package, announced on 19 January 2020, included $71 million 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 repositioned due to  the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on driving domestic recovery.

From a domestic perspective, Tourism Australia continues to roll out new bursts of the 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. The campaign continues 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 the COVID-19 pandemic. Campaign activity features several regional destinations and icons, such as Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef. Tourism Australia’s international activity also features 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. In 2020-21, 148 projects were approved with funding agreements in place to a total value of $8.9 million. Nine projects are complete with the remainder scheduled for 2021-22. All projects funded through the Program are located in regional Australia. Applications for grants are closed and the Program will finish on 30 June 2022.

National Experience Content Initiative

Tourism Australia has launched the $12 million National Experience Content Initiative (NECI) aimed at supporting tourism businesses across Australia in their recovery and driving increased visitation by helping them to better market their experiences and attractions.

The NECI will provide a suite of new visual imagery for up to 1,800 tourism experiences from around 57 regions across Australia to ensure that operator’s marketing materials and online product listings stand out in search results and are booked more often by domestic and international travellers.