Topic(s): Employment figures; Inflation; National security; Nicolle Flint

Jim Wilson:  The Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins me live on the line. Minister, welcome back to drive.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Jim, it’s great to be with you again.


Jim Wilson: Okay. 4.2 per cent unemployment rate today, minister. When we get to an unemployment rate with a three in front of it before the election, do you think?


Simon Birmingham: Jim, look that’s possible but 4.2 itself is pretty remarkable. When we were elected to government, the unemployment rate was 5.7 per cent when COVID struck, Treasury said it could get up to 15 per cent. So to have it now at 4.2 per cent, the lowest rate Australia has seen in 13 years is a pretty phenomenal outcome indeed. Youth unemployment set at rates not seen in an even longer period of time. So just showing that we’ve got youth unemployment down, which again, is quite remarkable. When we had recessions in the past when the Paul Keating’s recession, we had to have occurred. Youth unemployment stayed elevated for years and years after that recession. This time around, we’ve actually come out of a recession and got more Australians in jobs than was the case before, and more young Australians in jobs than was the case before, which really is quite remarkable and a testament to the strength of the Australian economy and that the policies we’ve applied have worked and yielded benefits.


Jim Wilson: Okay, within these numbers, it’s not all rosy because full time employment was actually down by 17,000 people. It was the 30,000 new part time jobs that saved the overall figure. But Minister, people need that certainty that full time work provides. Why is full time work failing?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Jim, you do get from month to month a bit of movement in terms of full time jobs, part time jobs, some of those smaller measures within the overall figures. If we take a look over the course of the last year or two that since COVID hit at that time, around 300,000 Australian jobs, full time jobs were lost. Now, since then, we’ve recovered more than 500,000 Australian full time jobs. So yes, there’s a bit of up and down in this month’s figures, but the trend is very strong that since COVID hit and we lost a bunch of jobs, we’ve not only recovered those full time jobs, but we’ve added another 200,000 plus to the number of full time jobs in the economy.


Jim Wilson: But you’d be concerned, though, that for full time work is falling right now?


Simon Birmingham: Look, you always monitor this very closely. But one month’s movement coming off the back of in the previous month what has been some quite strong growth in full time jobs, you know, that can be a month to month variation. The longer term trend over the last two years has been not only recovery in the number of full time jobs from pre-COVID, but adding to that by, as I say, some 200,000. So the trend is quite positive for full time employment. You’d want to watch those numbers going into the next couple of months to ensure that this was just a one off aberration.


Jim Wilson: What about inflation? Petrol is going up, interest rates are going to rise. Now we’ve got the nation’s biggest coal fired power plant shutting down. So we could have electricity prices spiking. This is where the rubber meets the road. Minister, if people can’t afford to maintain the lives they lead because things are getting more expensive, I mean, there’s sure to take out their frustration on your government at the election. What can you do about it?


Simon Birmingham: Jim, inflation is something we’re watching really closely now. Australia’s inflation rates running at around half that of places like the US and other developed countries. So we’re not seeing it pushing those sorts of levels that we’re seeing elsewhere obviously, we want to keep that situation in check as much as possible. But there are things like, as you mentioned, petrol prices that are flowing through from international circumstances. The tensions between Russia and Ukraine has got oil prices running really high, and that’s had an impact right throughout the world. What can we do as a government there? Well, the first thing is what we’re doing in terms of putting more cash back in people’s pockets, that the tax cuts that we’ve delivered over the last couple of years are putting around $1.5 billion a month back into the pockets of Australian households. So that is helping. The historically and unusually low levels of interest rates at present are obviously helping many households have additional cash-


Jim Wilson: But they’re expected to increase mid-year interest rates that will put pressure on family budgets and mortgages?


Simon Birmingham: There’s acknowledgement be at least some normalisation for what are as I said historically, but also abnormally low rates that were put in as part of the COVID emergency by the Reserve Bank. But that’s again, where the tax cuts and the subsequent rounds of tax cuts that we’ve legislated as a government have become important as things we can do to help put and ensure households have that extra cash in their pockets from their hard work. In the electricity space, we have a positive story from our time in government that in recent years we’ve actually managed to see some downward pressure on electricity prices under the previous Labor government, it was all up, up, up and growing quite steeply. So the measures we have done have stabilised electricity prices and actually put a bit of downward pressure into the electricity market. But we don’t rest on our laurels there. The announcement today is certainly a vindication of the decision our government took to build the Kurri Kurri gas plant in New South Wales, which was widely ridiculed by Labor, and they’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept that that was necessary. But this is a demonstration of just how important that is. The investment we’re making in the Snowy 2.0 program, the largest renewable energy program of its type in the southern hemisphere, all about trying to provide that stability and keep some downward pressure on energy prices. And crucially, we’re now supporting a lot of significant transmission projects, which will be even more important given this announcement and that includes transmission connections to Snowy, but also the importance of transmission connections to my home state of South Australia, for example, so that New South Wales can secure more power from elsewhere when it needs it.


Jim Wilson: Now you’re the Leader of the Government in the Senate. If Labor waltz into the Senate at the end of March and tried to amend your government’s latest national security bill. What will you do?


Simon Birmingham: That would be a demonstration of yet again, the fact that for Labor, there’s always, it seems, some sort of compromise that can be had on national security. Whereas our views are pretty clear there that we think the character test is an important element of what we’re trying to put in place in our migration laws. Labor’s voted against that twice already. Now, they’ve sort of waved it through the House of Reps, but as per your question saying they’re going to bowl up amendments in the Senate. Well, that sounds like a pretty half-hearted approach from the Labor Party. You won’t get half-heartedness from Scott Morrison or the Liberal and National parties when it comes to national security, be it in terms of our migration laws and settings, albeit in terms of areas such as defence spending, where I’ve spent the day with our defence officials in defence estimates and it’s been a big reminder to me that when we came to office, defence spending in Australia was down to levels not seen since 1938 in terms of the size of defence investment as a share of the economy. We have delivered on the commitment we made to raise that back up and grown our defence spending significantly in that time. Which if you think back to the period from 2013 when we made that commitment and started acting on it, it’s been a very prescient decision to make those investments in having a bigger, stronger defence force for the future.


Jim Wilson: Speaking to Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, the prime minister has been on the front foot this week, labelling Labour’s soft on China. It’s important to note, though, that the boss of ASIO, Mike Burgess, has twice come out this week to urge politicians to stop politicising national security. Do you think Scott Morrison is going too far on these attacks on Labor?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t. I think it’s important that that Australians understand the choice that’s there in the election now. We don’t wish to unnecessarily politicise any aspect of the public debate. But in this space, I just took you through some of those differences in our track record to Labor’s track record when it comes to investment in defence.


Jim Wilson: Do you think Labor’s soft on China, Minister?


Simon Birmingham: I think if you look at what Mr Albanese said to the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago that in terms of the coercion China’s been showing and applying to Australia’s economy, the tariffs and sanctions they’ve put on industries like barley and beef and wine, and those sorts of sectors and elements of our resources sector. Mr Albanese said he wanted to see some of that coercion lifted. Well, that’s just not acceptable to us. We want to see all of that economic coercion lifted. And in terms of Australia’s strength and resilience, it’s really important that we are firm and consistent, not showing that there’s any weakness in our resolve.


Simon Birmingham: Okay. Before I let you go. Speaking of Anthony Albanese, yesterday I caught up with your South Australian colleague Nicolle Flint, who delivered a fantastic valedictory speech calling out the hypocrisy of the left when it comes to their poor treatment of women. Now, Ms Flint told me that Anthony Albanese still hasn’t reached out to her after her comments in that speech. Do you think he should?


Simon Birmingham: Yes. And I think that that the Labor Party and Mr Albanese as the Leader of the Labor Party owe Nicolle Flint a very sincere apology for the way in which they apparently sanctioned the badgering and harassment of her during the last election campaign. They sort of sat back while all of that occurred, hoping to the beneficiaries of the extreme actions of GetUp and other activists who really sought to make that campaign in Boothby, one of the most appalling ones in the country. And it’s disappointing that they haven’t done so. But Nicolle has well and truly called that out.


Jim Wilson: Minister, as always, thanks for your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Jim, my pleasure.