Topics: Labour force figures; Rapid antigen tests;   


04:30PM AEST


Scott Emerson: Increased by 65,000, that’s a monthly change of 0.5 per cent. Now, while the underemployment rate fell 1.9 per cent to 6.6 per cent, the participation rate remains constant at 66.1 per cent. Now the bottom line here is there’s a sensational figure, but it doesn’t take in the full extent of the Omicron outbreak. Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Finance and the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and he’s on the line now. Minister, thanks for being on the show again.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Scott. Great to be with you again.


Scott Emerson: Now let’s talk about this number. The expectation of the markets is about 4.5 per cent well and truly exceeded that to 4.2 per cent. But you know this figure, it’s looking back and it doesn’t take in the Omicron wave.


Scott Emerson: Well, Scott that’s true that certainly a number of businesses and individuals and households are feeling pressure at present as a result of the Omicron variant, which is proving to be far more transmissible than previous variants of COVID-19, but of course, is far less impactful in terms of the odds of an individual who gets it ending up in hospital or seriously ill, some 70 per cent reduction in serious illness. So it’s a dramatically changed set of circumstances we’ve got now. But what I think we should really take out of today’s unemployment figures is the fact that time and time again, over the last two years, Australia’s economy and particularly our jobs market has by far in a way exceeded expectations. The doomsayers were talking about double digit unemployment rates. The Labor Party kept saying that the test for our government would be how we manage the jobs market through a recession, through this pandemic and through these crises. And what we’ve seen is not only resilience in our jobs market on our economy, but actual strength in it, driving it not just to have 250,000 more Australians in work today than before the pandemic began, but to have our lowest unemployment rate in more than 13 years.


Scott Emerson: All right. Well, as I said 4.2 per cent a great figure, but the Omicron wave is coming and into the next figures. How much do you think it will go up next time around?


Simon Birmingham: There’s always a bit of variance in the unemployment rate, so we never predict that the next month will always certainly follow on from the current month because you do get month to month variations. Omicron is creating some tensions out there in the labour market and some challenges. And we’ve seen job ads come down slightly in recent weeks, but they are still 30 per cent higher than they were a year ago. And so even with Omicron impacting the way it has and creating some of these challenges, we see those job vacancies and advertisements from businesses looking for more staff 30 per cent higher than was the case 12 months earlier.


Scott Emerson: All right. Putting aside COVID at the moment, then again, looking at that number, that low figure, normally, you know, history will tell us when you get low numbers like that, you do start to see significant wage rises, wage pressures going up. Are you also thinking that over the next 12 months, you will see a significant jump now in wages?


Simon Birmingham: Look, the budget update that the Treasurer and I handed down, late last year, saw forecasts in relation to real wages growth over the next few years. Now that’s important that we hopefully do see that growth realised for Australians who’ve come through some tough times. Thankfully for many Australians, they’re seeing more in their take home pay at present thanks to the tax cuts that we’ve delivered, they’re delivering about $1.5 billion extra per month into the pockets of Australian families and households across the country. So even though wages growth may not be as strong as people would ideally wish for, we have been able to make sure that through those tax cuts, we’re delivering more into the pockets of Australian households to help them through these times.


Scott Emerson: I’m talking to the Minister for Finance, the leader of the government in the Senate, Simon Birmingham and Minister National Cabinet met today. I did see the press conference from the prime minister after that. He was at pains to stress and to deny that the federal government in any way has really, you know, stolen rapid antigen tests from the states. The state’s supplies. Now that accusation came from the Queensland government. Alright, then, if that’s not the case, why was their emails released by the Palaszczuk government from suppliers saying that’s exactly what happened, that we had to give them back to the feds?


Simon Birmingham: We have seen a couple of companies issue corrections to statements and claims they’ve made about requisitioning or the like by different governments. Ultimately, we are certainly in the market procuring additional rapid antigen kits as state governments are. But we’re certainly not doing it over the top of any state or territory government, in fact, we have been seeking to give additional kits to states and territories so that they can do what we’ve all agreed is important. That is ensure that testing remains free, absolutely free for Australians who need it. If you have COVID symptoms then you should go and get a test, it will most likely be a PCR test that we’ve used throughout the pandemic to confirm whether or not you have COVID. If you are a close contact and you’re asked to go and test, you can go and get for free from different state and territory clinics around the country rapid antigen tests to enable you to fulfil those requirements. We’re of course, providing millions of kits through the aged care system to help them manage the circumstances there. And I know that many businesses, particularly those in the logistics and supply chain sectors, are using kits carefully in ways to make sure that they’re able, especially to manage people who might be close contacts but have no symptoms to work on getting those essential jobs done of ensuring that food and supplies reach our shelves. So, you know, this is not something where there should be a blame game between the states and territories and there is absolutely no truth to the suggestion that we’re taking kits from states or territories. And I just wish that that no state government plays politics with this. But we’ve got to make sure, as we are doing, as we get them to the places where they’re needed so that those who need testing can continue to get it for free as we’re ensuring is the case.


Scott Emerson: Minister, you say there shouldn’t be a blame game, but I can tell you 4BC listeners and a lot of people out there, they’re blaming the government, including the Morrison government and maybe particularly the Morrison government, for the fact they can’t find a RAT kit anywhere for love or money. And they say the government should have planned better on this. Why didn’t the Morrison government do better on this stockpile, the rats last year to make sure that people could get them today?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Scott, I think there’s a few things to that. First thing is that if you were in the United Kingdom or the United States or Canada, you would find much the same problem at present. That if you want to go out and purchase or get kits just to be able to have it home for your convenience, for testing because you think you might want to just check before you go out or see other people or those purposes, you’re going to struggle to do so because there is a global shortage of rapid antigen kits because the world is facing the Omicron variant and we’ve seen this huge surge in cases right around the world. Australia, though, is actually held up testing in this country far better than most others. Our rates of testing per capita are well and truly above many other nations in Europe, in the US and elsewhere. We are seeing Australians continue to manage to get tests and get tested at rates far in excess of elsewhere. The priority for governments is to make sure that those tests are available where they’re needed. As I said before, free testing for people who have symptoms, free testing for people who are designated as close contacts, ongoing testing and screening in areas of high vulnerability in our hospitals, in our aged care networks and making sure that they are there. I understand that people want to see more tests available in the pharmacies and on the supermarket shelves. And as more orders come into Australia, as producers right around the world are scaling up their production and then we’ll see that occur. But governments, including ours, have been fulfilling the duties there under the shock of Omicron to make sure those tests are, they’re freely available for free in the circumstances where they are genuinely needed and not in circumstances where they are at risk of being stockpiled or put away on the cupboard shelves in bathrooms around the country just in case people need them. That’s a luxury for another day when we do see that supply-


Scott Emerson: Minister, I don’t think people are talking about that, they’re not talking about putting in the top of the cupboard. They’re saying they want to use it. They’re lining up. They’re trying to find one. I mean, I think you’re ignoring what most people are saying there that they actually want to use it. I don’t want to say that they want to use it and they can’t find one.


Simon Birmingham: Well Scott, it’s nice to want to use it. What we’re making sure first and foremost is available is to the people who need to use it, who should be getting it for free and that is where the priority is. So that’s what we’re doing with state governments around the country. As I said, meaning if you have symptoms, if you’re a close contact, if you’re working in those areas with people who are vulnerable, you can expect to have access to free testing, be it PCR or rapid antigen testing as precisely what has been prioritised around the country. And there are a couple of hundred million additional kits on order coming in additional supplies all the time that will reach into those other chains of supermarkets and pharmacies for people who might want a test. But we’re making sure they’re there for those who need to test. Now, if we had all known that the Omicron variant was going to change the world so dramatically. Well, of course, manufacturers globally would have been making more earlier. But we did have supplies sufficient to keep us testing in our aged care centres to provide additional as we are to the states and territories. And we have more coming through, which is important to make sure that we can continue to meet those needs and see more available for the public for other purposes people might want them for.


Scott Emerson: Simon Birmingham, thanks for being on the show today.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.