Thursday, 17 February 2022

Topic(s): Employment figures; Pinkenba quarantine facility; National security;

Scott Emerson:  The latest jobs data shows an increase in part time work over the past month, but that comes at the expense of full time positions. The unemployment rate has remained steady at 4.2 per cent in January. The result is better than expected given the problems posed by the Omicron wave of COVID-19. The Reserve Bank expects that jobless rate to reach 3.75 per cent by the end of the year. Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate, and he joins me on the line. Minister, thanks for being on the show.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Scott. It’s great to speak with you again.


Scott Emerson: Now let’s have a look at these. These jobless numbers today. Look. Unemployment steady at 4.2 per cent. I think a lot of people were a bit surprised by that, given we know that the Omicron wave is having an impact.


Simon Birmingham: Yes. Look, I think there would have been people surprised by that and 4.2 per cent being the lowest rate of unemployment Australia’s had since 2008. So to hold at that point from the December month into the January month. Even with the impacts of Omicron was quite significant. Even further than that, we saw the participation rate increase slightly. So as a sign of confidence. Notwithstanding what was happening with Omicron, more Australians actually said they wanted to be in the workforce and youth unemployment falling further to nine per cent, which is the lowest rate we’ve seen in youth unemployment since 2008. So these figures are really encouraging and a demonstration that the policy settings we’ve had to get the economy through COVID are working. Yes, there are clearly within that a reduction in the number of hours worked during January. That’s not a surprise, but the fact that these figures show that employers were still hiring, Australians were still getting jobs should give everyone confidence it’s just how quickly the economy will rebound from those shocks.


Scott Emerson: Let’s break down those figures today because we did see also a large increase in part time work while full time positions fell. Is that because of Omicron, or is that because of a broader shift in the economy?


Simon Birmingham: It’s certainly not because of a broader shift in the economy. You get some of those month to month movements that occur, but full time employment has actually risen by 530,000 full time jobs since May of 2020, more than recovering the number of jobs that were lost, the number of full time jobs that were lost at the start of COVID. In fact, more than recovering by in excess of 200,000. So sort of at that depths of the initial COVID shocks, we saw around 300,000 full time jobs lost. Since then, we’ve recovered more than half a million, more than 500,000 full time jobs, so we’ve seen some very strong growth in full time jobs. There’s some variation in these statistics month to month between full time or part time. But the trend in the statistics is very clearly that full time jobs have been growing quite strongly.


Scott Emerson: I’m talking to Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate. Minister, I just want to turn to the Wellcamp Quarantine Facility and the Pinkenba facility the federal government is building. Today, we heard the state health minister, Yvette D’Ath, come out and say, look, we don’t even know if the Pinkenba facility is going to open. Is there any doubt that the facility that the federal government is building at Pinkenba is going to open?


Simon Birmingham: Well, none to my knowledge, Scott. We are on track in terms of the financing, the building, all of those elements to be able to hand over the different aspects of that facility to Queensland under the agreements that we’ve got with the Queensland government. My understanding is that the Queensland government still had officials engaging even on site today with those Commonwealth officials and the builders working at Pinkenba. So that shows to me that at the officials level, they’re still getting on with the job. That’s what we want. We’re not remotely interested in playing politics around this. We’re building this facility with the long term in mind that yes, if it continues to have a role or a function in relation to COVID, that’s fine. And that’s what the Queensland government has signed on, indicating that they’ll operate it for. But beyond that, this will be there not for months, but for years and decades to come to provide resilience and for accommodation and response to future pandemics, to future variations in COVID, but also to future natural disaster situations, to future humanitarian crises around the world. That this is really about ensuring that we have in Queensland, in Brisbane, close to the international airport, close to hospitals, the same type of resilience facility that worked so effectively during COVID near Darwin.


Scott Emerson: Alright, so you say is going to open, is it going to open on time in April?


Simon Birmingham: Well Scott, the agreement we have is one that we would build and the Queensland government would operate. So noting some of the rather politicised comments from Queensland, I don’t want to speak for them and what they intend to do, but we are certainly full steam ahead in terms of the build and making sure that we can start that handover process on time.


Scott Emerson: Alright then, in terms of the cost of it, now this is an issue yesterday because, well, the premier said she wasn’t going to release the costings first off for Wellcamp because it’s a commercial in confidence. And then she said she would release it if the feds would release the cost for their Pinkenba facility. Well, are you going to release it and how much is it?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, Scott, I found those comments slightly baffling and seeking to again provoke some sort of political response that was quite unnecessary. I’ve issued a number of media statements providing updates along the way around the payments and the cost of the quarantine facilities that we’re building in Melbourne, in Brisbane and in Perth. The total cost of those we’ve said publicly is around $1.3 billion to establish these Howard Springs Darwin type facilities in three other centres across Australia. We’ve given those updates and the last of those was in a media statement I put out last Friday. So, you know, we’re transparent there. Within that total, we are still contracting certain aspects for the build and the finalisation of the Brisbane and the Perth facilities. So we’re not breaking down the total yet, but we are absolutely committed to doing so once we’ve finished all of those commercial negotiations and contracting arrangements with businesses. So we’ve been quite transparent. They’re quite upfront and I really didn’t quite understand what the rationale of the Premier’s comments was to try to suggest that there was any relationship between the state government’s costs and spending versus what we’ve been doing. And of course, had she and her office been paying attention they would know that we’ve been putting out those regular statements as recently as last Friday.


Scott Emerson: Just finally, Minister. I want to turn to the issue of China and national security. It’s a very rare for the ASIO head Mike Burgess to make a one off TV appearance rather than, say, we’ve seen at his annual speeches that he does give or fronting, say, national press club luncheons. But he came out last night and warned about the politicisation of national security and his predecessor, the former head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson. This morning stressed that the Morrison government’s rhetoric and he described stuff as grubby and that it would only serve one country’s national interest and that is China. Is the Morrison government undermining national security with this attack on Labor over China?


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not, Scott. All we are doing is responding very clearly to what Mr Albanese and the Labor Party have said. Mr Albanese went to the National Press Club and said in relation to China’s economic coercion against Australia, that he thought that they should relax some of that. We don’t agree that they should relax some of it. We think they should relax all of it. That they shouldn’t be choosing between lobster industry in Tasmania and cattle producers in Queensland or the wine industry in South Australia, all of whom have been hit by coercive actions from China. We expect that Australian governments should stand up for all of those different industry sectors. That’s precisely what to what we’re doing. Even more importantly, in terms of, as Australians consider the uncertain environment we’re in and the issues for the next election is the track record of governments. You know, when we came to office, the previous Labor government had cut defence spending to its lowest level as a share of the national economy since 1938, since 1938, since before the events of the Second World War. Now we have reinvested in that defence expenditure to record levels some 60 per cent growth in our time in office. That is a very significant commitment we’ve made and frankly, a very prescient commitment that was made back in 2013, recognising that the world we live in is very uncertain and those uncertainties have only gotten worse in the time since.


Scott Emerson: Simon Birmingham, thanks for being on 4BC Drive this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.