Topics:  Paid parental leave super; Labor’s car tax; Nuclear power discussion; US Administration; 

04:05PM AEDT
7 March 2024



Greg Jennett: Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. Once again. Why don’t we start out on paid parental leave with the government suggesting that the budget will contain costings and support for the application of superannuation onto what is soon to be 24 and then 26 weeks of paid parental leave. I know you haven’t seen the costings and you haven’t seen the details, nor have we, but as a matter of principle, will the Coalition support this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, it’s good to be with you. Because as a matter of principle, we have worked for a long time, and indeed it’s been really something all sides of politics have worked to try to ensure that we close the gender pay gap and also seek to close the gender retirement savings gap. That is why we’ve put in place different policies over the years, including policies to incentivise people to put more into superannuation when they can, to enable partners to put into each other’s superannuation accounts at different times, all designed to try to achieve a closing of that gap. So, the ambition, the intent is certainly one that we support. The way the government’s going about it, as your question certainly makes clear, it’s a very unusual approach from the government. The fact that they have announced this but not provided details, not provided costings, said everybody will have to wait until the budget, said it won’t actually happen until after the next election. These are odd things for a government to do. So, we will want to make sure that we see that detail, understand the costings and understand whether this is some sort of trick from Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers, who are desperate to hand down another balanced budget off the back of commodities booms and high inflation and higher tax revenue, but want to defer these types of spending commitments to hide the cost impact. That’s why we need to see and understand those details.


Greg Jennett: Now I understand the caveats. And I think we have a clear inclination from you in principle as to which way you’d lean. But there were people in the Coalition who were putting to us in the background views that this might be some sort of precedent for the funding of super on a welfare payment. Do you view taxpayer funded paid parental leave as a welfare payment or a leave payment?


Simon Birmingham: Well, taxpayer funded paid parental leave is established as an extension of paid parental leave. An extension, therefore, of workplace entitlements. But recognising that it is not provided for in all circumstances by the employer, by that workplace. So, that is why it was put in place as a, as a policy mechanism to provide for those families who wouldn’t otherwise receive that workplace entitlement. It should be viewed as a workplace entitlement. The way in which this is structured should in no way be taken to establish any type of precedent for extending this type of payment into what are social safety net payments and have a very different type of purpose attached to them.


Greg Jennett: Now, thank you for the distinction.


Simon Birmingham: And the social safety net for retirement is of course, the age pension, which was and will remain a very important part of our social safety net into the future.


Greg Jennett: Yeah. Important distinction. Thanks for taking that one on. Why don’t we move on to the ASEAN-Australia summit? I know you’ve been in and around it in Melbourne this week, and it’s generally, generally been regarded as a positive piece of regional diplomacy. But can I ask about the Thai government? Have you sought to establish whether or not the Thai delegation or its Prime Minister specifically might have raised concerns over Australia’s so-called Ute tax? Prime Minister Albanese says it was not discussed. The Thai government appears to suggest that it may have been put to Australia in some fashion. Would you seek clarity on this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the government needs to be clear, at least in general terms, if this is being raised by our international partners. I indeed was in Melbourne for parts of the time of the summit, had the opportunity to engage with a number of international delegations, foreign ministers from other nations. This second ASEAN-Australia special summit was important, building on the first one held under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. We welcome the fact that the Labor government has continued this Coalition initiative and having those opportunities for close, meaningful dialogue with our ASEAN partners, the South East Asian nations is crucial. And of course, within that, you expect it to be open, frank dialogue, and you’re not always going to reveal what happens within those meetings. But it does seem from what has been briefed out and from speculation that in some form, concerns have been raised. It’s unsurprising the government has been quick to try to dismiss not just opposition concerns, but critically, they’ve dismissed the concerns of the automotive industry, of those who represent road users, as well as those who represent automotive manufacturers. And if we’re now having concerns raised also by automotive producing countries, it just shows the degree of concern that exists about Labor’s policy, the costs it could impose, the difficulty that may be attached to meeting it. And that whilst they try to pretend this policy is analogous to fuel efficiency standards elsewhere in the world, the reality is that the reaction from car makers and car producing countries seems to suggest that it is far from analogous with other countries and may have quite higher and significant impacts that ultimately flow through to Australian consumers and households.


Greg Jennett: Well, I think we might be discussing that particular proposal through most of this year, if indeed the government is still determined to implement it at the start of next year. Nuclear power, Simon Birmingham, your fellow Adelaide resident and lower house MP, James Stevens says-


Simon Birmingham: He’s my local MP too. A very good local MP too.


Greg Jennett: He’s your local. Good, well, I’m going to hit your question right off. James Stevens. He says 5 to 8 nuclear reactors are coming to Australia in the back of nuclear-powered submarines, so why not have one on land. Do you agree with your local MP?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think James makes a very valid point there that we have already crossed, if you like, a threshold. We’ve long had nuclear industry at a very narrow level in Australia. The work at Lucas Heights, the work in terms of nuclear science and medicines. We committed now to extend that in terms of nuclear propulsion technologies for our future submarine fleet. And they are going to be built here in Adelaide, which is a great breakthrough and will provide huge technological advances. Now, they’re not dependent upon us having a civil nuclear industry, but you could certainly leverage the capabilities and skills by having both. As we’ve been very clear, we have been doing the hard yards from opposition of having the conversations about whether to achieve net zero you need to open up discussion about having nuclear power generation in Australia and whether you need to remove the prohibitions that exist at present to that. We think a technology neutral approach to ensure we can get to net zero with reliability at the lowest cost for households and businesses, is really a sensible way to look at this debate, and we’ll certainly be having more to say about that soon.


Greg Jennett: I understand that, but unlike James Stevens, you’re not actually putting your hand up for one in Adelaide, are you? I’ll put to you. Apart from anything else, it doesn’t make a lot of sense as far as transmission is concerned in getting that power to the eastern grid, does it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, South Australia has an interconnector into Victoria and an interconnected being built into New South Wales. We will be providing and exporting renewable energy out of this state as a result of the Marshall Liberal government’s deal and work with the then Coalition governments in New South Wales and at a federal level to build that interconnector between South Australia and New South Wales. So, we are a big part of the national electricity market. We will be feeding power into the East Coast, and so there could well be a case that when you are in those circumstances that you don’t have the solar or wind that is required, that modern next generation, zero emissions nuclear technologies could well leverage that type of transmission infrastructure that is already being built. As distinct from the tens of billions of dollars of additional transmission infrastructure that Labor’s proposals say still has to be built to meet what their plans entail.


Greg Jennett: All right. I’ll put you down for one. [Laughs] Just finally, Simon Birmingham, US presidential election after Super Tuesday. It does look like we’re going to see a Biden Trump rematch. Are you satisfied that DFAT and its Washington embassy are suitably connected to senior figures around both presidential contenders, as if you like diplomatic insurance for whichever way the result goes in November?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia’s worked well with the Biden administration, and we have managed to secure good close partnerships, including AUKUS with the Biden administration. We worked well with the Trump administration, and we managed to secure good deals for Australia, including exemption from Trump era tariffs on steel and aluminium. Thanks very much to Joe Hockey’s work. And that is an example of the type of leg work and effort that our mission in Washington, led by Kevin Rudd, must be undertaking. They have to ensure that whatever the outcome that is there, we are able at every level, from the highest level of political exchange through to the diplomatic exchange, through to administrative work, to work seamlessly with whoever’s in the White House and whatever the US administration looks like. That’s certainly the task that falls on to Kevin Rudd’s shoulders and all of our diplomatic team.


Greg Jennett: I’m sure you’ll be watching it as closely as we are, and hopefully the embassy in Washington is as well. Simon Birmingham, we’ll wrap it up there thanking you once again. We’ll have you back on very soon, I’m sure.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Greg. My pleasure.