Topic(s): Budget position improvement; Business support; Richard Colbeck;

Michael Rowland: Latest data suggests strong jobs growth is improving Australia’s budget position after two years of heavy pandemic spending. For more the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Western Sydney. Minister, good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Michael. Great to be with you.


Michael Rowland: So the latest budget numbers show the budget’s bottom line has improved to the tune of $8.5 billion, care of greater spending towards Christmas, more people getting jobs. We saw their jobless figure. But how worried are you, I guess, that the Omicron wave and the devastating impact that has had on business and workers towards the end of December and certainly this month will unwind some of that.


Simon Birmingham: So Michael, this latest data reflecting the first half of the financial year is a demonstration of the real dividends that flow through from having the strongest possible economy and the strongest possible jobs outcomes. And with unemployment down to 4.2 per cent, with 1.7 million more Australians having been employed than was the case when our government was first elected. It shows that you get fewer people on welfare, which means your payments go down more taxpayers and people contributing across the economy, which means revenue goes up. And that, of course, delivers a dividend. Now what we’ve shown as a country is enormous resilience and effectiveness in terms of the policies that have helped people through COVID-19. It’s why our AAA credit rating was reinforced and reaffirmed yesterday by Standard and Poor’s internationally. It’s why the International Monetary Fund in the last week confirmed Australia’s growth forecast for 2022 while downgrading a number of other countries. And so although we know things are tough in terms of labour market and worker shortages right now due to Omicron, we’re confident the resilience we’ve seen before and the bounce back we’ve seen before will be repeated again as we come off of this peak of current cases.


Michael Rowland: You’re in Sydney there at the proposed Western Sydney Airport site. The New South Wales government is appealing or rather pleading with the federal government to provide it more money for its new job saving scheme to help those struggling New South Wales businesses. This comes directly from the state’s premier, Dominic Perrottet. Will you stump up some cash for struggling New South Wales businesses?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, we’ve already provided some $63 billion in assistance directly into New South Wales, it’s part of more than $300 billion in financial assistance to support the country through COVID-19. We are continuing to provide many millions of dollars in support for individuals through the pandemic, leave disaster payments to support those who are isolating, and that’s flowing directly into New South Wales, as it is across most Australian states and territories at present. That’s in addition to the support we have ongoing for businesses in New South Wales and elsewhere through the loss, carry back arrangements and other budget measures that we have in place. So we welcome as part of the national cabinet decision taken last year. States and territories stepping up for targeted focussed support where they see it necessary to deliver to businesses in their states. But that’s rightly their responsibility as we are fulfilling our responsibility of providing those economy wide measures like the loss carry back or the investment deductions for businesses, as well as that support for individuals. So many thousands of Australians through those disaster payments that we continue to make each and every week to them.


Michael Rowland: So that’s a no then?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, it’s the fact we are doing an awful lot in terms of billions of dollars of continued support and of course, our $110 billion infrastructure investment program with big projects like this one right here, the Western Sydney International Airport, again fuelling and supporting economic activity here in western Sydney, just like the Inland Rail Project, is going to get trucks off our roads, but right now is fuelling activity through much of Eastern Australia in the construction of that project, just as we’re going to a building and working through the processes around the Melbourne Airport Rail Link. Now these are all projects that have been talked about for a long period of time. Our government’s actually building and delivering them.


Michael Rowland: Okay, just before we run out of time, you’re also the government Senate leader. Have you had a chat to your Senate colleague, the aged care minister Richard Colbeck, about why he chose to go to the cricket in Hobart instead of attending a Senate hearing into the government’s handling of COVID?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I have had discussions with Richard. I’ve been reassured that as aged care minister, he was receiving all of the daily briefings in relation to the COVID management in the aged care sector, that he was engaged in the meetings that he should be. For all of those, all of those considerations, of course. He’s also the Minister for Sport and the Ashes Test being held in his home state of Tasmania was a significant thing for Tasmania, too. But I’ve been reassured that he certainly wasn’t missing a beat in terms of engaging as he should be in the aged care issues every single day, as I know he does.


Michael Rowland: It wasn’t a good look, was it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Michael, I think it’s possible for many people to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. This was a day night test. I know that he, as I said, has reassured me, as he said publicly, that he was engaged in all of the different aged care meetings and leadership that he should be-


Michael Rowland: Minister, there 8000 people, 8,000 aged residents with COVID at the moment, 163 deaths in the last month [corrected]. Australian cricket’s doing fine. So arguably what is the most pressing portfolio for Richard Colbeck is it aged care or sport? And should he be devoting there for 100 per cent of his time to try to help those aged care residents?


Simon Birmingham: I know that Richard is devoting huge amounts of his time to aged care and that even on those days he was at the Test match. He was engaged through all of the routine morning briefings that happen pretty much each and every day in terms of getting the updates around data in terms of the flow of the millions of kits of protective equipment that we’re supplying out to the aged care sector, making sure that all of that is flowing as it needs to into different facilities to support them in their management of COVID-19. It’s why we created the National Medical Stockpile with such vast amounts of personal protective equipment. It’s why we’ve made sure that millions of rapid antigen tests have been made available into the aged care sector, and Richard Colbeck has been doing a strong job in terms of making sure that all of that flows as best it can in the challenges of Omicron into that sector.


Michael Rowland: Simon Birmingham, really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining us there from Western Sydney.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Michael.


Michael Rowland: And we should clarify that 163 aged care residents have died this month. Not this week, but it’s still a dreadful, appalling figure.