Topics: Taipan helicopters; AUSMIN discussions; JobSeeker; Labor’s political stunt on housing;

07:45AM AEST
31 July 2023


Hamish MacDonald:  Continuing our coverage in relation to the Taipan helicopters, it was back in 2021 that the then Defence minister, now Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, signed off on a decision to replace them with US Black Hawks and Sea Hawks, but the order wasn’t put through until after the 2022 election. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. He’s in our Parliament House studios. Good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Hamish. Good to be with you.


Hamish MacDonald: The Taipans were acquired in 2004 under the Howard government against the Defence Department’s recommendation to go with Black Hawks. In hindsight, is it your view that that was a mistake?


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, I’ll let those who have far greater expertise in terms of defence capability make those sorts of comments. Obviously 2004 was a long time ago. They’ve had a long period of operational use since then. Now, first and foremost, at a time like this, obviously all of us send our condolences and thoughts to the families of those who are affected, the service personnel who put their lives on the line for us, including in these types of important operational and training exercises that are undertaken and also all of their mates and fellow personnel across the Australian Defence Forces. But clearly since 2004 there have been some performance issues with the Taipans and that’s why a decision was made in 2021 by the Morrison government and by Peter Dutton as Defence Minister to fund the acquisition and bring forward the replacement of those air vehicles.


Hamish MacDonald: But those orders weren’t actually put through until after the 2022 election. Why the delay?


Simon Birmingham: Again. Look, they’d be matters for defence in terms of the way in which they work through the procurement arrangements with those who they are purchasing the Black Hawks from and the way in which they undertake that. But, ultimately we made the decision, as I say, to budget within the Defence Investment Program to bring forward that acquisition of a new and replacement fleet.


Hamish MacDonald: In other matters over the weekend, the US and Australia held the annual AUSMIN summit or meeting of ministers. Key outcomes appear to be this agreement to export Australian made missiles to the United States. Do you welcome that, given that I suppose when this was first announced around US manufacturing locally, this was about ensuring our own supply chains?


Simon Birmingham: We do welcome that. It’s an important part of ensuring that the industry that’s developed in Australia in terms of missile manufacturing, is one that is sustainable for the future. It needs to have scale to be able to operate long into the future as we would aspire for it to. And so this type of partnership arrangement with the United States that ensures we are able to build that sovereign capability in Australia and that it can serve our needs as well as us needs to provide a more integrated supply chain is very welcome, as are other commitments in terms of support in intelligence and space domains as well out of the AUSMIN discussions. It does come against a backdrop though of a defence budget that has seen reductions in its real and operational terms and that has further cuts that it has to meet on top of the $1.5 billion that have already been identified to date. And so the Government’s going to have to answer some serious questions about how it’s actually going to give effect to these types of decisions when it’s clearly not putting priority into the Defence budget.


Hamish MacDonald: Given how far away the submarines, the nuclear-powered submarines are, how critical are these sorts of weapons?


Simon Birmingham: These are very important. And it’s why, again, the Morrison government started the process of Australia looking at how we develop a sovereign missile capability in Australia. It’s about recognising that we need to adjust our different elements of defence posture and that’s very clear as well in the strategic review that was undertaken most recently. And so that’s why we are welcoming it, it’s why we’re bipartisan in terms of wanting to see that sovereign industry developed in Australia where we are able to build missiles here. They’re not going to provide all of our missile needs as a nation. It’s why again, it’s about having supply chains that complement and support one another. So we will no doubt continue to procure some other types of missiles from the US and potentially elsewhere, just as we welcome the fact that this is now a clear indication that they will procure some from us, giving that type of manufacturing scale that is necessary to have a sustainable and ongoing sovereign industry in Australia.


Hamish MacDonald: So on another matter, Parliament resumes this week. The Opposition is committing to increasing the threshold so that more people can work more hours before their jobseeker payments are tapered off. It’ll make, as I understand it, around 300,000 people eligible to work additional hours. Are you confident that people in that position can work more hours? I mean, you’re doing this rather than agreeing to an increase in the jobseeker rate.


Simon Birmingham: There are currently around 800,000 Australians are still on jobseeker and around 75% of those report zero additional earnings. We are absolutely confident that amongst that 800,000 there should be many, indeed there should be all, given they are on jobseeker who can and should be able to undertake additional work. And this is about creating a real and genuine incentive for them to do so. And at a time where it is clearly good economic policy for Australia to pursue this approach, we know that pressures in the labour market continue to contribute to inflationary pressures across the economy, so actually creating greater incentive for more Australians to work at a time when the unemployment rate is at record lows, 50 plus year lows that we see. And yet small and medium sized businesses are crying out for more people to be available to undertake more work can help to ease some of those pressures within the economy by getting more people more active in the labour market. That’s precisely what this measure is intended to do and it’s why we urge the government to actually adopt this. There was a brief period after Peter Dutton proposed this measure where the Labor Party said yes, well, maybe we will take a look at it. Then they decided to back-pedal from that. But rather than being too proud to adopt good policy, they should embrace this as good policy.


Hamish MacDonald: I’m more interested in the substance of this. What evidence do you have that these people are actually in a position to take on more work? You seem to be saying that they’re all in a position to do so.


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, these are people who are on JobSeeker. These are Australians who aren’t currently working. They’re not reporting any income at present. They aren’t on disability support payments or other payments that exist within the Australian social safety net system. These are people who are on the JobSeeker payment. They are expected to be looking for work, they are expected to be available for work and they should be taking up work where it is available. Now what we’re proposing here though, is an additional incentive that will ensure they are able to keep more of what they earn. That effective marginal tax rate, in a sense, if you want to put it that way, that applies currently would be eased so that they could keep up to $300 of what they earn before it affects those JobSeeker payments. And we believe that that additional incentive should help to encourage more people to actually step in and take more part time or casual opportunities that are in significant demand across much of small and medium sized business around Australia.


Hamish MacDonald: You’re the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. The housing debate resumes this week as well. Are you comfortable if the Housing Australia Future Fund goes down and the Government holds a double dissolution trigger?


Simon Birmingham: We are. We’ve opposed this from the get-go from the time that the Labor Party announced this policy because we think it is bad policy. It is creating a multi-billion-dollar fund, a $10 billion fund that pretends to sit off budget. It’s not doing so in the same type of circumstances, say, as when the Future Fund was created, where the nation had no debt, and we were able to create a fund like that out of excess surpluses in a zero debt environment. This is actually creating a fund out of further borrowings that government will have to undertake. It does absolutely nothing to help with home ownership in Australia. It doesn’t have any guarantees in relation to achieving a building or any type of reversal of the decline that we’ve seen where indeed housing approvals now in Australia at the lowest level since the Gillard Government. So, we think it’s bad policy first and foremost, if the Government wants to play politics threatening double dissolution elections, reintroducing the bill unnecessarily into the House of Representatives because it’s still on the Senate notice paper. So that is purely a political stunt for them to do so. Well, that’s a matter for the Government in terms of the political stunts they’re pursuing. We’ve looked at this in a policy lens and we don’t think it stacks up.


Hamish MacDonald: Senator, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Hamish.