Andy Park: Senator Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister. Minister we’ll get to the jobs figures shortly, but the current and former heads of ASIO saying the politicisation of its intelligence advice is not helpful is a curious statement. In question time, your colleagues continue to do just that. Why does the government see fit to ignore this warning?
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Andy, it’s good to speak with you. The government doesn’t seek to politicise anything in this space. What we will do, though, is obviously draw contrast where there is contrast between the statements of Mr Albanese or the track record of the Labor Party in areas, be it such as defence investment, where when they were in government, defence investments sunk to its lowest levels as a share of our economy since 1938 and where we have rebuilt that investment steadily, solidly six per cent year on year. Average growth in our defence investment, which has been shown to be a very prescient and forward looking policy commitment that we made in 2013, given the dramatically changed strategic and security environment that we face. There’s equally Mr Albanese’s own comments made at the National Press Club, in which he seemed to suggest that in response to China’s economic coercion against Australian industries from seafood and fresh seafood sector through to the beef barley wine industry’s resources sectors or the like, that he hoped that he could see some of those punitive actions removed. Well, we think all of them should be removed, and we don’t think there should be any grey zone in terms of the language that Australian leaders use in in standing up for Australia.
Andy Park: Minister former ASIO boss Dennis Richardson went as far as to say that seeking to create artificial differences will undermine national security. Here’s what he had to say this morning on our RN breakfast.
Dennis Richardson: Why would any sensible government seek to create circumstances which could work against our own national interests for party political purposes? It is a long, long time, many decades since we’ve seen a government do this, and it’s dangerous.
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Andy Park: Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has refused to repeat the Prime Minister’s comment, labelling Labor’s Richard Marles a Manchurian candidate during question time yesterday, a comment he later withdrew. Was the comment a step too far?
Simon Birmingham: Oh look, people can debate a particular phrase if they want. But but I don’t accept the suggestion that national security is completely off bounds when Australians go to vote. National security has been a feature of many election campaigns. I can remember it being a feature of election campaigns in dealing with the war on terrorism, in dealing with matters of border protection, in dealing with other national security threats dating back decades and decades throughout Australian electoral history.
Andy Park: (Interrupted).
Simon Birmingham: When Australians go to vote, these are important issues in terms of who is best placed as parties of government to manage our economy, to deliver services, but also to keep our country safe and secure.
Andy Park: The Coalition seems to raise these national security issues, mostly in or before election campaigns. That is an established pattern.
Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t accept that. But I mean, all aspects of federal politics tend to get greater intensity, scrutiny and focus in the lead up to elections. My preference is always to be getting on with talking about policies and reforms and the things that we are doing. And and of course, in that sense, at present, our economic recovery plans around COVID.
Andy Park: Just lastly on this issue, former diplomat and Liberal backbencher Dave Sharma has warned spy chiefs to butt out of domestic political debates. Are the comments from ASIO director general Mike Burgess and his predecessor, who just heard from interfering in what’s properly the domain of political debate, as Dave Sharma suggests.
Simon Birmingham: Look, I have great respect for for both Mr Richardson and Mr Burgess. Now, Mr Richardson is no longer operating as a head of any agency and is of course, free to make political comments as as he sees fit. Mr Burgess, I think, is always careful and measured in his public choice of words and language. And of course, as I said, we don’t seek to see any areas of unnecessary politicisation in these issues. But where there are contrasts, where there are differences in language, in commitments or in track record, these are valid areas for debate. That is indeed why we are all working to defend a democracy so that in a country like Australia, we can debate who is best placed to handle these sorts of matters and who has the best track record in handling them.
Andy Park: On RN Drive my guest is Senator Simon Birmingham, the Finance Minister, and shifting to jobs. The unemployment rate remained at 4.2 per cent. The government has made no secret of the fact you want to see unemployment with a three in front of it this year. Given these figures don’t account for the rising cases in Western Australia, is this still a realistic target?
Simon Birmingham: The independent governor of the Reserve Bank, the head of the Treasury, all see the possibility for unemployment to dip below four per cent now. If and when we manage to achieve that remains to be seen. But these figures are pretty amazing in and of themselves for unemployment to hold at 4.2 per cent. That’s the lowest rate Australia has had in the last 13 years, and we’ve held it even through the Omicron shocks. We’ve seen youth unemployment drop again, and that’s pretty remarkable. When you think about the lived history of past recessions was you had elevated rates of youth unemployment for a long period of time after those recessions.
Andy Park: Most Australians listening to this would be dealing with great disruption to their working lives. Maybe they’ve taken different jobs or many different jobs in the wake of that massive upheaval we’ve all experienced. There was an almost nine per cent fall in hours worked in January season, seasonally adjusted. How concerned are you about the rate of underemployment?
Simon Birmingham: We monitor that very closely, but from the different lockdowns, disruptions of COVID, we’ve seen underemployment and the rates of or declines in hours worked rebound very, very strongly. And I think the fact that in this month we’ve seen more people get jobs, the unemployment rate holds steady is a very good indicator that as people are now increasingly adjusting to living with Omicron and as we have come off of the peak of those Omicron cases, we’ll see a strong rebound in terms of those hours worked yet again, as we have on each of the previous occasions during COVID 19.
Andy Park: The number of people who worked reduced hours because they were sick in New South Wales and Victoria was about three times the pre-pandemic average for January. How prepared is the economy for another COVID wave, especially with winter approaching?
Simon Birmingham: Those are certainly issues that we all have to continue to watch carefully and our health briefings in terms of preparedness for a winter season and what that may mean for COVID, what it may mean for a return of the flu season in Australia, noting that our closed international borders largely kept the flu out in the last two years, do mean that there may be other issues of absenteeism. But we have managed to respond since Omicron hit changing some of those isolation requirements in accordance with the health advice.
Andy Park: Speaking of jobs, Minister, Origin Energy is seeking approval to close its Eraring power plant seven years early. If approved, Australia’s largest coal fired power plant will shut in 2025. It will mean several, seven sorry, of Australia’s largest plants will close by 2035, including contractors. That plant has 400 workers. How will the federal government respond to this, and what sort of support will they offer for employees?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Energy Minister Angus Taylor will be working very closely with those in the Hunter region and seeking to understand the full implications of this. It does show the real importance of the decision that our government made to build the Kurri Kurri gas plant in the Hunter region as well, that we made that decision some time ago. It was heavily criticised by the Labor Party and others at the time, but we believed that having that additional capacity was going to be necessary. But just as important as the decision to invest in Snowy 2.0, the biggest renewable energy project of its type in the southern hemisphere that is happening at present and the increased transmission projects that we’re supporting, particularly, for example, the link and additional transmission link between New South Wales and my home state of South Australia, which will ensure that in terms of the effective operation of our national energy market and the potential of renewable energy generation in South Australia, to have surplus exported when required will be the types of things that can help the adjustment necessary. But this is a big announcement today, and there may be other consequences which I know that Minister Taylor and officials will be looking very closely at.
Andy Park: Shutting seven years earlier was not the plan. What does this mean for energy security and does it disrupt your plans to balance jobs and the switch to renewables?
Simon Birmingham: It is why it’s so important that those extra transmission links to strengthen the way the national electricity market works and the opportunity for surplus energy to be shifted when required, together with the investment in extra generation capacity that the Commonwealth government’s undertaking in Snowy and Kurri Kurri, they’re all really important projects. We are pursuing the Marinus Link to provide again for a stronger transmission link with Tasmania for the export of surplus clean green hydropower from Tasmania in the future too. And it really just underscores the importance of all of these sorts of projects. So as we look at the impacts of this, at the forefront of our mind will be not just addressing shortfalls and ensuring those transmission and generation projects are delivered, but also keeping prices as low as possible.
Andy Park: Minister, thanks for your time. That’s Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.