Topics: Queensland border restrictions; Omicron; COVID restrictions; Economic support; Petrol prices; MYEFO;



Chris O’Keefe: Here with us in the studio Minister, thanks for joining us on Drive.


Simon Birmingham: G’day Chris. It’s great to be with you. Thanks so much.


Chris O’Keefe: Now we’ve seen the Queensland Premier. She’s backed off a little bit today, but she wanted to put two full planes of people into 14 days of quarantine because one person tested positive on a plane. Now, she’s peeled it back a bit. But there’s still seven rows of that plane that are now in isolation for Christmas. How is that living with COVID?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there’s a bit of a way to go there. Look, it’s good news that Queensland has this week reopened their borders and people are getting across the border into Queensland again. So let’s firstly note the big step forward that’s taken place and Queensland was the second of the COVID free states to follow South Australia in doing that. But you’re right, if you’re going to put entire plane full of people into isolation. You’re going to pretty quickly find you don’t have people on those planes, and that’s the consequence.


Chris O’Keefe: So would you book a holiday to Queensland right now?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I’d be pretty cautious right now. I guess it’s safe to say. I want to see how they settle down in this space and settling down is kind of what the key is. Yes. Good step forward to reopen the borders. Good step forward to walk back from it being the whole plane to a designated area. Seven rows, I think, will still sound pretty extreme to most people and we’ve got to make sure we just keep taking these steps forward in the reopening agenda. And it’s what Don Perrottet has done so well today and the whole thing when Scott Morrison took the national plan, underpinned by scientific evidence through to the states and territories, saying you get to 80 per cent double dose, you can really start to open up with greater confidence. It’s working. It’s just taking the states, you know, a long time to keep taking each of the steps in accordance with it. But we’re getting them there. You know, a few weeks back, no state was open to New South Wales aside from Victoria. Now South Australia is. Now Queensland is. Now Tasmania is. It’s just a case of how open they are and making sure they keep that opening in a sensible trajectory.


Chris O’Keefe: But it’s 10 days from Christmas. We just got a text here from Marcello saying that the Christmas carols at Mounties have been cancelled due to an Omicron scare. Now that’s Rob from Liverpool. That’s this is hard for people. And if we’re fully vaccinated and we’re trying to live with it, cancelling, isolating it not only ruins business, but it really ruins our lives.


Simon Birmingham: And this is where- yes, Omircon is a new challenge and we’re still learning things about it. But the Commonwealth chief health officer today has come out and put out a statement, and he’s been pretty clear in that statement that we know that the current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death, and that a number of treatments for severe COVID-19 remain effective, that is a statement about Omicron-


Chris O’Keefe: The vaccines don’t seem to be resistant to anxiety or scaremongering in the community.


Simon Birmingham: And that is where we’ve got to make sure people keep perspective. Perspective that the vaccines are preventing serious death, disease and illness, that they are working in that sense, that there may be an uptick in relation to the number of cases, but as long as that doesn’t translate into an uptick in the number of severe illness, in-hospital hospitalisations, ultimately death rates there, the things we want to keep under control. And of course, we know that there will be people sadly who die from COVID-19. But it’s also again, keep the perspective that in 2019, in 2020, there were more than 160,000 Australians who died of a variety of different diseases and causes. That’s around 440 per day. So when we hear the daily COVID rate, let’s keep that in perspective, too. And knowing that in many cases, those still suffering most from COVID are either the people have chosen to be unvaccinated, and they’ve chosen that at this point now or individuals who have severe either co-morbidities that may have already presented additional challenges in their lives.


Chris O’Keefe: I just want to- you’re the finance minister. I’m sure you’re hearing this from business all over the country. Just look at Woolworths. They lost nearly $4 billion off its valuation yesterday because of a $220 million cost blow-out. Thanks to supply chain crunch. They’re talking about rapid tests, again, positive tests and close contacts from the farm to the supermarket shelves. That is the cost on Woolworths, one of our biggest supermarkets in this country. Do we need to change our thinking here about how we treat not only people who are asymptomatic with COVID, but their close contacts?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve got to make sure that we keep easing up as we go. Now this is a big transition for Australia. Let’s remember we up until the delta outbreak that hit New South Wales so hard, we were in a situation where for a period of time, Australia was living without COVID. Then we had the Delta outbreaks and we lived with lockdown for a long period of time here and in Victoria and that came with enormous costs and impacts on people. Now we’re in the next stage, which is a highly vaccinated population, one of the most vaccinated in the world and with tens of thousands of people per day now turning out to get their booster doses, which they’re eligible for after five months, so please make sure you go out and get it as soon as you’re eligible because it’s another line of protection. But with community transmission and we’ve got our reset, the expectations and the rules around what community transmission means, we’re at really poses a threat. And Omicron has thrown a bit of a curveball in that regard that is making people jumpy. I’m hoping that as we get more and more of this evidence, that reassuring words of the chief health officer about the fact that vaccines are preventing serious illness and death, that we can actually get back to that sense of perspective that we’re seeing really strong inroads being made to reopening and let businesses function as they should-


Chris O’Keefe: So this is like Australia’s awkward teenager phase. We’re going through that awkward teenage phase. We’re not really cool. You don’t know if you’re an infant or a kid or you’re trying to get become an adult, and we don’t really know if we’re Arthur or Martha at the moment.


Simon Birmingham: Well, other countries are grappling significantly still with this, too. You know, you’ve got additional lockdowns, restrictions, new ones being imposed in parts of Europe and the U.K. As we’re charting a course to reopen their imposing new ones. Let’s not forget that, you know, China, where this all started, still effectively has its international borders closed and throws people into three weeks, three weeks of quarantine if they’re trying to re-enter China at present. So around the rest of the world, there’s all sorts of different awkward challenges here in Australia. We’ve had some of the lowest fatality rates in the world, the bottom three amongst OECD countries, which has saved an estimated 40,000 lives compared with those average death rates in comparable nations. And we’ve got some of the highest vaccine rates in the world, and our economy has been in the top three performers amongst developed countries, growing by 3.9 per cent over the last year with strong employment outcomes. Yes, businesses are facing pressures and difficulties in dealing with these current restrictions-


Chris O’Keefe: But that’s also thanks to the federal government and the taxpayer spending an enormous amount of money on keeping things afloat. While the growth is important and the fact that we’re economically strong is important. There’s going to be a hangover from that at some point.


Simon Birmingham: There is. No doubt we face now different budget challenges. We came into COVID-19. With the budget in balance. We’ve managed to bring it back to balance and that gave us the fiscal firepower, the ability in terms of the budget to deliver economic support to businesses, to households, to get them through shutdowns, lockdowns, restrictions like that, including people right now being told they have to isolate. There are still pandemic disaster payments available to them to make sure that they’re not without an income or they isolate if they’re a casual employee or the like that has come at significant cost. We’re still again compared to the rest of the world. We’re one of only nine countries to have a AAA credit rating from all three different ratings agencies, and two of them actually took Australia off of the negative watch list this year. That kind of sounds counterintuitive because you’d say – we’re racking up all this extra debt at present from significant deficits, how can they be improving their backing of Australia’s AAA credit rating? But it’s because in relative terms, our economy is stronger our budget does look stronger and that our prospects of recovery are so much stronger than many other parts of the world.


Chris O’Keefe: I’m speaking to the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, what’s going on with petrol prices? At the moment, they’re almost $2 a litre in some parts of Sydney. I drove past a petrol station on the way here. It was a dollar ninety something. What is happening?


Simon Birmingham: I know this is a real pressure for many families in households, particularly as we head into the Christmas New Year period, when people want to hit the road to visit loved ones, to take a break and so on. It’s a function that of international pressures in terms of the price of oil, which has gone up significantly. Some of those big oil producing countries have pulled back their levels of production, causing a price spike in the US. They’ve actually released some of their oil reserves to try to drive down that global price a bit. And certainly something that we are watching very carefully. It’s why things like the tax cuts that we’ve provided to Australians is so important to help them deal with these sorts of spikes that come along in some of the cost of living pressures. So there’s $1.5 billion a month going into the pockets of Australians as a result of tax cuts that we’ve done over the last couple of years. That is-.


Chris O’Keefe: Looking at more?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll always keep looking. We have others that we have legislated that are due to take effect in a couple of years time, and so we want to make sure they’re still there and delivered. And from the Liberal-National side of politics we’ll always be looking to keep taxes as low as we can and to deliver that back to taxpayers whenever we can.


Chris O’Keefe: So you’ve got your mid-year budget review tomorrow, MYEFO. What can we expect? Is it going to be an absolute bloodbath or is it not as bad as probably your intuition tells you it would be?


Simon Birmingham: I think many commentators have expressed surprise as they’ve looked at some of the indicators that lead into MYEFO, the mid-year budget update that have shown we’re likely to be in a better position than expected. The fact that investment from businesses is so strong, which is a big part of our economic recovery plan, we put in place incentives for businesses to invest more. More plant, more machinery, more equipment that businesses are investing in. Doesn’t just lift economic activity now, but it makes them more productive and competitive for the future, which is great for our economy. More people in jobs, stronger recovery, 350,000 plus jobs coming back since those delta lockdowns means we’ve got less going out in social security payments, more coming in tax payments from people. These are positive things that mean we’re in a stronger position than thought. But there are some real pressures to in terms of making sure we can still meet the demands of aged care, of disability services and of national security in terms of spending for the future.


Chris O’Keefe: Well, Minister, thanks for joining us. I know you’ve got a big year next year with an election, but the most pressing thing we’ve got. I know you from South Australia is the Adelaide Day Night Test. It’s just a big pressure.


That’s a fail point on my part that I agreed with Josh that we could schedule with the mid-year budget update on the first day of the Adelaide Test, which means I miss out, but I’m hoping to get there on the weekend.


Chris O’Keefe: Good on you. Merry Christmas.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you.