Topics: US President Biden; Australia-US Relations; Labour force figures; JobKeeper; National Cabinet; Cricket Australia – Australia Day decision




Jim Wilson:     Well, he’s got a big job ahead, and on the line is Finance Minister and Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, welcome back to Drive.


Simon Birmingham:     Good afternoon, Jim. Great to be with you.

Jim Wilson:     Thank you for your time, as always. First, I have to ask Joe Biden, President of the US. A historic day in Washington, D.C.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, it’s always an historic occasion when a new US president is sworn in and Australia looks forward to writing a new chapter in the Australia US alliance book. It’s a book of great close relations cooperation. More than 100 years of mateship as we celebrated with the US not that long ago. And so now we get on to work with President Biden and Vice President Harris and their administration. And I’m confident that that we will cooperate as closely as ever in the economic recovery from COVID, which is going so strongly here in Australia, as well as in the many global challenges that that we face together.


Jim Wilson:     Well, talk about the job figures, which are great news very, very shortly. Can we rely on President Biden, Minister, to stand strong with us on China?


Simon Birmingham:     I think we’ve seen some very sound messages from the Biden administration already. The designate for the secretary of state office in his confirmation hearings before the US Senate has been clear that China is an issue that the Biden administration will take seriously in terms of some of the challenges and threats that are posed in that regard. They also recognised the real importance in that regard of building and working on alliances and partnerships around the world. And that’s something that we warmly welcome and look forward to, to working with the US on. Australia’s position on China remains Australia’s position, and that is that that we, of course, look to China as an important regional partner, but one that that needs to respect the sovereignty of other nations, one that needs to work with international rules and norms. And of course, from our perspective, we would urge China to reconsider some of the trade sanctions that we saw, in particular being applied at the end of last year, as well as other points of concern around human rights or other issues that we’ve raised in recent times.


Jim Wilson: The job figures today are very heartening. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.6 per cent, 50,000 jobs added last month, a real boost for the economy.


Simon Birmingham: It sure is. Look at 50,000 jobs created during December and 785,000 jobs that have come back that had been lost during the start of the pandemic, getting us to around 90 per cent of of recovery from those that lost their jobs have gone to zero hours. And it’s just really encouraging to see the way in which Australian business has bounced back, the way in which Australians have not only worked to have such a positive health outcome during this COVID-19 pandemic, but have made sure that our economic outcomes are an envy of much of the rest of the world. You look at some of the statistics and stories from elsewhere around the globe, and we can be so proud of what we’ve achieved in Australia. You know, we’re in our sixth day in a row of having zero cases of community transmission of covered in Australia. The rest of the world has seen 675 thousand cases, 675 thousand cases per day on average over the last week. And so the health outcomes globally devastating and translate to around 17 and a half thousand lives lost around the world just in the last 24 hours or so here in Australia very different health outcomes, but also very different economic outcomes as that health success feeds into the economic success and all of the different economic measures we’ve put in place have managed to to help get Australian businesses through the tough times and to keep people connected to their employment. And that is that is, of course, the most important outcome of all, Australians back in jobs.


Jim Wilson: Absolutely. It’s all about jobs, jobs and more jobs. Now, talking about jobs, JobKeeper ending at the end of March, yet a number of businesses and industries are still struggling. The travel and tourism industry for one, the hospitality industry another. Will the government consider targeted support for those industries?


Simon Birmingham: Look, we created JobKeeper to help get business through these crisis times. And its peak, it had around three point six million Australian workers receiving JobKeeper spread across about one million Australian businesses at the time in October. As we move to the second stage of JobKeeper, there were two million fewer Australians needing to receive it then and around 450,000 fewer Australian businesses. And so we’ve seen many graduate, if you like, from JobKeeper. And I expect we’ll have seen more graduation’s as we come into the start of this year. And it is that type of pattern of return to normality or business adjustment adaptation where necessary, that we want to see continue. It’s not our plan to see JobKeeper continue beyond the end of March, but we do have in place ongoing measures in terms of the tax support that is there for businesses to carry back losses and be able to receive additional income. In that regard, what is flowing through in terms of tax cuts with additional stimulus in our economy that will be ongoing. We’ve seen seven billion dollars plus go out the door in the last six months and over the next nine months, more than one billion dollars a month on average, extra will go into families pockets as a result of tax cuts that is there to stimulate the economy in sectors where necessary.


Jim Wilson: Sorry Minister, but the travel and tourism industry, hospitality industries are on their knees. They will need assistance beyond targeted assistance, beyond the end of March. Will you be, are you considering that?


Simon Birmingham: Everything that we’ve done has been about looking at what is proportionate to the circumstances that are there, targeted for those who need it, temporary so that we don’t leave a great crises for Australia down the track. And so, of course, we will continue to look closely at the economic circumstances facing particular industries between now and the end of March. But it is crucial as well to recognise that support doesn’t just end at the end of March. There is ongoing activity flowing across the Australian economy that will flow into restaurants, hotels, other businesses. And crucially, what we want to see with these ongoing successful health figures is, of course, state borders open up as well. That can provide opportunity for more Australians to spend more in domestic travel, really helping to sustain jobs in a real way through genuine activity.


Jim Wilson: We’ve got national cabinet tomorrow. How frustrated are you on? The Prime Minister is very frustrated that he hasn’t got the power to- we need some consistency around our borders domestically. It just seems inconsistent. How can the travel and tourism industry and the hospitality industry, how can we travel alone, look at going overseas, but within our own country when there’s so, so much inconsistency around borders in in Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is it. It is frustrating not because we want to be frustrated by the states or anything like that. It’s frustrating because of the real world impacts on businesses and the employees in those businesses. And so that is where I urge the states and territories to look closely at the sectors that do continue to be disrupted as a result of these border closures, and that those sectors are ones where there are still job pressures. But they can be relieved those pressures can be eased through an opening up, given we’ve had once again such huge success in terms of crushing an outbreak, getting past the clusters that were there in New South Wales and Victoria, and making sure that that Australia can again have confidence that our systems can deal with COVID and we can do it in a way that keeps people safe whilst reopening these crucial parts of our economy.


Jim Wilson: Before I let you go, Minister, we do appreciate your time. Australia Day is next week. What do you think about this Cricket Australia decision about the big bash dropping the reference to Australia Day for its matches on the 26? It seems crazy.


Simon Birmingham: Look, it doesn’t seem like the type of thing that people would expect Cricket Australia to be worried about. Cricket Australia should be putting on world class cricket events. And frankly, Australia Day is just that. It’s Australia Day. We ought to acknowledge it, but we also ought to be as inclusive as we possibly can. And much work has been done and continues to be done by the Australia Day Council to ensure that First Nations peoples, indigenous Australians are recognised for their contributions, celebrated their history, acknowledged and celebrated as part of our national day of celebrations and this should be a unifying occasion, not one that we try to turn away from.


Jim Wilson: Hopefully they’ll have a rethink and come to their senses before Tuesday.


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.


Jim Wilson: Good on you, Minister. Thank you for your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.


Jim Wilson: Good on you. That’s Finance Minister and Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham.




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Authorised by Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, South Australia.