Topics: Christian Porter; Linda Reynolds; National accounts


Jim Wilson: Now, in the last hour or so, Sharri Markson at The Australian newspaper has reported the parents of the woman are supportive of any inquiry which would potentially shed light on the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s passing. Well, joining me now is a senior member of Scott Morrison’s government. He’s the leader of the Senate. He’s the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, welcome back to Drive.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Jim. It’s always good to be with you.


Jim Wilson: Apologies if we couldn’t get to yesterday. We were hoping to have a chat before half past three. But you, unfortunately, with the Christian Porter media conference and then your commitments with Cabinet the planets didn’t align. But our apologies for not making that happen yesterday.


Simon Birmingham: I understand entirely.


Jim Wilson: Okay, let’s move on to the reaction and the fallout as far as Christian Porter, very, very emotional yesterday in that media conference in Perth. He’s taken some time off to deal with the mental health issues. Have you spoken to him?


Simon Birmingham: I’ve been in touch with Christian purely to convey a message, to take care of himself and those loved ones who are near and dear to him as a stressful time as you said in the introduction, there are no winners. This is a very tragic set of circumstances involving the deceased lady, the family who rightly and understandably are grieving and want their privacy respected, but also, understandably, Christian, who has been emphatic in his denials of the allegations that have been put and unfortunately has faced trial by media. That is not the way our justice or legal systems were intended to operate in this country.


Jim Wilson: I said earlier in the programme that there’s got to be due process as people are forgetting that right now and also the presumption of innocence. But you and I both know that mud sticks. Can he come back from this and are you standing by him?


Simon Birmingham: Yes. Christian is a very skilled, legal mind, a very thoughtful Attorney-General. He adds real value in the contributions he makes to policy discussions within the government. And I would hope that we can continue to benefit from those discussions and that input. This is a trying and testing period of time for all involved. But I trust that that he will come back and make the type of thoughtful, intelligent contribution that he routinely does.


Jim Wilson: New South Wales police have declared the case closed. Insufficient evidence. Are you- I know that the family of the deceased woman early this afternoon call for an independent inquiry. Anthony Albanese has done the same thing moments ago in WA. Do you think there needs to be an independent enquiry?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I respect very much the thoughts and wishes of the family. And I note their statement as you read about supporting an inquiry around the circumstances of her death. There is in South Australia, here in my home state a police investigation that will file a report to the coroner and the independent coroner in South Australia will make his determinations around what he does with that information from the police. Whether or not there is an inquest will be entirely a matter for the coroner under his processes. And that’s the way that such a tragic death should be handled. In terms of the allegations themselves, well I think we have to back all of those proper processes that we have across the country like Australia. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Attorney-General or whatever other position you hold in our country. Everyone is equal and should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. That means that you’re subject to police investigations where appropriate. But you also have your day before a court of law, if necessary, to ensure that you can rightly defend yourselves, and what is unclear to me from calls by Mr Albanese or anybody else is what type of alternate process do they think can be established to determine a criminal allegation? That’s what we have the police for. It’s what we have courts for. Police did hear these allegations. They did not ultimately proceed further than the initial claims that were put. That’s why we have those systems in place. And to try to replicate or duplicate that would be to, in a sense, express a lack of confidence in the police and judicial processes that we have in Australia, which I think have, by and large, served a country like us very well for a very long period of time.


Jim Wilson: The Prime Minister is not happy this afternoon with Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. She allegedly referred to in fact, she’s admitted to referring to her former staffer, Brittany Higgins, as a lying cow after those horrific rape allegations. I mean, the Prime Minister said the language was completely inappropriate. Do you agree with him?


Simon Birmingham: Yes. Yes. And I know from what the Prime Minister has conveyed of his discussion with Linda that she deeply regrets that she’s never contested the claims themselves. And indeed, she supported Brittany Higgins in terms of bringing in the Australian Federal Police in the early stages after the incident occurred and seeking to facilitate those conversations and the potential lodgement of a complaint. I know that Linda and all members of the government welcomed the fact that Britney in the last couple of weeks has lodged that complaint with police and we will give full cooperation there. But obviously, in the privacy of Linda’s office, some words were said about other aspects of claims that were being made that shouldn’t have been said. And Linda’s right to regret it and the PM’s right to disapprove of it.


Jim Wilson: There’s an enormous amount of pressure on Linda Reynolds to survive as defence minister. Do you think she will?


Simon Birmingham: Yes. Look, I again, Linda was a brigadier in the Army Reserve. She was the, I think, highest ranked woman of her time in service in our army. And so she comes to the defence portfolio with real skills, knowledge and background and much to contribute. And I’m sure she will continue to do so.


Jim Wilson: Let’s talk about your role as your portfolio as the Finance Minister. Yesterday’s national accounts figures were very impressive. I mean, the economy grew three point one per cent in the December quarter is the first time in more than 60 years GDP has grown by more than three per cent in two consecutive quarters. You must be very happy.


Simon Birmingham: This is great news for Australia. It doesn’t mean that we’re completely out of the woods or that everything is plain sailing for it for every business or industry around Australia. But it is a demonstration that as well as having world leading health outcomes, we have got world leading economic outcomes through this most difficult of times. This was the biggest economic shock the world has faced since the Great Depression. And Australia has been pushing through like very few other nations, outperforming pretty much all other developed economies comparable to ourselves, doing better than the US or Japan or Canada or France or Italy or the UK. This is a demonstration that businesses really put their shoulder to the wheel and adjusted and dealt with the circumstances thrown for them that government policies worked. And it’s been proved not just in in economic data like GDP, but most importantly, in seeing Australians getting back into jobs and that jobs growth that has got some 94 per cent of those who were stood down or lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic. Now back in work and what we’re continuing to do is pursue the policies to keep that back to work, economic growth going and to build off of this success to date.


Jim Wilson: Household spending and consumption were big reasons for the job. I spoke yesterday on the programme to Kate Carnell from the Who’s the Small Business Ombudsman. And despite all this great economic news, businesses are still struggling 92 shut up shops in New South Wales last month alone. That’s three businesses a day going under. It’s still pretty tough out there.


Simon Birmingham: It is tough, as I say, for some businesses. We had the remarkable situation as a result of some of the temporary legal measures and all of the economic support that in 2020, insolvency numbers were actually down across Australia relative to 2019. So that would suggest that there were some businesses as a result of the economic support and the temporary legal changes who were probably propped up, who wouldn’t otherwise in normal times have survived. So there will be some corrections that we should expect to see. There are the businesses who are dealing with the reality that COVID has changed things and will. Leave a lasting change, I suspect, in some segments, particularly in areas such as corporate travel or the like, where businesses will look to maintain some of the savings that they saw through COVID, where they were able to do more business remotely and have fewer people on planes and the like. So we have to know that a big shock like this will leave lasting changes. But our economy has adjusted to big shocks before. And what we’ve seen each and every month in recent times is that even though some jobs are lost in the economy, many more are being created elsewhere.


Jim Wilson: Before I let you go, the businesses that are doing a tough JobKeeper set to end at the end of this month. Will these GDP numbers affect the government’s decision to provide more support to businesses? And when can we expect an announcement on the assistance for those businesses that are doing that are struggling right now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the continued economic data, the GDP numbers, the employment data and business and consumer confidence generally backing the government’s decision that we needed to taper ourselves off of some of the unprecedented levels of support. Like JobKeeper, every dollar of JobKeeper money is essentially borrowed money that goes on the national debt and that we have to deal with into the future. But it doesn’t mean that the support comes to an end in totality. At the end of March, JobKeeper may end, but we still have more than a billion dollars a month flowing into the pockets of Australian households through income tax cuts. We still have big investment tax incentives for businesses to grow and invest. We still have lost carryback provisions for Australian businesses to deduct this year’s losses against previous year’s profits to help those who are still facing tough times. And yes, we are looking at certain targeted measures for those who are really directly impacted by the closure of international borders and what we can do to either support them or stimulate demand in their parts of the economy. And we’ll have more to say about that over the coming days and weeks.


Jim Wilson: Minister, thanks for your time, as always, this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.