Topics: First parliament sitting week; COVID-19 vaccine rollout; JobKeeper; QLD tourism businesses; JobSeeker; health advice;


Scott Emerson:            COVID and the impact of COVID has not changed, particularly for the tourism sector. Now, we had on earlier on the programme Patricia O’Callahan, who’s the newly installed CEO of Destination Gold Coast. This is what she had to say to me.



We do need to look at our wage subsidy to continue post March forward. We’ve gone in 2019 to record highs of 14 million, $6 billion industry. And our modelling shows last year we lost three billion. It was completely wiped out. So we need to find a way to support these businesses to ensure we have a tourism industry.



Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate. And it’s great to have you back on 4BC Drive, Senator.


Simon Birmingham:     Always good to be with you. And good afternoon to you and your listeners.


Scott Emerson:            I hope you enjoying your first day back in Parliament. It looks like it’s pretty rowdy, at least in the lower house.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, all back and parliament is the parliament is here. The Government, of course, has been working right through the summer, particularly around the vaccine strategy and making sure that Australia is well prepared and that Australians can have confidence that the vaccines that we have secured, some 140 million doses of them are safe as possible that there is a clear strategy for their distribution and importantly, that around 50 million of them are going to be manufactured here in Australia to give certainty of supply. So some big things we’ve been pursuing, and it’s good to have the scrutiny of the parliament back as well.


Scott Emerson:            Now, I saw the Prime Minister say earlier this week that he expected that everyone who wanted the vaccine will be able to get the vaccine by October. Do you think that will give much more certainty to the economy going forward and especially in your new role now as the Finance Minister?


Simon Birmingham:     I really hope so, Scott. The vaccine strategy is an important part of our continued economic recovery from COVID. Now, the recovery that has gone remarkably well relative to the rest of the world. We’ve seen more than 800,000 jobs created over the last few months. That’s been a huge boost. We’ve got more than 90 per cent of people who lost their jobs or were put down to zero hours at the height of the pandemic are now back in work. And so we’ve really seen Australia’s economy bounce back in a way, unlike that, around much of the rest of the world. But there’s still a job to do and we still have lots of economic support flowing through in the form of the tax cut support and other programmes that are operating. But a successful vaccine strategy will be a key part of continuing to give people confidence and continuing to take the steps back to normality.


Scott Emerson:            Now, one of the industries that’s probably been hardest hit because of COVID has been the tourism sector. I think everyone agrees with that. And we had Patricia O’Callahan on the programme a little bit early. And I played that grab of her just then saying that they’re calling for a wage subsidy, JobKeeper to be extended for that sector, at least beyond March when it was due to end. I’ve heard Josh Frydenberg, the Treasurer, say we’re not extending JobKeeper. But then I heard your comments, I think, in the last 24 hours saying, well, look, we’ll look at it sector by sector. What is the state of play at the moment?


Simon Birmingham:     So JobKeeper was an important policy intervention that our Government created. And it’s the biggest single intervention by an Australian government in the private sector, in the Australian economy ever. And so it was appropriate for a global pendent to respond in such a huge way. And it’s part of some $267 billion odd activity that the Commonwealth government we’ve funded and with JobKeeper the Morrison Government created it to keep businesses afloat and to keep employees attached to their employers and their businesses to get them through the worst of the pandemic. And then in getting through the worst of it, but we also recognised there was a need to scale and step it down in ways that provided not an abrupt shock, but gave everybody certainty about timelines that we would work towards. So there have been two decreases in relation to JobKeeper tightening around some of the eligibility and certainty that at the end of March it would come to an end. And that is the expectation. But we’re not immune to the fact there are some sectors, some regions are doing it tough and that we’re going to scrutinise all of the data that’s available to work through how we make sure that the continuing economic support that is there, the tax relief that’s available and going to businesses in different ways and to individual workers in different ways is also supplemented, if necessary, with highly targeted [INDISTINCT] in any places that truly require that.


Scott Emerson:            Well, I think you’re opening a door then at least for the tourism sector, there’ll be a lot of tourism operators listening to the show today and say, look, Simon Birmingham, you say you want to see that there has been impact and is still hurting. I’m sure, as I look have a look at my books and I’m happy to send them to you, they’ll say and you can see that there’s a lot of pain they’re still pain to happen. I mean, you’re aware of what’s happening, the tourism sector, you know that the borders opening and closing, the closure of the international borders. It’s hit tourism, particularly hard here in Queensland, very hard. What more do you need to know to know they need extra assistance?


Simon Birmingham:     So you’re right Scott, very aware of the impact in the Queensland tourism industry. I was tourism minister at the time the decision to close international borders were taken and I went up before we saw lockdowns nationwide occur, spent time in North Queensland, spent time on the Gold Coast. And they were some of the most heartbreaking conversations that I’ve had. And that’s why JobKeeper was designed. The result of that feedback that we were all getting in the way it was to carry people through those nationwide, lockdowns, the big shut downs there as we saw economic activity really drying up.

But we now also have to focus on how we get everybody back into sustainable business activities. This type of huge intervention, spending and borrowing by government can’t go on forever and in the tourism space and that’s the big part about how we make sure that domestic tourism activity is as strong as possible. And we Australians spent $65 billion in 2019, leaving the country and spent it overseas. Visitors to Australia spent $45 billion as international visitors here. So outbound expenditure of Australians has traditionally been significantly more holidaying and travelling overseas than our inbound expenditure, what we get from international visitors. And what’s really crucial is that we get as much of that outbound expenditure redirected into domestic tourism activity. And there are many parts of the tourism industry now that are actually booming. Those that are driving destinations proximity from big cities are seeing huge, strong bookings. And what we want to do is make sure that we really now encourage people in planning their holidays for 2021 and beyond 2022 to actually think about getting on a plane, undertaking an interstate trip, have confidence to undertake those movements and they’re crucial steps to get Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, North Queensland, Whitsundays back on track, particularly as we head towards the winter across the south of Australia this year. And we want people to be thinking about enjoying those warmer breaks up north.


Scott Emerson:            I’m talking to the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, it’s not just JobKeeper that comes off at the end of March, it’s also JobSeeker. Now, there was an extra 150 dollars a fortnight on top of the existing benefit. Now many people are saying that going back to the old unemployment rate of forty dollars a day is just not sustainable? Is the government considering a higher benefit than that?


Simon Birmingham:     Again, we’re going to take a close look at all the data as we head towards the end of March and think carefully about these sorts of initiatives. It’s important to get the balance right here. There’s lots of feedback in some sectors around the country of industry businesses struggling to get people to fill jobs. And so we’re hearing that across a range of industries, some of them agricultural, some of them even hospitality, where we are seeing huge surges in activity in some regions and types of businesses. And so we’ve got to get the balance right there to make sure that government payment to support people’s welfare and livelihoods when they don’t have work, don’t act in any way as a disincentive to taking those jobs that are available. And that’s the type of analysis we’ll be taking a close look at.


Scott Emerson:            So you’re not ruling out some sort of increase above that forty dollars a day?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, not to not ruling things out. We have at every step of the pandemic being guided by evidence, data and analysis. And we’ll continue to do that in health response and also in the economic response.


Scott Emerson:            Just finally, Minister Craig Kelly, the Labor was attacking him over his comments regarding COVID and vaccinations, are really isn’t it time for Scott Morrison to rein Craig Kelly in?


Simon Birmingham: Prime Minister has been crystal clear and I think the government’s crystal clear. People should get their health advice and their advice about vaccines from the health experts. And my view is that, you know, you should do that whether you’re a member of the public or a Member of Parliament.


Scott Emerson:            So don’t listen to Craig Kelly?


Simon Birmingham:     Listen to the health experts, all of us should do that. And our vaccine strategy has been built on the advice of Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia. Those who work with him, the head of Therapeutic Goods Administration, who has given the approval to Pfiser vaccine.


Scott Emerson:            So you are saying listen to the bloke who’s got a medical degree, not the guy that’s saying warning about the vaccines?


Simon Birmingham:     Well that is what everybody should do. And I encourage all Australians to get the vaccine in Australia. Unlike much of the rest of the world, these vaccines have gone through standard approvals processes to have the safety and efficacy verified. So around the rest of the world, many countries have short circuited shortcut those processes and given an emergency approval. In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, taking the time, done the tests, looked at the analysis and people should have absolute confidence that they sign off on vaccines for COVID are no different to the sign off on vaccines that people would give to their kids or themselves on a routine basis.


Scott Emerson:            Simon Birmingham, always good to have you on 4BC Drive.


Simon Birmingham:     My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.



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Authorised by Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, South Australia.