Topics:  Federal Budget; Travel restrictions from India


Scott Emerson:  The countdown is on for the budget. Next Tuesday is the big day and it’s a big day not only for the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, but also this man, the Federal Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, and he joins me now. Minister, thanks for being on 4BC Drive.


Simon Birmingham: Hello Scott, it’s great to be with you again.


Scott Emerson: Now, I know you’ve probably got the budget there on your desk ready to go. Can you just read out from the highlights for us right now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, indeed, of course I can. More jobs for Australians at the heart of it, continued protection from COVID and funding in the essential services that Australians rely on. Now, there’s probably a few more details and measures that will underpin that. But I don’t think I’m giving away too much that at it’s heart, you know, they’re the budget themes. They are the focus that we have as a government to make sure that we keep Australians safe from COVID, that we keep the economy and economic recovery that is doing so well continuing. And we already have more people in jobs today than at any time in Australia’s history and more than we had at the start of the pandemic. And of course, though, lots of areas where people are looking for us to carefully, strategically invest to make sure that older Australians get the services they need and all Australians can access those essential services. So it’s a big task, bringing together a big budget like this, but the PM and the Treasurer have collaborated right across the ministry to make sure that hopefully we hand something down on Tuesday that Australians can have confidence in as to how it protects them and their families for the future.


Scott Emerson: Yeah, we do have record debt at the moment, but the treasurer has said there’ll be no austerity measures in this budget. Why not?


Simon Birmingham: We do see that yes, debt has gone up as it has, of course, right around the world. But there are a few important points. The first is that it’s costing us less to service our debt now and projected into the future than it was prior to the pandemic. So even though we have more debt because globally interest rates are low, debt is so cheap, the cost of having that debt is much less. Our debt is still quite low relative to many other nations. That’s what stood us in good stead coming into the pandemic. And we are working carefully to make sure we maintain a position of relative strength compared to other nations. And that’s important in terms of how we are viewed around the world. And if you look at the bond markets enthusiasm for Australia, that’s been quite strong. And that’s a function of the fact that our finances are seen as very safe, sound and secure. So we’re definitely in a position where, yes, we are trying to make sure every spending decision we make is for something that is truly necessary, that it’s about investing carefully in terms of keeping Australians safe, growing the economy, delivering on aged care and other services. And that’s the focus we’ve given to careful spending decisions, but at our heart we are also a low tax government. And so we’re not about to jack up taxes because you don’t create economic recovery. You don’t create the jobs to pay for things by having higher taxes. And in fact, what we had seen just in the last few months is that by having 200,000 fewer Australians on unemployment benefits than had previously been forecast, it’s costing three billion dollars less in payments, in JobSeeker payments and supports and generating two billion dollars more in revenue in terms of increased taxes being paid. And it sets up a virtuous cycle that delivered a five billion dollar turnaround that we want to make sure we continue.


Scott Emerson: Well, I think when Scott Morrison was treasurer and in similar circumstances, he described that as a six point turnaround, his rugby league analogy in terms of that. And that’s probably what it is. But look, let me say that you say about being careful, you want the growth to occur. Isn’t it also the fact that you’ve got an election next year? You don’t want to have a horror budget this year because you’re facing the voters next year?


Simon Birmingham: We’re going to keep honouring our promises. And this goes back to what we said at the last election and indeed throughout our government, particularly the last election with Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. He said time and time again that his focus was on having a strong economy to generate jobs for Australians and to pay for the essential services we rely on. And although the global pandemic has come along and interrupted our focus on these things, we are actually intent on making sure that we stick to those promises that we made, that mission we put to the Australian people. And you can see the results. And we are delivering a strong economy by global standards, outperforming most other comparable global economies. We are delivering record jobs more than the country’s ever seen, despite having only just had the first recession in 30 years and great global economic uncertainty, and we will be continuing our investment in the services that Australians rely on. For the government, we managed to repair the budget while delivering record levels of funding for hospitals and schools and for those essential services while building the NDIS up. And we will manage over the years to come to again repair the budget by creating more jobs, by strengthening the economy, while still delivering services in those areas, be it hospitals or schools or aged care or disability services or the like.


Scott Emerson: Now I’m talking to the Federal Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, national cabinet has met today. The Prime Minister has announced that flights will be coming back from India from May 15, that these rescue flights coming back from India. Now, a lot of criticism of the government, particularly regarding the issue of the threats of jail and fines. Do you admit that the government could have handled that aspect of this better?


Simon Birmingham: I think certainly the focus that came out in terms of the media commentary and coverage around those penalties and fines. When in fact, they are just a consequence of using the powers that we have used right throughout this pandemic in relation to border control and biosecurity protection. Here we have an existing law of the parliament [indistinct] which allowed us to close the borders to China. Back in February of last year, it allowed us to subsequently close our borders to Italy, to Iran, to South Korea and into then to the whole world to ban cruise ships altogether. And it’s enabled us to put these emergency temporary measures in place in relation to India. And the potential penalty of breaking any one of those uses of the biosecurity power has been fines and jail time. That’s always been the potential penalty. But it certainly it got more attention in this case when in the end, what we’re looking for is not to penalise people, but to achieve compliance, to stop arrivals that were seeing our medi hotel facilities and our national emergency facility in the Northern Territory having record numbers of positive COVID cases and in doing so, posing a greater threat than ever to the health systems in those states and cities and to the risk of outbreaks, notwithstanding how successful we’ve been to date in 99.99 per cent of cases passing through successfully. If you’ve got a huge surge in positive cases, the risk grows a little. And that’s why we wanted to put a pause in until May 15. We always said it was time limited. We’ve worked through what the next stage looks like now, and that is not to simply go back to how it was before, but take some careful steps around facilitating these flights where pre-flight testing will be a requirement. And we will be carefully monitoring, of course, what happened back in those hotel facilities to make sure we don’t see a spike in positive cases in Australia.


Scott Emerson: Simon Birmingham, I’m sure we’ll be speaking to you next week after the budget on Tuesday. Thanks for joining us today on 4BC Drive.


Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Scott. Looking forward to it.