Topics: July Economic Statement; Parliament Sitting Cancelled; JobKeeper extension; Freeze on MPs wages.

20 July 2020

David Penberthy: The risk of having politicians travel around the country has meant that on the advice of the acting Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, that Parliament has been cancelled and will now not resume, until 24 August. South Australian Senator and Federal Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us. Minister, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning guys, good to be with you.

David Penberthy: So, I mean, everyone instantly asks in reaction to this – if it’s good enough for their business remotely, why is it not good enough for the Parliament of Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Government’s absolutely still working flat chat as you would imagine. This week, we’ll hand down the July Economic Statement and are undertaking and announcing a range of policy decisions that we’ve been taking, including today, the extension of loan support for small businesses, which is just so crucial for so many people to get them through COVID. Obviously, bringing the Parliament together right now, with the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, was clear that there were real challenges with that. We’ve met during the pandemic, at the earlier stages when the threat was perhaps more equivalent across the different states and territories, put in place all of the social distancing policies et cetera. But, clearly, there are greater difficulties getting everybody in from Victoria right now and we want to respect the quarantine that’s been put right around Victoria.

David Penberthy: But we’ve seen parliaments around the world, in Europe and other places, operate remotely. I mean, we’ve got the technology to do so, why not here?

Simon Birmingham: There have been some testings of an online simulation model and this is only a two-week cancellation, there is still eight sitting weeks scheduled for the rest of the year. So, that sort of work is being done. It’s being used in different ways for our parliamentary committees, including the special one that was established to be able to provide scrutiny to the Government, in terms of the administration and management of the coronavirus pandemic. So, we’re not completely closed to those options, it is a big step to take in terms of the passage of laws for the nation, using those sorts of technical means. But the work is being done in the background, the testing is occurring, so that we’re ready for all those sorts of contingencies if they’re necessary.

Will Goodings: One of the cornerstones of a country like ours, whether you like it or not, when you’re in government, Senator Birmingham, is Question Time and the role of the Opposition to keep a government on its toes. Surely, that part of it could be done very easily and should be done very easily? There’s people having discussions, at the moment, about JobKeeper. You know, these are, you know, real nuts and bolts issues that affect people’s quality of life. That’s the part of it that I think is really questionable.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, that’s obviously part of it, that we sought to provide a work from the early days of the pandemic, by establishing the joint committee of the Parliament, to be able to provide the ongoing scrutiny, not just when Parliament was scheduled to sit. But, right throughout the crisis; to be able to haul in health officials and others, to operate in essentially a similar manner to how our estimates committees working – having the Treasury officials, the health officials, the others there to scrutinise government. Clearly, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and myself will all put ourselves out there for many, many interviews, during the course of this week as we make the different announcements around the ongoing economic support for Australians during this. And of course, the PM and the Health Minister and others are in relation to the work that we are doing to try to help the Victorian Government get on top of the disaster that has unfolded there. There’s no shortage of scrutiny there. I understand the point you’re making and obviously, that’s part of the testing of different systems, to see how they could work for those remaining sitting weeks or if it comes to pass that we need it.

Will Goodings: Why cancel and not reschedule?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we did add many additional sitting weeks into the back end of this year to deal with some of those that were lost at the earlier stages of the pandemic, when we sat but limited the number of days. So, it’s a fairly tight sitting schedule from here, though there are still eight sitting weeks scheduled and if more are necessary to deal with legislation and those things, then the Government will look at that.

David Penberthy: Eight in five months? And you couldn’t fit two more in?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Parliament sitting is not the only thing that members of the Government, parliamentarians are expected to do or get on with and I would assure everybody that every member of the Government, particularly every member of the Cabinet, is still flat chat on dealing with what are quite unprecedented economic circumstances, unprecedented health challenges. That’s why you’ll see this week, a series of different policy announcements, as we hand down a major economic update that will demonstrate just how we’ve responded, right since the start of the year. That starts today with the additional support for those small and medium sized businesses – extending the loan guarantees to being from $250,000 loans, to up to 1 million loans, extending the timeline for that up to five years. It’s supporting up to 3.5 million Australian businesses to stay afloat and these are big decision, big policy decisions that we are taking on a weekly, if not daily basis, to make sure that we keep the show running, during what are completely unprecedented times.

David Penberthy: Just finally, Birmo, I’m not sure if you hang on the man’s every word, but your former cabinet colleague, Tony Abbott, put pen to paper over the weekend saying: that MPs should take a pay cut, in solidarity with the people of Australia who’ve suffered a loss of income, as a result of COVID. Is that something that has been discussed at all, within the Government? What are your thoughts about the idea?

Simon Birmingham: Well, a decision was taken very early on to freeze parliamentary salaries. Obviously, other salaries are all subject to the usual processes. The adjustment was made with an increase in the minimum wage, during the course of the pandemic. Other negotiations and so on will occur. The decision was taken at a very early stage, that it would be a freeze to the normal processes that would consider MP wages.

David Penberthy: But that would be it? Just a freeze, not a cut, you think? Wouldn’t go any further than that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s the decision that’s being taken to date. I’ve got to say, our discussions have been on how we are behaving and trying to save the jobs of many Australians, that’s been where the overwhelming efforts are. That was a quick early decision to say in relation to MPs wages; we didn’t want to see any consideration of increases, they should be frozen. That decision was made.

David Penberthy: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Trade Minister and Tourism Minister, thanks for joining us this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.