Topics:   Budget; Jobs; wage growth; quarantine facilities; Andrew Lamming;


Patricia Karvelas: Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says he wants to drive the unemployment rate down to below pre pandemic levels, the unemployment rate is currently five point six per cent. But Mr Frydenberg says new Treasury modelling suggests it would need to be lower than five per cent before inflation and wages accelerate. I spoke to the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, a short time ago.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Patricia. Good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: If unemployment falls below five per cent before the election, will you begin to focus on budget repair or are you waiting until after the election?


Simon Birmingham: The budget repair is a function of actually driving down unemployment, and that was clear in some of the information the Treasurer released today, that when you look at the analysis that shows an extra couple of hundred thousand Australians in work over and above the forecasts that Treasury had laid out, that’s delivered a five billion dollar turnaround to the budget in the form of more revenue and lower payments. And so actually achieving higher rates of employment, lower rates of unemployment is fundamental to actual budget repair. And each step you take upon that employment pathway is a step of budget repair. And that was clear pre pandemic when we generated some one point six million jobs across the Australian economy, which had driven us to the point of budget balance and allowed us to project our surpluses for the future. And that’s the strategy that we’re backing again this time.


Patricia Karvelas: Obviously, people stop paying taxes if they’ve got jobs, and that helps repair the budget, too. I get the concept here, but I’m talking about actually cuts that you would implement as a government. Are you waiting to do that till after the election? Because Labor says this is a political strategy you don’t want to be cutting before the election.


Simon Birmingham: Sure, I can remember an election campaign where Labor said we were going to privatise Medicare and they were lies too. We are going to continue to guarantee the essential services Australians rely upon. That’s what we’ve actually done at every election, and that’s what we will continue to do. And the budget laid down the week after next, we’ll outline the framework for how we’re going to continue to invest in essential services that far from seeing reductions in those areas, we will be continuing to invest and to invest more in the crucial priority areas for Australians whilst addressing the global pandemic, whilst addressing the economic challenges to keep jobs growth going, and whilst making sure that we address other challenges of our time, be they national security or otherwise. So I’ll give Australians the commitment. Well, and truly, we’re not a government that’s going to turn around at some later stage and cut the services that we have been building for years and that we are going to continue to build in the future. That’s our commitment to build and sustain those services.


Patricia Karvelas: When there was far less debt, you said it was debt and deficit disaster. This kind of deficit we’re now facing as a nation is a lot bigger than that. Is it a debt and deficit disaster? Is that what we’re facing?


Simon Birmingham: What we faced is something unprecedented for the last hundred years, and so, yes, we have responded in ways that have seen fully acknowledge the largest deficit in our peacetime history, but that is entirely acceptable when you look at the fact we’ve been dealing with the first global health pandemic in one hundred years and so responding in a way that has saved and restored the capability of Australian businesses and enabled them to get Australian jobs back to a level they were at and above that of March last year. That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround in that sense, to actually have got employment back up above those levels from early last year. Unemployment is still a smidge above where it was when we went into the pandemic. And there is still great global uncertainties, as you can see that in parts of Europe. You can see it in parts of South America. You can see it all too tragically in India. Just at present, there’s global uncertainty around elements of the vaccine rollout as Australians are well aware. And so all of those factors we have to continue to consider, which is why our focus on continued economic growth, continue jobs growth, our desire to drive jobs growth and unemployment rate into a territory that helps to stimulate wages growth is something that will be mapped out in the budget, along with the types of commitments to services that I outlined before.


Patricia Karvelas: And are you setting a target for wage growth in the same way that you’re aiming to get unemployment below five per cent?


Simon Birmingham: What we’re responding to in terms of the unemployment rate is the updated expert evidence from the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Treasury who have indicated that that was previous analysis and suggested that the point of unemployment at which you start to see some growth in wages, growth in inflation was around the five per cent level. They’re now saying that’s quite possibly more in the four and a half to five per cent level. So that requires us to continue to invest in jobs growth. And that’s precisely what our government will do based on a track record of having successfully created record levels of employment, pre pandemic and getting to the point again now today where there are more Australians in work than ever before and we want to build on that.


Patricia Karvelas: So, Minister, what specific measures are you looking at to boost female employment, given much of your support has gone to male dominated industries?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll have more to say in the in the lead up to in the context of the budget around that, and we’ll be releasing some of those policy measures-


Patricia Karvelas: Will it be a feminist budget?


Simon Birmingham:  I’m not going to put labels on the budget, it’s a budget that seeks to deliver jobs for all Australians and services for Australians.


Patricia Karvelas: You know what I mean? You know what I’m getting at by using that very provocative word-


Simon Birmingham: I know what you’re getting at. And it was it was a good feminist outcome, pre pandemic when we got women’s workforce participation to record levels in Australia. It was a good outcome pre pandemic when we saw the significant closing of the gender pay gap. Still some way to go in all of those measures. And so we will continue to pursue outcomes in those areas. And that will be evidenced by the types of policies in the budget where getting that growth in jobs, getting that stronger economy helps us to continue to see that closing of the gender pay gap helps us to continue to address and grow women’s workforce participation. There certainly objectives the government maintains and we will continue to invest in that. But it all comes from the type of economic strength we have achieved before, which allowed us to achieve those gains in those areas prior to the pandemic and indeed in the jobs recovery. We’ve seen quite strong jobs recovery amongst women across Australia, and that’s something that we welcome and it’s been one of the outcomes of the policy measures we put in place.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, do you think you have an obligation to fund the construction of quarantine facilities like the one Victoria has proposed, given quarantine is largely a federal responsibility. There’s a proposal before you now to essentially bankroll the construction of this quarantine facility, which is a Howard Springs type facility in Melbourne. Will you do it?


Simon Birmingham: Well can I welcome, what I gather is, a relatively detailed proposal from Victoria, some of the ideas that have been raised previously by some states and territories haven’t come to a level of detail. Victoria has gone through a process. I welcome that fact. We have sought from the outset of closing the nation’s borders, which was so essential to keep all Australians safe, and the advent then of hotel quarantine as a way of managing the return of Australians and the arrival of people essential to the operation of our country. We’ve sought to work closely with the states and territories. That’s why we’ve provided Defence Force personnel. That’s why we’ve worked together in auditing those facilities. And we’ll work as cooperatively as we can with the Victorian government in relation to their thinking for the future and the type of proposal they’ve put on the table-


Patricia Karvelas: So you’re actively looking at funding this?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll work through the issues with Victoria. I’m certainly not, as the Finance Minister, about to say that, that we’re offering a blank cheque where a proposal was thrown on the table and we say we’ll pay one hundred per cent of the costs related to it. But I will say that we want to maintain the type of partnership with states and territories in addressing these issues. Hotel quarantine has been very successful in Australia. It’s been ninety nine point nine nine per cent-.


Patricia Karvelas: Sure. But if we’re now going to-


Simon Birmingham: Preventing the spread of cases-


Patricia Karvelas: I know I’m interrupting, but I have to, if we’re going to have quarantine, as the Victorian document says, for at least two to three years, this is a long term project. You’ve got to build these kind of facilities, don’t you? As we move to the next phase.


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s why we’re open to having these types of types of discussions. Now, some states and territories may rather put in place arrangements that provide a more permanent type structure around medi hotels themselves. Other states and territories might want to, as this one seeks to replicate elements of the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory, which we are shortly increasing to be able to cater for more than two thousand arrivals a fortnight following further investment in the capability of that facility. And that’s why we want to work cooperatively with the states and territories. The proposals like this shouldn’t be seen as a lack of confidence in what hotel quarantine achieves. Indeed, the Victorian government themselves relied on hotel quarantine when they decided to have tennis players and officials come for the Australian Open. So I trust they will continue to stand by that model, whilst indeed if they see this as being necessary and serving a longer term function and purpose, we’re open to have that constructive conversation in partnership with them.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister. Does Andrew Lamming’s ADHD diagnosis change your view of about his contact, including the online harassment he engaged in with his of his constituents?


Simon Birmingham: No.


Patricia Karvelas: He’s revealed his empathy training was an online course. Is that good enough?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not aware of the details or the content of what that training was, what I am aware of is that Andrew Lamming will not be a Liberal National Party candidate at the next election. And I trust that he will conduct himself between now and then to a higher standard than he had been doing so previously.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you comfortable having him in your party room, given his lack of remorse? I interviewed him last night on Radio National Drive and he said sorry, but he also didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there clearly, clearly were failures of behaviour. And I think all of his colleagues expect that in the time between now and that next election, he lives up to a higher standard. And that’s what we’ll all be expecting of him.


Patricia Karvelas: He hung up on me in that interview. Is that a strange thing to do for somebody who wants to take accountability for their actions?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I didn’t hear the interview, but I’ve never hung up on you so it does seem does passing strange.


Patricia Karvelas: Was a bit weird, OK, Simon Birmingham we’ve run out of time. Thanks for joining me.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.