Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland

Topics: Covid disaster payment; Victorian lockdown; JobKeeper; quarantine facilities


Michael Rowland:  Another big story we’re following this morning, the federal government has stepped in to offer payments to workers affected by Victoria’s lockdown. Let’s bring in the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, from Adelaide. Minister. Good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Michael.


Michael Rowland: So as this plan works, the Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth has to agree right on who is subjected to lockdown and who therefore gets these federal payments?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it does require there to be a hot spot in place. Now we have declared greater Melbourne a hot spot. So in that sense, those people who are now entering a second week of lockdown would be eligible for this payment. It’s about providing a helping hand to the retail workers, the hospitality workers, those who may have been stood down or had their hours reduced to zero, who need that helping hand to get them through these next few days.


Michael Rowland: Ok, but what for argument’s sake, as has been the case in Victoria, regional Victorians are subjected to restrictions lose their jobs as well, they wouldn’t get the money under the current threshold.


Simon Birmingham: So regional Victoria is not going into the second week of lockdown, but yes, we have put a definition in place there, just as you would expect in terms of the prudent use of federal money of funds from all Australians, that there’s got to be legitimate reasons for why there are restrictions in place and using the hot is appropriate. But our health officials have always been pragmatic and practical there in terms of the application of that hotspot definition. And that’s why those facing the second week in Melbourne can have the confidence that a bit of assistance is on the way for those who need it.


Michael Rowland: Ok, and what do you make of this reclassification of those cases overnight to false positives? Do you hope that increases pressure on health authorities in Victoria? Certainly the state government to have another look at this second week.


Simon Birmingham: Look, there’s more than 50,000 tests that have been undertaken a day in recent times. That’s fantastic news and continue to encourage Victorians and especially Melburnians, to get out and get tested. Now, these couple of false positives do obviously present reason for health officials to re-evaluate but their re-evaluation will be informed by yesterday’s test results in what other new positives may exist, if there’s a chance to be able to ease some of those restrictions, to perhaps narrow the scope of the lockdown, to maybe get some people back to work sooner or some kids back to school sooner, then I’m sure that would be welcomed. But it’s got to be informed by that health advice and no doubt they’ll be looking closely at that.


Michael Rowland: The Prime Minister made a point of mentioning what he called retrospective compliance activity that’s attached to these federal payments. What is that?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, as always, with payments we make through the federal system. You want to make sure that those who are claiming them are eligible for them and so there will be the potential for audits or checks simply to make sure that people who are out there working, in any event, knowing that many parts of the economy do continue still to function, aren’t also just going in making these claims-


Michael Rowland: To ensure taxpayers’ money isn’t misused?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s right, as always the payments are there to help those who need it, we’re taking them through the national cabinet process today because it’s about putting in place a consistent national framework so that right across the country, people can have confidence. If there’s a repeat of what’s happening in Melbourne, these sorts of systems will kick into gear.


Michael Rowland: Where’s the retrospective compliance activity for Harvey Norman and other companies who received all those millions of dollars in JobKeeper, made huge profits, paid executive bonuses, and are refusing to hand that taxpayer money back to the government?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, they acted within the laws as they were established at the time, we have to go back all the way to March of last year when we developed the JobKeeper programme at that stage. And at that point it was about expected downturn’s in relation to trade and potential of the lockdowns-


Michael Rowland: That was at the time.


Simon Birmingham: – that we were looking at right across the nation.


Michael Rowland: Excuse the interruption. Do you believe it’s right? Do you believe it’s morally right that these big companies, billionaires like Gerry Harvey, are not handing back this taxpayer money?


Simon Birmingham: Many companies are voluntarily paying some money back. We welcome that whereas others are-


Michael Rowland: Well, let’s talk about Harvey Norman in particular that’s attracted a lot of attention. Do you believe Gerry Harvey should put his hand into his very deep pockets and hand back these millions of taxpayers money dollars, given the fact that Harvey Norman made huge profits during the pandemic?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I think companies who are in a position to pay some of the money back ought to look at doing so where indeed they did benefit out of the overall situation.


Michael Rowland: Ok, so that’s-


Simon Birmingham: The Commonwealth law is as was passed by the parliament. We’re not going to go back and change the rules for not only every big business, but also every small business. Many sole traders, small businesses claimed JobKeeper as well and ultimately was there to provide confidence at a time of enormous uncertainty when we were looking at a nationwide lockdown to keep people employed. It worked. It worked overwhelmingly in terms of putting Australia in a position where we now have more people employed than was the case pre pandemic. So it was a program that fundamentally worked.


Michael Rowland: Can you see the disconnect if the federal government chases low paid workers, casual workers under this retrospective compliance activity for those taxpayers dollars and is still doing nothing about those big companies?


Simon Birmingham: We don’t go back and change the laws after they’ve been passed, so we’re not going to go back and go after businesses, be that small ones or big ones who claimed funds that they were under the law at the time entitled to. I understand the argument that you’re making, Michael.


Michael Rowland: Do you think it’s right. Let’s take off your Finance minister’s cap, as a person, as a taxpayer yourself? But do you think what Harvey Norman is doing and these other companies is morally right?


Simon Birmingham: Many of these companies are now paying and employing more Australians. They’ve paid dividends to shareholders.


Michael Rowland: That wasn’t the question. Minister, I’m asking you whether you think it’s morally right?


Simon Birmingham: Michael, I said before that companies who are in a position to do so we’ll welcome them making those repayments and a number are doing so. So I’ve made that clear. But what we are doing right now is, as we’ve done right throughout the pandemic. Respond to the changed circumstances, we’re having first case of an extended lockdown, giving a helping hand to Australians who need it there. And we’re not about to be undertaking heavy handed compliance activities. But indeed, there will be compliance activities associated with JobKeeper too. There are, in the fact that we make sure that businesses claiming that we’re doing so within the law as it was passed by the parliament at the time.


Michael Rowland: We’re nearly out of time. Minister, I want to ask you about the purpose-built quarantine facility proposed for near Melbourne. The federal government coming on board. How much will the federal government pay towards this project?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re still getting costings through in that regard, so it will be some hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of its construction-


Michael Rowland: Federal government- sorry, the state government has asked for two hundred billion dollars. Will you or will you provide two hundred dollars billion?


Simon Birmingham: So the memorandum of understanding that we’ve provided to the state government is broadly in accordance with what they had asked for, and that is that we will fund the construction of the facility and Victorian government will operate the facility, creating additional quarantine places in their system. So, yes, it will run to some hundreds of millions of dollars. There is an expression of interest process underway at present for us to be able to get more detailed costings to enable us to move forward on that.


Michael Rowland: Ok, Minister I know you’ve got to go. Thank you so much for your time this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Michael. My pleasure.