• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Return of jobs, barley battle with China, COVID-19 funding limit.
12 May 2020

Lisa Millar: Let’s go back to our top story now, with predictions a quarter of a million jobs could return within weeks as lockdown restrictions are eased across the country. For more, the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Canberra.

Mr Birmingham, thank you very much. Welcome to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Lisa. Great to be with you.

Lisa Millar: Look, I want to talk about what we’re going to hear from the Treasurer later today with you. But first, just a quick one on this ongoing battle with China re the barley. Have you made any advances with this? Because at the moment, it looks like Australia may have made a mistake going hard on this inquiry corona-19, and now Australian farmers are paying the price for it.

Simon Birmingham: Well Lisa, this is a near 18-month investigation that China’s equivalent to Australia’s Anti-Dumping Commission has been undertaking now. And we don’t accept there’s a prima facie case, let alone a conclusive case, when it comes to suggestions that our world-class competitive barley and grain growers around the country subsidise, had their products subsidised or dumped their product below production cost into any market in the world – we operate firmly in a globally competitive way. But it is a process that we’re engaged in with the Chinese government. It’s still got around a week to go, and we will use this remaining time to put the strongest possible case forward, providing the evidence, and demonstrating very clearly that our producers operate in an entirely commercial way, and price their product in the Chinese market in an entirely commercial way.

Lisa Millar: The Opposition’s, Penny Wong, has said the relationship with China is not in a great place. Is she right?

Simon Birmingham: There are points of differences that exist between the Australian Government and the Chinese Government, that’s not surprising and not exactly newsworthy. It’s well-known that we have argued firmly that there ought be an investigation into the handling of COVID-19, that’s because we’ve had a situation where hundreds of thousands of people around the world have lost their lives, millions of people have lost their jobs, and billions of people had their lives disrupted. And the least the world should expect from that is that there is a transparent inquiry and investigation so that we can learn the lessons for the future and make sure that we either avoid a repeat of this or are much better prepared to handle it next time around.

Lisa Millar: Let’s turn to what’s ahead today. We’re already getting hints that Josh Frydenberg is going to deliver some bad news, but perhaps good news, suggesting hundreds of thousands of Australians could be back at work. But gosh, there’s a lot that hangs on that, isn’t there? If we’ve got of sort of abide by these ongoing rules set down by the states?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is a real message for all Australians, that we are still all in this together. It is still a responsibility of every one of us to make sure that we abide by the basics that we started out in terms of the handling of COVID-19 – the basics of hand washing, the basics of social distancing. Because if we can stick with those basics and follow the guidelines, we can work through all the stages of reopening our economy. And if we can work through all of those stages, it will be worth around $9.4 billion a month in additional economic activity across Australia and that means hundreds of thousands of Australians more secure, back in their jobs – and that’s what we desperately need to see. And that’s why we all have to play our role in making sure that we keep COVID-19 under control, and that can get the country back to work.

Lisa Millar: It’s a balance, isn’t it? Between health and the economy? And it’s a risk if you tilt one way or the other? And certainly there are people who believe that the Coalition Government is tilting too far towards the economy and not making sure that we’ve dealt with the health aspects.

Simon Birmingham: I don’t accept that it’s a complete trade-off. We do know that, for an economic shutdown that lasts too long there are a range of other health implications that come into that – the impact on mental health, the impact on family violence, the impact in terms of people’s financial wellbeing and therefore their ability in terms of looking after themselves properly.

So, we can’t just see this as a binary trade-off, that it’s the economy or health. COVID-19 is not the only health-related factor, and we need to have a healthy country which means people are in jobs, children are in schools, people are earning incomes and contributing to society, because that’s what ends up funding our health system and all of the other things that make Australia one of the best places in the world to live.

So, yes, we’ve got to get a balance right to make sure that the way in which we ease restrictions don’t create a spike in COVID-19 cases, and that’s why we’re stepping through several gradual stages. But we absolutely need to get people back to work for their own health and wellbeing as much as for the economic outcomes.

Lisa Millar: The Treasurer is also going to make the point that there’s no money tree, that $320 billion that’s been allocated is the absolute limit. What if that is not enough to get Australia’s economy back on track?

Simon Birmingham: We have been clear all along as a Government, the approach we take is based on principles that support provided during the COVID-19 crisis needs to be targeted where it’s needed most, needs to be proportionate to the problems that people are facing, and needs to be temporary because we cannot have the rate of spending that’s in place at present going on forever. Australia is incredibly fortunate and Government has been able to respond with additional investment way above what most other economies have. And we’ve been able to do that because we had lower debt levels and a stronger budget position to start with.

We’ve got to make sure, again, that we are well-placed for the long term, as well as dealing with the short term, and that does mean getting spending back under control.

Lisa Millar: So the cheque books has been torn up? Three hundred and twenty billion, that’s it?

Simon Birmingham: Look, no we will continue, as I say, to stick by those principles of ensuring support is targeted, proportionate, time-limited. But I think Australians do understand as well that you can’t have a society function where lots of people don’t go to work and government is just paying out billions of dollars of money on the never-never, and we’ve got to find a way to bring it back to the equilibrium. But that first and foremost relies on Australians sticking to those basics of hand hygiene and social distancing, and following the guidelines, because that’s what allows us to get that equilibrium back in society.

Lisa Millar: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Lisa.