Topics: Protestors; Emissions reductions technology; EVs; Labour force figures; Economic recovery;
Vickie Chapman;


Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Minister for Finance, good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Spence. Good to be with you.


Spence Denny: Talk to me about your office. You’re not here. You’re not in South Australia at the moment, are you?


Simon Birmingham: No, yes, I am. I have spent the last 14 days isolating, having returned from Canberra. I’m doing my fifth lot, I think of 14 days isolation. But back here, however, I have a number of commitments, so I haven’t been into the office yet this morning. I’ve been out doing other things. An unpleasant, welcoming for my team as they arrive at work, though.


Spence Denny: Have they made their point?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, whatever point it is Extinction Rebellion ever make, if they’re going to harass somebody, I guess I’m more grateful that they’re disrupting me and my office than gluing themselves to the roads around Victoria Square and disrupting tens of thousands of South Australians trying to get to work, as they did a couple of weeks ago. And so, you know, look, I think these are extremists who wouldn’t ever be satisfied by anything. Let’s appreciate that, Australia’s made the commitment to achieve net zero by 2050. Three of the world’s top four emitting nations have not. China hasn’t. Russia hasn’t. India hasn’t. So, you know, we have taken a big step in the commitment we have made in the Glasgow talks. We’re investing billions of dollars in doing so. We’re one of the few countries of the world who can say that we’ve met and exceeded all of the commitments that we’ve made to date. And yet these guys, of course, still cry out in such juvenile ways for more.


Spence Denny: Isn’t it cute, though, Simon Birmingham to say that that technology and letting Australians make their own decision is going to be the way that we would achieve that net zero by 2050, when realistically you won’t be in office in 2050? Who knows what the political landscape will be then and how the rest of the world has responded. So it’s easy to make statements like that. Isn’t, isn’t the world and organisations like Extinction Rebellion looking for specific plans to actually achieve this goal?


Simon Birmingham: We’re not just making the statements, we have a detailed technology investment roadmap. This week, the prime minister announced the creation of a further fund that will generate $1 billion worth of investment in areas of low emissions, zero emissions technology start ups across the country. He’s also detailed investments in new charging infrastructure across the nation and the changes to our electricity grid to support that charging infrastructure for the uptake of electric vehicles hydrogen powered vehicles. That’s close to a $1.2 billion commitment there. Australians know that technology is what makes the difference. It’s why Australians, more than any other country in the world have put solar panels on the roofs of houses across our nation. It’s those changes which are encouraged by government policy government incentives. Simply what we’re saying is we’re not going to tax people out of their jobs into higher electricity bills or other pressure points. To achieve this change, we’re going to invest as we are in these technological changes that achieve the lower emissions and ultimately net zero emissions pathway we want. And we’ve identified a range of investments in the hydrogen sector in the land use sector in terms of getting greater carbon content into our soils and the opportunities there for our farmers, as well as those other things I’ve spoken about in terms of energy and transport fleets.


Spence Denny: How are you going to maintain the roads if we’re all going to buy electric cars and you’re not paying fuel excise, how are you going to maintain the roads?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is where I think the state government here and the Labor government across the border in Victoria are showing some responsibility in some foresight there and just having a look at what the long term pathway for vehicle charging around electric vehicles is. That yes, governments do rely on essentially road user charges in the form of petrol excise nowadays and there will have to be some transition there. Petrol excise was traditionally levied by the states and territories. Some constitutional things caused that to have to change that many years ago now. But the states are doing the right thing, just taking those early tentative steps to look at how the transition pathway works.


Spence Denny: Right. So but all right. So I mean, we know the governments are earning a lot of money and we can we can talk about the economy shortly, if you like. But if we’re collecting excise from people buying fuel and there’s a there’s a suggestion that maybe we should have some sort of incentive to buy any vehicle. These are all expensive measures, aren’t they?


Simon Birmingham: Well Spence, indeed, there are different costs that are genuine costs, but you know, they are worth investing in to make sure not only that we reduce our emissions, but that Australia, if we look at an area like the investments, the billions of dollars we will invest in trying to develop hydrogen industries in Australia. That we do that as a replacement industry, an energy source, as we expect to see other nations potentially shift away from some of those traditional energy sources we’ve exported to the world. You know, we know that partner countries in Japan and Korea are already investing in hydrogen industry developments in Australia because they’ve long relied upon us to send them coal, iron ore, gas and to be an energy and resources supplier to those nations. And they want us to continue to be in the future. And there are valued partners in ensuring that hydrogen potential be it over near Whyalla, in SA or a number of other sites being explored around the country can get off the ground and ensure that we don’t just reduce our emissions, but we also create the new industries and jobs that those regions will need for the future.


Spence Denny: You’re listening to ABC Radio Adelaide. Shortly, we are going to cross to Troy Simcock, senator, because he’s outside your office at the moment. They’ve roped off the manure, and I think all the tomato growers around Hindmarsh, etc. are lining up to try and snap up some of that manure.


Simon Birmingham: I hope so, Spence and I do encourage them to do so. Let’s not see it go to waste and have unnecessary emissions there. Let’s put it to productive purpose.


Spence Denny: Let’s talk about the economy, if we can. The unemployment rate six month high. Interestingly, when it comes to unemployment figures, I always find it curious that because there are more people looking for work. The unemployment figures reflect that, whereas if you’re unemployed but not looking for work, you’re not counted as unemployed, which is kind of curious for me. But because lockdown has now been eased in Victoria and New South Wales, people have gone back to work and so the unemployment rate has surged.


Simon Birmingham: So a few things happening in terms of the unemployment rate in these figures that were released yesterday and it is important to take a look at the state by state data to really understand it. So in South Australia, we saw more jobs created and in fact, more than 30,000 created in SA this year, a testament to being open, not having lockdown and to the policies that are in place here. We saw in terms of this data that there were jobs created in New South Wales where they were taking the first tentative steps to reopening from their long lockdown. But jobs lost in Victoria, where they were still at the end of very, very long lockdown periods when we look at the situation in Victoria. So quite different regional factors. But on the whole, Australia’s economy, including our job numbers and our unemployment rate, has held up far, far better than almost any comparable international nation through COVID-19. And we’ve seen yes, more people across the country come back into the labour market. So they’re looking for work, which is good. We’ve seen the effective unemployment rate, which is looking at those people who might have been stood down to zero hours but not have actually lost their job to say reduce, which was good. And we’re seeing now all the measures of consumer confidence, business confidence and job vacancies that are advertised growing very strongly again, which should give a lot of cause for confidence and optimism.


Spence Denny: So a lot of that came around the economic stimulus. I mean, obviously, this has been an expensive time for government because you’ve had all the stimulus packages, you’ve had the cost of vaccinations, the cost of administering vaccinations, what has it actually cost us this period and how do we make up for it?


Simon Birmingham: It has cost an awful lot, Spence. And there’ll be a big tally up, no doubt as we as we get towards the end, hopefully of lockdowns and those disruptions. There are the direct financial costs [indistinct] of buying vaccines and providing economic support programs like JobKeeper, other household and business support. The additional billions of dollars we’ve provided to the states and territories to support health and hospital systems, and some of those expenses are still ongoing. It has resulted in us running some of the largest budget deficits in the nation’s peacetime history. So we faced bigger deficits during World War One, World War Two as a share of the economy than we faced as a share of the economy today. So looking at them in relative terms and the way we have to move beyond this is to make sure that we grow our economy in the years to come faster than debt and continue to shrink that debt as a share of the economy in the years to come. International ratings agencies, the credit ratings agencies still see Australia as a very good bet. Just two or three weeks ago, Fitch, who are one of the three alongside S&P’s and Moody’s, reaffirmed our AAA credit rating standing and indeed took Australia off of the negative watch list, which might sound counterintuitive to many listeners that at a time of significant deficits in these sorts of pressures, they’ve taken us off of the negative watch list. But it’s a reminder that again, compared to other developed countries around the world, our debt levels as a share of the economy are much lower and are seen as more manageable, and our economy is seen as stronger and more resilient.


Spence Denny: ¬†Senator Simon Birmingham while we’ve got you, we know that the state Attorney-General and Deputy Premier is facing a parliamentary inquiry at the moment as to whether or not she had a conflict of interest when she made a decision about a port on Kangaroo Island. Do you see a perceived conflict of interest there for the Attorney-General expense?


Simon Birmingham: I mean, this is obviously a state matter and I haven’t followed all of the entrails, but I do find the show trial nature that seems to be going on at present quite remarkable. Nobody from the opposition seems to be suggesting that the wrong decision was made to reject that port proposal, and there seems to be widespread support across the community and especially the Kangaroo Island community, for the decision that was taken. So it seems remarkable that all this effort is been going to for a decision that seems to be supported. And then if I look at the conduct of this parliamentary enquiry and I’ve seen a lot of parliamentary enquiries, the Senate is famous for its parliamentary enquiries, but I struggled to recall any where I can remember taxpayers having to pay for QCs to come and ask the questions at the parliamentary enquiry. You know, I don’t know what’s wrong with the Labor Party in South Australia that they can’t ask their own questions and they need to use the taxpayers money to hire a QC to come in and seek to prosecute this case. It seems to just add to the show trial nature of it that they’ve tried to turn it into some sort of mini ICAC rather than a standard parliamentary enquiry. Where certainly in Canberra. The Senate has come along or the members of Parliament come along, and they’re the ones who ask the questions and we leave the lawyers for the courtrooms.


Spence Denny: Well perhaps they were looking for independents who would be able to get to the bottom of whether or not the Attorney-General having property adjacent to an area where trucks are going to go past puts you in a position of conflict. You clearly don’t think she is.


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I know Vicki well and know that she is somebody who acts with absolute diligence and care and all of her decision making, and I’m confident she would have on this. And as I say, the Labor Party don’t seem to be suggesting that the wrong decision was made. From what I can tell, they completely support the decision and so do the people of Kangaroo Island.


Spence Denny: So, so you’re happy to adopt those standards in circumstances like this. If there was a minister who had property adjacent to a proposed development that it’d be fine if they were the person who made the decision about whether or not that development would go ahead. You’re OK with that?


I think we should all, and I certainly take care in terms of conflict of interest issues that might come before me and make sure that they are properly managed if it ever arises. And that’s important when you’re making decisions about grant funding or other policy decisions that might have a more direct influence impact on your interests. I think the argument here that is made is that is that Vicki, I believe, doesn’t believe there was a direct impact on her interests. Nobody seems to quibble from the opposition or the local community with the decision that she made. They all seem to support the decision that she made, and the way in which this is being prosecuted is quite unusual and extraordinary and not something that I’ve seen in many years of parliamentary service in terms of handballing to a QC who they won’t be, the one who sits in judgement. Tom Koutsantonis, as chair of this committee, will still be the one with his predetermined judgement on Vicki will ultimately no doubt seek to hand down what will be a predetermined, prejudiced and biased report.


Spence Denny: So if you were in that situation, would you make a decision that is potentially going to have an impact on your local community or property adjacent to that? If you were in that situation, would you feel comfortable that people would trust your judgement if you were in that situation?


Simon Birmingham: Well Spence, you’re asking me without having all of the details before me-


Spence Denny: But that is clear here. If you found yourself in a situation where you had to make a decision about the approval of a development and you had property adjacent to it, would you feel comfortable that there wouldn’t be a perception that you making that decision puts you in a conflict situation, a situation of conflict of interest?


Simon Birmingham: Spence, I think if I was confident that there was no financial impact either way in terms of the decisions that that I was making, then I think that becomes fairly defensible that if there’s no financial impact to your holdings, to your investments to any of your personal circumstances, then that is quite defensible. You’re in these positions to do the job that is there to make the decisions that you’re entrusted to do at the time. And whilst we see all be very careful in management of conflicts of interest, we equally shouldn’t unnecessarily shirk that decision making. And I think it’s also important where people, particularly at state and local government level, they have roles where there is an expectation of bringing some local knowledge, local skills and understanding to such a decision. In this regard, I think understanding the views of the Kangaroo Island community, the concerns of the Kangaroo Island community and their interest is not a bad thing for somebody to have had in making and forming that decision.


Spence Denny: What’s the difference between any sort of financial gain or any effect on lifestyle? I mean, I don’t think there is any suggestion in this perception of a conflict of interest here at the moment that there’d be any financial penalty or any drop in potential revenue or anything like that as a result of this decision. This is more of a lifestyle thing, isn’t it? I mean, if your way of life is affected by something that’s going on in your immediate vicinity, isn’t that also put you in a position of conflict?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Spence. Vicki doesn’t live on Kangaroo Island. She might own land there as part of her family holdings. That have been there for generations, but she doesn’t actually live there. All right. I’m not sure the way of life argument carries much currency.


Spence Denny: Okay, so you support the state Attorney-General in this enquiry.


Simon Birmingham: I’d say I know Vicki well, they have complete confidence that she is nothing but diligent and thorough in the way she goes about her job. And I think sometimes we do just need to come back to, you know, the bare basics on an issue and on this issue, the community seems to support the decision that she made to not proceed with that development. Even the opposition in the Labor Party seem to support it. This is purely a politically motivated show trial. They seem to be engaging in using taxpayers funds in ways for parliamentary enquiries, as I say that I’ve not seen in many, many years.


Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you. You better go get some of that manure before it is all gone.


Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Thank you, Spence. Come on down. 107 Donald Bradman Drive, Hilton for all the western suburbs gardeners.


Spence Denny: Federal Minister for Finance here on ABC Radio Adelaide.