Topics: Budget 2021    


Sabra Lane: Tomorrow’s budget will be the coalition’s eighth, but Senator Simon Birmingham is first as Finance Minister and he joins us now from Parliament House. Good morning.


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


Sabra Lane: This is the second budget worked out during a pandemic. Last year’s assumed that international borders would reopen this year. That’s now unlikely. What time frame are you working towards now?


Simon Birmingham: So we certainly don’t expect to see major movements in international borders until into next year and probably some distance into next year will work through and outline, of course, all of those assumptions that underpin the budget when it’s released tomorrow night. But the international border restrictions have been paramount. Perhaps the single most important factor in keeping COVID-19 out of Australia and therefore keeping Australians safe and keeping Australian jobs safe. And we’re not going to do anything that could jeopardise that safety of Australians or their jobs by throwing the borders open prematurely. And we’re going to keep that type of tight control as we have since we first closed them to China way back in early February last year and then, of course, progressively closed them to the rest of the world bar New Zealand at present.


Sabra Lane: How is the government planning to reopen? There was talk of a series of travel bubbles with only vaccinated allowed to travel without quarantining. How advanced are those talks? We’ve got New Zealand, the bubble there happening. There’s talks of Singapore. Are you working towards a specific date to have all of that working?


Simon Birmingham: We continue to do all sorts of contingency planning to make sure that we are ready and able to reopen when possible with countries where possible. But there are many uncertainties that we’re continuously dealing with. And so putting fixed dates on when you might open with one country or other really isn’t possible. When you look at the fact that a few months ago, people, I think were broadly optimistic that perhaps the world had turned the corner on COVID-19 instead, we’ve seen the tragedy unfold in India. And it’s not just India. Many other countries are reporting very significant new cases daily. And that means we have to keep a very watchful eye on every potential place. And it’s why any circumstance to follow the New Zealand pathway will be a very cautious and careful step in approach


Sabra Lane: What happens to those businesses, small and large? They’re relying on international borders to open for them to survive. And we’re talking everything from Qantas. Alan Joyce last week warned about Australia becoming a hermit state to the small, independent sort of travel agents operating in suburban Australia. What happens to those people?


Simon Birmingham: This is why this budget that will be releasing this week is so important in terms of maintaining and continuing the economic recovery in Australia, because there are those points of pressure and uncertainty that exist within the Australian economy and right across the globe as a result of COVID-19. It may feel as we’re able to go about our business in a pretty normal way around Australia, that the pandemic’s behind us, but it’s far from behind the world and it continues to pose a threat not only to our health but to our economy.


Sabra Lane: But small suburban travel agents that I talked about, they’re independent. How do they survive?


Simon Birmingham: And this is why we have invested strategically and carefully, for example, in support for travel agents, just as we’ve done with both economy wide measures, but also those targeted programmes throughout the pandemic and we’ll continue to respond carefully to need. Many businesses have adapted during the pandemic as well. And that is what’s helped us to get back to the point where we have more Australians employed today than we did this time last year that in fact, we have had at any other time in Australia’s history. And that’s a remarkable achievement, something hardly anybody would have thought possible 12 months ago. And it’s a testament not just to the success of government policies, but to the adaptability of Australian business to be able to seize those new opportunities to grow as Australians spend and invest in their lives in different ways.


Sabra Lane: The government is making much of the measures that are set aside for women in the budget. If it hadn’t been for the rape allegations here at Parliament House and the spotlight on poor treatment of women more broadly across the community, would these announcements be happening?


Simon Birmingham: They certainly would be. We had, as a government already invested significantly in relation to women’s safety programmes, and we had ensured that we had scaled them up in delivery of the national action plans in relation to safety and on economic participation and where the government had delivered a reformed childcare subsidy that helped drive workforce participation to a record level prior to the pandemic. And our targeted and careful additional investments in childcare really are focussed on helping those families who face some continued barriers to choose to work, if that is their choice, and to be able to access work. And so and we are targeting extra investment in those areas, building off of our prior investments.


Sabra Lane: Just quickly, aged care figures being floated around 10 billion over four years, 18 billion. The sector says 10 million a year is needed to fix the problems highlighted in the royal commission.


Simon Birmingham: We’ve worked very carefully through the recommendations of the aged care royal commission staff. Morrison called the royal commission, it does identify that we need to invest more to ensure that quality, safety, availability of aged care, both in residential care settings and in home care settings, has an uplift. And what people will see tomorrow night is a once in a generation investment that is very, very significant and not going to reveal the figure prior to the budget. But it is going to address quality, safety, availability and, of course, support for the aged care workforce.


Sabra Lane: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.