Topics:  Upper-Hunter by election; Kurri Kurri power station; vaccine passport; vaccine rollout;



Fran Kelly: But on another front, the Prime Minister’s facing stiff opposition to a plan he’ll take to the next national cabinet for what’s effectively a vaccine passport that would deny freedom of movement to Australians who refuse to be immunised. Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and Government Leader in the Senate. I spoke with him earlier.


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


Fran Kelly: Minister, your government’s making a big pitch for Labor’s blue collar vote, but should anyone really read that much into the result in the Upper Hunter? Isn’t this just another example of pandemic politics rewarding the incumbent voters liking the way Gladys Berejiklian sounded the COVID crisis?


Simon Birmingham: Well, one state by election, Fran and I would treat it as such. I congratulate Gladys Berejiklian and her team and the National Party and their team on a strong result retaining that seat. It’s had a range of different factors at play, and certainly many of them very much local, very much state politics. Our approach in terms of the next 12 months before the election is to focus firmly on our federal issues, of which no doubt the continued management of COVID-19 continuing to keep Australians safe, particularly continuing to keep Australians safe in their jobs and their businesses secure and successful will be key things-


Fran Kelly: We’re told the federal government, federal coalition does have an eye on the next election, though, and it’s already targeting three Labor held seats in the Hunter region and seats in western Sydney and the Central Coast. But the Nationals only polled 31-32 per cent of the primary vote in this by election. That’s in a seat. It’s held at the state level for more than 90 years. The raft of independents split the Labor vote. Does it, do you think it really gives us much of a clue about what might happen in the Hunter at the next federal election?


Simon Birmingham: Because I said it is a state by election and that’s why I wouldn’t read too much into it myself. We will campaign strongly as a coalition across those seats and elsewhere right across the country, because we do have a far stronger message than our political opponents in terms of the economic security, job security, employment prospects for Australians is an economic plan built on lower taxes. And you can see the confusion in Labor ranks as to whether they do or don’t support those lower tax policies of the Liberal and National parties.


Fran Kelly: The Prime Minister is quoted as saying Labor has, quote, completely lost touch in the Hunter Valley. And the government, we’re told, is targeting those three Labor held seats at a federal level. Hunter, Patterson and Shortland, how strongly are you targeting these and how many do you think you’ll win?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a long way away to start making those sorts of predictions, but we will put up a strong fight in those regions. You know, they are regions that clearly have large numbers of working Australian families, hardworking Australian families who want to know they’ve got a government that is with them backing them in terms of creating the incentives for them to be able to work harder, take the extra shift, secure the extra part time job or otherwise, and keep a bit more of their hard earned salary through lower taxes. And also know that we’ll be creating the job security for them, be that in relation to the type of tax policies we’re putting in place as well as incentives for businesses to invest, or be it in relation to sectors like that, in regions like that, where security in the energy market is important for plants like the aluminium smelter in that region to know that they’ve got reliable, affordable power for the future. And we know that they are important factors in those communities too.


Fran Kelly: The government certainly the federal government certainly did its bit, announcing the Kurri Kurri government built $600 million gas plant within four days of that by election. Is the government still going to go ahead and spend that taxpayers money on a project that experts say is not needed and will end up supporting only a handful of jobs, as few as 10?


Simon Birmingham: Well 12 months ago the Prime Minister made clear that he wanted to see 1000 megawatts of additional dispatchable energy-


Fran Kelly: But since then experts have told him that much isn’t needed. I mean, that’s clear. If you read all the regulator reports, that’s clear.


Simon Birmingham: Well this is particularly important in relation to pricing. The independent modelling has shown that prices could spike by up to about 30 per cent by 2024 without this sort of additional generation capacity in the market. The analysis that’s being done, the business case that’s been undertaken by Snowy Hydro shows that this is a viable plant that the government can make an investment in and achieve a credible rate of return on for which the government can also act in a way that puts downward pressure on electricity prices overall-.


Fran Kelly: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, Minister, but you are Australia’s Finance Minister. As our Finance Minister, what’s your view that this is a viable project while the market itself wouldn’t invest?


Simon Birmingham: Fran-


Fran Kelly: $600 million of taxpayers money.


Simon Birmingham:  Well, I’m about to answer your question, Fran. We do see a lot of vertical integration in the energy market. In some ways, for retailers or others, it’s in interests to keep tension in relation to the amount of supply which enables margins and prices to operate at a slightly higher level. The government wants to see prices operating at the lowest viable level. But importantly, from a taxpayer standpoint, this is a decision backed by analysis that Snowy Hydro has undertaken, they are confident through their business analysis and the work they’ve had done, and that there is a clear rate of return for taxpayers from this investment to genuine investment in a genuine asset that will deliver greater energy security for critical industrial businesses that support many thousands of jobs. And it’s also an investment in lower power prices for those businesses and other Australians.


Fran Kelly: The New South Wales Nationals leader John Barilaro says the decision to underwrite the Kurri Kurri gas pipe was announced was supposed to be announced three or four weeks ago he said, that’s a quote. In the end, as I mentioned, it was announced just three or four days before the by election. How many votes did the six hundred dollars million, do you think, snap up to the coalition?


Simon Birmingham: Well, for the third time in the interview it was a state by election and I think-


Fran Kelly:  Federal government announcement though.


Simon Birmingham: And we had said that we would make the decisions in relation to that by around the end of April. And we said that we would do that 12 months ago. We had absolutely no knowledge 12 months ago that there would be a by election in that region. And we’ve made the decisions consistent with the timeline we set out 12 months ago.


Fran Kelly: Speaking with Simon Birmingham, Australia’s Finance Minister. Minister on the pandemic, the Prime Minister will take a plan to national cabinet to allow vaccinated Australians to travel between states in the event of COVID lockdowns, effectively an internal passport that would restrict the movement of perhaps many Australians in their own country. Do you support that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the Prime Minister’s obviously going to talk, as he frequently does, through national governments, state and territory leaders, about the next stages in the vaccine rollout and yes, around how, as the vaccine rollout progresses, we can give greater certainty to Australians in terms of what being vaccinated delivers for them by way of benefits across the country. Now, it’s not a passport Australians will have through their MyHealth or other records, an easy way to show any stage they need to that they have been vaccinated.


Fran Kelly: Premiers and chief ministers don’t appear to be great fans of this plan. Neither one of your own backbencher, Matt Canavan, who says he’s dead against interstate passports on the grounds that freedom of movement is an Australian birthright. It would be an extreme change in this country, wouldn’t it, for people to be locked out of moving interstate because they choose not to have a vaccine?


Simon Birmingham: And, Fran, first and foremost, I want to make sure that we keep the borders open by keeping COVID-19 suppressed. That’s the priority to make sure that the states and territories have no excuse or reason to close those borders. It’s not unreasonable, though, to be talking through whether or not having large numbers of vaccinated Australians and we’ve now had more than three point six million doses of vaccine administered is not unreasonably talking through with the states and territories. Whether or not those vaccinated Australians are able to move more freely or not, all of that has to be based firmly and squarely on the health advice. Health advice certainly shows getting vaccinated means your risk of death, your risk of serious illness is dramatically reduced.


Fran Kelly: Just finally, Minister, the government’s now promising that two million Pfizer doses will be available each week from the start of October. Does this mean that every Australian who wants protection from COVID will be fully immunised then by the end of the year, which is what the AMA is now saying? Are you prepared now to make that commitment?


Simon Birmingham: And that’s certainly a hope. But there have been many uncertainties in the vaccine rollout to date. And I think we need to continue to be honest about the fact that we can’t control every aspect of global supply, that we can’t control, whether there are unexpected impacts in relation to health or other factors of advice that impact the vaccine rollout.


Fran Kelly: We’ve also seen some degree, an alarming degree of vaccine hesitancy so far, which some in Australia prefer to call AstraZeneca hesitancy. People are hesitant about AstraZeneca because of the known health risks. Should they just wait until October knowing as the health minister has told us now, there’ll be an MRNA vaccine available for all by the end of the year.


Simon Birmingham: Australians who are aged over 50 who have concerns or hesitancy should sit down and talk to their GP. That’s why we built this vaccine program in a way where general practitioners were well placed to deliver the vaccine and therefore well placed to talk through the issues with Australians. That’s the right place for people to get their health advice. Australians are turning out and they’re making the decision to get vaccinated. I congratulate them for it and encourage people to keep talking to their medical advisers, their GPs about that.


Fran Kelly: All right, Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran. My pleasure.