Topics: Protests; Visa holders returning to Australia; International students; Senate proceedings; Legislation agenda;
Fran Kelly: Well, Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Minister, welcome back to breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Morning Fran, great to be with you again.
Fran Kelly: It’s always better if I turn your microphone on, Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. [Laughs]
Fran Kelly: Been a while since I’ve been in the studio. Victorian Premier Dan Andrews says the prime minister is, quote, pandering to extremists. Will the government condemn without any reservation the threats of violence we saw last week?
Simon Birmingham: The government does Fran. I do and the prime minister has. We absolutely condemn any threats of violence, acts of violence in Australian political debate. They have no place at all. That’s not to say there aren’t Australians who have issues that they raise with politicians on a day to day basis, and some of them choose to protest. But any protests should be peaceful and should be should be undertaken in ways that are about advancing their cause, not undermining security or peaceful activity.
Fran Kelly: What angered many is the way the Prime Minister seem to qualify his condemnation. He said that while he has no tolerance for violence, it’s time for Australians to take their lives back, expressly expressing sympathy for those who are demonstrating. I mean, doesn’t that signal to protesters that the prime minister’s got their backs?
Simon Birmingham: No, Fran. I mean, the prime minister listens to all Australians and listens very carefully to the concerns that he hears not just from those who might turn out to protest, who are usually only a very small proportion of the populace. But to those that he hears from right across the length and breadth of the country. And-
Fran Kelly: Sure. But was that the time to send that message to them rather than just stop at condemning those who bring gallows, death threats, all sorts of violent acts to a protest?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, he did condemn them and-.
Fran Kelly: and then he qualified it-
Simon Birmingham: and the condemnation was clear and he repeated it again subsequently, and the government has continued to do so. And I’ve certainly done so in no uncertain terms and I’m happy to do so again. As I said, Fran, those activities, those actions, those banners and placards have no place in respectful debate, deserve condemnation, and we have done so. That doesn’t mean that you don’t keep trying to listen to all Australians and legitimate concerns expressed in more peaceful ways.
Fran Kelly: But there you go again. I mean, of course, it doesn’t mean that, of course, the government will listen to respectful concerns. Why do you need to add that on? I mean, how worried is the coalition about losing support to the likes of One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia party?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, this is this is actually about making sure that we keep all Australians together through the process of finalising our responses to COVID-19. We’ve done so well as a country through 2020 and 2021. Estimates show that the national response to COVID has saved in excess of 30,000 lives from closing our international borders to the work that we’ve done that states and territories right across the country, labor and liberal have all done have saved tens of thousands of Australian lives. They’ve also, from our economic responses such as JobKeeper and other policies, saved many thousands of Australian businesses and hundreds of thousands of Australian jobs estimates of more than 700,000 jobs being saved through our national responses to the pandemic. The vaccine rates across this country now are some of the highest in the world. 91 per cent first vax in excess of 85 per cent now second dose vaccination. These are world leading rates and now should give us confidence to try to move together as united as possible into the next stages, which the Prime Minister will further outline today in terms of opening our international borders as we’ve been doing safely and progressively to fully vaccinated international students and essential workers coming back to our country.
Fran Kelly: I want to come to it that in a minute. But just to stay with the tenor and the temperature of some of these protests that MPs have told us they’ve received death threats. Federal politicians are saying their electoral offices are being inundated with, you know, angry anti-vaxxers, if the temperature isn’t worried, isn’t lowered. Are you worried that we could see the same type of political violence that’s occurred in the US or even in the UK? Could we see physical attacks against politicians here? Are you concerned at?
Simon Birmingham: That’s always a concern, perhaps in the back of the mind of any politician.
Fran Kelly: Is it?
Simon Birmingham: Ultimately, I’ve seen, you know, vandalism, attacks and other things on my own electorate office and have had occasions where I, as many others have had police engagement in terms of some of my public events and activities. That’s a sad part of public life, we should always try to keep the debate as respectful as possible and that is why indeed, those who seek to elevate it to two levels that do provoke or promote violence in any form deserve condemnation and have been condemned by the Prime Minister, by the leader of the opposition, by both sides of politics in this country, as they should be.
Fran Kelly: The PM, though, has got this message about freedom is sort of changing his tune. He’s now saying government should get out of people’s lives, he says. We aren’t about telling Australians what to do, but he’s the guy who shut the international border, who closed down the economy, who locked us down for weeks and weeks, told us exactly what to do and not to do all for good reason to keep us safe. The states and territories were following that lead, and now they’re copping it from the prime minister. I mean, is the PM shifting tack here because it’s politically convenient?
Simon Birmingham: Okay. I mean, you’re right, friend. The prime minister did lead by closing the international borders and did so before other restrictions were put in place, and that was proven to be an incredibly important and successful measure-.
Fran Kelly: Sure and people supported those measures-
Simon Birmingham: The prime minister has also led at this stage as we’ve been getting these very high vaccination rates, by taking a national plan to the national cabinet that outlined how at very high levels at 80 per cent plus double vaccination levels, we could move to reopen vast swathes of our country and move to a management of COVID-19 that was far more targeted. Now we have as a country, well exceeded that 80 per cent double vax rate. It’s now past 85 per cent and we’ve got, as I said, 91 per cent in excess of that having had their first dose. So that means we need to be progressing through the different stages. And that’s what the prime minister again will be leading today in doing, having opened our international borders to fully vaccinated Australian citizens, permanent residents and their families. We’re now looking to the next stage of that that will enable international students to return to our universities, critical workers to return into key sectors in Australia.
Fran Kelly: Sure. I mean, yes, everyone knows we’re going to through vaccination, move to opening up. But we’re not about telling Australians what to do is always in the light of the premiers are. But just to move on to this announcement the prime minister’s going to make today. The reports say the government will soon allow more than 200,000 visa holders into the country students, as you say, economic migrants, refugees. The treasurer says we’ll accelerate the economic recovery. What’s the time frame for soon?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, the PM will detail that alongside health officials during the course of today, so I’m not going to pre-empt all the details of the announcement there-
Fran Kelly: But will it be quicker than the sort of mid-2022 that the budget intimated?
Simon Birmingham: International students should be expect to be attending classes and be at universities for the commencement next year. And we would be encouraging them to make their plans and to be back here to be able to give that lift to our universities and to the many other parts of our economy that have benefited so much from international students.
Fran Kelly: And is this being done in tandem with the states and territories who, you know, many of whom want a cautious reopening? Are they on board with this? Or are they going to ignite tensions again?
Simon Birmingham: So as we with returning international Australian citizens and permanent residents, you’ve got Victoria and New South Wales who have been playing a leading role in reopening their international borders. Other states have spelt out different criteria for when they will provide that type of movement, and that will be a matter really for those states to continue to work through those issues and we’ll respect that. Obviously, we want them to get the very high vaccination rates in New South Wales and Victoria, too, so that they hopefully can follow suit and have international students back for commencement at their unions next year, too.
Fran Kelly: Just on that, I mean, a lot of people think that the vaccine mandates in some sectors in those states were the reason for those high vaccination rates. The anti-vaxxer sentiment is going to play out in the Senate this week. A number of coalition senators will not support government bills in the next two weeks unless the prime minister steps in and overrides state and territory vaccine mandates. The Queensland Liberal Gerard Rennick says quote It’s a hill I’ll die on. South Australian Alexander says the government must act to protect people’s freedoms. Pauline Hanson is threatening to create mayhem. Do they have you over a barrel? The numbers are pretty tight, are you going to cave in?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, no, the government won’t be dictated to. We will do as we’ve always done, which is work with our health advisers and to make sure that the policy settings we take are informed fully by that health advice. Now, I fully respect the right of Liberal and National Party colleagues to cross the floor as is a time honoured tradition of individuals to do so. What I would urge any parliamentarian, though not to do, is to hold one issue ransom to other unrelated issues that each piece of legislation, each vote that comes before the parliament ought to be considered on their merits, not held ransom to other matters.
Fran Kelly: Were you talking to them? Are you confident they won’t cross the floor and embarrass the government?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, as I said, it’s a right of any two to cross the floor in the Liberal Party and in the National Party. It’s for these individuals to obviously explain the position that they’re taking. We continue to have. Discussions with all, but as I said before, we’re not about to be held to ransom, we will continue to make sure all aspects of our COVID-19 response work in lockstep with the health advice we receive from Commonwealth health officials and agencies.
Fran Kelly: We know that we will see finally the government’s reworked religious freedom laws this week. It’s a bill that many people think is unnecessary. The government’s elevated that ahead of a National Anti-Corruption Commission bill, despite a raft of scandals we’ve seen over the last two years. Sports rorts, car park rorts, Leppington Triangle, Christian Porter’s blind trust. What does that say about the government’s priorities?
Simon Birmingham: Both of those bills have been through incredibly extensive consultation processes. They’ve both had draught bills released for public comment, and the Attorney-General has been working through that public response and comment in terms of those bills and their finalisation. Now she’ll have further to say, I’m sure during the course of this sitting period in relation to those
Fran Kelly: Bills, will we see both bills this fortnight?
Simon Birmingham: Oh, let’s say the act is working through finalisation of them so well.
Fran Kelly: You’re the leader of government in the Senate. Do you expect to be fielding both these bills in this final fortnight?
Simon Birmingham: I never like to predict entirely what will happen in the Senate, and-
Fran Kelly: Do you hope to see both bills?
Simon Birmingham: We will be agile in that regard. I’ll leave it to the Attorney-General to make statements on her legislation and the agenda there.
Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran. And can I say best wishes to you and Marian and thank you for so many years of information, entertainment and challenging interviews.
Fran Kelly: Thanks very much, Minister, and thank you for fronting up, Always. Simon Birmingham is the federal Finance Minister and the Leader of the Government in the Senate.