Topics: Disaster assistance payments; COVID-19 response




Waleed Aly: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now, thankfully not on Zoom and on his own. So why would you do this when your own plan, your own national plan that your government is pushing says that there will still need to be lockdowns after we reach 80 per cent vaccination?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Waleed, what it says is that there may be need for highly targeted, very specific lockdowns. So we’re not talking about the type of lockdowns that we’ve been living in experiencing in some parts of Australia in recent months. They’re not blanket. They’re not statewide. They’re not enduring and long term. What we’re talking about is moving very definitely to a new phase because when we hit those particularly 80 per cent plus rates of double vaccination, the Doherty Institute modelling does show that we’re able to then manage COVID in a way much more analogous to how we manage the flu or other infectious diseases, and that’s what we have to be able to move to. That’s the dividend from vaccination and to be able to get the nation back to work and functioning again.


Waleed Aly: Right. So the lockdowns would be rare, but they still might happen, which means that it probably won’t cost you very much. And it just kind of seems a bit mean to deny people access to that money. When the ones who are in lockdown, even if there aren’t, many of them will really, really need it. And in the meantime, you’ve got other businesses under restrictions, so they can’t operate at full capacity, which means hours and things like that will be lost. Well, I just don’t get it. What is it? Why is it that you just don’t want to help these people who will need that help?


Simon Birmingham: Waleed, these are quite extraordinary measures that we put in place in terms of the types of disaster payments, the type of business assistance there to deal with the very extraordinary circumstances of prolonged long term lockdowns. As a country, we still have a range of different business supports that we put in at the last budget that are enduring, such as the loss carry back arrangements. We still have arrangements in terms of support for individuals, be it those who may be forced to isolate or, of course, the usual safety net measures. But importantly, we also have lived experience from when JobKeeper came to an end previously and we were in a position where we actually had record levels of workforce participation. You know, driving lows in terms of unemployment. We had businesses actually crying out saying they had labor force shortages and that’s what we want to see us get back to. And we have confidence that given the strength in the economy, we will have that type of strong demand once again.


Carrie Bickmore: So is it about pressuring the states to not have lockdowns?


Simon Birmingham: Certainly not. We’ve built this based on the scientific evidence of the Doherty Institute framing the pathway out of lockdowns in these sorts of measures because we have to be able to get back to a point where people can live their lives, run their businesses, where we’re not spending a further billion dollars plus a week in terms of economic supports that is all borrowed money on the future. And we have to be able to get the dividend for mass vaccination. And Australians are turning out in massive numbers and they’re doing so to protect themselves and their loved ones, but also to get back the way of life that so many want.


Rachel Corbett: Well, the government was caught off guard when Delta hit because it had already ditched JobKeeper. Are you at risk of that happening again if a new variant emerges?


Simon Birmingham: No, because again, we have all of the lived experience through the pandemic. We weren’t caught off guard. We were able to structure payments much more targeted, much more able to be turned on and turned off as different circumstances have allowed. And they’ve worked in that regard in a more targeted way than JobKeeper had been. Jobkeeper was incredibly effective when essentially we had the whole country going into shutdown at the same time for different states and different occasions. These payments have worked, and they’ve supported upwards of two million Australians at different times. And so we’ll be able to work back to that if we face other unforeseen consequences in the future. But right now, vaccinations are proving to be highly effective at protecting people, stopping them from getting critically ill, stopping them from going into hospital. And that means that we can have the confidence at these very high rates of vaccination we’re getting as a nation that are going to push clearly way past 80 per cent. Of the over 70s, the first age group who got access to the vaccine, some 94 per cent of them have had a first dose now, and that should be an inspiration to all Australians to drive towards that type of take up.


Waleed Aly: Minister, thanks very much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, guys. My pleasure.