Topics: COVID restrictions; Commonwealth grants; Economic recovery; Employment outlook;

07:45AM AEST


Sylvia Jeffreys:            Well, 25,000 cases a day, that is the warning for NSW with new modelling predicting a massive surge in COVID numbers by the end of next month: Victoria expected to follow the same path.

David Campbell:          It comes as Queensland backflips on its decision to force dozens of flight passengers to isolate over Christmas. To discuss, we’re joined by Finance Minister Simon Birmingham in Canberra. Minister, great to see you. Is now the right time to ease the restrictions and opening up the country?

Simon Birmingham:     Now is the time for us to keep moving forward in terms of reopening and easing of restrictions because we have such high vaccination levels across the country. The advice from the Chief Medical Officer of Australia is that vaccines remain effective in terms of preventing serious illness or disease, that to date the early analysis is that Omicron is showing milder impacts.

Now, there’s still more analysis to be done, but we should have great confident that with a country about to hit 90% double vaccination rates, right across the country, many parts even higher than that, the vaccinate rate that is in excess of New Zealand or the United Kingdom or Norway or Finland, we have achieved huge things and we’ve now got around 100,000 people turning out a day to receive their booster shot and we encourage everybody to do that as they fall eligible and to plan to get their kids done from 10 January.

Sylvia Jeffreys:            There are dozens of relieved travellers in Queensland this morning released from isolation, after initially facing 14 days of isolation over Christmas. The rules are so different across the states. Let’s ask though specifically about this Queensland situation. 14 days of isolation for close contacts until 1 January, which means, you know, just about anyone who flies in to Queensland over the Christmas period potentially faces two weeks in iso. Does that need to be reviewed and brought back to seven days before Christmas?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, I’d certainly encourage a state like Queensland to look carefully at what they can do to ease these types of restrictions on people, particularly to recognise those who are fully vaccinated, to recognise the science and the evidence around the days and time where transmission is likely to occur. South Australia, for example, has brought back some of those timelines and it was the state that went first under Steven Marshall in opening up the borders to recognise that next stage of the national plan. I welcome the fact that Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland have equally done so too, that they stuck to those aspects of the national plan, have opened their borders. But these are teething issues now around the opening of the borders. They’ve got to do so in ways that does ensure people can effectively reunite with their loved ones, that travel can effectively resume and, particularly, those tourism businesses across Queensland can have consumers with confidence to actually travel to them and that’s where they’ve got to really iron out some of the creases.

David Campbell:          Minister, moving on, Nine papers have revealed there has been three times more government grants than Labor-held seats. The question really is are you targeting marginal seats to improve your chances at the election?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, this is a fairly selective analysis. It looks at 11 grants programs out of around 1,700 such programs. Of those 11 that have been looked at, a number of them are more skewed towards regional electorates or drought-affected electorates. They’re electorates that we as a Liberal and National Party tend to hold the vast majority of, so it is unsurprising more funding flows to Liberal and National seats if it is a regionally or drought-affected communities-related program. There are other grants programs that, indeed, have provided strong support into Labor and other seats and they’re just not factored into this. I can think of some NDIS- related support that’s seen a more than $87 million grant going to Anthony Albanese’s own seat, for example.

Sylvia Jeffreys:            If you take away the drought funding, that’s still $1.6 billion in grants that have gone to Coalition seats. It’s a lot of money.

Simon Birmingham:     And many more dollars in grants outside of this analysis in the other 1,700-relateed programs.

David Campbell:  But, Minister, you can see how this looks. It looks like you’re buying votes and successfully getting those election votes happening when really instead of just governing for the people you are buying for, you should be governing for everybody.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we do absolutely govern for everybody. That’s where tax cuts that help to fuel jobs-driven economic recovery at present are putting around $1.5 billion a month into the pockets of Australian households and families that they wouldn’t have otherwise received but for those tax cuts. Tax breaks for business are driving investment in plant, machinery, equipment at record levels that is fuelling jobs growth and economic recovery. That’s all about governing for all Australians. Yes, we also have made commitments at the last election in relation to local projects and we’re committed to delivering on those promises because the media would be the first to criticise us if we didn’t deliver on the promises we made to local communities during those elections.

Sylvia Jeffreys:            Let’s talk about today’s mid-year report. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to announce Australia is enjoying one of the world’s strongest pandemic recoveries. That’s certainly a silver lining amid a lot of doom and gloom over the past couple of years, but with so much uncertainty still around at the moment with the current COVID situation, is that message going to cut through, do you think? People are still worried.

Simon Birmingham:     I understand that right now with Omicron, with borders reopening, there’s that little bit of hesitation that people have. But as I said before, they should have confidence given they should have confidence given the extraordinarily high vaccination rates Australia has, given the fact that we’ve got one of the lowest fatality rates from COVID in the developed world, and given now the strength of our economy, which is a top-three globally-performing economy and today’s mid-year budget update will show that over the next few years we’re on track to see one million additional jobs created in Australia, that our recovery is so strong it will draw the unemployment rate down to 4.5% and even lower to 4.25% over time. That will be the lowest rates we’ve sustained for a considerable period of time in terms of unemployment and it’s a function of an economic recovery plan and COVID support measures that have worked to date and that people should have confidence will continue to work. We can see all the measures of consumer confidence, business confidence, retail spending that things have been quite strong recently and they should remain so.

David Campbell:  Well one million jobs in the next four years is certainly a hopeful prediction. The Opposition says it won’t be a real recovery unless wages growth is in line with cost of living. How can you ensure that workers are going to feel the benefits?

Simon Birmingham:     We have been ensuring that as I referenced before. The income tax cuts that we delivered, that Labor weren’t so keen on, and we’ve got more tax cuts to come over this forward budget period as part of the full plan that we outlined, which is going to see the 37 cents in the dollar tax bracket completely eliminated, and that around 95% of Australians will pay no more than 30 cents in the dollar. We’ve also seen under our government electricity prices actually fall over a period of time, unlike the huge increases that we saw before, we’ve been able to put in place those sorts of measures that ensure that, yes, whilst there are absolute pressures Australians face, we are doing what we can through lower taxes, through reforms in electricity markets to help make sure Australians have the best ability to withstand that and the strength of our economy is demonstrating that those plans and policies are working.

Sylvia Jeffreys: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, we appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham:     Thanks so much, my pleasure.