• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Mathias Cormann nomination for OECD; budget; trade
08 October 2020

Kieran Gilbert: First though, I’m joined by the newly announced and incoming finance minister, to be sworn in later in the month, but also now the Trade and Tourism Minister, acting Foreign Minister- and you’re going to be Leader of the Government in the Senate as well when you’re sworn in as well. This is going to be a busy end to the year for you.

Simon Birmingham: Well it is a busy time, but it’s always a busy time across Government. What’s important is not the job that I’m doing, but the job the Government does for the people of Australia. And the priority that I have coming into this role is to make sure that we deliver on the budget that was handed down this week. It’s a budget focused on creating jobs for Australians to ensure that we continue to save the jobs and cushion the blow from the pandemic, to create new jobs and new opportunities, hence our investment in skills and manufacturing and energy reforms. And so there are many things for us to get on and focus on doing. And for me – continuing as well till the end of the year, at least – to expand our trade pathways and to support our tourism industry who are doing it so tough, and for whom the support measures in this budget, such as the loss carryback provisions, are just so crucial in providing ongoing cash flow assistance.

Kieran Gilbert: We’ll talk about your approach as finance minister when you’re sworn in a bit later in the interview. I want to start, though, by asking you about Mathias Cormann. He’s going to run for the OECD Secretary General position. Why would that be a good role for Australia to have a former minister in?

Simon Birmingham: The OECD plays a crucial role in terms of helping to coordinate and guide economic policy settings right across the world. It is led by the 38 member countries who are predominantly developed nations, democracies, who in a broad sense share values and are like minded with a country like Australia. We have a common history of having ensured stability, growth, economic prosperity and opportunity for our peoples through the type of cooperation that the OECD provides and through the type of market-based policies and approaches that our economies have all pursued over the years in different ways. And the OECD, in the era of globalisation and with the global pandemic, is perhaps more important than ever in terms of helping to shape policies and economic cooperation amongst those countries. But also the OECD provides enormous policy input into the G20 processes, which stretches then across other non-market or non-democratic economies in a range of ways, and provides them with policy advice and settings that can help to spur growth right across the world. And ultimately, the stronger the global economic recovery is, the better that’s going to be for Australia and for every other nation in terms of getting our economies and our jobs growth back on track.

Kieran Gilbert: Should the OECD – whether Mathias Cormann is successful or not, if he is the head of the OECD – but that organisation, should it be urging Donald Trump to re-embrace the rules based order, most notably in your area, the World Trade Organization?

Simon Birmingham: The OECD, in terms of capturing engagement from, indeed, countries like the United States, is a crucial pathway to ensure that we can have cooperation in a range of different global settings. Now, whether that is in terms of how we tackle digital technologies and what that means for the way tax systems operate, or whether it’s how we support and underpin trade rules and global cooperation around common trade rules that have enabled such growth in terms of trade across the world. And with that, the hundreds of millions of people who’ve been lifted out of poverty as economies have opened up in recent years. And I’m confident that if Mathias is successful in his candidacy to be OECD Secretary General, he will bring the right type of instincts, values, policy, nouse and experience as a proven economic manager and minister to be able to build alliances across the OECD membership. He is a unique candidate, having a European or Northern Atlantic, if you like, perspective from all of his upbringing as well as an Asian or Indo-Pacific outlook from all of his working life.

Kieran Gilbert: But he’s got a challenge ahead of him, doesn’t he? Because you heard him at the news conference, defending the Coalition Government’s record on climate change. But this is an issue of great importance in Europe. And there are many European members of the OECD. And while he’s got a great language capacity, they might not buy his argument when it comes to climate change. Do you accept that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no, I don’t accept that. I do acknowledge that, yes, there is a very strong interest from OECD members, including Australia, in seeing the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement. We are one of the countries that met our Kyoto targets, met our Kyoto 2 targets for 2020, and exceeded them on both occasions. We’re a country that’s demonstrated a clear plan for how we will meet those 2030 targets for the Paris agreement. And I think our commitment to seeing the Paris Agreement fulfilled and honoured is a genuine one, as it is for many other nations, and we will see opportunity-

Kieran Gilbert: Do you accept the perception might be a bit different among some of the member states of the OECD? Particularly in Europe.

Simon Birmingham: Not necessarily, Kieran. Just the other day, I signed a hydrogen cooperation agreement with the German government. From that, I’ve had discussions with French industry and officials about their interest in further collaboration with us on new energy and low-emissions technologies. And indeed, French companies are some of the largest investors in low-emissions technologies and clean energy generation, here in Australia. So, we have a very positive story to tell. Not only in terms of our achievements against our emissions reduction targets, or the scale of investment that’s occurred in Australia – which, on a per capita basis, often outstrips the rest of the world – or the role in which many of our exports like LNG are providing lower emissions pathways for the recipient countries of that fuel. But we also have existing huge areas of cooperation with many of the other OECD countries that we want to build upon.

Kieran Gilbert: You’re going to be sworn in as Finance Minister at a time of great economic challenge, a recession, record debt. What will be your priority in that role?

Simon Birmingham: My priority is working with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and the whole Government to implement the plan, the economic recovery plan, that we released just this week as the budget. And it’s building on the work that we’ve done all year, in terms of cushioning the effects of COVID-19 on the Australian economy, and more importantly, on businesses, households and people’s jobs and livelihoods throughout this year. And programs like JobKeeper have been incredibly expensive, but we were able to do them because of the previous six years of good economic management and work. They’ve worked in terms of ensuring that the impacts on Australia have been less, not only because of our good health management, but also because of our good economic management. We’ve had lower impacts than many relative economies around the world. But we still have a huge task ahead of us. And that’s why it was a comprehensive plan this week that brings together skills, energy, infrastructure, investment across clean energy – as we were discussing before as well – dedicated manufacturing fund. All of it focused on creating the new and future opportunities – and we have to deliver on all of those-

Kieran Gilbert: On the future opportunities – it’s been criticized, though, for being weak when it comes to measures for women. Does the coalition have a blind spot when it comes to childcare?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not, Kieran. And on a couple of points there. Firstly, women will take positions as new apprentices in the Australian economy, women will take positions in the additional university places that we’ve created, in the additional training places that we’ve created. But when it comes to childcare as well, we will invest $9 billion on childcare over the next period of time. And in that investment, we are delivering on reforms that were only legislated in the last parliament to provide for childcare, where families can access the greatest hours of support, for those who work the longest hours, and the greatest rate of subsidy for those earning the least. And for many Australians, they receive 85 per cent of their childcare bills, paid for by the Government. For a huge proportion of Australians, they’re paying…
Kieran Gilbert: But there’s no additional money. Should the Government have done some more when it comes to childcare, given the situation we’re in right now, in that 1.5 million people out of work?

Simon Birmingham: Childcare reforms are a demand driven program, Kieran. So indeed, if families – as a result of the pandemic – are facing lower incomes for a period of time, they will be receiving more support in the childcare system. That’s the way a program like that works. And we built it that way, so that those earning the least received the greatest support. The problem with what some of the things the Labor Party-

Kieran Gilbert: Okay. So it won’t be an impediment to taking a job? They will still…

Simon Birmingham: The childcare subsidy…

Kieran Gilbert: …On low and medium incomes, will get 85 per cent as part of that subsidy?

Simon Birmingham: People will see more money in childcare subsidy. As they earn less money or as they work more hours, they’ll get more hours of entitlement to childcare subsidy. I see much of the debate suggesting that somehow we should be providing free childcare, or extending it to some of those who don’t get an 85 per cent subsidy. That would actually be extending subsidy and support to some of the wealthiest Australians. The model that we built and legislated for childcare provides the greatest support to those earning the least.

Kieran Gilbert: The outgoing Finance Minister is known as being a bit of a hard taskmaster on ministers’ spending. I mean, obviously, it’s a different context in this budget, it’s one of the largest we’ve seen. But he has got that reputation. Has he given you any tips on how to undertake that and will you be taking a similar approach?

Simon Birmingham: Mathias and I, no doubt, will catch up over the next few weeks to talk about transition elements. And I’ll happily take advice from Australia’s longest-serving Finance Minister, who did do such a good job alongside treasurers and prime ministers, in setting our country up to be able to better withstand the pandemic than others. As Finance Minister myself, I will be acutely aware that the quality of spending is what matters when it comes to how we invest. And by that, I mean making sure that every dollar we drive as efficiently and productively as possible. And in the current environment, as we are doing, to focus it on creating jobs whilst also delivering the essential services Australians rely on.

Kieran Gilbert: And as Trade Minister for another couple of months, finally, what’s your key focus for the rest of the year and the rest of your time as Trade Minister? Is it to get the relationship with China back on an even keel? What’s your main goal there?

Simon Birmingham: The door remains wide open to resume and to conduct ministerial engagement with China at any time that they are ready. My priorities are to continue to pursue and advance the EU and UK free trade agreement negotiations, as far as we can. We won’t rush them; we won’t do a bad deal just for the sake of doing a fast deal. But we do want to advance them as far as we possibly can and I will continue to drive that work this year, and particularly around the UK agreement, where I would hope we might still be able to conclude this year. But also remembering very crucially, my role as Tourism Minister, and the tourism industry continues to do it very tough. And I want to make sure that the measures announced in this budget flow through, provide support to them. The record funding for Tourism Australia and the targeted funding for tourism regions delivers effective benefits, to get those tourism businesses through these tough times and on their feet by the time international borders eventually reopen.

Kieran Gilbert: Trade and Tourism Minister and Acting Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks and congratulations on your promotion.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran, my pleasure.