Kieran Gilbert: Turning to the issues around the Omicron variant, the Prime Minister insisting it won’t take us back to COVID restrictions as we near Christmas, let’s go live to the Finance Minister. Simon Birmingham. Minister, thank you very much, as always. What’s the government’s latest advice when it comes to the severity of Omicron?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran, it’s great to be with you. Well, we’re continuing to very closely monitor this and to make sure we receive as much analysis and information from around the world, as well as from some of Australia’s leading scientific advisers and experts to inform all of our deliberations. But we have been advised that it is appropriate for Australia, as we’ve done today, to reopen our international borders to international students, to skilled migrants, consistent with what we’ve been doing in reopening for Australian citizens and permanent residents and their immediate family members to be able to re-enter. It’s clear that we can and should be able to continue on the path of safely reopening across the country, including taking down the state borders, as we’re pleasingly seeing now having occurred first in South Australia, then in Queensland, now in Tasmania. That is all great news in terms of families being able to reunite in time for Christmas. In terms of businesses being able to more effectively plan for the future. And we’re able to do those things because we are one of the most heavily vaccinated populations in the world. We now have tens of thousands of people turning out on a daily basis to receive their third booster shot, and we’re encouraging and making available that to all Australians after the five month period and will soon become one of the first countries in the world to have a comprehensive program that also includes all children as part of that from the age of five upwards. So those high levels of protection should give people high degrees of confidence that we can continue to manage COVID and managing in ways that have saved tens of thousands of lives to date and will continue to do so because of those high vaccination protections.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you have any advice in relation to the effectiveness or otherwise of the AstraZeneca vaccine amid reports that it might not be as potent against Omicron as the other variants?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I don’t have specifics, vaccine by vaccine, that type of analysis is being done in laboratories here and around the world to really try to step through the efficacy of each of the vaccines and to give the best possible advice. We have acted in that by bringing forward by one month the recommended time frame for a booster shot. And importantly, that applies to everyone, regardless of the type of vaccine they received initially. So that five month period for that booster shot, unless you are somebody who’s immunocompromised or has special conditions, you should be going and getting your booster shot after that five month from the second dose [inaudible] by Pfizer or Moderna-

Kieran Gilbert: There are some calls for the booster to be brought forward, though. Will you consider looking to boost the funding for GPs and pharmacists that have opted out because they feel the rebate from Medicare hasn’t covered their costs? It seems to me to be much more urgent now that this booster program be delivered and expeditiously. Will the government talk to the AMA and others about getting those GPs and pharmacists back into the program because surely we need all hands on deck?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran will always continue to talk to the AMA, to the pharmacists and so forth in terms of this. The booster payments are consistent with the types of payments that were being provided for second dose shots before. There’s no change or reduction in terms of the type of support that we’re providing for GPs, for pharmacists or for the states and territories to administer that. And we have many thousands of distribution points that have been made available. And if anything, many pharmacies have perhaps felt that because of the advanced stage of the rollout by the time many of the pharmacies were able to come online, that they missed out on some opportunities, and I think many of them will be incredibly well placed to provide and play a bigger role in the booster program than perhaps they did in relation to the primary doses that were received by individuals-

Kieran Gilbert: Do you believe the states are getting the balance right in terms of the response you’ve seen to these outbreaks and the growth in case numbers?

Simon Birmingham: I think perspective is going to be really important for everybody to keep as we move through handling COVID-19. Perspective in terms of the situation around Australia. In normal terms, we of course, deal with a whole range of different health pressures in our system that in 2019 or in 2020, around 160,000 Australians died of causes unrelated to COVID-19 quite clearly, especially back in 2019. Our health system manages all of those other issues, and the crucial thing we’ve always sought to prioritise in relation to COVID-19 is to make sure that we don’t have outbreaks that overwhelm our health system. Right now, the health systems in New South Wales and in Victoria, where the main outbreaks have been, continue to cope very, very well and to show that the systems we’ve put in place, the billions of dollars of extra support we’ve provided and the very high levels of vaccination are working to enable the health system to deal with its usual pressures. And with COVID-19 now for the states and territories who are opening up their borders and now dealing with community transmission effectively for the first time, it’s important that they take confidence from what’s occurred in New South Wales and Victoria and that they make sure the measures they put in place are proportionate to the ultimate objective, which is to make sure your health system can cope, to make sure that you aren’t having outbreaks so wide that it puts pressure on the health system, but equally do not put in place restrictions in excess of what’s necessary, particularly for those who have done the right thing by getting fully vaccinated and providing that higher level of protection and higher level of support for our health system.

Kieran Gilbert: We’ve got the mid-year budget update tomorrow. Today, the Australian reports $50 billion blow-out in the cost of NDIS and the COVID support payments, basically wiping out budget revenue windfalls from the recovery, the Delta recovery. As finance minister is it time now the government looks to where those savings can cover not just the COVID payments, but structural changes that your government’s committed to, like aged care, like NDIS? Where’s the money going to come from?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, when the budget update is released tomorrow, people will be able to see, on the one hand, the benefits of a stronger economy that growth in investment, which has been fuelling stronger growth in employment and stronger economic outcomes overall, which does fuel stronger revenue that even though we are providing tax cuts in the order of $1.5 billion a month flowing into the pockets of Australian families and households. Government revenue is still going up as a result of having a stronger economy and more people in jobs. But it will also show, as you say, the cost of Delta and that there are real pressures in terms of delivering the type of high quality services that Australians expect in terms of disability services, aged care services and, of course, meeting our national security needs for the future. That mean there is no room for complacency when it comes to careful-

Kieran Gilbert: But, don’t you have to also undertake reform in order to fund those things?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, what we have to do is make sure we deliver fully on the medium term budget strategy that we outlined, which is firstly to be able to grow the economy at a rate faster than deficits, faster than debt, so that we are able to shrink the size of those deficits as a share of our economy. Remembering we already have Triple-A credit ratings and that’s been reaffirmed, and we’re one of only nine developed countries in the world to enjoy that stance of AAA credit ratings across all three major ratings agencies. But the second thing, along with growing the economy faster, is there has to be an absolute resolve around restraint so that we can deliver on the priorities like health care, aged care, disability services and national security. And it’s why when we look to the election next year, the contrast will be strong. Labor keeps talking about free childcare or free TAFE and well, that all comes at a cost, and it’s a cost that just can’t be afforded if you’re going to have a delivery of those priorities, work towards repairing the budget position by shrinking debt and deficit as a share of the economy and by getting our economy to grow faster. We can’t afford to see massive new areas of spending taken on by an alternate government, nor can we afford to see the types of taxes that they talked about last time, which would cripple economic growth and again hurt that budget repair strategy.

Kieran Gilbert: You talk about restraint, but can you see why many might be sceptical about the government’s argument these days when it comes to restrain the nine newspapers Katina Curtis and Shane Wright reporting of 11 discretionary grant systems and programs? It is extraordinary how much it is heavily weighted to liberal seats and marginal seats. Is this as bad as it looks?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, these are 11 programs out of some 1,700 different grants programmes that operated over the time frame they were looking at, so it’s an incredibly selective approach in terms of looking at them, and it seems to have decided-

Kieran Gilbert: Well, they’ve done the discretionary programs. The others are by and large are not discretionary. These are discretionary and where the discretion has been used is all one way.

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, they’ve done programs that are structured to focus on regional communities in some places on drought affected communities, in some places. These seat that is highlighted as having amongst the highest grant revenue and receipts in the country as Maranoa, it’s not marginal. It’s a safe National Party seat in Queensland, but it’s also a seat that was heavily impacted by drought. It’s a vast regional community. Unsurprisingly, it receives a large share of drought programs or a large share of programs in relation to supporting regional communities. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody-

Kieran Gilbert: What about Bass? What about Corangamite?

Simon Birmingham: And Kieran, these again, Bass is a seat that has some significant pockets of regional Tasmania that it operates in. It doesn’t include, though, I mean, out of the more than 600 programs that have not been looked at. It doesn’t include, for example, tens of millions of dollars of grants that have gone into Anthony Albanese’s seat in relation to NDIS community payments. So it depends on how you want to carve up the list that you look at. This has been drawn up in a very selective way. Now, what we want to make sure we do is deliver on the commitments we make to the Australian people.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, as I said, they’ve looked at the discretionary programs. It seems to make sense. But if they’re looking at government judgements, you look at the discretionary programs, the discretion here, 19,000 grants. It’s pretty telling.

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we continuously make improvements to the to the grants programs in response to auditor general’s reports and other analysis to ensure that they are-.

Kieran Gilbert: They need it.

Simon Birmingham: -considered as fairly and efficiently and effectively as possible. We also we also, of course, use grants programs sometimes using ministerial powers or non-competitive approaches to be able to deliver things such as the extraordinary support to the childcare sector during COVID-19. What are the aged care sector during COVID-19. They were grants programs, and they were grants programs done as the most efficient way to get support into community organisations that needed it to get them through extraordinary times. You know, that means they weren’t following all of the competitive grant guidelines rules, but that’s why you have those opportunities to be able to do that type of thing when and where it’s needed.

Kieran Gilbert: Finance Minister, I appreciate your time today and throughout 2021, all the best to you and the family for a happy and safe Christmas, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran, to you and your team and all of the audience.