Topics:   Labour force data; international borders; vaccination rollout; UK FTA;


Laura Jayes: Live is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, good to see you. Do these numbers yesterday justify ending JobKeeper when you did?


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Laura. They certainly do. When we saw in the lead up to the end of March that Anthony Albanese, Jim Chalmers, the Labor Party, were predicting endless doom and gloom sweeping across the country would occur when JobKeeper came to an end. And instead, what we’ve seen is the unemployment rate dipped down to 5.5 per cent. We’ve seen, indeed, youth unemployment hit lows not seen for many years. Underemployment hit lows not seen for many years. These are very encouraging figures. It’s a trend that has seen the unemployment rate decrease for seven consecutive months now and shows that there is real strength in the Australian economy and Labor market, but indeed points that demonstrate also the need for us to continue to invest in our economic recovery, particularly against the global landscape that we face of uncertainty. And that’s why last week’s federal budget has such an emphasis on an economic plan to continue to invest in growth that will fuel further jobs growth and push that unemployment rate down below five per cent.


Laura Jayes: The underlying issue is not as good as the headline, perhaps what are you concerned about when you look deeper into the data?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it certainly we know that there is still a way to go to get the unemployment rate itself back down to where it was pre pandemic to make sure that we are driving participation and growth in jobs right across the board. And that’s why last week’s budget had some 40 billion dollars of additional temporary COVID related measures, much of it being related to the extension of the full expensing measures and the loss carry-back measures that are all about creating the incentive for Australian business to bring forward investment, as well as our plans and strategies in the digital economy in relation to manufacturing, in relation to our Ag 2030 strategy, all of those sorts of measures and targeted tax cuts, such as the patent box in medicines and biotechnology or the tax cut break for small breweries and distillers. They are all about backing Australian business to create even more sustainable ongoing jobs for Australians.


Laura Jayes: The cost of lockdown’s an international border closures was quantified by Qantas yesterday. They’re estimating around 16 billion dollars with more job losses to come. Are you concerned about that and what it says about the rest of the economy?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve stood very firmly by the aviation sector and the tourism industry more generally through the pandemic, and what we’ve also seen, though, is that many Australians have been able to adapt their businesses, sometimes shift their jobs, and that’s what’s giving us such low unemployment figures that are so strong relative to the rest of the world. Now, the most important aspect of continuing Australia’s current economic strength in the midst of a global pandemic is the continued successful suppression of COVID across Australia. And so that’s why a cautious approach to international borders is crucial. I know that causes difficulty in some parts of the aviation and tourism industry, but for other parts of the aviation and tourism industry, for domestic travel, which is currently booming, it is so crucial that we maintain that suppression of COVID right across the country so that we can continue to see Australians moving in such significant numbers. And Qantas forecasting yesterday that they expect to see that domestic travel back up towards 95 per cent of pre COVID levels, assuming no further major outbreaks.


Laura Jayes: But that’s predicated on the government’s assumption that the borders might open up in December. There’s no guarantees there.


Simon Birmingham: Qantas is talking about getting back to that 95 per cent on the basis of domestic forecasts and there not being further outbreaks of COVID.


Laura Jayes: Sure, but if you get vaccinated in this country, you are not even guaranteed of freedom of movement here without the threat of lockdown. Isn’t that right?


Simon Birmingham: No law and states and territories will make different decisions depending upon the risk that occurs. What we are putting first and foremost is keeping COVID out of the country and maintaining that separation while the vaccine continues to be distributed across the country.


Laura Jayes: So talk about the spread suppression. The vaccine has been proven to prevent death, to reduce the risk of transmission in much of the available evidence. But still, Australia is not going to open up any time soon. Is it time that you maybe just came clean and said it’s an elimination strategy that we’re pursuing?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, it is certainly a case that we want to have, as few cases have covered as possible, because that’s the way we keep our economy as open as possible. And that is precisely the strategy that we, together with the states and territories, will continue to deploy. The rest of the world looks at Australia with envy, not just because of the health outcomes in this country, but because of the economic outcomes. We were the first developed country to get employment levels back to pre COVID levels, and others are still struggling indeed in Europe with a double dip recession. In Australia, and we have avoided that sort of catastrophe of not only losing lives, but also of seeing businesses collapse and fail and jobs being lost in such record numbers that will leave permanent scarring across the economy and the lives and families of many individuals. So what we have here in this country is something that is well worth protecting. And that does mean we have to be very cautious about those international borders and the restrictions that are in place to keep COVID suppressed and to maintain that success.


Laura Jayes: Many Australians at the moment seem to not want to get this vaccine. Is the government offering them any incentive to do so?


Simon Birmingham: Look, more than three point four million doses have been administered, and the last daily update I saw, I think was around ninety three or ninety four thousand doses administered in a 24 hour period. And I think those Australians who are going out and getting the vaccine and encourage all others who are eligible at present to book in with their GP to sit down and talk to them and to join the many thousands of others who are vaccinated on a daily basis. The vaccine may well stop you dying if there is a covert outbreak. That’s a pretty strong incentive.


Laura Jayes: Yes, but you’ve got the borders closed so that risk seems minimal and you can’t even guarantee freedom of movement within Australia. Is it time you put forward that emergency national cabinet meeting once again to get all the premiers on board?


Simon Birmingham: No, we’re going to push on with the vaccine rollout, that is, as I say, seeing strong growth in the vaccine take up. The first million doses was administered in about forty six or forty seven days. The second million doses was administered in just 19 days, the third million doses in just 17 days. And the vaccine take up in Australia has been gathering pace. Yes, there are some Australians who have concerns and are reluctant, which is why we encourage them to sit down and talk to their GP. But the reason to get vaccinated, first and foremost is because it can potentially save your life, because it can potentially stop you from facing serious illness. And that is what is the best place to talk people through. You know, we certainly don’t anticipate Australia being closed forever or being able to suppress COVID forever under these sorts of circumstances. That’s why people getting vaccinated is important, and it’s why we’ve got a hundred and ninety five million doses of the vaccine contracted for Australia. And we’ll see more of those other vaccines of the Pfizer and Moderna becoming available right throughout the second half of this year.


Laura Jayes: I guess many of your own supporters would be thinking, what remaining conservative principles is this government living by? Because we’re looking at big spending, big government. I can’t think of a government in recent memory that is loom so large in people’s lives.


Simon Birmingham: Well, in recent memory, you haven’t lived through a global pandemic either, so yes, we have as a government had to take significant decisions. But closing Australia’s international borders has absolutely kept Australia safe. It is arguably the most important decision that was taken in relation to saving Australian lives and saving Australian jobs. And we won’t resile from the importance of that decision taken way back on the 1st of February last year in relation to China and then taken in relation to Italy, to South Korea, to Iran and ultimately to the rest of the world. We’re very open to New Zealand because we and New Zealand have both, with similar policy approaches, been able to suppress COVID so successfully. But you talk about principles, as is still the government of lower taxes, a government that is in this budget and identified tax breaks for low and middle income Australian families, for Australian businesses who are making investments for Australian innovators in the medical technology sector, for start-up Australian businesses and craft breweries and distillers for employee share schemes. In this recent budget alone, there’s at least five different measures I’ve just cited that are all about lowering the tax burden on Australians to drive economic growth. They are very liberal and national party principles. They’re a big contrast to Labor who won’t commit to those same sorts of lower taxes.


Laura Jayes: Well, we’re sneaking closer to the election. The FTA between the UK and Australia looks to be almost done. But farmers in the UK don’t seem very happy about this. They worried about an influx of Australian beef and has gone so far to say that it could destroy the UK’s rolling green countryside. Is this deal at risk?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I trust that the UK will live up to the free trade rhetoric that they have pushed right through the Brexit process and their ambitions, that they have stated they have to want to do deals with the rest of the world. Australia won’t do any trade deals that aren’t good for our farming sector and our agricultural sector. It’s always crucial to us to make sure that our farmers get open, fair access into other markets. And we would expect that any UK deal based on the high quality of our agricultural sector, based on the sustainability of our agricultural sector. But I would equally say to the UK farmers who might be worried and don’t have so much to worry about, Australia is likely to be competing in a market that far away on premium high value produce and their market is not about to be flooded with anything. But their consumers will get great alternative choices of high quality Australian produce if they do this deal.


Laura Jayes: Indeed, and they’ll enjoy it, I’m sure. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time.