Topic(s): Australian submarines; Australia-France relationship; COP26; Skills shortage

Laura Jayes: Live now is the Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. It wasn’t just Labor, it was Malcolm Turnbull who did not miss the prime minister when he was overseas. Is some of this criticism fair?

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Laura, look, it’s good to be with you. I think Australians are probably a little thoroughly fed up of former prime ministers and their desires to intervene, and I don’t want to add to commentary around all of that. What matters is around the decisions that were made about submarines by Scott Morrison and our government, are taking decisions in the long term interests of Australia. These were decisions not about how people’s feelings were going to be hurt this day, this month or this year, they were decisions about how Australia is best going to be protected and our national security secured for decades to come. That was at the fundamental heart of those decisions, it’s why they were the right ones to take. And it’s why we thoroughly stand by the fact that acquiring the nuclear powered submarines, having a close partnership with the US and the UK, through which we will be able to share greater defence technologies, be they across quantum technologies, artificial intelligence or nuclear powered submarines or a range of others in missile defence. And otherwise that’s going to help secure the future of our nation.

Laura Jayes: No one would argue that AUKUS is certainly a game changer, but I guess the question now is was it necessary to leak those text messages?

Simon Birmingham: Laura, look, much will be said and argued over what the French president said, what else was said or done by many different others. I don’t want to add to any of that because we want to make sure that we move on in terms of all of those international relationships and crucially, that we focus on delivering those long term defence capabilities and security arrangements for the nation that we work with France in the many areas that we have of mutual interest be they cooperation across particularly Pacific island nations, as well as cooperation in a range of other global spheres.

Laura Jayes: This morning, you suggested that perhaps Australian journalists shouldn’t have even a questioned Emmanuel Macron, do you stand by that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, Australian journalists question everybody, hardly and thoroughly. That is indeed what they go out and do. Each journalist can question themselves as to whether what they pursue is in the national interest or otherwise, but of course it’s their job to question. I get that. It’s why I front up to answer…

Laura Jayes: Are you suggesting that perhaps those questions were too much on the side of France and were maybe unpatriotic?

Simon Birmingham: Look again, journalists work to their ethics, their decisions. I’m not going to run commentary in relation to all of those, I think what is in Australia’s national interest, are the decisions our government has made and those decisions are not going to be mattering in decades to come

about what was said or done this week. In the decades to come, it’s going to be about the fact that we have nuclear powered submarines in the water. The fact that we have the type of close relationship with a range of different allies and partners. And of course, we will move beyond these sorts of issues and the disappointment that France feels for losing a large commercial contract. That’s understandable. But the contract was written with gates in it, with options for Australia to review the contract. That’s what we did, and we chose a path that far better meets our capabilities for the future. It’s crucial that we did that because the evidence the advice before us was that we needed those change capabilities and frankly, it would have been negligent as a government to not make the decision to make that change. But we had to go about it in a way where we secured the pathway to the new capabilities before we removed the contract to the diesel powered submarines. So of course, there are going to be disappointments they’re Understandable.

Laura Jayes: For all the angst in the lead up to the Glasgow summit, it seems like Scott Morrison spent most of his time talking about the French and the submarines. Did this issue overshadow this meeting?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it may have for the travelling Australian media pack, but I can tell you Scott Morrison spent most of his time in Glasgow talking about Australia’s commitment to net zero.

Laura Jayes: Were you really unhappy with the Australian media? Simon Birmingham, I feel like I should pull you up on that again. It seems like you’re really unhappy…

Simon Birmingham: No, so sorry, sorry, no but Laura, you asked the question pretending that Scott Morrison spent most of his time in Glasgow talking about these issues. He only spent the time talking about them in front of press conferences. Most of his time in Glasgow, in his meetings with fellow world leaders in meetings talking about $20 billion plus of technology. The release of our technology roadmap, the focus around how we achieve net zero, that is what he spent most of his time doing. That’s just a simple fact.

Laura Jayes: Well, world leaders are in and out of that summit now. It is down to negotiators to put the final communique together. I mean, after world leaders go, is that when the real the real work is done and as all bedded down, it’s hard to see what exactly was achieved in Glasgow. What do you see it? What was the big achievement there? Because none of the big emitters seem to be on the same page.

Simon Birmingham: Look, there was progress, but I think we’ve seen these conferences many times over and rarely is there as much progress to meet the hype that is perhaps created in the build up to them. You know what, is clear out of the commitments made in Glasgow is that there is a way to go in terms of achieving the breakthroughs in affordable, low emissions technology that will get countries like India or China to commit to net zero in the same sort of time frame as Australia and developed countries are committing to it. We’ve said we’re going to achieve that by 2050 and that we’re investing in doing so, but we obviously need to get those breakthroughs in ultra low cost solar, in hydrogen technologies, in the other breakthroughs, in different technological fields that will enable other nations like India or China to match that commitment of net zero by 2050. And I think that’s a demonstration that the type of path we have charted as a government focussed on that technological investment and transformation is what is so crucial because that’s what enables not just us to get there without undermining Australian living standards, but it’s what will enable other countries who are showing greater reluctance to make those commitments to bring forward the commitments they’re making and to achieve it in ways that can underpin their future ambitions for the prosperity of their people as well.

Laura Jayes: Okay. Just finally, can I ask you about the skills shortage that we’re seeing in Australia across all states at the moment because some because of internal border closures, but also international border closures as well? What is your view on how you feel these job shortages do? We need to bring back skilled migration and do it in a big way sooner rather than later?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we’re seeing the opening up of borders happening now in a very, very quick pace faster than people expect. Today is a momentous day as we see New South Wales and Victoria reunited, and it’s going to be a day of great relief for the tourism industry and for loved ones who have been separated. And we’re now seeing the flow of international travellers into our most populous states as well, and we’ll move pretty swiftly. I expect past these first stages of returning Australian citizens and permanent residents and their family members into international students and skilled workers who are firmly earmarked as stage two. As long as all goes well at stage one, and we have no reason not to expect it to go well, then we can get in to seeing those skilled migrants coming back in, helping to meet some of those. Those challenges we see it is indeed. We’re investing significantly in our skills agenda as a government, and we’re seeing economic strength that is driving many of these skills shortages. And whilst that is a problem that we need to address, it’s also a good problem to have that we have such high levels of employment, such as strong economic position that these skills shortages are there and it will certainly work with industry to seek to…

Laura Jayes: Some have suggested maybe to fill these shortages, we need to return to maybe temporary levels of 400,000 migrants a year. Is that about the figure that you’ve got in mind?

Simon Birmingham: Look we’ll see in terms of the number, and it’s less about the number of frankly and more about the quality in terms of ensuring that people who are achieving visas for entry into Australia on permanent or temporary basis but for delivery of skilled work are really matching up in terms of the skilled work that is that is needed by Australian industry. We will see a range of other workers coming to the country as well under the new agricultural visa, international students who have certain work rights and contribute in different ways to our economy too. So it will be about getting the skilled worker cohort back in where it really is about making sure we match visas with needs and demonstrated industry needs and shortages, but also those other areas that that support the rest of our economy backpackers, students, etc..

Laura Jayes: Would you say you’re a fan of a big Australia?

Simon Birmingham: I’m a fan of an Australia that makes sure that we meet all of our productive potential and capacity. I don’t think talking in terms of big Australia, small Australia otherwise particularly helps. What we need to do is precisely where our policy settings are, which is ensuring that if you are seeking a visa pathway into Australia as a skilled migrant, we have clear checks in that regard against your skills, the contributions you make to Australia. And indeed, if it is particularly to fill a temporary worker placement in Australia, that we have processes to make sure those jobs are genuinely needed by Australian industry who can’t fill them with Australian citizens at this point in time.

Laura Jayes: Minister, thanks so much for your time this morning, as always.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.