Topics: Labour force figures; Skills shortage; international students; COP26; Paul Keating; Protestors


Laura Jayes: Go straight to Simon Birmingham, he’s the finance minister, he loves the idea of debate, surely Simon Birmingham, of course, you’d be on board with as many debates as possible, all on Sky News and perhaps I should host. What do you reckon?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m always here for you, Laura. You know that. So always happy to front up.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, I mean, look, this is something that other countries have done for so long as the debates commission. We don’t get into this silly thing every three years. It’s a good idea. Why hasn’t it been done previously?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I can’t speak to why it hasn’t been done previously, but I can say Scott Morrison gave the commitment that we would. I do think it’s a good idea. You can almost set your clockwork during our election campaigns by the fact that there will be a debate about debates. There will be some annoying debate about preference allocations and so on as well, when frankly, what we should be debating is who are the safest pair of hands for the country, who’s going to take us in the right direction? And that’s clearly where we want to make sure the focus is because we’re pretty confident in our position in terms of the strength that we’ve provided through this COVID period and the plans we’ve got for the future.


Laura Jayes: Okay. Well, let’s talk about the economy now, the unemployment rate to 5.2 yesterday, it was outside of market expectations. We know the underlying issues there, but it just does not marry with what is happening in reality. Hospitality, retail workers simply cannot find staff.


Simon Birmingham: Look, there certainly are skill shortages in different parts of the economy, and those pressures are there and we’re hearing that from many businesses. We know that across the states that haven’t been in lockdown, they’re in incredibly strong positions, most of them and in states like my own, seeing some 30,000 jobs created during the course of this year. Other states in good positions. But the pain of lockdowns was evident in those figures yesterday and even the contrast there that as New South Wales was taking the tentative steps towards reopening and sending positive signals about what they were doing and leading in terms of vaccination numbers, there were 20,000 plus jobs created in New South Wales. Victoria, where there was still more uncertainty and where, of course it’s been a much longer period of pain. We saw the job numbers slide backwards a bit there, but with consumer confidence high, with business confidence high, there should be a lot of optimism and confidence that that will see a rebound underpinned by the economic recovery plans we laid out in the budget this year.


Laura Jayes: Well, you’re telling people how good it is or might be, but there’s a risk that they’re just not feeling it. When we talk about skills shortages, this was a problem that persisted well before COVID. Has the government dropped the ball on it?


Simon Birmingham: No, certainly not. We’ve invested significantly through COVID, in terms of driving up apprenticeship commencements and training numbers, we’ve invested significantly in terms of new funding and negotiations with the states and territories around reforming different parts of the skills agenda. And clearly, we’re committed now as we reopen the international borders to make sure that those migration settings are as targeted as possible to the skills needs of the country. So, you know, we want to make sure that Australians fill jobs wherever possible, that they’re trained for them wherever possible. But we’ll use those international levers where we can. And we stood up during the pandemic, as well as a global talent and investment attraction taskforce, which I know is making a real difference now in attracting more global businesses to look at setting up in Australia. And, of course, getting the talent in place to support them where necessary to,


Laura Jayes: Well, international students, as you know, Simon Birmingham are desperate for news. Can you give them any certainty this morning? When will they be allowed back and what will be required of them?


Simon Birmingham: I think particularly in New South Wales, in Victoria and hopefully in other states, international students should be very confident and should be planning for the first semester of next year. That things are going well as we’re reopening the international borders to fully vaccinated Australians and to fully vaccinated permanent residents and others, and will want to move as quickly as we can. And the prime minister’s indicated this week that he hopes to see movement towards the end of this year. And so international students, especially in those big states, should be looking towards the start of next semester, the commencement of next year. Obviously, they’ll need to be fully vaccinated-


Laura Jayes: So not by the end of the year because the prime minister said earlier this week that he expects international students to be back by the end of the year. Does that mean without quarantine?


Simon Birmingham: I think if they are fully vaccinated and meet the same criteria as those Australian citizens who are moving at present now without quarantine in and out of New South Wales and Victoria, then there’s no reason why we won’t be able to extend that under similar terms to international students, to targeted skilled workers and ultimately to tourists and other movers. You know, we want to move through these stages of reopening the international borders as quickly as we can, knowing that international students are crucial not just to our universities and education providers in terms of the role they play there and the financial support they play there. But they’re another important part of the labour market. They have work rights and they often supplement in a number of different jobs and industries, including those hospitality sectors you mentioned before.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, huge, especially in New South Wales. It’s an economy that’s, you know, bigger than tourism itself. Obviously, that’s different in places like Queensland now. All eyes on Glasgow, it’s the last date there. Australia has just moved to block final communique that it would accelerate the phase out of coal. It’s well, I guess some strange bedfellows in a way Australia, Russia and India banding together. What does that tell the rest of the world?


Simon Birmingham: Well Laura, our position has been clear and you know, we support net zero by 2050. Russia, China, India haven’t signed up to that timeline and equation. Our approach in targeting net zero by 2050 is to make sure that we focus on the end game, which is driving down CO2 equivalent emissions to that net zero point-


Laura Jayes: But you’re not phasing out coal, you don’t want to see it phased out-


Simon Birmingham: -whether it’s from methane, whether it’s from coal, whether it’s from gas.


Laura Jayes: But you don’t want to see fossil fuel subsidies end, then why do we here in Australia still need to subsidise fossil fuels?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that is quite a misrepresentation. We don’t subsidise fossil fuels. What we do provide is certain tax rebates to Australian farmers in their use of diesel on their farm production and so on. That’s about simply businesses being able to claim back tax, just like businesses are able to offset GST incurred in the cost of production and those sorts of things. So we’re not in the business of subsidising fossil fuels and paraphernalia. We want to see net zero achieved, but we’re not equally in the business of saying in a prescriptive sense, we’re going to see net zero achieved by targeting this one sector or doing this one thing. What we’re saying clearly is we’ll see net zero achieved by getting CO2 equivalent emissions to net zero, by investing in the suite of different technologies that will drive change. And that, no doubt will see, is seeing already reduction in the use of coal and change in that regard. It’s why Australia has one of the largest penetrations of renewable energies in the world, and while we’re building in terms of renewable storage facilities, so many extra capabilities in Snowy 2.0 in other hydro project pumped hydro projects around the country to support that continued growth in renewables, which will drive that change.


Laura Jayes: What do you think of Paul Keating this week?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Paul Keating’s remarks were frankly dangerous and the Labor Party should be very clear and unequivocal in making sure they reject those remarks. The idea that we somehow-


Laura Jayes: What was in particular dangerous?


Simon Birmingham: This concept that we should take, whatever it is that China bowls up essentially and shrug our shoulders, which is by and large, what Paul Keating suggested that we shouldn’t care about whether or not they undermine democracy in our region. We shouldn’t care about whether or not there’s an undermining international rules and norms. There shouldn’t be any regard for those things that we should just get on with business and put all of that aside, it’s a very short term, single, narrow minded approach in terms of focussing purely on the commercial potential or outcomes. Rather than recognising that that we do need to ensure we support sovereignty not just of Australia, but of all nations across our region, that we support international rules and norms in terms of access to shipping lanes and the rights to be able to move throughout our region safely and securely, and that we support other countries firmly in our region as well. And so as well as standing up for human rights and the issues around democracy in Hong Kong and so forth.


Laura Jayes: Just finally, before I let you go, I believe you received a gift at your office this morning. Do you care to explain that and elaborate, Minister Birmingham?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t know. There’s much for me to explain. But look, the extremists of Extinction Rebellion who caused a lot of trouble right around the country, who decided to dump a load of dung on the office doorstep this morning. Look, you know, anybody who’s watching is in the western suburbs of Adelaide. I don’t like waste, and so they’re more than welcome to come and to help themselves to some garden fertiliser for free from the office this morning. As for the radicals doing this, clearly they weren’t listening as Australia made the net zero by 2050 commitment. Three of the four world’s largest emitters haven’t made that commitment yet. And so, you know, that’s where we’ve really got to focus the energy on getting the changes in place and to get those countries to change down the track.


Laura Jayes: Well, there you go. It’s all happening in Adelaide this morning. Simon Birmingham. Thanks for your time, as always.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.