Topics: Economic recovery; vaccination rollout; employment figures; Christine Holgate;


Laura Jayes: Australian businesses are being told to grab the baton and run as consumer confidence fuels Australia’s jobs recovery. Unemployment has beat expectations, falling five point six per cent in March. But, well, ongoing concerns over the nation’s vaccine rollout have an impact on me now live is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time. Will the vaccine have- potentially have an impact on our economic recovery?


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. Great to be with you. What we’re seeing at present is Australia’s economic recovery is breaking and exceeding all expectations in terms of the strength of economic growth, the strength of consumer sentiment, the strength of business sentiment, and most importantly of all, the jobs growth that’s been created. Those employment statistics yesterday show that we’ve got more Australians in work than ever before, working more hours than ever before. We’ve got record levels of workplace participation and we’ve seen really strong growth come back in relation to women’s workforce participation and indeed jobs growth amongst Australian women. These are all incredibly welcome bits of news. And the trajectory and the projections for the future are indeed that Treasury and Reserve Bank continue to expect to see unemployment to trend down, jobs growth to trend up. These are very encouraging things. But of course, there are many uncertainties and globally uncertainties around future outbreaks, around the vaccines and the roll out occurring there. They all create risks. And it’s why we just have to continue to carefully manage the economy and build as much resilience to those risks as possible.


Laura Jayes: Do those projections depend on the roll out of our vaccine here?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we always make certain assumptions in the context of budgeting, and we’ll update all of those assumptions in next month’s budget in relation to how we see the economy performing and the external factors that impact upon that, questions around borders opening, questions around vaccines, risks around shutdowns and so on.


Laura Jayes: Sorry, so for the first we’ll actually see in the budget papers the vaccine rollout and how that impacts on the purse strings. Is that correct?


Simon Birmingham: No, the assumptions, the things that underpin the way Treasury does their modelling and so on. So it’s not it’s not a case that we make predictions in the budget for those sorts of things.


Laura Jayes: But, will Treasury be looking at the vaccine roll out?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Treasury ordinarily, in terms of the way they project for for the future, look at all of the different external factors that are there. Now, that will be a decision for Treasury and the independent process of modelling they undertake as to what extent they give weight to those different factors. Clearly, the Australian economy right here, right now is performing very well, exceeding counterparts right around the globe. And so that is that’s occurring whilst our vaccine rollout is still ramping up and still facing the challenges that have been speculated on and covered over recent weeks, particularly in relation to AstraZeneca. We’ve got I think it’s in excess of one point three million doses that have been administered so far. We’re exceeding countries like New Zealand or South Korea or Japan at the same stage of roll out that same stage we are exceeding where they were at. So we can see that that is progressing. But it’s obviously got many uncertainties attached to it. And we have to weigh all of those in those assumptions.


Laura Jayes: National cabinet will be meeting twice weekly, and that’s from Monday. For the vaccine rollout will we get a clear picture? Do the leaders need to get together, the premiers and chief ministers in the prime minister, and actually give us a bit of a benchmark? So when we get the vaccine, when we get to half the population, for example, what freedoms will it bring? Can we get answers on that?


Simon Birmingham: Only to some extent, Laura. Look, we know that the vaccine definitely works. All of the different vaccines that have been approved definitely work in terms of reducing for the individual who receives the vaccine the risk of serious health consequences should they contract COVID. And so that’s an obvious and the first reason for having a vaccine is for the individual health protection. What is less clear are questions around the extent to which the vaccines reduce the rates of transmission, so somebody who is vaccinated could still get COVID. The odds are they won’t get sick. But could they pass it on to somebody else who may not have been vaccinated? And so those questions and analysis around rates of transmission are a live piece of work happening right around the world at present. There are some really encouraging signs in that that are showing what appear to be dramatic reductions in the rates of transmission when you get a significant cohort vaccinated. But it is that sort of modelling that really will determine in the future the speed with which you can reopen different parts of society and particularly reopen international borders and there is still a body of work to be done there.


Laura Jayes: Do we have that modelling. When are we likely to get it?


Simon Birmingham: As I said, it’s a live piece of work being done right around the world. I don’t think anybody can precisely give you the answer to that right now. Not the epidemiologists, not the experts in public health and in vaccination. They are doing that work, continually updating it. And that will be what informs our decisions based on our health advice.


Laura Jayes: Well, Pfizer overnight has said that we may need a third jab. Is that a problem?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there is another factor, certainly, and and again, I think this time last week when we were speaking, I not only was talking about those questions that hang over vaccines, around the impact it has on transmission, but also the question about the longevity of a vaccine and its effectiveness and whether booster shots will be necessary in the future, as well as the ongoing questions about other strains or variants of COVID-19 and the resilience of vaccines to those. And so these are all parts of the global difficulty that we face. And it’s not Australia is not alone in that regard. We’re far better placed than much of the rest of the world because of our success in suppressing COVID to date and keeping it out of our community, which allows us to be able to take each and every decision based on expert health advice. We can do so making sure we put people’s individual health and safety first, and we can do so in an environment of economic strength. Because what we’ve seen is that by suppressing COVID successfully across the community, we’ve been able to get Australian business and economic activity as close to back to normal as pretty much anywhere in the world.


Laura Jayes: All right. Let’s look at jobs figures. They’re pretty good yesterday, but are you concerned that a lot of the jobs being created is still only part time?


Simon Birmingham: We see in the month to month differences occurring there, there’s actually been in previous months some very strong, full time growth. What pleases this overall is to see that aggregate strength of growth and nobody would have predicted this time last year that we would see employment back up above these levels again, that we would have actually seen such a strong recovery. So, of course, we want to see full time jobs growth as much as possible. And as I said, in previous monthly figures, we have seen full time jobs growth take a majority of some of the jobs growth in those previous months. But that will ebb and flow from month to month as employment data moves around a little bit.


Laura Jayes: And just finally, we saw Christine Holgate’s testimony to the Senate this week. She said that she reached out to you to try and get a resolution on the watches saga. Did you help her?


Simon Birmingham: Christine and I spoke, she had already resigned at that point in time, but as I’ve said publicly before, I have a high regard for Christine. I worked closely with her when I was the trade minister and she co co-chaired a ministerial advisory council on trade matters with me. And we certainly worked closely in supporting a number of businesses in their export activities. Now, I wish Christine well for the future, she made the decision to resign during the course of events that had occurred in relation to the gifting of those watches, during her time as chief executive of Post. There was an independent review process that was underway. She didn’t choose to await the conclusion of that. That was a matter of her consideration but I do wish her well for the future and acknowledge, indeed, the skills and work that she brings and has done.


Laura Jayes: Everyone says she’s so great and did such great things at Australia Post and left quite a legacy. Yet, she’s out of a job. Did the prime minister’s public comments make her position untenable?


Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t believe so. It was clear that the government wanted Christine or expected that she should step aside whilst the independent review into the gifting of those watches was undertaken. Christine could have decided to await the conclusion of that independent review process. And what the review found was that there were some issues in relation to the policies and approaches that were applied. But equally, it acknowledged that certainly there was no aspect of wrongdoing in a personal behavioural sense or the like that may have been insinuated by some of the opposition questioners or the like at the time.


Laura Jayes: All right, Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. See you next week.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Laura. My pleasure.