Topics:   Vaccine rollout; Industrial Relations reform; Employment rate; JobMaker hiring credit; Budget; Parliamentary workplace independent review; Veterans suicide royal commission




Kieran Gilbert: Live to the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham joins us now on the program. Minister, thanks very much for your time. Have you got an update for us, in relation to the delay of the vaccine rollout due to the flood and rain emergency in New South Wales?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Kieran. Good to be with you. We’ll look obviously these are difficult times we’re seeing for many people across New South Wales, particularly around regional New South Wales. And our hearts go out to those facing difficulty. And the Prime Minister has made clear that if New South Wales requires assistance, particularly Defence Force assistance, then that will be made available. Clearly, there will be expected disruptions for many freight and logistics movements across New South Wales as a result of these floods and vaccines are not exempt from that. And so we’re working with our freight and distribution companies who are getting the vaccine from point A to point B to understand just how that will be impacted. And I expect that health department officials will have a bit more to say about that later today.

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s look at the challenge in the Senate for you and the Government as Leader of the Government in the Senate. What’s the Plan B when it comes to industrial relations, given only a fraction of your bill was able to go through the parliament?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we got some important things done last week, but also disappointing of the things that the Senate chose to reject. So what we achieved was to see the elimination of the risk of double dipping for entitlements, claims against businesses which had the potential to create some $39 billion worth of additional costs. That could, according to insolvency practitioners and others in business, have bankrupted many businesses had we seen adverse court findings as anticipated in that area. So clearing up that risk and making sure that that potential for massive business failure and massive costs has been eliminated was a very important achievement. Alongside that, we made sure that there is now clearer definitions around casual employment, including clearer rights for casuals to be able to shift to permanency if that’s their wish, and for them to be able to go through that process. So there are all important reforms and I think those Senate crossbenchers who sensibly engaged with us to at least achieve that much. But more broadly, it was disappointing that some of the other reforms that seek to simply improve the way that enterprise agreements operate in Australia were rejected. These weren’t major reforms. These were largely technical improvements to the system. And it speaks volumes for the fact that Labor and the unions chose intimidation ahead of improvement, and that in doing so, they went so hard in terms of threatening individual crossbenchers in relation to campaigns in their seats, dodgy polling undertaken in their seats. No we’ll continue to look closely at what can be done and what should be done in the in the IR system. But we are pleased that at least we are able to achieve some of the key safeguards and improvements in relation to casual employment last week.

Kieran Gilbert: Given we saw the same thing happen with the ensuring integrity bill before the pandemic. This is the second time we’ve seen this happen with the Senate and the government’s challenges on this front is what do you say to the suggestion that reform is dead in a modern political context for this government, for our parliament?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think we should ever concede that and we continue to advance significant reforms right across the board, be they in terms of the types of tax reforms we’ve put in place that are eliminating an entire income tax bracket and really providing an alternative environment where no Australian will pay more than 30 cents in the dollar in their income tax. Whether the types of reforms we’re making in relation to skilling, massive additional support to take on apprenticeships, reform in relation to the skills workforce, to seek to make sure that businesses and those who need skills can have far greater confidence. They’ll get the skills they need, be it through the university reforms we passed through the parliament or the work that Michaelia Cash is doing with the states and territories around vocational education in particular. So we keep getting on with those sorts of very important parts of reform. There is no doubt that when industrial relations reform matters come up, the Labor Party and the unions put politics well before the national interest every time that they scale up out of their own self-interest as well in terms of the way in which they treat those issues and that the types of intimidatory tactics that are deployed by labor and the unions against particularly crossbench senators clearly has some impact. And that’s why I’m grateful to those crossbench senators who were willing to at least withstand those pressures, who even tried to resist our ability to deal with those important casual employment issues to.

Kieran Gilbert: In spite of the challenges on the IR front, we’ve seen the job jobless rate fall quite an impressive number, down to 5.8 per cent given what the nation has been through. Do you think it’s inevitable, though, that the jobless rate will rise once JobKeeper is removed very shortly?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, it is very large fall we saw last week, and it’s very, very welcome, but you do see sometimes small movements up and down month to month as there’s an averaging that occurs over the cycle of statistical compilation, such as unemployment benefits. So whether there might be some small changes, that could be partly correction. We’ve always acknowledged there will be difficulties in some businesses and some households as a result of the cessation of JobKeeper. But JobKeeper was the single largest intervention in the Australian economy ever undertaken by an Australian government. It has to give in its scale, have a fixed timeline and come to an end. We’re bringing it to an end at the end of March as we enter a period now where, according to those unemployment statistics, we’ve now got more people employed this year than we had in March 2020 last year. That’s a pretty remarkable recovery that we’ve seen put in place. So it’s the obvious, right time to transition out of JobKeeper. The scale of impact of measures such as JobKeeper on a budget position is significant to- Australia is running our largest ever deficit as a share of the national economy in our peacetime history. So making sure that we transition out of these economy wide emergency measures into the more targeted measures that we’re deploying in the tourism and aviation sectors such as our $1.2 billion package there and the ongoing work that we will make to keep that strong jobs growth going.

Kieran Gilbert: On that front, though, the underlying cash balance from January in January for the year was $14.5 billion better than forecast just a month or so earlier at my EFO, the 2020-21 MYEFO. So obviously the economy is looking better. That’s having a more positive impact on the underlying cash balance. Is your mind already turning to budget repair as opposed to the economic support the economy’s needed?

Simon Birmingham: Nothing has changed in relation to what we outlined in the budget last year, which was that we would need to see unemployment comfortably and sustainably below 6 per cent for us to be able to move beyond the economic and jobs recovery phase, clearly back into a budget repair and balancing phase. Now, that’s still going to take a little while. We’ve had one monthly set of data that has brought the unemployment rate down to 5.8 per cent and below that 6 per cent level. But that’s certainly not comfortably and sustained in terms of being below that. But yes, budget discipline is crucial. And so it is now entering at least the balancing phase of keeping the economic and jobs growth going but being ever vigilant in terms of how we make sure that we do achieve an improving budget position out of the depths of the pandemic that we faced.

I think Australians understand the pandemic was the biggest global economic shock, indeed, since the Great Depression. What they can see is that the economic outcomes in Australia, alongside the health outcomes, are the envy of much of the rest of the world. And many, many countries would give much to be in the position of not only having the low levels of deaths in the low levels of community transmission, but also the improving budget position, the improving employment position, the economic strength that Australia has and continues to show. And continuing to build that economic strength is our priority.

Kieran Gilbert: The JobMaker hiring credit is one that Andrew Clennell, my colleague, was talking about earlier. He says in the budget, the scheme might drop its age restriction and the subsidies might shift. Are you looking at some amendments on that to make it more workable, the JobMaker programme?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve certainly always been adaptable in terms of the policies we’ve deployed through the pandemic to the changing circumstances we face, and with the JobMaker hiring credit, we’ve put in place something importantly targeting youth unemployment, because all of the evidence of previous recessions was that it can take young people longer to find work again, that they can find themselves stuck in unemployment for more prolonged periods of time, and that therefore we needed to really target some assistance there. Pleasingly, the strength in the jobs market does mean that the JobMaker isn’t taking off entirely as anticipated. And indeed, just last month’s jobs data 88,000 new jobs created across the economy, 40 per cent of those went to young people, 80 per cent went to women. They’re really pleasing statistics to see that we’re getting that jobs take up in targeted sectors that historically have faced greater pressure in recessions and economic downturns. So we will certainly look carefully at the ongoing take up of JobMaker. It’s still early days in the life of that programme. But if some tweaks can ensure that it achieves its objectives, particularly around young people, then we’ll look at that in the budget context.

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s look at a few other issues before you go. The Jenkins’ review into the culture of the parliament. Are you confident there are enough protections for staffers to come forward now and speak without the risk of being exposed? If they if they don’t want to have their names released, that they can do this anonymously?

Simon Birmingham: I am, Kieran, we are taking an absolute no risk approach to ensuring that both current and former staff can have complete confidence in participating in this review. We chose the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, to undertake it because of her expertise, but also because her office is embedded in the Australian Human Rights Commission, who have previous experience in doing similar reviews through and with Commissioner Jenkins in sensitive areas such as defence, such as our university sector, and in being able to protect the safety and confidentiality of participants in those reviews. We’ve also heeded concerns that perhaps because we are the government and we are having this review essentially into the parliament and ourselves, that the application of Freedom of Information laws could create some risks, which is why we put through the Senate on Thursday afternoon special new exclusionary laws in relation to the application of those Freedom of Information laws such that submissions and content generated by and for the Kate Jenkins review will be completely exempt such that anybody can have absolute confidence in their participation.

I personally want and the government wants to see everybody have the opportunity to have their say so that this review is a true reflection of the experiences people have had working in parliamentary workplaces. But most importantly, the review provides clear recommendations for how we can be a best practice workplace in the nation for the prevention of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault. How we can have the best practices for the handling of such cases in both support, reporting, as well as of course, ultimately ensuring that there are penalties and conclusions to the handling of cases and frankly, so that we can restore confidence because we want the best and brightest to come and work in the Australian parliament as members or Senate, as staffers to members or senators, or as others in the building. And that’s so crucial that we restore and have that confidence in place.

Kieran Gilbert: Just quickly before you go, we’re almost out of time. But on the royal commission into veteran suicide, it looks like the government might be forced into doing something that’s not your policy?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we invest around $11 billion a year in supporting veterans and their families. Now, any suicide that occurs across Australia is an absolute tragedy. The suicide of a veteran is of particular significance because of the possible role that their service to our nation could have played in their decision to end their life. And that’s why we have firmly believed and have put legislation to the parliament that establishing not a one off royal commission, but essentially a permanent standing commission type structure, National Veterans Suicide Prevention Commission, that will have all of the same powers as a royal commission. Rather than having an end date, it will go on forever in terms of investigating any veteran suicide, being able to make reports to government and being able to hold government to account as to whether it is acted on previous reports and findings. And we’ll continue to try to convince the parliament that model doesn’t just give the one off impact of a royal commission but can achieve the lasting impact of saving veterans lives.

Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham, I very much appreciate your time. Thanks for that.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran. My pleasure.