Date: Monday, 27 September 2021

Topic(s):  National Plan; COVID Business support; Naval shipbuilding; Hydrogen; Net Zero

Brian Carlton: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has flown into Hobart from Adelaide overnight and joins me in the studio. Morning, how are you going?

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Brian. I’m very well. It’s great to be back in Tassie.

Brian Carlton: It’s nice to get a visit. To what do we owe the honour? What are you up to?

Simon Birmingham: Look Brian, this is a chance for me to get out and talk to a lot of Tasmanian businesses. I’ll be doing it right across the state, heading up today to Richmond, Longford and elsewhere, joining Susie Bower, new liberal candidate for Lyons there and Senator Jonno Duniam, and then heading up to Davenport tonight to be with Gavin Pearce.

Brian Carlton: Don’t say Davenport. Here’s the local lingo guide. Davonport is as red. Devonport. They will lynch you in Davenport. Sorry, Devonport.

Simon Birmingham: Many apologies to Devonport. I’ll be there with Gavin Pearce and then indeed heading to Lonnie tomorrow and surrounds with Bridget Archer.

Brian Carlton: Okay, so it was a bit of a meet and greet. And is this to fill in the locals as to what’s going on in Canberra or what you’ve been discussing with your senior cabinet colleagues and all of that? What issues are we talking about?

Simon Birmingham: It’s really a good chance for me to make a breadth of different small businesses, community groups and other towns, certainly here on the ground what they’re thinking. Ordinarily, if we weren’t living through these bizarre COVID times, you’d expect to see federal ministers coming in and out. Now Richard Colbeck does a very good job as a minister alongside Jonno Duniam and making sure that Tasmania’s views and voices are heard in Canberra. But I thought it was important as a South Australian based minister who at least could get down to Tassie to come, to listen, to talk and to make sure that we pick up on those issues that are going to be crucial for the next phases, the recovery phases from COVID 19. We’ve got to be looking for post the vaccination.

Brian Carlton: Let’s talk about that just for a second. The noise or the official agreement at the federal or the national cabinet level was 80 per cent fall backs and we’d open up borders and there’d be no restrictions, etc. The state government here is dropping around a number of 90 per cent before we open up. That breaks the agreement. Are you as unhappy with the Tasmanian government as you are with the West Australian government or the Queensland government for potentially delaying the open up?

Simon Birmingham: What I think is most important is that each of the states provide some certainty to their communities, their families, their businesses as to when they’re going to be able to trade again, normally reunite with families from interstate. Do all of those things that people rightly expect to be able to do? And now within the Doherty Institute modelling that we’ve commissioned and that national plan, there’s some room for a bit of flexibility and happily here in Tasmania. The state is running ahead of every other state, except for those with COVID outbreaks in terms of the vaccination rollout, which does mean it’s got a chance to get ahead of it. But I look forward to that mid-October promise of seeing a plan being released and that providing that certainty that I think everybody needs to see that there’s benefits from getting vaccinated first and foremost, protecting yourself, your family, your loved ones. But then actually the certainty that we’re going to be able to enjoy some of the freedoms that have been contained over the last year or so.

Brian Carlton: The 90 per cent number was basically being backed in by senior government ministers, including the Premier over the weekend, I noticed the state growth minister, sorry, was Michael Ferguson has been out and about this morning saying that we won’t reopen our borders completely until everyone aged 12 plus has access to a choice of vaccines. That’s trying to create some wriggle room, isn’t it? Because if we on the due date gets 88 per cent or 89 per cent, we haven’t quite hit that target. And the government says, no, we’re not opening up now. We’re going to push it back another month until we get to the 90. There will be riots.

Simon Birmingham: And right, I think people rightly expect to have the certainty. They also expect that if they’ve done the right thing, then what about them having their rights respected, not just worrying about those who haven’t got out there and got vaccinated. So the big message is, you know, we have truckloads of vaccine coming into the country nowadays. People ought to get out there, make their appointment, make their booking for everyone over the age of 12 because by the end of this year, well before that, in fact, everyone will have had an opportunity to be vaccinated. I’m hoping to have a yack premier while I’m in town. We’ve been messaging each other and I’m sure we’ll try to catch up, but I know that he’ll want to see tourists back here as soon as it’s safe to do so. Certainly, that’s what I expect to hear from Tasmanian businesses.

Brian Carlton: That’s what they’ll be begging for. That’s obviously tourism and hospitality sectors are smashed even if there is no COVID here in Tassie because of the lockdowns in New South Wales and Victoria, predominantly. There are so many things to talk about here, the ongoing funding for states that are deciding to continue their lockdowns, I noticed Josh Frydenberg, the Treasurer, a couple of days ago got a bit tough with Victoria when they put their hand up for some extra funding based on the lockdown decision for the construction sector there. As long as the federal government has the tap open and you’re the finance minister, has tap open to the states. They will continue to do this whenever they feel like it because the money’s coming in. At what point do the federal government turn off the tap? At what point?

Simon Birmingham: So we will certainly start to phase out support above that 70 per cent double dose vaccination and then expect that to broadly end at the 80 per cent, that is where the limits in terms of federal financial support start to kick in.

Brian Carlton: So, so sorry, hang on a sec. Let me get that right. The states that are lagging in their vaccine uptake, like Queensland and Western Australia, are likely to get favours here.

Simon Birmingham: Brian, we’ll be looking at the combination of the national figures in the state figures and we’ll be working through as a government the details around precisely what we will end. The vast majority of our support right now is going to individuals through COVID disaster payments across Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT. So that’s where we’ll be turning that tap off, but we also won’t be doing deals with states

Brian Carlton: That’s a worry. The states that are being recalcitrant now in terms of the vaccination rollout, Queensland and Western Australia, predominantly you’re saying you’ll continue to fund them until they get to the 80 per cent threshold,

Simon Birmingham: Brian. So the type of support we’re giving to the non COVID affected states are things like the targeted business assistance, tourism assistance packages that we’ve done with Tasmania, some $70 million that we’ve been delivering recently with the Tasmanian government to support those businesses. They’re done on a case by case basis. I don’t anticipate that we will be continuing support to Queensland or WA under those sorts of programs, or anyone else for that matter.

Brian Carlton: Aren’t you’re talking about pivoting the funding model from those who have a high number of COVID cases and therefore have lockdowns to who’s got vaccination numbers at the appropriate level?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, Bryan, but we do have two different types of support kind of running across the country at present. We’ve got support for those states with COVID outbreaks, and that’s an automatic type of support which we will wind back as we hit those vaccine targets. Then we’ve got already time limited support packages that we’ve done on a case by case with Tasmania, WA, Queensland, SA, NT and they’ve all got support packages, but they’re not ongoing ones. They already have limits that will see them wind down and we won’t be extending those packages beyond those sorts of 80 per cent levels of vaccination.

Brian Carlton: This Monday morning, a glorious Monday morning in Hobart, it’s fabulous. My studio guest is on a bit of a whistle stop visit around Tassie at the moment. Senator Simon Birmingham, the Finance Minister. I want to ask you about subs. The local build component is obviously still part of the all new nuclear subs programme. Well, is Adelaide, your home city, is Adelaide better or worse off under the new deal compared to the old one?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not just about the future nuclear powered subs. So what we also announced at the same time was that we’re going to upgrade and extend the life of the existing Collins class submarines. We’re also going to upgrade the weapons capabilities of the air warfare destroyers. All of those sorts of things are going to create more jobs in Adelaide, more jobs across the defence industry generally. But I certainly also heard a retired rear admiral speaking on radio earlier this morning, talking about the fact that he believes there will be even more job opportunities created under the nuclear powered submarine programme because of the additional technology skills etc that are needed.

Brian Carlton: I notice we’re already talking with the UK and the US about borrowing, and I use that term advisedly some of their submarines until our new ones start rolling in, which hopefully will be able to push the Collins class out until then. It’s a good idea in principle, isn’t it, to have US subs and nuclear subs and UK subs here to train our people, get them familiar with systems. We can work out how we want to do ours differently to the ones they’re training on that sort of thing. When are we likely? Just because time is the time is critical here, isn’t it? We can’t muck around for another 20 or 30 years to be able to defend ourselves. Chinese aren’t stupid.

Simon Birmingham: We absolutely need to make sure that we’re making this decision in Australia’s long term interests. We’re making it because we want to give our Defence Forces our navy the best possible capabilities and equipment to be able to defend Australia, and we want to get that in place as early as possible. And importantly, with the UK and the US, we have partners who want us to have this capability, not just the capability to operate and own, but the capability to be able to build and sustain. That increases the capability of all of our partners and allies in that regard. So that’s what they’re seeing It is being important now in terms of us perhaps having joint operations using one of their submarines or more than one that will be about building up the skills of our submariners of our navy and that will be a crucial part of training and learning how to operate and understanding what will be necessary for the basing requirements. So over in Perth, where our submarine fleet is based, there will be infrastructure needs to invest to have the facilities there for far bigger subs.

Brian Carlton: And there’ll also be protests too. I would have thought from some of the locals who don’t like the idea of a nuclear submarine parked in the neighbourhood.

Simon Birmingham: No doubt there will be. There will be some. But I’ve been very, very pleased by the, I think, quite mature reaction Australia has shown from this announcement. We haven’t had debates in terms of ridiculous scaremongering. I’ve noticed a little bit from The Greens.

Brian Carlton: It’ll be a Chernobyl in the middle of every city

Simon Birmingham: We’re doing this with the UK and the US because they have operated these things for decades without there being incident that has affected human life. It’s, you know, it’s a very safe operation.

Brian Carlton: You’re preaching to the converted here. I had many arguments with defence ministers past who didn’t like the idea of nuclear submarines, you know, and we have to go diesel electric and this is a serious error. Please don’t do it. But they did it anyway. And here we are a decade old later going, oh no, we’re going nuclear. The quick one. The PM’s about to announce front page screamer in the Australian today PM’s Clean Energy Export Plan. Can I be cheeky and suggest that part of that will involve hydrogen exported out of Bell Bay here in Tassie?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s a very, very good chance of that, Brian, I can’t obviously get ahead of myself in announcing these things.

Brian Carlton: When will you be making the announcement?

Simon Birmingham: I would hope over the coming couple of months, I think it will be important that we firm up. Angus Taylor announced further expansion in terms of our hydrogen hub strategy just in the last couple of weeks. We’re putting additional funding towards that. I’ve had talks with some of those, like Andrew Forrest, about his visions and dreams for what’s possible in Bell Bay. I know that it’s got huge potential and you know, hydrogen has been long talked about as a fuel source. But crucially, what it can help to do is transform not just, you know, what we’ve done to date, which is the drive towards renewable energies for our electricity generation. But we need fuels like hydrogen to help transform transport and help transform industrial and manufacturing emissions. You know, they’re the areas where we can actually get really big changes in terms of further driving down emissions in the future towards net zero.

Brian Carlton: Yeah, you’d have to imagine Tasmania has a natural advantage in there in that all of our electricity that would be used to produce the ammonia that ultimately for export will be green. It’ll be green hydrogen so made from renewable energy. That’s as good as it gets in terms of the hydrogen being. But is there anywhere else in the country that can do that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, other places would be able to use solar power and potentially wind in different circumstances.

Brian Carlton: Exclusively?

Brian Carlton: Well, look, to a fair degree depending on how you build and operate these things, there’s a fair bit of excitement in other locations of what can be done, but the absolute guaranteed reliability that comes from hydro and being able to from that converted into hydrogen, that’s a huge opportunity. I know it’s why you look at somebody like Twiggy. Forrest is a very successful businessman, and he’s not successful because he backs losers. He’s successful because he backs winners, and he’s pretty passionate and excited about what Bell Bay and Tasmania have to offer in this space.

Brian Carlton: Zero emissions, net zero by 2050. Is that something you’re going to be able to convince the Nationals or your coalition colleagues to get out of the line?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s many reasons why Australia does need to chart the course to net zero and we’ll be talking to all of our colleagues and all Australians about the importance of that. There are clearly the environmental reasons, but there are also economic reasons. Just as we were discussing, other nations are going to change their fuel mixes, we should be part of that. And then there are international partnerships, which are also crucial in making sure that from a national security and international alliance perspective, we are working in lockstep with others at all levels where we need them.

Brian Carlton: Okay. Simon Birmingham, we could happily chat away for another hour or so. I appreciate your time this morning. Enjoy your time in Tasmania, and we’ll no doubt speak again as these some of these issues come to fruition. Appreciate your time. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Brian. My pleasure.