Topics: Support for South Australian businesses; National Plan; Vaccine passports


Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live to the Minister for Finance and senior liberal senator in South Australia, Senator Simon Birmingham. Leader of the government in the Senate. Thanks for your time, Minister. Let’s start with this criticism from the tourism industry, they say. While well-intentioned, it’s not enough that this only covers five to 10 per cent of their monthly losses, and it’s only a one off grant.


Simon Birmingham: Well, thanks, Kieran, and thanks for the opportunity to join you. This is yet another stream of assistance being provided to impacted businesses. It’s not the first one that we’ve made available in relation to supporting impacted businesses in South Australia or indeed in other states and across the country, and it comes on top of a number of other programmes. So I think whilst obviously there will be some who seek to criticise on occasion, this is a valuable additional bit of assistance on top of what people have already received. It comes in addition, for example, to the loss carry back provisions that were extended in the last budget and continue to provide support to businesses right around the country who are feeling negative impacts of COVID.


Kieran Gilbert: But these businesses to say they’re effectively copying unofficial lockdown. Can you see what they’re saying? You know, you’re in tourism in Tanunda. Or, you know, one of the beautiful parts of your state and you’re copping it because you can’t get any travellers to come and visit. You’re basically getting the impact of lockdown, but not the same sort of support you’d get in a hotspot.


Simon Birmingham: Kieron, a couple of things to that, it’s I mean, the whole reason why we’re providing this support and why we’ve done similar supports with the governments in Queensland and Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania is in recognition of the fact that each of those jurisdictions have some knock on consequences as a result of the difficult situations in New South Wales and Victoria. So that’s the whole rationale for it, is we do know that there are certain types of businesses that are doing it tough. But we should also understand that across economies like South Australia, the local tourism market, the intrastate market is often doing exceptionally well. And so for many businesses, though, they may not be getting the international or even the interstate visitors they would usually rely upon, they are getting quite large numbers of local tourists with the absence of restrictions in South Australia or in the other smaller states across the country. People are spreading out and supporting local tourism and closer to home drive trips and so on. Now that won’t fix every company’s problems. That’s why support like this is being made available to lend a helping hand to those targeted numbers who still face more severe impacts as a result of the border closures and the like.


Kieran Gilbert: Steven Marshall, the premier, was on the Sunday Agenda programme, spoke to my colleague Andrew Cornelius, who it was on the show yesterday, and he’s saying that he wants to bring down the border when you get to 80 per cent thresholds. Obviously, you would welcome that. But is this tourism hit part of his thinking that he wants to provide some respite in terms of those businesses?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is about providing support to help businesses get through really the next couple of months, as we see with the growth in the vaccination rate and that we now have more than two thirds of all Australians over the age of 16 having had their first dose. We can see with increasing levels of confidence, we’re going to reach that 70 per cent and hopefully charge onto that 80 per cent plus threshold. And in doing so, then states and territories should follow the evidence basis in the Doherty Institute modelling and evidence basis that says you don’t just throw everything open and say, that’s it. Go hell for leather. You actually have a cautious, careful, staged approach in terms of opening that you maintain certain social health measures in place. But importantly, you can provide greater confidence to people that they can plan, book, travel, do the types of things that are necessary to support the tourism industry, the business events industry and those sectors that have been feeling a particular impact as a result of the ongoing border closures and lockdowns.


Kieran Gilbert: It’s an interesting scenario, though, where you’ve got Steven Marshall very much on board with that argument, as we heard yesterday, but other states have obviously the most stark example is that in WA of Premier McGowan, it’s not. It’s not the same message is what you’re arguing.


Simon Birmingham: Look, I think each state will no doubt be looking carefully at their circumstances. The important thing right now is to get those vaccination rates up and delivered. And it’s a testament to the millions of Australians turning out and the fact that we are on a daily basis recording now significant numbers of additional vaccinations. We have, I think, around 11 million or so 11 to 12 million doses of mRNA vaccines coming into the country this month and continuing around that volume over the next couple of months. So that’s going to mean that supply is very, very strong. The distribution networks are holding up and we’ll see further expansion with more pharmacies coming online. And that will mean that there’s ultimately more than 10,000 different points at which Australians can get those vaccines. And we want to see the states all meet those targets, and I hope in doing so that the people in those states, the businesses in those states will be making it clear to their leaders that they then want the certainty to be able to plan and to be able to engage with the rest of the country as as people not unreasonably would wish to do so.


Kieran Gilbert: But does that certainty come with passports, vaccine passports? How do you see that unfolding? Is that is that something that is done top down i.e. with government frameworks? Or do you see this happening via, say, businesses? We know Qantas is doing it. Telstra is mandating vaccines, health care. Some states are doing it. Obviously New South Wales, we’re seeing via its own apparatus. Do you see this happening via various levels of business as opposed to being a federal decision?


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I think there’s a couple of streams to it that from a federal perspective, our role has been to provide for facilitation around proof of vaccination. And that’s important and we have been working on all of the different technology aspects to ensure that whilst people can right now access the vaccination certificate by going through the MyGov app, how that can be used in terms of facilitating international travel and meeting international requirements in the future, or be used to provide a proof of vaccination in terms of potential domestic requirements to do so, we’re playing that facilitatory role in terms of establishing that. Then there’s, of course, the national aspects of where the vaccination requirements are necessary for public health reasons, such as across the aged care sector and working with the states and territories in putting in place those requirements that people understand and expect should be there to keep people safe, then it really does come down to the reasonable test that businesses, events, organisers, states and territories might apply about where else they think it necessary to mandate vaccinations or require them to keep workforces safe or to do it as a tactic to be able to slow the spread of COVID in different communities. And so those decisions are one for individual business.


Kieran Gilbert: What about as a tactic for marketing. You know, say a pub says we are fully vaccinated, staff are vaccinated. We only accept people who have had both jabs. Do you support that sort of thing where a pub or a venue would be able to do that?


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, my approach is generally to support freedom of choice, and that’s freedom of choice in terms of Australians choosing to be vaccinated or not. Now I urge every Australian to get vaccinated, but ultimately it is an individual decision. But that choice also extends to freedom for businesses to make those sorts of decisions. Now, workplace laws allow businesses in certain circumstances where it’s reasonable to mandate their staff, but they also enable them to put in place conditions of entry for customers that that could involve proof of vaccination now up to individual businesses to determine if that works for their business model and the approach that they want to take and their branding and reputation. But it’s a choice that I think is one just as we recognise those freedoms of choice in other ways. That’s a choice that we should enable businesses to undertake from a federal government perspective. As I said, we are simply facilitating that proof of vaccination and that proof is important if you work in the aged care sector, if you want to travel overseas or indeed where businesses or state governments might require it, we want to make sure Australians aren’t inconvenienced and are is able to demonstrate that as quickly and simply as possible.


Kieran Gilbert: But the message is important, isn’t it, that you’re saying from a federal perspective, if you want to do this and put in a requirement for clientele, for staff, you can do it.


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we’re not we’re not proposing new laws to enable nor new laws to ban people should operate within the existing legal frameworks that make it entirely possible and reasonable for businesses to make their own decisions. And they have to do that mindful of the impacts on their customers and their staff and their legal obligations.


Kieran Gilbert: Would you rather go to a pub and know the person next to you has had the vaccination?


Simon Birmingham: Oh, look, I would, as I said, encourage every Australian to get vaccinated. I think once we start seeing, I hope, very, very high levels of vaccination, I mean, there’s no reason why Australia, as a country that has incredibly successful vaccination programmes, can’t push well beyond those 80 per cent markers and achieve even higher benchmarks. Then as we hopefully reach those levels, the need to know whether somebody else is vaccinated diminishes significantly. But in the earlier days, it possibly has more of a role and is more important as people should be aware that the best way to protect, for example, younger children in all circumstances is to make sure their siblings are vaccinated, their parents are vaccinated, their grandparents, their teachers and all of those around them. And so that becomes a relevant factor, perhaps in some social settings, too.


Kieran Gilbert: And before you go as finance minister, do you get to a point? When is the point where you have to start looking at reining in the spending? I know today we’re talking about more support. And obviously we can’t. You can’t pull the rug out yet. But in your mind, do you have a timeframe for when you want to start? Start to try to at least rein in the spending and have some budget repair that is a Liberal Party has been a focus for part of your DNA, really.


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, there’s a synergy between achieving those vaccination targets and implementing the national plan with stepping down the type of economic support that has been there. It’s been crucial for Australia’s economy and indeed for our long term budget position to deliver economic support through this crisis. If we hadn’t delivered effective support that has kept our economy stronger, kept people connected to jobs, kept people employed and our unemployment rate low, then we would have run the risk of having year’s worth of trailing unemployment liabilities. That would have been a really crippling impact on the economy, as well as on individuals and their livelihoods. But as we hope to reach the end of this year with high vaccination rates, the states, particularly New South Wales and Victoria coming out of their lockdowns and reopening, then the need for that type of economic support diminishes just as we see all of that opening up, and that’s what will make that transition. Of course, the need to ensure we still have continued delivery of our economic plan for growth over the next couple of years to get back on a more stable footing and to overcome the setbacks of the last two years is crucial. And that’s where the things we outlined in the budget earlier this year. Our manufacturing strategy, our Agriculture 2030 strategy, the investment incentives for business all become really crucial to drive the economy forward and help achieve that that ultimate goal of budget repair underpinned by very high rates of employment.


Kieran Gilbert: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham joining me live from Adelaide, appreciate it, as always, thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran, my pleasure.