Topics: Jobs figures; Cost of living; Senator Kitching; SA election
Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live to the Finance Minister. Simon Birmingham. Appreciate your time as always. Let’s start with the issue of jobs. Incredible number 4 per cent. I guess the flip side of that though Minister is a lot of businesses can’t find workers, skilled workers so that the difficult side of that equation isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran it’s great to be with you. Yes, indeed they are incredible job numbers. And you’re right, there are challenges in parts of the economy in terms of workforce challenges. But that’s a better and a happier problem to have than the alternative of very high unemployment. And let’s not forget that when the pandemic struck, the forecast was that unemployment could head up into the teens, that we could see a prolonged recession that would leave many young Australians sitting on a dole queue for years and years to come, which was the history from past recessions. But instead what we’ve got is 375,000 more Australians in work today than pre-COVID. This is a world leading outcome in terms of employment in the Australian economy. It really is achieving remarkable feats in terms of having come through a recession and bounced out as strongly as we have. And it’s a demonstration of the effectiveness of the economic supports our government put in place to keep businesses afloat, to keep employees connected to jobs, and then to have a rebuild plan that has been fuelled and driven by business investment. It isn’t just creating jobs today, but will drive productivity in the years to come.
Kieran Gilbert: While the headline rate is good. Obviously it is. You know, everyone welcomes that. The ABS says that the hours worked rebounded in February, but they’re still below what they were pre Delta, May 2021. So there’s a fair way to go in terms of not just the job number, but the hours worked in getting people back and managing what is effectively those isolation periods, those close contact rules, managing that while we face potentially another wave, it’s precarious.
Simon Birmingham: Indeed, Kieran, there’s nothing to be taken for granted. And that is a very important point in a world in which we’re still managing the impacts of COVID and the globe is still grappling with the economic recovery from COVID, but now facing a global inflationary pressures which Australia is handling again better than much of the rest of the world, with inflation running around half of that of the United States, but still global pressures that we have to be mindful of. Throw on top of that, a war in Europe that is having tragic consequences and causing huge supply chain and other disruptions for different parts of the global economy. And it’s clear that we can’t take and we as a government will not take Australia’s economic recovery for granted. We know that in framing the budget in less than two weeks’ time, we have to keep the priority on strong economic growth, on employment growth, on managing to ensure that we achieve the miracle of virtual full employment by getting unemployment down to the lows they are and keeping it and pushing it below 4% where possible, but also carefully managing the economy so that we don’t add further to global interest rate pressures and make sure that we are conscious very much of the different pressures that different Australian households face as a result-
Kieran Gilbert: So in that context, because the rates, the rate pressures are potent right now, the fed moved overnight in the US projecting another six hikes this year. It’s inevitable that rates will rise here, isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Well the Reserve Bank’s always said that Kieran, that in setting such abnormally low and historically low interest rates that there will be a point at which they normalise. What we as a government want to make sure-
Kieran Gilbert: They haven’t always said this year though have they?
Simon Birmingham: That pressures on-
Kieran Gilbert: It is going to happen. All within months.
Simon Birmingham: No, they all like all of us have responded to changing global circumstances. And I’m pretty sure the Reserve Bank no more than anybody else forecast to war in Europe and the oil price spikes and other factors that are now reframing parts of the global economy. But what we are intent on doing is, as we’ve done successfully, keeping the pressure on job creation, but making sure we don’t do anything that adds to the pressure on interest rates and that we frame a budget that is very careful in terms of trying to support Australians as we’ve done before. Our income tax cuts are providing around one and half billion dollars a month into the pockets of households-
Kieran Gilbert: But just explain to me how do you do that. How do you do that in terms of providing support, on the one hand, for cost of living pressures, but not provide inflationary pressures at the same time by putting more money into the economy.
Simon Birmingham: Clearly I’m not going to speak to specific measures, and I thank you. You’re one of the few interviews I’ve done in the last week or so that hasn’t gone to direct points of budget speculation. But you do it very carefully. You have to make sure that that each of the steps we take are carefully structured and targeted. And you do it also mindful of what you’ve already done. And what we have achieved as a government is to have ensure that Australians have got more disposable income to the tune of somebody on $90,000 a year of about $50 a week extra disposable income thanks to our income tax cuts than they would have had under a Labor government. On top of that, we’ve managed to, through our energy policies, drive down electricity prices by about 8% over the last two years, again helping to provide extra disposable income-
Kieran Gilbert: But not direct cash payments. That would be irresponsible, wouldn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, again, we’ll work through the different specifics very carefully in framing the budget, and I’m not going to run speculation on any one of those different specific options. But we’re looking carefully at how we calibrate that. As I say, do not put extra upward pressure on interest rates or on inflation, but equally to make sure that we don’t jeopardise Australia’s economic recovery, which has driven our jobs market to these really strong results.
Kieran Gilbert: A few other issues, the floods package today to be announced shortly. The Federal and New South Wales governments a billion dollars broadening out the support. Should the Government have just expanded those emergency payments beyond Lismore to areas like Ballina very badly affected by the floods? Rather than open yourselves up to the accusation that you’re favouring the Coalition seat of Page at the expense of a Labor seat of Richmond.
Simon Birmingham: So Kieran, we’ve delivered more than $860 million worth of payments to more than 1 million Australians in response to these floods. It’s the fastest ever rate of payment made to the greatest number of Australians in terms of a natural disaster response. So there hasn’t been a shortage in terms of the volume of cash or the speed in terms of getting that out the door. When you start talking about making additional payments beyond the set standards, you’ve got to be conscious in terms of the precedents that you’re setting and in terms of the equity arrangements in who you’re treating. So that’s why we made sure that we took advice from the Bureau of Meteorology, from the National Resilience and Recovery Agency, and that’s what we’ve continued to do in terms of where we draw the lines of eligibility that we want to provide, the support that is necessary, and it all comes at significant extra cost to taxpayers. It’s significant extra pressure on the budget, and that’s why we’re doing what’s necessary. But also and not just doing it in a cheap, easy political way where you see a problem, throw more cash at it, and to hell with the long term consequences. That’s not the Liberal National Party way of doing business. Our approach is firmly rooted in making sure we follow the evidence there. We consider the precedents that are being set. And of course this instance we’re dealing with in Lismore, a one in 500 year flood event. So we’ve acknowledged that more is needed than the normal assistance we’ve delivered more. How far out that goes is where we’ll get the analysis and make sure we respond to it.
Kieran Gilbert: The tragic passing of Senator Kitching continues to generate stories. Do you feel it’s too soon to be discussing some of the matters being canvassed right now?
Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I think what is what’s written in the newspapers is a matter for the newspapers. And it’s often the way of politics that sometimes things are perhaps seen as a little messy or untidy in terms of when dirty linen gets aired, as seems to be the case. But that’s a matter of judgement for free media in a country like Australia and for those who are choosing to provide the commentary, I acknowledge again Kimberley’s contribution and, the terrible tragedy of someone dying as young as she did.
Kieran Gilbert: And finally the South Australian election. Not looking good for your friend Steven Marshall, isn’t it, according to the polls?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve all seen polls be terribly wrong before. So let’s see what transpires here. It’ll be determined, as always, in a handful of marginal seats and there’ll be the ones that make the decision. But this, I think, is it’s a potential fork in the road moment for South Australia. What Steven Marshall has done to lift business confidence, to energise investment in South Australia and to create more jobs has been a remarkable achievement in just four short years. And what he could achieve in terms of building upon that in the next four years would make a transformational difference to this state in keeping more South Australians here, more young people here, and generating more highly skilled, more highly paying jobs that would have enormous benefits right through the South Australian economy. And, and I speak to many South Australians who do recognise that and who are seeing the benefits of, of people moving to South Australia and seeking jobs in South Australia and have more highly paid jobs here. And I hope that South Australians cast their votes on Saturday. They think very much about the need to have the strong economy and the strong jobs to be able to pay for the services that we need. It’s not just a question of how much money you throw at services. It’s always a question of how they’re paid for to.
Kieran Gilbert: We will talk to you Saturday night as well as part of our coverage. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you for that. Appreciate it.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran. My pleasure.