Topics: NSW business support; WA borders; SA reopening; international students; Rapid antigen tests; WeChat


02:05PM AEST


Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live now, Andrew would take our viewers to Adelaide, the finance minister, Simon Birmingham joins me. Minister, thanks so much for your time, Andrew Clenell with that news today that the New South Wales government are going to push ahead with a job saver program for those businesses that have taken a big hit on their turnover. Apparently, the New South Wales government has asked for 50:50 the feds, your government haven’t said yes. Why?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, it’s good to be with you again. There’s no doubt that across Australia, we’ve got different people who are doing it tough right at this point in time as we face the peak or just come off the peak in some cases of the Omicron variant and its impacts. But each of our different budgets and budget updates have been framed around saving jobs as well as saving lives, and those measures continue to be rolled out across Australia. So the support that we’re providing through the loss carry back arrangements for Australian businesses, the type of stimulation that exists across the economy, through the investment incentives that we’ve put in place, the type of support for construction industry activity and so on. All of those remain very real and indeed we have hundreds of billions of dollars of support. But also we see much of that as still sitting on the bank balances of Australians through the paying down of mortgages earlier, through higher savings rates, including savings in a number of Australian businesses. So we’ve made sure the support we’ve got is there is ongoing has been upfront through much of this pandemic to help with the continued pressures in areas of recovery.

Kieran Gilbert: But this is this is a small business constituency particularly that have copped it traditionally a Liberal Party constituency, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much affection from them towards the government at the moment, given how much they are hurting through on Omicron. Despite the lack of lockdowns, they’re still hurting. So again, I ask you, why won’t the federal government go 50:50 with New South Wales on their job saver plan to be announced this week?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, because just as I outlined, the type of economic support we have in place is ongoing, it’s using existing systems and mechanisms that are there. Yes, if different times we’ve partnered with the states for certain particular things during extended lockdowns, but we’ve also put in place structural assistance that can apply right across the Australian economy to help and support different Australian businesses to get the best possible outcomes for themselves using the tax system and other mechanisms to be able to get through these tougher times. So we’re very determined to make sure that we continue to drive that economic strength we’ve seen as a country. And we, of course, just saw unemployment figures last week come in at historic lows for Australia. We’re seeing jobs in terms of 1.7 million extra jobs that have been created since we’ve been in government. A huge jobs growth amongst Australian women. Huge, huge jobs growth amongst young Australians. We’ve got youth unemployment down. These are very strong outcomes. Yes, we know it’s tough times in certain sectors, right now, but you can also see that underlying strength in the economy –

Kieran Gilbert: Are you looking at are you looking at this sort of additional support though? Potentially in the budget, a pre-election budget to announce this sort of support? Are you open to that?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, each and every budget and budget update we’ve handed down, we’ve looked at what is necessary to see Australia through the depths of COVID-19 and to make sure the recovery is successful. Coming out of that and the strength of that recovery, notwithstanding the pressure points that are there due to Omicron right now can be evidenced by those really strong employment figures and by the fact that we have bounced back so strongly each and every time. Of course, in the next budget, when we hand that down in March, we will continue to look at how we can have the strongest possible economy building on the tax cuts that we have delivered that are currently putting $1.5 billion extra into the pockets of Australian households each and every month. And the potential for that to be able to flow through those households into Australian businesses to help with their recovery.

Kieran Gilbert: One of the things that’s hampering obviously the broader national recovery is has been state border closures. You’ve got the WA decision now. You’ve said it’s a matter for West Australians to debate and come up with an answer. Do you think though Omicron will force their hand eventually here?

Simon Birmingham: Look, Omicron has proven to be so highly transmissible, not just here in Australia, but right around the world, the surge in case numbers that it drove has put pressure on testing systems. For example, right around the world has seen rapid antigen tests and shortage right around the world and has seen the fact that all countries face that challenge that once there it is so transmissible that it is very hard to control. And that will be a challenge for Western Australia, as it has been anywhere else. The good side in relation to Omicron is that the health impacts are around 70 per cent less-.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you think it shows that WA’s health system is not ready? Does this decision reflect a state system that is not ready?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that really is a matter to further debate within Western Australia. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on West Australian hospitals. West Australia has received the same type of support that we’ve provided across the rest of the country in terms of significant extra funding for the health system in terms of the agreement that provides access to private hospital staff to support peak operation and peak needs. These are the types of pillars that we put in place that have helped to ensure that as difficult as it is in hospitals and health systems around the country at present, because of the extra hours people are having to work, ultimately, beds are available, our hospitals have not been overloaded and system has demonstrated that it can cope elsewhere-

Kieran Gilbert: How is how is the SA reopening gone? Because it’s a similar population, your home state? How is the SA reopening gone? I know there have been long waits for PCR testing and so on. But how is it? How’s it been handled by the health system there?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, at that initial peak time, yes, there were queues for PCR tests or the like, but I think it’s really important to emphasise that here in South Australia and I’m sure in other states as well, people who need a test at present can get one pretty quickly. There are no longer long waits for PCR tests. There are also clinics handing out free rapid antigen tests. That if you need a test because you are symptomatic, if you need a test because you’re a close contact, then you will get a free test and they are available through those different testing processes we’ve got in place in terms of the reopening in South Australia. I’ve noted that everybody from the federal AMA President through to the New Zealand Prime Minister has indicated they see South Australia as a model to follow, where there have been some early restrictions that were put in place to be able to suppress the peak in relation to Omicron. And that appears to have been successful in having a lower peak occurring than was the case in New South Wales, Victoria or Queensland, for that matter. So I think South Australia has shown you can get that balance right, not without still some challenges in terms of health, workforce and those issues where you have people isolating. But that’s why those extra supports through our private hospital agreements and other funding have been put in place.

Kieran Gilbert: Your colleague Barnaby Joyce, the deputy prime minister, says some people are hoarding the rapid tests. Is this an attempt to point the finger at others to deflect blame from the government?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, as I said before, the shortage of rapid antigen tests is a global phenomenon. Omicron, being such a hugely more transmissible variant, created difficulties in supply chains right around the world. We were able to continue to supply millions of tests to the aged care sector in Australia to make sure that we maintained as a nation some of the highest testing rates per capita in the world-

Kieran Gilbert: So people aren’t, they’re not hoarding?

Simon Birmingham: -despite all of that pressure we saw, all of those queues. Well I think the hoarding threat is actually probably most great under whatever it is, the Labor Party’s policy is where they say they’ll give them all out for free. Now, it’s not clear when you look at the detail of what they’re now saying is whether that means you have to make an appointment with the doctor to get it through Medicare, or whether it would be free under Labor to go and just take them off the shelf at the supermarket. What we’ve prioritised-

Kieran Gilbert: Are people hoarding now, January 2022?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, what we’ve prioritised and where we’re making sure that we have kits available in aged care, the millions of kits that are necessary. In our hospital systems and working with the states and territories for solutions around schools that we want to ensure firstly and foremost, that testing is free for those who need it, people who are symptomatic. That it’s free for those who are close contacts, that where it needs screening in higher risk environments such as aged care, health systems or indeed in the management of schools-

Kieran Gilbert: So you disagree with Barnaby Joyce?

Simon Birmingham: – that there is support for that testing. And of course, we’ve provided the concessional scheme that as more kids come into the country, there will be available in a concessional way for those pensioners and other concession card holders.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, our viewers can see you haven’t really responded specifically to the Barnaby Joyce question, so I won’t ask you a thousand times. Let’s move on to this immigration question. Andrew Clenell reporting earlier that two years ago, there were 60,000 on average passenger arrivals in January 2020. 2022, just under 10000. Why aren’t even though you’ve reopened to international students and so on, why haven’t those numbers rebounded? Why aren’t those students returning and those visas being taken up?

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, its early days, still in terms of the reopening of borders, the re-establishment of flight contacts, international flights are on the whole more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. As there’s less competition and higher costs that airlines are dealing with, there’s uncertainty right around the world. Once again to stress the point that I’ve made a few times. Omicron didn’t just happen here in Australia. It happened in pretty much every other country of the world as it swept around and surged case numbers and created additional uncertainty and additional pressure points. So range of different factors. But obviously the announcement we made last week as a government to provide for a rebate of visa fees for working holiday makers and for international students coming to Australia is all about in a time limited sense, trying to bring forward some of those arrivals and to incentivise people to say you should come now and to make sure they’re aware of the fact that our borders are open and we’re not just allowing them to come, but we’re encouraging them to come.

Kieran Gilbert: We’re out of time, but I just want to squeeze in one quick question. The WeChat reaction to Scott Morrison’s account, the hijacking of that account, James Patterson says there should be a boycott from parliamentarians when it comes to that platform. Do you agree with him?

Simon Birmingham: Well, frankly, on the way WeChat has behaved not only back James Patterson in encouraging parliamentarians to boycott WeChat. But I’d urge all those in Australia to have a second think about using WeChat as a platform. I know that for many Australian citizens of Chinese heritage or Chinese nationals living in Australia, it’s an important form of communication between family members. But this sort of political distorting of a communications platform, this astroturfing type activity of essentially stealing the prime minister’s followers list and taking control of it, that obviously deserves condemnation and it shows that as a communications platform, WeChat simply can’t be trusted.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate your time, and thanks for joining us for the first time of 2022. It’s going to be a big year.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran. Look forward to a few more chats, I’m sure.