Topic(s): Religious Discrimination Bill; Labor’s pandemic spending; Richard Colbeck

Peter Stefanovic: Joining us live is the finance minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good to see you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning.


Peter Stefanovic: Thanks for your time this morning. So broad support for religious discrimination so far within your party, but some in the Coalition have called it weak. There’s a rump of moderates that are still deeply concerned. Is it in trouble?


Simon Birmingham: Well, these are challenging issues, Pete just in terms of making sure that you get the laws that are being proposed right, that you deal with some tricky and difficult matters associated with them that in principle what is being sought is something that has strong support across all elements of our party room in government, that is to put in place an anti-discrimination law for people of faith on the basis of religion, just the same as we have anti-discrimination laws based on people’s gender, their sexuality, their age, disability status, all of those different factors that you shouldn’t be discriminated against when you’re going to rent a house or when you’re looking for a job on the basis of your faith. And they’re pretty simple principles. But then when you get into some of the details as to how other elements of that are applied, there are some points of contention and they, of course, are there to be worked through and that’s precisely what’s been happening.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay, but if the government can’t pass this legislation, has it lost a mandate to govern considering it was a promise?


Simon Birmingham: No, Pete, no. That’s certainly not the case. I mean, the words I think that Scott Morrison repeated most at the last election were about the need for a strong economy, and that is writ large on the fact that we’ve got unemployment at 4.2 per cent 13 year low and then we’ve got 1.7 million more Australians in jobs, that we have managed to overhaul the income tax system with reforms that will wipe out when the final stage occurs and applies, will wipe out an entire tax bracket and even at present are putting one and a half billion dollars a month back into the pockets of hard working Australians. These are the sorts of things that are the mandate and the delivery of the government against that mandate for a stronger economy. Of course, we made other commitments and we work through those such as the religious discrimination reforms.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay, you’re turning the screws on Labor this morning. That’s been the case for a couple of weeks now, but you’re laying out extra costs that their policies would cost. What are those totals, which equal about $81 billion? What does that say to you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Pete, that’s right we’ve done a bit of an analysis just across six different areas of policies and things the Labor Party have called for during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and just across those six areas, the Labor Party under Anthony Albanese would have spent an additional $81 billion on top of what has already been record spending and record spending that has been proven to work in terms of jobs outcomes, to work in terms of keeping Australians safe and secure compared to the rest of the world. And what it demonstrates is just how profligate and wasteful the Labor Party remains, their inability to say no when you should say no. The wacky ideas such as the $300 payment they called to be made for Australians to get vaccinated, when of course, 94 per cent of Australians have turned out to get double dose vaccinated without the need for any such bribe or payment that just would have been completely wasteful. And so it’s a big reminder coming into the election when there’s a choice to be framed that the coalition will do what is necessary and has spent what has been necessary to get through COVID. But we’ve also had that restraint and the ability to say no, we’re required. Whereas the Labor Party always saw the need for more spending some $81 billion, at least extra that would have been piled onto the national debt had they got their way.


Peter Stefanovic: Isn’t it a bit rich, though, to be talking about their costs when debt is the highest it’s ever been under your government?


Simon Birmingham: It is still, of course, about a framing and a choice at an election campaign. Yes, we’ve had to respond to a global pandemic in ways that we would never have envisaged at the time of the last election or before the pandemic hit in terms of support for the health system, support for the economy, all of which have been proven to work. Now, we haven’t got absolutely everything right. And of course, if you go back and change things again with the benefit of hindsight, you would and we get plenty of commentary about that from the Labor Party-


Peter Stefanovic: Like the slow vaccine and rapid test rollout.


Simon Birmingham: And they’re all, you know, they were great experts-


Peter Stefanovic: So what did that cost the economy?


Simon Birmingham: -in hindsight. They’re all great experts in hindsight. But the reality is, you know, we have managed to get 94 per cent of Australians vaccinated. We’ve actually managed to maintain some of the highest testing rates in the world quite consistently with free testing available to all those who need it, whilst Labor, of course, want to create an additional cost in terms of spraying tests even further afield, not just for those who are close contacts, those who are symptomatic, those in essential, critical and vulnerable sectors of the economy where we’re making sure all of that is available. Again, they call for yet more spending to happen, and that spending ultimately adds to the debt, adds to the challenges in terms of bringing the deficit under control. And so choice remains one that we will frame ahead of that election.


Peter Stefanovic: One of those sectors, as you know, aged care in deep, deep trouble, 533 deaths in aged care this year. Yet the minister who’s already been demoted, still there. I mean, no way would that happen in the private sector, as Labor asked yesterday. Why is Richard Colbeck still there?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Richard Colbeck has been working hard alongside Greg Hunt in terms of engaging with the aged care sector, tens and tens of millions of pieces of protective equipment, 80,000 plus different shifts as part of the surge workforce capacity that we’ve helped to put in place to support the aged care sector. The fact is that 100 per cent of aged care homes have been visited to provide offers for a booster dose. It is hugely challenging right around the world, but in Australia, the mortality rates we’re managing to keep and fatality rates from COVID-19 lower than the global averages. But when you have something spreading like Omicron, it is going to spread across all parts of the country and that includes, tragically at some instances, into aged care sectors. But the type of responses that have been put in place have been focussed on providing the kit, the equipment, the vaccines and helping with the very challenging issues of staff disruptions that occur because of the people having to stand down.


Peter Stefanovic: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time, as always. We’ll talk to you soon.