Topic(s): Employment figures; Eraring power station; National security;

Peter Stefanovic: Joining us live now is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, all restrictions just about gone. It’s still some there, but most of them are gone. In New South Wales and Victoria moving in lockstep, it would seem. Plus you’ve got international travel resuming on Monday. What are the economic flow on effects from all of that pretty good news?


Simon Birmingham: Morning, Pete. Look, this is all good news and it is a sense that we continue to move towards a more normal environment in which we manage COVID-19. That from the initial shock of Omicron, which proved to be so much more transmissible than anything we’ve dealt with before, but also has proven to have lesser health impacts than before. The benefits of our huge vaccination rates and the fact that Australians are turning out in their millions to get the booster shots, all of that gives confidence that we can safely move through these next steps of reopening domestic economies, reopening international borders, getting life back to normal and economically, we’re coming off of the lowest unemployment rate we’ve seen in 13 years. And that, of course, just means that we really have great strength in the economy as these things do reopen for people to get hours of work back, days at work back and really to charge back quickly.


Peter Stefanovic: Yeah, and despite all that, WA still remains shut off. Is it your wish that they wouldn’t drag the chain on this matter?


Simon Birmingham: Look, we’d like to see, of course, you know, normalisation across the country, but in terms of when WA thinks that their health system is ready, that they are ready in opening their borders, that remains a matter for them. Obviously, what we want to see is to keep moving following the health advice, as we have done, which in the end has Australia with one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and some of the strongest economic outcomes in the world, as evidenced yesterday by yet more jobs. As I said, the lowest unemployment rate at 4.2 per cent in 13 years, the lowest youth unemployment rate in 14 years, and the highest level of women’s workforce participation in Australia’s recorded history.


Peter Stefanovic: Yeah, despite that jobless rate that continues to head south, the closure of Eraring power station that’s going to cost about a thousand jobs. Should people be rightly concerned about electricity prices and volatility on the grid?


Simon Birmingham: These are the things that we have sought to keep on top of at every step of the way and during our term in government, we’ve actually managed to have not only a stabilisation in electricity prices, but some downward pressure over the last couple of years, which is in stark contrast to the steep increases we saw beforehand. Now, this announcement just puts even more importance on some of the decisions we’ve already taken the decision to invest in the Snowy Hydro expansion, the Snowy 2.0 scheme. Which is crucially important for Australia and is the biggest renewable energy project of its type in the southern hemisphere. The decision we made to invest in the Kurri Kurri power station, the gas power station in the Hunter, which we have put $600 million of equity investment into. The Labor Party, criticised that decision at the time. That has now been shown to be very prescient in terms of providing greater capacity, greater surety in terms of stability in the grid. But we’ll work through the difficult issues that have come to pass in terms of the impacts there overall to make sure that if other decisions are necessary, we work with the states, we work with industry to get them done.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay, Minister, past and present ASIO bosses have rebuked you for politicising national security. Are you undermining its independence?


Simon Birmingham: No, Peter, and we don’t we don’t shy away from the fact that there are choices at elections and there are contrasts in track records and differences in what people say and do when it comes to different areas of national security. The contrasting track records are that under the Labor Party, they took defence spending in the previous Labor government. They cut it by more than 10 per cent in 2012-13, and they took it down to levels that we haven’t seen since 1938 in terms of the share of Australia’s economy being invested into defence. We promised in 2013 we would restore that to at least two per cent of national economic output being invested in our Defence Forces. We’ve not only restored it, we’ve exceeded those targets and we’re investing significantly across defence. We’ve led in terms of legislation to counter foreign interference, to counter and protect in particular our national security infrastructure and assets across the country. And in terms of things that people say well, Mr Albanese himself at the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago said that he thought that China should reduce the coercion in some areas of Australia’s economic activity. Well, we don’t think that’s acceptable. You don’t pick winners when it comes to defending Australian industry. You make sure you defend all of Australian industry, be it our cattle producers, our wine makers, our live seafood exporters, our resources sector, all of whom have faced disruption or penalty from China.


Peter Stefanovic: But on the whole, minister, as things stand, currently, Labor’s position on China isn’t really that different to yours. So aren’t you just seeking differences that aren’t there?


Simon Birmingham: No, Pete, I think you’ve got to look at the track record. You’ve got to look at what is said-


Peter Stefanovic: Yeah. I know you got the track record of [indistinct].


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s the that’s part of the choice that people will make and the analysis they have to make when it comes to elections, national security has frequently been a factor in elections and in people’s votes over the decades. This is not an uncommon feature in terms of public debate. People will debate the economy, too, which is so crucial in those jobs figures we were talking about before and the 1.7 million additional jobs that we’ve created since we came to office, including more than one million additional jobs for Australian women. They’re all points of contrast, and they’re important points for Australians to consider when they ultimately go to the ballot box in a couple of months time.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time. As always, we’ll talk to you soon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Pete.