Topics: Unemployment rates; Rafah joint government statement; Parliament House workplace; PM engagement;

04:20PM AEDT
15 February 2024


Kieran Gilbert: The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, is with us this unemployment number today. You never like to see unemployment go up. As Andrew said, historically 4.1% is still pretty low, if we can get inflation down and still have it in the low fours.


Simon Birmingham: Well, the reality is unemployment was driven below 4% by the Coalition government. The test for the Albanese Government is whether they can keep unemployment low. There’s no point having a world in which Australians find themselves dealing with cost-of-living pressures for different reasons, namely because they’re out of jobs. You need to make sure Australians have jobs as well as keep inflation down.


Andrew Clennell: What’s an acceptable rate of unemployment? Because we know Treasury’s forecast four and a half. Isn’t that the sort of ceiling you want to keep it at about that rate to get inflation down?


Simon Birmingham: Well, you always want to keep unemployment as low as possible. The reality is in these figures, we see that the number of hours that are worked by Australians coming down quite significantly. That, of course, is just going to add to the pressures there. There’s a number of measures you’ve always got to look at. The strength of the economy being measured partly in the participation rate, partly in the unemployment rate, but also there’s other key factors. If Australians are working fewer hours or they’re losing their jobs, then that’s just going to add more cost-of-living pressures to them.


Kieran Gilbert: Let’s talk about the Middle East now on this statement about Rafah from the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand governments. Does it make any difference, these sort of statements, or are we just yelling into the abyss?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s always important that we are clear in terms of our positions and approaches. Now, the vast number of Palestinian peoples who have moved into the Rafah area means it does present enormous challenges. Now, Israel’s demonstrated in terms of their military operations just in the last couple of days that they can rescue hostages, hostages who Hamas had moved into that region as well. They were using these vast populations clearly as human shields to protect the Hamas operatives and in which to hide those hostages. So, there’s a lot of nuance to be mindful of here and a lot of care that needs to be taken in terms of blanket statements about there being no operations, but there is clearly an onus upon Israel to act with immense care and caution, given the huge dislocated civilian populations that are there.


Kieran Gilbert: That seems stronger words from you to Israel than we’ve heard from your leader. Would you agree?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t necessarily sit there and study each of our words. I think we have both been very clear in wanting to see innocent civilians protected. But also, I have also been very clear, obviously, of the need to see Hamas removed, but also of the fact that there is a strong reason here to preserve Israel’s right to maintain its military operations, particularly when it comes to their legal rights to go and rescue hostages who Hamas has been holding for such a long period of time. In this case, the evidence is there. Israel can rescue them at times, and they had been held in this Rafah area using, of course, these innocent civilians as human shields.


Olivia Caisley: I know you’ve been very busy in Senate estimates today, but in question time today we heard this proposal from Zali Steggall. She says that she’d like to see random alcohol and drug tests. Now, we know that professional standards haven’t necessarily been met on both sides of politics, but do you see any merit in that kind of measure being brought in to ensure a healthier, happier workplace for everyone here at Parliament?


Simon Birmingham: So, to show that I really wasn’t paying any attention to House of Representatives Question Time because I was in Senate Estimates, I’m assuming that proposal is for the operation of this building? Look at a personal level. I don’t really care. And if that’s what people want to do, then so be it. Of course, it applies in mining sites and other workplaces around the world. I also am far from convinced that it’s necessary or warranted. We have put in place a range of mechanisms following different reviews over the years to seek to ensure this workplace can set an example for the rest of the country, as it should. But I think we also need to be careful of not taking that to extremes that, frankly, are not necessarily what we would be expecting in otherwise white-collar workplaces around the country.


Kieran Gilbert: I think they might be toasting something at the lodge up the road tonight. The engagement. Any reflections on imminent nuptials.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I was here for Senate Estimates until quite late last night. So it’s nice to know that in Canberra some people were able to get out and celebrate their Valentine’s Day.


Kieran Gilbert: Oh, there he goes.


Simon Birmingham: I do wish the PM and Jodie every happiness of course.


Kieran Gilbert: Well, there they are. They’re walking out to make their statement at the lodge and something that’s obviously going to feature.


Simon Birmingham: I should, of course note many Labor senators and ministers were here for Senate estimates till late last night, too. I’m not pleading orphan status there, but good on the PM for being able to get out there and enjoy his Valentine’s Day and make it a memorable one.


Kieran Gilbert: It was certainly a memorable one, that’s for sure. Simon Birmingham. Great to see you appreciate it.