Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
Date: Monday, 13 April 2020
CHRIS KENNY: Let’s cross to Perth now and catch up with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Thanks for joining us Mathias. Lots to talk about.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good afternoon. Good to be here.
CHRIS KENNY: Appreciate your time this Easter Monday. Now of course enforcing social distancing rules around the country is a State Government responsibility or even local governments and it varies here and there. But are you worried about the tone that is set, the sort of overly officious impositions that might be building up community resentment?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There was a need to ensure that the message got through. There was a need to ensure that people complied with those rules if we wanted to save lives and that is what this is all about. It is about saving lives by slowing and hopefully stopping the spread of this deadly virus. You would like to think that people can apply the common sense test on both sides of the equation. Both those that pursue certain activities that are allowed and those that monitor and enforce compliance.
CHRIS KENNY: How has this episode so far changed your life? It is a heavy burden of responsibility obviously, with your Cabinet responsibilities. No doubt you will be checking into Cabinet via secure video lines and the like. But gee, you will be seeing more of your family now than you ever have.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I have been spending a lot of time in Canberra for the last few months. But yes certainly this week I am going to be basing myself in Perth. It has been a very intensive period because you do, as a team, led by the Prime Minister, want to make sure that the judgement calls you make are right. When all this started, initially, we had a view that perhaps we might be able to contain it. But it became very obvious very quickly that this was rapidly becoming a massive public health and economic crisis. So it has been a very intensive period to respond to it in the best possible way, protecting people’s health and also seeking to support the economy and protect people’s livelihoods.
CHRIS KENNY: There is a lot of nitpicking. There is a lot to talk about. There’s people like me always pushing what next, what next. But I think most of the country would agree that yourself and Josh Frydenberg on the economic front, that Greg Hunt on the health front and of course the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, you have got us into a very, very good position given what we were confronting two months ago, when you look at what other countries have done. So it has been an incredibly intense period now. You must wear a heavy burden now of how to move forward without losing what you have gained.
MATHIAS CORMANN: We want to continue to make the right decisions. We are waging a war on two fronts. We are dealing with the massive public health risk, with our mission to save lives by slowing and hopefully stopping the spread of the virus. On the other hand, on the economic front, wanting to ensure that as many businesses as possible and as many Australians working for those businesses as possible remain in business remain in those jobs. That we provide the appropriate levels of support for those who through this period cannot, because in the end we want to have the best possible economic recovery on the other side. We continue to make all those decisions. There is no manual on how to deal with this. We have to continue to weigh up all of the advice, all of the information, observe some of the experiences in other parts of the world and try to make the best possible calls.
CHRIS KENNY: We have seen a lot of businesses, small and large, become fairly innovative in the way they are desperately trying to maintain some sort of cashflow and keep people on their books throughout this crisis. We can rely on them to continue to be innovative. That is the very nature of private enterprise. But are you very conscious as an economic Minister that provided we can keep the infections down the more you can free up the movement of people, free up the restrictions, the more you can enable the private economy to continue, at least to some degree.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, it has been great to see the level of innovation, in particular among restaurants, but across the board. The entrepreneurial spirit and the Aussie spirit coming up with ways that we can still provide goods and services to each other in this restrained and constrained environment it has been fantastic to see. It is not just economic Ministers, all of us in the Government, the Prime Minister and everyone, we do not make decisions to gratuitously close down sections of the economy for no reason. We do so on the basis of expert medical advice and in order to save lives. If and when the expert medical advice indicates that it is safe to adjust some of these settings, then we would be the first to welcome that. But it is also important though to note that some countries around the world have perhaps eased some of these restrictions too early and immediately were forced to reintroduce some of these harsher measures, because the spread of the virus started to accelerate again. We do not want to see that happening here.
CHRIS KENNY: The Border Force boss, Michael Outram, has called for a hardening of biosecurity at Australia’s ports. He says that this has exposed, especially the Ruby Princess, has exposed a weakness there. I would have thought he was pointing out the obvious here, hasn’t he? Until this episode it would not have been seen a huge biosecurity risk. People normally going out on cruises and returning to the same port. But we’ve seen now that that must be boosted and the Federal Government is going to have to be involved in that as well as the States surely?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Yes, sure. Mike Outram is doing an outstanding job. He has explained in some detail what happened in the case of the Ruby Princess and who was giving advice to them on what would or would not be able to happen in terms of those border clearance processes. Who gives green lights for what to happen. He has talked about the federated structure in Australia when it comes to the management of ports and some of the implications that has. Including as a federal border control agency, they do interact and engage with different state departments across relevant areas, including state health departments. After all of this is settled down, I think we do need to take a systemic look to see what improvements can and need to be made, no question.
CHRIS KENNY: There is going to be a lot of changes in the future in many areas out of all this. I’ve noticed there is a federal public servant pay freeze on for six months. That’s one of the things this episode has already highlighted and that is the great benefit that the public sector has in the sustained and guaranteed employment effectively as opposed to the private sector workforce in a myriad of different industries. Do you think that public servants, particularly federal public servants perhaps, are overpaid given they have that wonderful thing called job security?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Public servants deserve their fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Our federal public servants do a great job. Let me say, the senior public servants at the federal level are subject to a pay freeze for the next 12 months, as are politicians and federal judges. The remainder of the public service has had a deferral for the next six months of any pay rise. There are a whole range of industries that are impacted in different ways through this period. Not every part of the economy is hit in the same way as, for example, the hospitality sector. If you work in Coles and Woolworths right now, I suspect that you have got very strong job security right now. In fact, Coles and Woolworths are out there recruiting to increase their workforce. If you are a truckie, you are probably doing pretty well because there is so much demand for logistics and freight type services. Different parts of Australia are impacted in different ways. I do not think that anyone is helped by turning one section of the community or one section of the economy against the other. We have got to all try and do the best we can where we are and get ourselves to the other side.
CHRIS KENNY: Indeed, well said. Just finally, your home state, Western Australia, is one of those with a hard border along with Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland. Is that one of the things we need to get rid of as soon as we possibly can? Behind our secure and quarantined international borders, try and allow free movement between the federation again?
MATHIAS CORMANN: All other things being equal we want to have the free movement of people, goods and services across our state borders. This is not an ideal situation, but by the same token, we are dealing with a very unique, unprecedented threat. All of our State governments are doing the best they can to respond to that threat and to minimise risk and to protect the health of their respective people. I believe that nationally what this has shown is the great capacity for our country to come together across political divides, across all sorts of different perspectives. People are pulling together, including the Premiers and Chief Ministers together with the Prime Minister through the national cabinet, but employers and unions. Wherever you look, you are observing people pulling together in order to do the best we all can to take Australia successfully to the other side.
CHRIS KENNY: Thanks for talking to us, Mathias. Stay well, hope we can catch up with you again soon.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.