Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
Date: Wednesday, 29 April 2020
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Let's bring in now the federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Minister, good morning to you.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: As one of the ministers responsible for the federal purse strings, why is the Government offering this large incentive to independent schools to reopen their schools early?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Because we want to see our kids get back into the classroom to receive the benefit of classroom teaching. The health advice is emphatic. The health advice from all of the health experts from around Australia reporting to state and federal governments is emphatic. Schools are safe to be open. The best place for kids is in the classroom and to receive high quality teaching. We don't want our kids to have this massive disruption to their education if that is not required or justified on health grounds and the advice is very clear, it’s not.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Not all the health experts as you say reporting all the state governments are suggesting that. The chief health officer in Victoria, Mathias Cormann, is telling the Victorian Government, no, it's not safe for kids to go back to school in Victoria.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is the committee of chief health and chief medical officers from all around Australia, has provided that advice to the national cabinet and the national cabinet has acted accordingly. In the end, individual states will make their own decisions. The position of the Federal Government, based on the advice of the chief medical and health officers from around Australia to the national cabinet is very clear. It is safe for schools to be open. It is absolutely appropriate for kids to have the benefit of proper education in the classroom as soon as possible and that is certainly what we are supporting and what we are working towards.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. I want to talk about the economy now. Steven Kennedy, the head of the Treasury, was appearing before that Senate committee yesterday and he said that some jobs simply will not return once we're through this pandemic. Based on that, can we expect to see the jobless rate stay high, perhaps around that 10 per cent level, for quite a long time?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Some jobs will not return, but new jobs will emerge as well. We are working on a plan for a strong recovery on the other side. Clearly, the first priority was to ensure we provided the necessary and appropriate supports for our economy, for business, for Australians through this period and we have done that through a combination of JobSeeker and JobKeeper and various other programs designed to support business and support Australians. Our focus now is on maximising the strength of the recovery on the other side. That clearly is going to be the focus now and there will be new opportunity, fresh opportunities as well as a result of some of the adaptation that business has been forced to go through over this period.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. The JobKeeper payments roll out next month, but are you concerned that many small businesses around Australia have simply fallen through the cracks because unlike medium and certainly large businesses, they have not had the cash flow reserves, the capital to survive before these payments roll out?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have provided specific cash flow support to small and medium sized businesses. Those businesses with a turnover of up to $50 million and below and about $5 billion of that has already hit the bank accounts of those small businesses. They were among the first to receive government support. There will be further payments in July and in September. So we have prioritised small and medium sized business, but we do understand and we do recognise that this is a tough period. This is going to continue to be difficult for some time.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Let's go to the JobSeeker payment. Jacqui Lambie, Tasmanian senator, says the Government, in her words, will be pretty heartless at the end of the doubling of the scheme to roll it back to its original amount. Will the Government consider making this increase for the old Newstart payment permanent?
MATHIAS CORMANN: No. What is being provided right now is a COVID-19 supplement to the JobSeeker payment. It is in place for the period impacted by… interrupted
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, so you wouldn't consider it being permanent after we’re through this?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There is a supplement that is in place specifically to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. That COVID-19 supplement would not continue be in place when we are on the other side of the COVID-19 period. The initial period that this is in place for is about six months. There will be capacity to adjust depending on how long this continues to go for.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. You're happy to have the old Newstart go back to where it was, the $40 a day level?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The decision is that the supplement is in place for the period of the COVID-19 crisis. As soon as we are on the other side of this period, the supplement would not continue. That is right.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: What do you say to the Jacqui Lambies who say if you do that, and clearly based on what you are saying, you will, the Government is pretty heartless?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don't agree. We have provided significant support through this period. We have effectively doubled the level of JobSeeker support through this period in recognition of the unique circumstances, but is a temporary arrangement to deal with a temporary crisis.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, just another couple of quick issues before we let you go, Minister. China of course, the relationship between Australia and China is not all that great at the moment. Is it time for the Australian Government to step up efforts to diversify its trading base so we're not so reliant on China and that is the point being made by among others, your Liberal party colleague Andrew Hastie this morning?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Australia is always focused on diversifying our trading opportunities. We are pursuing a very ambitious free trade agenda, getting access to markets all around the world for Australian products and services all the time. When we came into Government only 26 per cent of our trade was covered by free trade arrangements. We have been able to boost that to in excess of 70 per cent and we are continuing to pursue other opportunities. Having said that, clearly our trade relationship with China will continue to be incredibly important. In fact, it is the most important trade relationship we have and I would expect that to continue for some time.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. What do you make of the current state of relations though? It’s not great, is it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are always keen to ensure that the relationship is as good as it possibly can be, but we are also always going to stand up for Australia's national interest. In relation to the recent discussion, we think it is entirely unremarkable for our Government to argue that at the appropriate time there should be an independent review into what happened and the response to it and how we can avoid such a crisis in the future. This is a crisis that is impacting on the health and economies and social structures all around the world and it is a principled and right decision to seek to get to the bottom of what happened and how we can better respond to it in the future.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Finally, let's talk about Angus Taylor, your Cabinet colleague. He has long insisted that doctored document was obtained by his office from the City of Sydney website. The New South Wales police say no, they have found no evidence the document was downloaded. Who you do you believe – the police or Angus Taylor?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Angus Taylor has made very clear statements in relation to these things. I have full confidence in Angus Taylor. I am not close to the ins and outs of all of this. I will let Angus explain himself.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Even though the police are directly contradicting his version of events?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not aware of the ins and outs of all of this. I will let Angus deal with these matters.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Are you confident he has not misled Parliament?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I have confidence in Angus Taylor, absolutely.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, we'll leave it there. Mathias Cormann, thank you so much for joining us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.