Transcripts → 2020


ABC TV News - Afternoon Briefing

Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia


Date: Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Easing restrictions, economic recovery, JobKeeper, Al Kuwait live export ship

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I was joined by the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann a short time ago.

Mathias Cormann welcome.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Good to be back.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: As a Western Australian Senator when do you want your borders opened?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I have been on the record on this for some time. I would like to see the borders opened as soon as possible. But there are decisions here for the State government to make and I fully appreciate their desire to make that decision at a time that it is safe to do so.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Clive Palmer has been denied entry to Western Australia as the State government is remaining fairly adamant about these interstate borders remaining closed, remaining closed for months potentially. He wanted to meet you in WA too. Will you meet him somewhere else?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I did have a meeting request and I can confirm that the meeting did not take place on the basis that he was not able to enter the State. We will see whether there will be a future meeting request. I am not in any position to pre-empt that. It was related to his efforts to procure large quantities of hydroxychloroquine, which he has since donated to the Commonwealth for our medical stockpile, pending the results of various trials that are currently underway. I gather that he was going to be in WA for other reasons as well, but that was the context for the request for that meeting. We will see whether a meeting request comes forward in the future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But if it came forward, you could meet him in Canberra easily couldn’t you?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Potentially, that is true. In years gone by when he was a Member of Parliament and I was in a position where I had to negotiate legislation through the Senate with him as leader of the then Palmer United party, that is where we met from time to time. That’s a matter of public record. But we will see whether there is a future meeting request that comes forward.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Your Liberal colleagues in Tasmania and South Australia have taken the same stance on borders as the WA Premier and the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Why is Annastacia Palaszczuk the one that has been so much criticised publicly, particularly with this advertisement we are seeing from the LNP?

MATHIAS CORMANN: From my point of view there is nothing partisan about this. As you say, there is a Liberal State government which has State border closures in place. In my view, and our view at a Federal level is informed by the medical advice from our chief medical officer and deputy chief medical officer, they have both made clear that there is no medical reason, there is no medical case in favour of these State border closures. Certainly in the context of very low numbers of active cases and extremely low cases, if any of community transmission, with most, if not all of those recent cases being acquired overseas and appropriately handled through the appropriate quarantine arrangements in hotels and the like. There clearly is a question mark now as to whether these State border closures are still appropriate. The medical advice that we have relied on consistently through this crisis, certainly at a federal level, indicates that there is no medical reason for them. In that context, surely we should, and this is not a partisan statement, this is just from a federal point of view, looking at the best interests of business, working Australians, the economy moving forward. If there is no medical reason to keep these closures in place then why would we continue to inflict harm on our economy and jobs in that context.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So in that context is your criticism the same then of Premier Marshall and Annastacia Palaszczuk? Do you think they are both making the wrong decision here for their economies?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not being critical. I understand what they are all weighing up. I am not being partisan. I am not targeting anyone individually. I am making the general point, that given where we are at in terms of the fight against the virus, given the extremely low levels of community transmission of the virus, given the fact that the increased case numbers are now predominantly overseas acquired and appropriately managed, surely there is now a case to ease those restrictions and certainly to remove those State border closures as soon as possible, because why would you keep the economy back, why would you hold business back, why would you hold up our capacity to generate new jobs and return those old jobs back when there is no medical reason to do so. The advice in front of us at a national level is that there is no medical reason to do so.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: On your proposed industrial relations reforms, Anthony Albanese says there is a problem in the economy which is wages. Wages have been stagnant he says. Do you agree that it is a problem and should it be addressed by this process?

MATHIAS CORMANN: He is wrong. Prior to this crisis wages continued to grow faster than inflation. Real wages growth was broadly in line with the long term average. Of course we want to see stronger wages growth. But stronger wages growth is not something that you see by government edict. It is something that ultimately is achieved through a growing economy. We want businesses to be able to be profitable and successful into the future, so that they have the confidence to invest and hire more Australians. As they invest more and hire more Australians and businesses grow and competition for workers increases, that will put upward pressure on wages. But the only way to sustainably increase wages faster than inflation over the medium to long term is on the back of a growing economy and on the back of productivity improvements.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But ultimately there isn’t a working group specifically on wages. Is that a mistake?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No. If all of the working groups are successful in pursuing sensible reform proposals, then clearly that will lead to more successful businesses hiring more Australians. That will be the engine for stronger wages growth over time. Stronger wages growth is not something that you impose by government edict. It is an outcome of a successfully growing economy.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Your Government has been arguing that the savings essentially if you want to call them that, the fact that you are spending less money on JobKeeper than you were planning to spend should not be a licence to actually spend money. But clearly the economy needs help, it needs more stimulus. We’ve seen through this changed figure that has been released that essentially there is less money in the economy. Where should the areas that the Government looks at be first in your view? What are the areas that should be prioritised?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Clearly we now need to make decisions to get the economy back to normal as soon as possible. To ensure that the businesses have the opportunity to return back to as normal as possible in the circumstances. The world today is very different to what it was even two months ago. The costing of the JobKeeper program was done at a time when there was daily growth in infections of more than twenty per cent. We were planning for the worst. We were expecting the worst. As it turns out, two months later our response on the health front as a country, all around Australia, States and Territories and the Commonwealth working together and Australians working together has been so successful that the number of cases is now extremely low. The growth in cases is extremely low. So the context is different and so the cost is much lower. So the parameters have changed. There has been a variation in the estimate accordingly. All of that is going to be … interrupted

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Except though that the economy might need more stimulus still….

MATHIAS CORMANN: We accept that we need to have a strong national economic plan for the strongest possible recovery. We are working now on the transition out of this period of temporary support measures in the economy. The way this has worked is that initially we had to work very hard to get on top of the virus and save lives by slowing and suppressing the spread of the virus. It looks like we are close to eliminating the spread of the virus. We also had to provide temporary support measures for those Australians who lost their jobs and also to try and keep as many businesses in business and as many Australians in jobs as possible. The next challenge now is to get ourselves off that medication, as the Prime Minister called it yesterday in his speech, to transition off this temporary support into a situation that is more normal. In that context, we will be announcing a whole series of measures, including and in particular through the Budget on 6 October to maximise the strength of our economic recovery. It goes across the board. We will focus on the appropriate … interrupted

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So we can expect that Budget in October to be focused around more stimulatory measures based on what you think the economy needs?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Between now and then, and in the Budget, we will continue to make judgements to provide the right incentives and confidence for business to invest and to start bringing jobs back and start growing the number of jobs again and to ensure that those sectors of the economy that were particularly badly affected receive the appropriate support in the circumstances … interrupted

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And we keep hearing tourism is one of them, there’s no doubt about it. Look what happened to the industry. Is the arts sector also one of those areas that you think needs targeting?

MATHIAS CORMANN: We are considering all sectors in the economy. Certainly tourism, hospitality and aviation are among those sectors that are particularly severely affected … interrupted

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How about the arts?

MATHIAS CORMANN: We have already provided specific support to the arts. The arts is one of the sectors, among others, that we will continue to assess to what extent there are appropriate measures that we can take. We are not in a position now to pre-empt or speculate on decisions we have not made yet.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, Australian Border Force insisted yesterday it didn’t know about the health issues on board the Al Kuwait on Friday and that’s the day that ship docked. Now it has admitted it was told on Friday. Don’t they have questions to answer? We’re seeing here a massive disconnect, aren’t we?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The bottom line here is that in the end, nobody who was infected among the crew on the ship made it into the community in Western Australia and in a position to put West Australians health at risk. The agriculture department federally advised WA Health, which has responsibility in this area, as I understand it last Friday. That has been confirmed. WA Health has the responsibility to conduct the testing on board as well as take various other measures in this context. In the end, six people who were identified as having been infected with COVID-19 were removed from the ship and put into quarantine appropriately in a hotel in Perth. I gather that none of them, certainly yesterday, were particularly unwell. But all had symptoms and had tested positive. This is not a perfect world. We are working hard to try to keep our international trade open to the extent we can, in particular our agricultural and resources trade which has helped keep the economy relatively stronger than it otherwise would have been. There are protocols in place at our ports in terms of how these things have to be managed … interrupted

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do we need to look at those protocols again then, given there is a disconnect?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I think the protocols are fine. I think the Federal and State Governments are working very hard to ensure that they protect the community from the spread of the virus. In this circumstance the outcome was actually as we would want it to be. That is that nobody with COVID-19 was allowed into the community. Nobody came off that ship without being subject to the proper quarantine arrangements.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator, one last question. The AFP will not lay any charges against News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst after the investigation into leaked classified documents. Do you welcome that decision?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I welcome the fact that the decision was made. None of this had anything to do with the Government. The decision to conduct an investigation was made independent from Government. All of the decisions in relation to this were made independent from Government, as they should be. I do not think that an Australian would ever want these sorts of decisions to be made by a political level of Government … interrupted

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I think that’s right, but the Government makes the laws and journalists and media organisations, as you know, have been lobbying your Government to change the laws. Are you prepared to do that?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The law worked out properly. The outcome is as it is. I am not sure how this demonstrates any issues with the law. The laws are always under review. This is well beyond my area of responsibility, as I am sure you would appreciate.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I like the way you do that. Well beyond. Thank you so much for joining us.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.