Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 17 December 2020
PETER STEFANOVIC: Well, joining me live now from Canberra is Simon Birmingham, Minister for Finance, Trade and Tourism. Minister, good morning, good to see you. Thanks for joining us this morning. So, just- we’ll start there, there does appear to be a chink in the armour when it comes to Australia’s defences, and it relates to air- travel staff on planes. Do you believe that there needs to be more oversight for international airline staff?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day Pete. Well, thanks for the opportunity. Look, the task of bringing Australians home and facilitating international arrivals is one of the most difficult and challenging through this crisis, and it’s of course presented itself with challenges in a number of different ways for the different states over the course of this year. And now at every one of those junctures, there’ve been reviews as to whether any of the processes need to be tightened even further, such as more frequent testing, or the way in which isolation is managed and occurs. And I’ve got no doubt that there will be a close look by health authorities at this matter, and whether there are further tightenings that need to be applied in relation to keeping Australians safe, while still finding means to safely let hose Australians seeking to come back, back into the country.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Do you believe they should be tightened, as things stand?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I believe, as always through this, that we have to follow the health advice. The health advice is about managing the risks in all of the circumstances and that has got us through this year incredibly, incredibly well, Australia stands in one of the best places right around the globe, in terms of the health outcomes and the economic outcomes, and that’s a result of the fact that governments have worked together, and together with experts to get the right outcomes.
PETER STEFANOVIC: But there does appear, though, that something needs to be done. You had a worker, a cleaner last week who became infected by working at a hotel where airline staff were, so there does appear to be some problems in this realm. Do you acknowledge that, and if so, does that need to be tightened?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, there are obviously always improvements that can potentially be looked at around practices, and I have no doubt they will be looked at. That is why we continue to task the health officials to look at every single outbreak and instance to understand how we can better manage the risks and better eliminate as many of those risks as possible. And so, if there are improved practices for aircrew, then they ought to be applied in line with the health advice of the day.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Do you believe that airline workers should we vaccinated first, whenever we get the vaccine?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the shorter answer there is yes, that you know, alongside obviously other higher risk occupations, so clearly we have those working in the frontline, in hospitals, in healthcare and aged care. We also have highly vulnerable populations such as older people who have a more negative outcome in terms of what happens when they get COVID. So, that’s the kind of triaging process that’s underway, and those who work in close proximity to large numbers of people like airline workers, it would be in the mix there around those early stages, probably before we get a full mass population vaccination program.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. You’ve got the budget update coming up later on today, that you’ll be there with the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announcing that. Can you confirm that the deficit for this year’s going to be less than $200 billion, and if so, is that a pre-Christmas gift for our budget?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I’ll hand down the budget update with Josh later today, and so we’ll confirm all of the details and the data at that time. But encouragingly, the Australian economy has been recovering better than expected – we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of getting things anywhere back to normality. That’s- this is a long process in dealing with COVID, just as we were discussing, and there are plenty of uncertainties and risks that come along. But we’ve seen more than 650,000 jobs created over the last five months, and that’s great news for those Australians, those families, those businesses who are putting Australians back into work, but of course it also has a flow through effect in fewer Australians on JobKeeper, more Australians back into paid employment, and that is something that clearly helps the budget bottom line and helps us to drive that type of growth across the economy.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Iron ore, the price of iron ore has no doubt been of great help to our budget at the moment. How long can we rely on iron ore prices to stay where they are?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So, we have always prudently budgeted when it comes to commodities like iron ore, and that’s an approach that we will continue. In the budget handed down just 72 days ago, we projected that the iron ore price, although it was running over a hundred dollars, and over the last month it’s been averaging I think around USD$132, we projected that that would taper down to some $55. So, we’ve taken that conservative approach consistently, it’s served us well to date, and we will maintain that type of prudent careful approach.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Just an update on those coal ships, Minister, if you wouldn’t mind. We’re seeing some pictures that are emerging from staff in particular, from work workers who are on board those ships. They’re sending out messages on social media as well. Have you got an update on those ships that are carrying coal, that are parked off China at the moment?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We do know that, that some have cleared or moved on in terms of the goods either being unloaded in China or being approved for transportation elsewhere. These are issues that are unusual in the sense that the Australian exporters get paid for their coal once the ship leaves port in Australia. And so, essentially, it changes hands at that point.
The shipping companies themselves, and the crews are rarely Australian, but we’ve been working with those other countries in terms of representations into China - pointing out the impact upon crews, the unfairness in relation to the treatment there, and we hope that China will continue to resolve this. But again, there’s some way to go there, there are still a number of vessels that we know are in this situation. We’d urge China to treat the shipping companies and the crews with respect, noting that the transaction, as I say, has predominantly already taken place from an Australian perspective.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. So how many are left as things stand at the moment?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We don’t have a precise figure. As I say, these aren’t Australian ships and they’re not on Australian waters. But we understand it could still be in the order of 60 or so.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Right. Okay. So, it’s still quite a few.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It, it sure is. And look, this is, this is part of the behaviours and actions that lead us - so deeply disappointed. And what’s prompted us in terms of our defence of Australian farmers and businesses to take the action of, of initiating the process of the independent umpire and the World Trade Organization having a look at China’s actions, particularly in relation to our barley industry It’s why we continue to make, make representations in Beijing, in Canberra as strongly as we possibly can.
But ultimately, these are actions by China - either the Chinese Government of goods coming into China or the Chinese Government in Chinese waters. And so, we can’t control what they do but we are certainly working with international partners to urge them to show respect to the crews and the shipping companies who find themselves in these situations.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Yeah. You’re going to the WTO over barley but that whole process can take years. So what are you going to do to help our barley producers in the meantime?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah. It’s not a quick process. We wish it were faster and it’s a process that we’ve used successfully in some cases. And a good example is with Canada and the wine industry dispute we had with them. We went to the WTO, but in the interim we actually sat down, worked through the issues and resolved them. And we continue to urge China to go down that path rather than us having to go through years of lawyers battling it out at the WTO.
But if you believe in having rules, an independent umpire, you should call them in when you think something wrong is being done, and that’s precisely what we’re doing consistent with the approaches we’ve taken with other likeminded.
In the interim, it’s about helping our farmers and exporters get into other markets. China’s not the only country we’ve done a trade deal with in recent years. We’ve done them with Japan, with Korea, with Mexico, with Canada, with Vietnam, with Indonesia. These are all opportunities for us and we are working, not only in those markets, but in the Middle East. And with new trade deals bound to negotiation in Europe, the United Kingdom, with India; all of our efforts - trying to help make sure farmers and exporters can pivot their product elsewhere.
PETER STEFANOVIC: But that’s all going to take time. That’s going to take a long time. Meanwhile, you’ve– you’re looking at billions of dollars that’s going to be affected for our barley producers here in Australia. So is there potential for you to be providing more financial support for them in the meantime?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, indeed. China’s decisions are not without consequences and negative impacts for Australian businesses; that has to be acknowledged. And as I’ve said throughout the course of this year, the risk profile of doing business with China has changed. Now, these are commercial decisions that businesses undertake in terms of who they trade with, where they sell to. Our job, as a Government, is to give them maximum help in terms of the access to markets, which is what are trade agreements do. The work through Austrade and our diplomatic network to then help to secure contracts, we’ve been doing that through the course of this year and we are seeing markets that hadn’t previously taken Australian barley doing so in greater numbers, in markets such as Saudi Arabia. And we want to see that sort of trend continue, and that’s what we’re working with the industry to achieve.
PETER STEFANOVIC: But these are all disruptions. I mean– and are you going to still be Trade Minister beyond this weekend? And, and if not, then that’s going to be another disruption.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the PM has made clear for some time, there will be a reshuffle. I took on the Finance portfolio when Mathias left, and I would anticipate that there will be a new Trade Minister. But I can assure Australian farmers and exporters that, as Finance Minister, I’ll maintain a very keen interest in trade matters and we’ll work hand in glove with the new Trade Minister to make sure that we have a very smooth handover in relation to all of the relationships which don’t just exist at Minister-to-Minister level, but of course importantly, across all of our network of officials around Government. And then, most critically, the industry and commercial links that make business happen.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Who’d you like to see as your replacement?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That one will be one that the Prime Minister can announce. I’ll announce MYEFO with the Treasury today. The PM can announce the reshuffle.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Pete. My pleasure.