Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 5 February 2021
Laura Jayes: Live from Adelaide is the Finance Minister who joins me now, Simon Birmingham, hotel quarantine we know there's a few things that need to be ironed out. Would it be better for the Federal Government just to take over the whole system?
Simon Birmingham: Well, no Laura. This works best as a cooperative venture. And what we've managed to do is bring some 211,000 people through the hotel quarantine system, overwhelmingly managing it in a very safe way. And it's occurred with state and territory governments working alongside the Federal Government in terms of continually updating the health advice and tightening the restrictions in ways that now see quite regular testing of those working in those quarantine facilities and an ever improving standard in terms of the way they run. As well as that, you see significant deployment of Australian Defence Force resources to work alongside the states and territories. So working as a partnership has served us well. It is a challenging undertaking, there's no doubt about that. We're dealing with a highly contagious virus and trying to repatriate Australians and those with essential needs back into Australia and do so in the safest possible conditions would have to do it safely.
Laura Jayes: That's right. Well when, hotel quarantine first began. We weren't aware of the mutant strains and we didn't know that all that much about aerosol transmission. There needs to be perhaps, a review of the facilities that we're using. Could you see a review of those facilities and also a mix of disused mining camps like Howard Springs?
Simon Birmingham: So health experts, absolutely be continually evaluating where and how they think the transmission points in these isolated cases have come from to understand just how that transmission is occurring and wherever possible and to stamp that out. And we've got to be realistic about how these sites operate, they need to be able to accommodate decent numbers of people. They need to also be staffed and wherever they are in the country, they need to be staffed and staff will want to go home to their homes wherever they are in the country as well. So I think we do have to keep some sense of perspective here that need to be not only staffed with security personnel, with people who can undertake testing, there needs to be sufficiently proximate to high quality medical facilities.
Laura Jayes: But isn't the question now about the ventilation, the bricks and mortar issues here where some hotels just might not be as suitable? So do you anticipate a review of the ventilation systems in some of those venues that are being used?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I anticipate happening exactly what has happened with each and every time it has been an issue with hotel quarantine, and that is that the health experts, the AHPPC that brings together the state medical offices and the Commonwealth Medical Offices from around the country will review the details of the cases and try to work through what else may need to occur.
And they're the ones, not those who are speculating about if there are ventilation issues. But let's let those who have the evidence that they get from police and quarantine management operations in the different states and territories, to analyse that evidence and to form-
Laura Jayes: Yeah, you're not convinced that it is an airborne transmission?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I'm not sure that I'm any more qualified than you or most of the people watching the programme, there Laura. I think it is up to and I think it is up to the health experts and those who are the epidemiologists working alongside those who are on the ground trying to review how these transmission points occurred. Let's not forget hear in my home state was a case of a cleaner and there was no suggestion that she was necessarily working in the corridor or the like. Now, subsequently, there have been issues in relation to guards and so these are all different circumstances and they remain very isolated. When you think about 211,000 people that have successfully been brought through these facilities, but each one of them deserves to be taken seriously and the health experts are the ones to undertake that analysis.
Laura Jayes: Ok, let me ask you about something that you are more of an expert on, and that is JobKeeper. We know it's due to end at the end of March. There was a bit of a concerning, I guess, case put forward by the opposition in Question Time yesterday. This went to however, we might just have a quick listen to Richard Marles.
I have here, an email from Andrew Burns CEO of HelloWorld travel, asking employees to accept pay cuts from the end of March when JobKeeper ends. Is this just the first round of Morrison pay cuts?
The Prime Minister has the call.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Mr Speaker, I haven't seen the correspondence to which the Member refer and I'll be happy for him to provide it to me.
[END OF EXCERPT]
Now, you wouldn't have seen that because you're in the other place in the Senate. But this is concerning, isn't it, JobKeeper from this example might be giving way to job cuts?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, there are going to be structural adjustments across the Australian economy right at the outset of this pandemic, I and other members of the government made very clear. Not every job and not every business were going to be able to be saved. Now, JobKeeper and the other economic supports we put in place have been transformative in terms of ensuring that the potential for mass business failures and massive increases in unemployment was avoided as a result of what is the biggest global economic challenge of our lifetimes. And so we have come through not only with amazing health outcomes, but also amazing economic outcomes. But there are parts of the economy that are going to see structural adjustment where elements of travel, of doing business won't come back as it was before. And so those parts of the economy are going to have to make some types of adjustments. And what we've done with JobKeeper is not only save many thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs, we have also tapered it carefully through different step downs and so that there's not an abrupt shock to the Australian economy when what was the single largest intervention in Australian history in terms of government intervening into private business and into the private economy, ultimately comes off. But come off, it does have to do. It is not the end of economic support. There's a lot of other economic support flowing through the economy, starting with around a billion dollars or more a month in additional income flowing through income taxes or some cuts, as well as ongoing support for businesses in terms of loss carry-backs and investment incentives. These are all important investments to keep that economic recovery going.
Laura Jayes: A structural adjustment? Is that your new term for a job cut?
Simon Birmingham: No, it's a reality of what happens across economies, when the nature of demand changes. And that is what's going to occur for some parts of the global economy. It's not a uniquely Australian challenge there. Elements of travel and work won't come back in the same way that they were before. And so businesses need to adjust. We're seeing already much greater opportunities in elements of the domestic tourism landscape and then clearly in the international tourism landscape. And we also don't know that many businesses have adjusted to perhaps doing more business by Zoom. You may not see the same degree of corporate travel for quite some time, that's indeed if you look at the analysis of international airline associations, international bodies, they are projecting out for many years that you won't see a return to 2019 type rates of travel, be it in the corporate or convention space or indeed in parts of the leisure space.
Laura Jayes I think most people accept that not every business can be saved. HelloWorld is a very profitable has been a very profitable company. In essence, your government has bailed them out in a really tough time. Now, in a free market, they probably wouldn't have survived. So isn't there some kind of accord here, a gentlemen's agreement, if you like, that they've been saved, therefore, they need to do the right thing by their employees.
Simon Birmingham: They also need to make sure that they survive for the long term. Every company so far as they possibly can move to make those decisions. And those are individual business decisions as to how they will best be placed to survive for the long haul. Government support for companies like that doesn't end in a company like HelloWorld. It will be a very big beneficiary of the loss carry back provisions. So they certainly should continue to support their workforce as best as they possibly can. But they also have to make sure that in doing that and they don't jeopardise the long term future of the company.
Laura Jayes Right. Fair enough. But, you know, there's a line here. I'm not quite sure where it is, but would you expect companies like HelloWorld to be putting the wages of their employees, the jobs of their employees ahead of profit in the medium term?
Simon Birmingham: Well, ahead of profiting in terms of I would expect them absolutely to support their employees, their wages, their ongoing jobs ahead of large dividends or bonuses or any of those sorts of things. But profit itself is a necessity in the long term for a business to survive. And so business has to be profitable to survive in the long term. So I do accept that companies like this may need to restructure. They may need to make difficult decisions. We've seen some, particularly in the airline sector, already have to do that. It's devastating for the companies and especially for the families and the individuals involved. But they are necessary decisions that companies have to make to ensure the survival of the company and the maintenance of as many jobs as possible. The good news is that in Australia we've seen more than 90 per cent of the jobs that were lost or went to zero hours at the depths of the pandemic come back. That's world leading in terms of job recovery, economic recovery. And we're continuing to see very strong growth. And the Reserve Bank Governor himself this week was highlighting just that strength of the growth in the Australian economy. So I may not be same jobs, but we are seeing growth in terms of different jobs and new opportunities. And that's certainly where our focus will continue to be to drive that investment that creates those jobs.
Laura Jayes: Look, I really think it's important to remember that JobKeeper was designed as a stimulus measure as well. It needed to be rolled out quickly. The entire economy needed at the most. So we can't we can't forget the need to expedite that at the time when the economy was going south very quickly. But another example, Simon Birmingham, Nick Scali, I mean, everyone's being home by couches apparently they've recorded super profits, but they also benefit benefited from a JobKeeper. What's your view on that?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, look, you had businesses in a period of time who looked like they were going to face potentially quite long shutdowns and restrictions, and they faced them for a period of time that gave them JobKeeper eligibility. And thankfully, in the Australian context, those shutdowns didn't have to be so long -
Laura Jayes: Very sorry. We're going to go to the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews.