Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 12 February 2021
Ali Clarke: Ali Clarke here with you for breakfast, and you've been hearing in the news that the federal government is urging unemployed Australians concerned about the end of COVID related government subsidies. So, you know, that cash that you might have been relying on. Well, to consider taking a job in the bush or maybe head into cleaning. This is all because Finance Minister will be giving a speech today warning of further budget blow-outs. Simon Birmingham is now with us. Good morning, Minister Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Ali. Good to be with you.
Ali Clarke: Look, we've seen and understood, I think a lot of people, the softly, softly approach in the last year with the programmes that have had to be implemented like JobSeeker or JobKeeper, and they've been necessary for the COVID outbreak. However, is the speech you're about to give today marked more of a hard-line approach that the government will be taking?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we have taken some pretty extraordinary measures right through the last 12 months, and they've been necessary, the end, if you like, justified the means that they've kept Australians safe and they've also saved Australian businesses, saved Australian jobs. JobKeeper is estimated to have saved some 700,000 jobs. But we also have to realise that the circumstances have moved on. We now have a case where here in South Australia, there are more people in full time employment today than there were before the pandemic and that the well regarded ANZ tracker of job advertisements now has more job ads out there than there were prior to the pandemic starting. So these extraordinary measures that have come at enormous budgetary costs, we always said they'd be temporary and we've earmarked the end of March in terms of the next step of transition there. And it's not to say that all support in the economy ends then there are still big packages of support in terms of tax cuts for workers, tax cuts and incentives for businesses to invest, JobMaker hiring credits, a lot of different stimulus activity flowing through the economy. But yes, we do have to recognise that the circumstances, thankfully, have improved significantly. And with that, there's got to be some normalisation compared to the very extreme levels of spending we were engaging in.
Ali Clarke: But is it a bit simplistic of you to say, alright, well, if you're single, you don't have any kids, you've largely got no impediments to work, jump on the bus and head out to the country and pick fruit or something?
Simon Birmingham: Well, not really just about regional areas. In fact, the speech says yes, we know that there are employment opportunities in regional areas. And that's why the government's put out there $6000 relocation incentive to help people and clearly those who are likely to be more mobile, you would think that those who have fewer commitments in terms of being single and not having children and not having those additional complications, but we've made the incentives available to try to get people moving. That's not the only place where employers are saying that they have work available. I have hoteliers in Adelaide saying that they're struggling to get people to fill shifts, I've had cleaning companies working in the medi hotels, now challenging areas of work that we do have to recognise that there are job opportunities there. And thankfully, in SA many others coming online as we look at projects like the shipbuilding enterprise that's occurring. And that's why we're also investing significantly in the skills sector to help people meet the new jobs of the future as they come online.
Ali Clarke: So we've heard then the carrot in things like that, 6000 relocation subsidy and everything else. Then what's the stick? Is it just simply you will not get JobSeeker or JobKeeper anymore from March?
Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously, we are sticking to the timeline that we had outlined in terms of stepping down JobKeeper, which we put in place back when the world was a very, very uncertain place. And we could see the potential for huge business failures and hundreds of thousands of job losses since those decisions in early last year. We've stepped JobKeeper down a couple of times and done so similarly in relation to the supplement and in taking those steps, we always said March would be the end point. So we're approaching March and we want to make sure that there's certainty there for businesses going forward to know that they have to plan around the fact that what we said as a government, that all of these measures would be temporary, targeted, proportionate, we mean and that we are responding to the circumstances now as we see them, which is an economy, stronger, not to say their own businesses still doing it tough, but that we can't maintain that scale of support and assistance forever.
Ali Clarke: I don't think anyone necessarily argues with that. But it is one thing that COVID has told us. You can make all the plans in the world and a timeline doesn't mean anything when it comes to COVID. Is there a fall back if, for example, the Melbourne outbreak that we're seeing, you know, starts exploding and all of a sudden they have to go into lockdown or if that transfer to another state like South Australia?
Simon Birmingham: So there are there are always pullbacks and things we've shown through this is that we can respond to different circumstances that exist. So measures that are in place to provide support for those who have to isolate, have to stay at home. Those sorts of measures that have been developed. Now, they're ongoing and can be activated as and when necessary for different circumstances. Of course, we're looking closely at individual sectors and different regions that might face more unique circumstances. And how can we make sure we try to get them back on their feet as well? So this is not to say that we think everything is completely back to normal, but it is to say that the economy wide sweeping measures like JobKeeper have played their role, played a crucial role, and very proud of the fact that they worked and they saved so many businesses and so many jobs. But we also have to recognise the national deficit is at the highest level in peacetime history for Australia. And so we have to start showing sufficient restraint to make sure that we are well-placed to deal with future crises, whatever they hold, not just letting spending continue to balloon out of control forever.
Ali Clarke: Johnny says, I think this is great. If I were single, I would absolutely move to where the jobs are. However, somebody else is saying, well, hang on a second, I have a mortgage and rental agreement. I can't just move to a regional area or take on a very low paid job. And then Phil of Adelaide has this point, the Senator has named some industries that have been at the centre of claims of wage theft and worker exploitation and sham contracting. Will you direct Fair Work to conduct an in-depth investigation into some of these industries before maybe vilifying lazy and unemployed people? That's from Phil.
Simon Birmingham: Well, we indeed have had the Fair Work Ombudsman undertake investigation into those industries. And more than that, we have legislation before the parliament right now to increase the penalties and consequences for anybody who engage any employer who engages in wage theft. So we are strengthening the penalties and the provisions in that regard to protect employees. And regrettably, at present, the opposition says they're voting against that legislation. But I hope that we will be able to get it through the Senate and particularly those provisions.
Ali Clarke: We know in all of this and we have spoken about it at length on the station and again yesterday with this latest outbreak in Melbourne, it has come back to return travellers. We spoke to Professor Nicola Spurrier yesterday, the chief public health officer.
As more and more people start to ask whether or not we need to have a central facility taken control of by the federal government may be a facility like Howard Springs. This is what she had to say yesterday.
Most people would agree that the Howard Springs facility is absolutely ideal. You've got lots of fresh air. People have got their own units and you reduce the risk of transmission. And it's also much nicer for people who are actually in quarantine because they've got more area to move around in.
[END OF EXCERPT]
And now you hold the purse strings as the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, is it time for the federal government to invest in another Howard Springs type facility and really take control of all of this back?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we have we have obviously scaled up Howard Springs significantly through the pandemic. And it's now taking, I think, close to 1000 people through there. And most of the and many of the charter flights that we're bringing back from places like the UK are going straight into Darwin and taking people into Howard Springs. The work we've done there has come with significant cost to to be able to scale it up and also to be able to fund the staffing and the resourcing that's necessary around that. So there's a big investment there. We continue to look as to what avenues are possible. These facilities. Howard Springs is pre-existing the pandemic in terms of some of the infrastructure, they can't be built and established overnight. And so the role that many hotels play continues to be important. But we continue to look for the opportunities where they exist. And that's why we have scaled Howard Springs up as it was established as an emergency sort of facility to be able to respond to the pandemic. Now, during this time and what we can do more, we will.
Ali Clarke: But when, I guess is the question that everybody wants to know, because you're talking about risk and reward here and the cost here, the cost of outbreaks is massive. Surely, now that there are so many runs on the board are such that every outbreak has come from a medi hotel. Wouldn't the government be jumping all over this to go right? This is costing us a bomb. If we spent a little bit of money here, we can get this sorted and it can be in a centralised area that won't put various state and territories at risk like we have been.
Simon Birmingham: It's not it's not that there's a little bit of money or there's an easy solution, there's only we don't have other Howard Springs sitting around the country. This was a pre-built facility for emergency circumstances. We've been able to restructure its purpose to be able to respond to the pandemic and we are using it. But we don't have other ones sitting around the country that are similar to Howard Springs. And the alternative, in a sense, is to see a dramatic reduction in the ability of people to get back into Australia. And we should be mindful that we've got hundreds of thousands of people through the medi hotels overwhelmingly, successfully, without incident. But yes, the incidents themselves are of concern-
Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham does, it doesn't matter. We've got thousands in. It only takes one. And that's, you know, continually what we're told and we're trying to do. I think everybody is trying to do their best for safety. For example, though, on the text line, somebody wants to know about Baxter in Port Augusta. Could that not be adapted and used as a potential facility to help out with this?
Simon Birmingham: We can't bring international flights into Port Augusta, so you've got all manner of other complications that then come with that, if you going to start busing people from Adelaide to Port Augusta. There are stop locations. There are other dangers that come about. And, of course, is the question then is the exposure you're creating in the Port Augusta community. So I don't think people should think that these are without difficult complications attached to them. Let's also acknowledge that the recent outbreaks going back to South Australia as to what happened in Brisbane, to what happened over in Perth, we successfully stopped all of those clusters. The work of testing and tracing is actually proven to be incredibly successful in this country. So, yes, there is a risk factor that comes with running the medi hotels. But the other factors we've put in place, the other responses that we've pursued in terms of mass testing and contracting processes and individual isolating have successfully overcome all of those individual clusters as well. And that is the testament to the success of the systems that Australia is running across the different states.
Ali Clarke: So there's the success.
Simon Birmingham: Obviously, we trust and hope that Victoria can do the same again.
Ali Clarke: Certainly. And there's the success in the in the systems tracking and tracing. But are you actually worried about the state's current responses, for example, here in South Australia and your South Australian Senator being so swift and severe in imposing restrictions every time there is a COVID case?
Simon Birmingham: I worry about the impact of some of the restrictions. And and clearly, I think the states and territories need not just look at the outbreaks that have occurred, but also consider the evidence now that is mounting around the successful management of those outbreaks. And to think about how in learning the lessons from that successful management, they can manage to minimise the types of restrictions whilst doing what is necessary to contain the outbreak again and again and say, look, that's not that's not easy, I appreciate that, Health officials, they have been learning through the pandemic, as we all have, in fairness to all of our public health experts. They hadn't lived through one of these of this nature before either. And I think they have served us well and we want to continue to back them and their advice. But to make sure that they, like all of us, are learning from each of the experiences that occur. And so far as we can narrow the scope of shutdowns and narrow the scope of restrictions, that's good. Think back to SA one. The fact that we're in and out of it in three days ultimately was it was far better than any of the alternatives of the longer duration at the time.
Ali Clarke: Before you go, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, are you in an aviary at the moment?
Simon Birmingham: It's the birds do seem to be very happy this morning in the backyard and around.
Ali Clarke: All right. Thank you very much for your time, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Ali, my pleasure.
Ali Clarke: Ahead of the speech that he will give today, you will hear more about it through ABC News now.
Authorised by Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, South Australia.