Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 5 March 2021
Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, the Finance Minister he joins us live from Adelaide. Thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it. What does this mean? Why are we being targeted? This is the first time these powers have been used by the EU and they're directed at Australia.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Laura. I don't think we should see this as a target at Australia, but I think it is very much a reminder of the desperation that exists in other parts of the world compared with the very good position we find ourselves in here in Australia. And we're in a good position at a range of levels. We're in a good position economically. As the national accounts figures this week indicated, when you compare it with the rest of the world, we're in a good position when it comes to COVID transmission compared with the rest of the world, with our country now recording remarkably low incidences. In fact, no incidences in recent times of COVID transmission. And we're still in a good position when it comes to vaccines as well. We would rather that this decision by Italian authorities in the EU had not occurred. But the reality is that we had three hundred thousand doses delivered last week and that will see our current distribution plan work until we have the domestic production of some 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine come online at the end of March. So we are in a very good position, having contracted up to one hundred and fifty million doses of vaccines from around the world. And so that vaccine position for Australia, the transmission of COVID position for Australia and the economic position for Australia really is the envy of the types of countries who are taking this sort of more desperate action.
Laura Jayes: Sure. But if this one shipment is blocked, what's to say subsequent shipments won't be? Have you sought assurances?
Simon Birmingham: We will be seeking assurances. We've been doing that all along. And we are obviously disappointed and frustrated by this decision. But it's also why we took a belt and braces approach. We didn't just say, well, we will contract from one singular source enough vaccines for the entire Australian population once-over, we've contracted up to one hundred and fifty million doses of vaccines, including 50 million doses to be produced here in Australia at the CSL facility. So that was about ensuring that we built in contingencies for the likelihood that things would go wrong. The world is in quite unchartered territory at present. It's unsurprising that some countries will tear up the rulebook when they're in uncharted territory. And that's why we've taken these very cautious approaches and made sure-
Laura Jayes: Is that what they've done, torn up the rulebook?
Simon Birmingham: This is not ordinary sort of behaviour in terms of when goods are contracted and under trade agreements that exist around the world and commitments that countries make through the World Trade Organisation. These sorts of export bans are not customarily the place.
Laura Jayes: Have they broken trade rules?
Simon Birmingham: You'd have to have a look. There are provisions for extraordinary circumstances in countries, and they may well argue that they are in an extraordinary circumstance. And that's why I come back to the point. This is a demonstration of really how well Australia continues to do compared with the desperation of other countries. And we will continue to do well thanks to all the policy measures we've put in place. And that includes the vaccine arrangements we've put in place. Australians should have confidence that they will be offered vaccines during the course of this year. And what I encourage every Australian to do is to accept that, to take that vaccine and so that we can create herd immunity across the Australian population so that we can get the maximum benefit from the vaccine and that we can get everything back to as normal as possible for the future.
Laura Jayes: Are we victims of our own success in the United States rolling out almost two million vaccines a day, here we barely reached our first week target. Why?
Simon Birmingham: We will see a crank up occurring. And what we're expecting is that when domestic production is in place, that we'll be seeing production of around one million doses a week occurring. One million doses per week-
Laura Jayes: Why isn't there any urgency here because I think Australians would like to see us get back to absolute normal life?
Simon Birmingham: I think Australians will see that there will be a real crank up that happens when we have that large scale production, all the facilities that are in place. We're seeing the first doses of AstraZeneca released and supplied to individuals in Murray Bridge here in South Australia today. Other states will follow suit. Of course, over the last couple of weeks, we've seen the doses of the Pfizer vaccine rolled out. We are seeing that scale up occur. I think Australians will see when it really hits peak scale up that those numbers, those weekly numbers elevate very, very quickly to get us through to all Australians having the opportunity to be vaccinated during the course of this year. And the message to Australians is accept that opportunity, I certainly back our health system to do this with safety, with efficiency in a manner that gives people the confidence to participate. And again, they are the benefits that Australia has. We're able to go through all the routine safety checks put in place, all the proper processes so Australians can have full confidence in this vaccine rollout.
Laura Jayes: Do what Dolly Parton says she's certainly campaigning for it in America, and we could probably take that message here. But national cabinet is on today. They're meeting this morning. Simon Birmingham, should Victoria start taking their fair share of overseas arrivals?
Simon Birmingham: Well they ideally would. Some 17 international flights, I gather, have been cancelled that would have landed in Victoria and would have provided opportunities for Australians to safely return home. Victoria, before they put these measures in place, was on track to be taking around eleven hundred returning Australians and arrivals per week. And we would ideally see them do so safely through medi hotels, other states carrying a load at present. And in doing so, other states are returning Victorian citizens and residents into Australia. And it would be a much fairer arrangement if Victoria did its bit.
Laura Jayes: Is there any excuse they're not picking up that slack now?
Simon Birmingham: Well, look we've had remarkable success lately in terms of COVID suppression right across the country and I can understand everybody wants to keep it that way. But I think other states and territories have demonstrated that you can run the medi hotel systems with a high degree of confidence, with strong safeguards in place. Victoria should do that or should roll out its alternatives. But ideally, they would be contributing to the return of Victorians just as other states are doing so with the return of all Australians.
Laura Jayes: Ok, looking at this awful week that everyone has just endured, the family of the woman who accuses Christian Porter of rape or did accuse Christian Porter of rape says that they would welcome an enquiry into her death. Would you welcome the coronial investigation that's still open expanded to a coronial inquiry in South Australia?
Simon Birmingham: The coroner in South Australia, as they are in every state, is an independent statutory office holder. They exercise certain judicial powers and they are fully empowered to make their own decision. I've seen the South Australian coroner's statement. He indicated that he received a file from the South Australian police, I believe it was on Monday of this week. He returned the file to police asking for some further information to inform his consideration. And he will make his own decision based on the contents of what the police provide as to whether under the law, it warrants an inquest or what type of investigation or findings that he makes.
Laura Jayes: Would you welcome that?
Simon Birmingham: I welcome the fact that we have independent legal processes in place and that what I think what I would welcome, what I would call for will make and should not make a jot of difference to the decision of the South Australian coroner, and nor should the view of any other politician or commentator in Australia. Independent legal officers should make their decisions in accordance with the laws of our land.
Laura Jayes: All right. Finally, Linda Reynolds has called Brittney Higgins a lying cow. Is that really acceptable, even in a private office?
Simon Birmingham: No. And the Prime Minister's made clear that it's not acceptable and Linda's expressed her regret for it.
Laura Jayes: Well, Linda Reynolds has expressed her regret, but hasn't actually apologised to Brittany privately or publicly. Does that really undermine her expressed sincerity?
Simon Birmingham: I understand Linda apologised to her staff in relation to obviously what were trying circumstances in the office. I think apologies are appropriate in these circumstances.
Laura Jayes: Well, Linda Reynolds also said that Brittney Higgins welfare was a top priority. Are we really to believe that now?
Simon Birmingham: Yes. Look, I think, Linda, throughout in terms of bringing in the federal police to her office in the early couple of weeks following the incident and quite early after Linda finding out further details or having concerns about the nature of what had been told to her, she initiated processes to make sure those discussions could take place. I have confidence that Linda at all times wanted to cooperate and should have police investigation have been launched now that Britney has given formal statements to the AFP. I know that Linda, her office indeed the whole government will cooperate fully to make sure that justice can be done.
Laura Jayes: It looks like a government in crisis at the moment Senator, is it?
Simon Birmingham: No, they've been a difficult couple of weeks. There's no denying that. And I think these issues take a toll on everybody. First and foremost, of course, on those who have faced instances of sexual assault, bullying or harassment. But they have an impact right across the board. However, I can assure everyone that the government remains pretty focussed on the issues. We started the programme talking about when ensuring the economic recovery remains strong. And we saw incredible data this week showing just the extent to which Australia's economy has outperformed pretty much every other developed nation in the world. And we remain focussed on the vaccine rollout, on the health and safety of Australians. They're the topics that have dominated every cabinet level discussion I've been in this week, and they're the topics that will continue to dominate our attention and focus.
Laura Jayes: Well, shouldn't the crisis within your government, the treatment of women have dominated as well, Senator?
Simon Birmingham: I think Australians want to know that that we are clearly dealing with those issues in terms of my time as the Finance Minister, but also the minister responsible for parliamentary staff I have spent-
Laura Jayes: Women have been particularly angry [indistinct], have you felt that in your electorate?
Simon Birmingham: I have had a lot of conversations in my electorate, but also in convening the multi-party independent review with former staff, with current staff, with union representatives, with MPs current and former from across the political spectrum to shape what will be a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the culture and practises in parliamentary workplaces that we will seek to make sure is a review that makes sure those parliamentary workplace set a best practise example for the nation in the prevention of harassment, bullying, sexual assault, and in practises to make sure that they are reported that support services are in place. Getting that right-.
Laura Jayes: When will you be appointing an independent body and that independent individual?
Simon Birmingham: Very, very soon I hope, Laura.
Laura Jayes: This weekend, today, next week?
Simon Birmingham: We're certainly talking I hope days at the most to absolutely finalise those details. It's been an extensive and exhaustive process of consultation with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner with other experts in that field.
Laura Jayes: Will it be Ms Jenkins?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I'll announce it when I announce it, I don't want to be discourteous to those with whom I've consulted, I want to tell them first the final terms of reference the reviewer and make sure that everybody has full confidence that they can participate, that the confidentiality of their participation will be respected, and that it will be a thorough and sweeping approach. So to make it clear those issues are serious, we take them seriously. I'm seeking to get the best possible result. But nor does that distract the government's focus from the overwhelming crisis that the world has faced in relation to COVID and making sure that Australians remain protected from it.
Laura Jayes: Ok, Simon Birmingham, as always, appreciate your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.