Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Monday, 15 March 2021
Fran Kelly: Well, Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and Government Leader in the Senate. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Good to be with you.
Fran Kelly: Labor has moved ahead of the coalition 52-48, two party preferred in the Newspoll. You've been ahead for more than a year now. Labor really hasn't had a look in, what's gone wrong for the government?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, the government won't be spending much time worrying about polls. We and I think everybody learnt that in the lead up to the last election that that polls predict all sorts of things are what will keep our attention to the issues that are of such importance to Australians continuing to deliver the economic security that we have through this time of global crisis, getting the vaccine rollout ramped up as we've promised and delivered across the country, dealing with the difficult issues that indeed will be the subject of protest activity around the building today. These are all important policy priorities, and that's what we're going to keep our focus on.
Fran Kelly: Is this the women of Australia passing a judgement, do you think, on the government's handling of recent sexual assault allegations?
Simon Birmingham: I’ll let others commentate on polls. And that's always been my approach. And my intention is that we will keep working in this building, working on all of those issues I mentioned before, working on the legislative programme that we have before us this week, which includes implementing the increase to the JobSeeker rate that was announced previously. And we need to get that legislation through this week, working to implement the changes to industrial relations that we have before the parliament this week as well, which are important to make sure that we can continue the rate of jobs growth that we have achieved, which has seen hundreds of thousands of additional jobs created and recreated since the recession that was induced by the COVID pandemic last year.
Fran Kelly: The tone of this sitting fortnight, though, I mean, there's plenty of work to be done always. But the tone of this sitting fortnight, I think, will be set by the March for Justice protest at Parliament House. You're a senior government figure. Will you attend the rally to hear what women have to say?
Simon Birmingham: It's not my intention to Fran-.
Fran Kelly: Why not?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I've been here for many years and through that time, I have met with many hundreds and hundreds of organisations that have come to Canberra. Some of them have protested and rallied outside the building. Some have held events inside the building, I've facilitated meetings with them to talk about the issues and concerns that they've brought. But I haven't gone outside the building and joined in protests or rallies. That's not been the way I've conducted my business. I've always sought to engage in the discussions with representatives to understand the issues and to talk through specifically what it is they're calling to happen. And I would encourage the rally organisers to reconsider their refusal to meet with the Prime Minister. He's extended that offer to meet with him. And it really would be in the best interests of advancing the issues that the people are here to talk about to facilitate those discussions.
Fran Kelly: But they've got a message for the governments of the country and all politicians in this place. They've got a petition with tens of thousands of signatures. The Prime Minister has been accused of not showing enough empathy towards sexual assault victims over the last month with the allegations is that emerged to treating their allegations as political problems to be dealt with. Wouldn't it help the government come to grips with what Penny Wong has called a moment of serious national reckoning? If the Prime Minister or if a leader of his government like you went outside to listen to what the women are saying and it's not politicians talking, it's the women. It's women of Australia speaking.
Simon Birmingham: And I do expect that there will be members of the government to, who attend. And we are facilitating the operation of the parliament in ways that people can leave the building if need be. Now, the Prime Minister has-.
Fran Kelly: Wouldn't it be a great statement if the government's leadership team walked out and listened?
Simon Birmingham: I think it would also, in terms of actually advancing the type of issues, is best done by sitting down and having detailed, proper discussions around the types of things that people are asking for and the change they're calling for-
Fran Kelly: But both things can be true.
Simon Birmingham: Some of that we are already acting upon. I would encourage, as I said, those organisers who have refused the Prime Minister's offer to meet with him to reconsider that, and that it would be in the best interests of getting the depth of understanding that I'm sure they want to achieve for that meeting to occur.
Fran Kelly: If not you, why not Marise Payne, the Minister for Women? She's not going to meet the organisers of the rally, but at the front, out the front, she originally her office said she'd received the petition via correspondent. She's since offered to meet them in her offices, but she's not going to go to the rally either. I mean, you know, why are you here talking today? Shouldn't this be a job today for the Minister for Women?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I usually front up and speak with you at this time at the start of the sitting fortnight.
Fran Kelly: We did ask the minister as well.
Simon Birmingham: Fran, Marise Payne as our Foreign Minister has been, I think, both leading work in terms of the engagement in the responses to the very difficult issues, recently. She worked very closely with me and with Kate Jenkins, the sex discrimination commissioner, in establishing the broad independent review into parliamentary workplaces that Kate is going to undertake, which has received bipartisan or indeed multi party support in terms of the way in which Kate will undertake that work. And I thank all of those different parties and independents and others who engaged with me, with Marise and with Commissioner Jenkins to establish those terms of reference in that approach.
Fran Kelly: Just one last time on this, though, there will be a petition handed over at the moment an independent MP and a member of the Labour Party will be there to receive the petition on the behalf of the parliament. Shouldn't a member of Government be there?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I do expect Members of the Government to be attending-
Fran Kelly: A senior member of Government to be accepting that?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I'm not aware of the details of how the rally organisers are proposing to hand over their petition. It's the first I've heard of that.
Fran Kelly: Well they have invited members, they have invited the government to be there to help to accepted it as well.
Simon Birmingham: I expect members of the government to be there. And I'll look into the receipt of the petition. We've made very clear we're happy to receive that petition. And again, the Prime Minister has made very clear he is happy to meet with the rally organisers. And I urge them to reconsider their refusal to meet with the Prime Minister.
Fran Kelly: Ok, let's go to a couple other issues. We can't really go past the election in the in WA over the weekend, the Liberal Party has been walloped well and truly. One in four Western Australian voters have now switched from the Coalition to Labor since 2017 at the federal level. You're left with really just one fully functioning cabinet minister at the moment from the Western Michaelia Cash-
Simon Birmingham: And Ken Wyatt.
Fran Kelly: And Ken Wyatt, I beg your pardon too, I beg your pardon. The state can no longer be considered a Liberal Party stronghold. How does this bode for the next federal election?
Simon Birmingham: You've watched politics long enough, as have I, to know that voters in states can exercise one judgement at a state election in a very different judgement at a federal election in quite short periods of time. We saw that in Western Australia itself back in 2001 during the Howard years, where indeed the Liberal Party vote they dropped to, I think, around 28 per cent at the time. And yet at the federal election that ensued, it was back up in the mid to high 40s-
Fran Kelly: So you're confident that's how things are in the West for the coalition?
Simon Birmingham: No, we will work hard as we as Australians would expect us to, delivering for them as the Government every day between now and the election next year. And our intention is to focus on governing, not on polls, not on the election. We've got another year of governing to do and there's much to achieve in that time to continue. What is Australia's remarkable achievement and success through the most challenging global times, the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression, the first pandemic in a century. We have managed to navigate this better than almost any other advanced country in the world, and we need to keep that going.
Fran Kelly: The Liberal Party has been reduced to just two of the 59 seats in the lower house in Western Australia. It's pretty clear the premier was rewarded for his tough stance on borders and keeping the pandemic out of the West. Are you worried this election result will encourage other premiers to keep slamming their borders shut at the first hint of community transmission?
Simon Birmingham: I've welcomed the fact that for example, the Queensland chief health officer acknowledged that the vaccine rollout will over time change the risk profile and she believes, change decisions in relation to the operation of borders. That's a sensible approach. And, of course, over the course of the next couple of weeks, we're going to see Australia's own domestic manufacture of a vaccine crank up in Melbourne. This is a very significant step for the country. Many other nations around the world would wish that they could manufacture these vaccines themselves and not be held hostage to the global supply chains, which we have seen in recent weeks have such uncertainty. And thankfully, we are in a position where 50 million doses will be manufactured here in Australia starting in the next couple of weeks.
Fran Kelly: There are some problems, as we've been hearing in the news with the rollout. The Prime Minister has said the government will be judged on how it handles the COVID response. He had promised four million vaccinations by April, everyone by October. The government's now acknowledged those targets won't be met. When will every Australian who wants to be vaccinated be given both of them? What's the new target?
Simon Birmingham: It's still our ambition to see every Australian have access to the vaccine by October, there was the change to the health guidance around the AstraZeneca vaccine, suggesting that rather than having the second shot four weeks after the first short it should be 12 weeks after the first shot. That, of course, changes the timeline to see that full administration of two doses. But it's still our ambition to see the October deadline met in relation to every Australian having that access to a first shot. And I think we will see dramatic cranking up when that domestic production I was talking about before comes online. We'll get to the point of seeing around one million or so doses produced in Australia each and every week for distribution across Australia.
Fran Kelly: Just back to the situation with the Attorney-General allegations their two petitions will be handed over today, one from the women rallying and another which calls for Christian Porter to be suspended from his position as attorney general over historical rape allegations. [Indistinct] It is out of step with what the community is demanding?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, I've spent a lot of time talking to people across the last couple of weeks, and I think Australians do expect that proper legal processes should be followed in relation to addressing such allegations. And now those legal processes have been deployed by the New South Wales police as they've outlined. Of course, there are also legal processes in relation to the tragic death and those processes remain underway in South Australia and we should let them run their course.
Fran Kelly: And just with Christian Porter missing, here is the industrial relations minister in the cabinet. Of course, that complicates the government's chances of securing the extra votes you need from the crossbench to pass the workplace reform bill is listed for the Senate tomorrow. It's part of your job to manage that through, I'm sure. How much are you prepared to compromise to secure this win and try and take some of the focus off other matters, or do you accept that without the minister there to shepherd through and do the negotiations, it's not going to make it?
Simon Birmingham: We will work with the Senate crossbench, as we always do, and we'll discuss concerns with them and negotiate as appropriate. But equally, it shouldn't come to that on a bill like this. You know, this is a bill that increases penalties in relation to wage theft. It's a bill that deals with sham contracting. It's a bill that provides greater certainty in relation to casual employment and greater opportunity in relation to part time employment. The Labor Party should have been lining up to support this bill, and it just shows the type of negative, obstructionist approach they're taking through their opposition. But we will work with the crossbench to try to achieve the best outcomes we can.
Fran Kelly: Well, it sounds like there's a job ahead of you, though, listening to some of the crossbenchers. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us again on breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran. Always a pleasure.