Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 1 July 2021
Peter Stefanovic: Well, joining us live now is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning to you. It's hard to see how this roll out isn't an absolute shambles.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Peter. Well it's good to be with you, more than 7.6 million doses of vaccine have been administered to Australians. I want to thank those millions of Australians who have received it, including more than 145,000 who turned out yesterday to receive a jab. It's important that people keep going, vaccine supply, particularly of Pfizer is only increasing in the weeks and months ahead. And that means the opportunity for us to keep moving through the Australian population is strong, and that's precisely what we need to see happen.
Peter Stefanovic: But again, it's the messaging is confusing. Do you accept that it is? I mean, the federal government- Let me just rephrase this. The federal government shifted the goalposts on AstraZeneca, so it's not entirely blameless. But did the states led by Queensland yesterday undermine the vaccine rollout further?
Simon Birmingham: Pete there have been two changes to the health advice in relation to AstraZeneca. The first was to recommend that it be the preferred dose for those over 50 and then that was increased subsequently by health advisers to those over 60. The health advice is always said, though, that it could still be administered to younger people, depending upon them sitting down and having a consultation with their GP about the risks of doing so versus the benefits of doing so. Now, what we did was make sure that GPs have the extra support necessary through indemnity arrangements to be able to have those conversations and make those decisions with their patients. That's frankly all that it really changed in terms of providing that additional support to doctors across the country to help them in their crucial role as one part of the vaccination rollout.
Peter Stefanovic: Yeah, but it wasn't helpful moving it from 50 to 60 and then opening it up to everyone that wasn't helpful, was it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, this is the health advice that we're dealing with. And it's the fact that they are looking at the evidence. Now, obviously, the risk in Australia of contracting COVID at present is different to the risk around other parts of the world. That's one of the reasons why global manufacturers like Pfizer have put countries like New Zealand and Australia down the list in terms of the number of supplies coming in and preferred countries where there's a huge outbreak of COVID. Now you look at a country like the U.K., they were giving a standing ovation at Wimbledon the other night to the inventor of the AstraZeneca vaccine maker because it has transformed their country and saved so many lives. And we need to recognise it as an effective vaccine, safe overwhelmingly in the vast majority of circumstances. But if you're in those younger age groups, talk to your GP, work through those issues if you want to have that vaccine. Otherwise, there are alternatives available and increasingly available to you. And the scaremongering that we're seeing that's been called out by health officials of the Queensland premier and others in Queensland, frankly, just isn't helpful and isn't the type of debate that we should be having.
Peter Stefanovic: Now, that leads us to my next question, which was how would you describe the commentary from Queensland's chief health officer yesterday? And you just referred to that, but she said that the people under the age of 40 should not be taking AstraZeneca because she didn't want 18 year olds dying.
Simon Birmingham: Well, don't take my word for it, take those health experts have called it out as scaremongering. It frankly was just that. We should have calm, rational voices in these debates. And now the Queensland premier, for whatever reason, wants to politicise everything all the time that she possibly can. She ought to desist from that sort of behaviour. Other Labor leaders around the country show an ability to be able to work cooperatively with the federal government. That's what we want to do with all states and territories. The vaccine rollout is important. It's challenging because of those changes to the health advice, because of the fact that drug companies have prioritised countries with high incidences and rates of COVID. But we are now moving through, as I say, more than 7.6 million doses administered to date. And what we want to do is keep the confidence amongst Australians to have that vaccine and to make sure they keep doing so in the type of numbers they are now and even more when we have more doses available.
Peter Stefanovic: You had the co-chair of the ATAGI program saying this morning, though, Minister, that AstraZeneca should only be considered in pressing circumstances. What do you make of those comments?
Simon Birmingham: Again, the ATAGI advice, which, although they've changed in the age group, has remained that it is there for individuals to talk to their GPs about their circumstances. Now, what we've done is the federal government is support GPs in terms indemnity arrangements to be able to have those discussions and administer vaccines at the end of those discussions. That's all. It's up to individual Australians to make their decisions, as it's always been. So the vaccine has never been mandatory for all Australians, but we do want every single Australian to think long and hard about having it and the vast majority to make the decision to do so because these are overwhelmingly safe vaccines and COVID does remain an ever present threat in terms of what could happen to individuals if they contracted. And if you listen to those health experts, just because you're under 40 doesn't mean you're exempt from the threat of serious illness as a result of COVID. And so you ought to think about all of those equations.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay, back to the Queensland premier minister. She wants up to a 75 per cent reduction in international traveller numbers. What do you make of those comments and is that likely to happen?
Simon Birmingham: Well again, the Queensland premier deciding to pick public fights, deciding to ignite these sorts of debates, and maybe she's looking for a distraction from the failure to vaccinate staff working in COVID wards and in hospital settings that frankly, she should have gotten on and handled. But we'll have the discussions with the states and territories, as are appropriate, about international arrivals. We have shown a willingness to move where there are high risk arguments before. It's why we restricted numbers from India a couple of months ago. And of course, it's why we put in place the restrictions right across the country for entry into Australia that are seeing a pittance of the number of international arrivals that we would ordinarily have if our borders are actually open.
Peter Stefanovic: Sounds like she might get away on this one then?
Simon Birmingham: Pete, I'm not going to prejudge the type of discussions that had. We see states, particularly New South Wales, has done an enormous amount of the heavy lifting in that regard. Others playing their role in terms of how we let Australians overwhelmingly or permanent residents or their family members back into the country. This has been one of the tricky balances throughout COVID. We're not averse to looking at changes in the risk profile if they are real changes. And that's what we did in relation to India. But we do need to find ways to still successfully move those Australians back in. That does include Queenslanders.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay, let's just finish up on the economy now. There are some crucial tax changes that come into play for a lot of Australians today. I mean, technically, we get a pay rise when it comes to superannuation. But according to these lockdowns, with so many half the country now in lockdown, what is the budget impact of these lockdowns, Minister? And is it going to test the assumptions that were outlined in the budget?
Simon Birmingham: Well Pete, indeed, to take both parts of your question, it is July the 1st, and that means an extension of tax breaks for more than 10 million Australians who will see up to a $1080 benefit from those tax breaks means a lower company tax rate for small businesses across Australia. It means an extension of COVID recovery measures, such as full expensing arrangements for Australian businesses, as well as new incentives in relation to research and development to help our economy grow faster, as well as those elements of COVID recovery. Now, of course, lockdown arrangements do have an economic impact and we will keep monitoring that very closely. But to date, Australia's economy has shown enormous resilience. It has outperformed all expectations thus far, and there are significant savings across the country that have been generated through much of the COVID support provided to date, as well as ongoing elements of COVID support to help make sure we keep getting through it.
Peter Stefanovic: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning. We'll chat to you soon.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Pete. My pleasure.