Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Tuesday, 3 August 2021
Liam Bartlett: Anthony Albanese told Gareth Parker over breakfast this morning that everyone should get 300 dollars in their pocket to protect themselves against COVID and help the country reach that 80 per cent target. It's a plan that would cost taxpayers six billion dollars and almost double the cost of the entire vaccination program. The Federal Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us on the program. Good morning, Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Liam. Great to be with you, as always.
Liam Bartlett: You too. Can we afford this sort of largesse, Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Well Liam, it's a matter as to whether it would be valuable or worthwhile spending, and all of the evidence that the government has seen is that it would not. That our consultation with those who look at behavioural economics and the things that drive uptake in relation to vaccines is that these types of cash payments, if anything, run the risk of being counterproductive, that they can create an impression amongst those who might think there are concerns that the only reason the government's dishing out money is because there are concerns that what really drives vaccine take up is ensuring people are well educated to the fact that vaccines are safe, they are effective, and they are the best way to save your life, the lives of your loved ones and the lives of your fellow Australians. And that is what you're seeing in Australians turn out in record numbers. If you look at the-
Liam Bartlett: Well hang on. Hang on, Minister. They're turning out in record numbers in places where you are in New South Wales, where there's fear going around because there's so many cases, they're certainly not turning out in record numbers here in WA.
Simon Birmingham: WA is a little bit below the national average. And I'd encourage West Australians that it's not a good idea to wait until there's an outbreak. It's a good idea to take advantage of the vaccines that are available and to make sure you have them. But if you look across the national averages for Australia, we're at more than 41 per cent of Australians have gone out, all of those over the age of 16 and had at least their first dose. Now, if you look at the age cohort who we gave the green light to getting vaccines, first and foremost, the over 70s well there nearly 80 per cent, have had their first dose now. So it's not a lack or an unwillingness of Australians to get vaccinated. They're clearly demonstrating a willingness to do so. And pleasingly, we're now seeing increases in the supply of vaccine. With those increased supplies, we're able to increase the distribution points, bringing more pharmacies, more doctors online as the states stand up their clinics to. Yeah, and that's going to help us get right through the Australian population and all of those willing through the course of this year.
Liam Bartlett: So you think it's more of a timing issue? Do you, you think the will, the will is there from the community?
Simon Birmingham: No doubt, we've had a couple of disruptions during the course of this year. And we can all wish that they hadn't occurred. We wish that the three point four million doses expected from Europe at the start of the year had turned up, but they didn't. We can wish that the health advice around AstraZeneca from the immunisation experts on ATAGI had been consistent, but it hasn't been. And they've created disruptions along the way. We just have to work to overcome those. But we've now got clear volumes of AstraZeneca, greater clarity around that health advice, encouraging people to have that vaccine, which is 90 per cent effective, just like Pfizer, at reducing the incidence of death from COVID-19. We now have around a million doses a week of Pfizer coming into the country, and that's only going to go up in further months. And we'll also get the Moderna vaccine in that time. So what we're going to see is that Australians have more and more opportunities to go and get vaccinated. And based on the fact that over the last couple of weeks, we've kept day after day really almost setting new records for the number of Australians going out to be vaccinated as that supply is increased, gives us confidence that Australians will do it for all of the right reasons to protect themselves, their families and their communities, not just because there's some cash splashes Labor is proposing thrown about.
Liam Bartlett: What more can you have done? The right thing, the right reason to go out then the threat of death? I would have thought the threat of death was enough of a personal incentive to get vaccinated. What do you think?
Simon Birmingham: Liam, I was asked quite a few weeks ago by someone, you know, what are the incentives available for people? And I said quite bluntly, not dying. Not dying is the number one incentive.
Liam Bartlett: Well, this is the thing that amazes me, because Albanese says it's time we rewarded people for doing the right thing. I mean, how about just protecting other people in the community? That would seem to be the right thing to me not 300 dollars.
Simon Birmingham: If you're an older Australian, this can save your life if you're a younger Australian it can save Nanna's life or Poppa's life. This is the right thing for all of us to do. Being vaccinated protects you. It does reduce the likelihood of you transmitting to other people as well. The evidence that we've got from the Doherty Institute shows that's the case. And so it really is about doing that right thing. And I have faith in Australians to do so. As I said, 80 per cent of Australians over the age of 70 have basically now turned out to have that first jab. We're talking about trying to strive for targets of 70 and 80 per cent. Well the first age group who we said could go and get a vaccine, have done it. And I'm confident that younger Australians are just as motivated, just as passionate to protect themselves and their families as older Australians. And I think it's frankly a little bit insulting that the Labor Party's coming along and thinking that spending six billion dollars, giving everybody from Gina Rinehart through the entire population money is somehow a wise way of going about this rather than the calm, careful way of educating, encouraging, which is getting Australians to turn out and do it.
Liam Bartlett: The oldies have got us to that number already. So they're showing the way, as you say so. So there's the challenge for the younger generation. Is there going to be a time when you offer over 60s a choice in vaccine, perhaps in a couple of months when you get more Pfizer? Will that happen, Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Look, eventually we're going to see the type of surpluses in terms of vaccine numbers that will comfortably enable those decisions to be made, but people shouldn't wait for that. The health advice, particularly for those over 60s, has never changed in relation to AstraZeneca. It's always been clear. And can I say-
Liam Bartlett: I know you don't want them to wait. But people are waiting. That's part of the hesitancy, isn't it?
Simon Birmingham: There are no doubt a small proportion who are. And again, we'll see them move when they're convinced on other grounds to do so. But giving them 300 dollars isn't the thing that's going to change the mind of those individuals. What I would want to really emphasise is to anybody who's already had their first dose of AstraZeneca, make sure you go and get your second dose. There's never been a scintilla of evidence or changes to the recommendations from the health officials that if you had your first dose without any serious negative implications, you definitely are safe to go and get your second dose. But if you look more generally at AstraZeneca, that health advice has really improved in encouraging people to have it. And one of the things there is the medical professionals now have greater skills in terms of quickly identifying any chance of adverse reaction and quickly treating and helping people through that.
Liam Bartlett: Minister. Look, I know you're a Minister in demand, in charge of finance. So I can I just can I beg a couple more minutes. I just want to ask you a related question.
Simon Birmingham: Sure.
Liam Bartlett: Thank you. About a subject we touched on the program yesterday. We got a fair bit of feedback about it. We went into a bit of detail about JobKeeper and about the need, as recommended by the parliamentary budget office for an independent enquiry into how it's been rolled out. Do you, as minister, expect companies here in Australia who receive JobKeeper but still recorded profits? In other words, who didn't really need it. Do you expect them? And I know the rules are that they can keep it, but do you expect them to pay it back?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think some companies have clearly done the, an honourable thing by returning some funds or all funds to the tax office, but we should also recognise there's plenty of uncertainty still across the Australian economy and some of those companies right now potentially dealing with different circumstances in relation to employees in their operations. And so we designed JobKeeper at a time of enormous uncertainty when the whole country was facing extensive restrictions being put in place. It wasn't clear how long those restrictions could last for, it was important to give certainty to business that the support was there.
Liam Bartlett: Totally agree. And you gave it to them. You gave them certainty, Minister. I agree with that. But they've gone through a whole reporting season since then.
Simon Birmingham: They have and as I say a number have done what I think is an honourable thing in providing returns. As a government, we've since then been able to really finesse the economic response. And that's why right now we've got payments to the same value as JobKeeper for individuals. Seven hundred and fifty dollars a week. But we're able to turn them on and off in areas of lockdown to individuals who have actually definitely lost hours of work. And that's a way we're able to make sure the economic support continues to flow through the pandemic. But without some of some of the largesse, if you like, that was attached to JobKeeper that simply had to be built in a hurry at a national level to deal with the uncertainties we faced way back in March of last year.
Liam Bartlett: But can't we do something about it at the other end? I mean, some of these figures are staggering. Minister, let's have a look at them. Of the 66 ASX 300 companies that received JobKeeper, 58 of them reported positive earnings. Now, there's been 12 and a half billion dollars with a B twelve and a half billion paid to employers who never actually recorded the prerequisite fall in revenue. In other words, they forecast it, but they didn't have that fall. I mean, why aren't we having some sort of enquiry into that gross wastage?
Simon Birmingham: Let's also understand what providing that strength across the Australian economy and that resilience in Australian businesses provided us. It enabled the Australian economy to come back faster than pretty much anywhere else in the world. And these are the same businesses who put us in the position where until these recent lockdowns on the East Coast, we had more Australians in work than pre pandemic and the first developed country in the world to be able to achieve that target. And that's in part a factor of having businesses in a strong position to be able to do so. So I understand the argument-
Liam Bartlett: But they didn't need the money, Minister, they didn't need the money. That's the point. And these profits are built on the back of taxpayers. That's the point, isn't it?
Simon Birmingham: No and their profits that flow back into the superannuation funds of taxpayers or into creating more jobs for taxpayers. We want strong Australian businesses. As I said, we have managed to finesse the program as time went on and we put even when JobKeeper was still operating tighter and tighter restrictions over time to deal with some of these issues. And we've now built a more fit for purpose program to help Australians and to help businesses through lockdowns and circumstances of distress. That's got the type of tighter criteria around it that address this. We don't as a country, when we write programs and write tax laws, go and retrospectively change them and say, well, you were eligible at the time you made a claim, you were eligible under the laws of the land at that time. And now we're going to go back and change those laws and those rules that apply to you at that stage.
Liam Bartlett: Well, it has happened in the past.
Simon Birmingham: Well, that's certainly not the way our government likes to work. We want to give people certainty. But I understand very much the concerns and that is why we have changed these programs and particularly the ones in operation today are able to switch on and off, according to lockdowns are targeted very much to those individuals who have lost work, actually provide more flexibility to get to casuals and others who are losing work in more adaptive ways, but also guarantee that we don't get those sorts of results you're raising questions about again in the future.
Liam Bartlett: But are you personally, Minister, are you by now you're a bloke of integrity. Are you personally comfortable with those companies still keeping that money?
Simon Birmingham: As I said, I think those who have returned, it's been an honourable act and others should certainly think about that. But I absolutely would expect that companies who are making profits return them to Australians through shareholder dividends, return them to superannuation funds who are shareholders, that they employ more Australians and invest more in Australia. And they're the ways that we increase the wealth for all Australians and the job opportunities for Australians. And we want to make sure that at the end of these lockdowns, when we hit the Doherty Institute targets at 70 and 80 per cent and transition our economy again, that we come back just as strongly as before in terms of jobs, growth and opportunities for Australians.
Liam Bartlett: We'll leave it there. Minister, thanks very much for your time this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Liam. My pleasure.