Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 4 August 2021
Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham and joins us now from Canberra. Minister, welcome.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Patricia. Good to be with you again.
Patricia Karvelas: The COVID Commander, Lieutenant General John Frewen, has today said incentives to get vaccinated are still an option. But you've labelled Labour's three hundred dollars cash for jab proposal insulting. Are you and the COVID Commander on the same page?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, absolutely. If you look at what Lieutenant General Frewen was talking about, he was talking about a point possibly much later in the rollout in terms of the types of things you might consider to get to small cohorts. And that could be a range of things, including potentially the way in which we go through the different steps and stages of opening up. That might mean there are some liberties that states or territories or others choose to apply to vaccinated Australians and not to unvaccinated Australians, such as checking attendance at major sporting events or those sorts of things that may act as incentives, if you like, for certain cohorts. But it's insulting in a sense, as I said, because you've already got so many millions of Australians who have turned down 42 per cent of those over the age of 16 have already had their first jab. What we're seeing is that Australians want to get vaccinated. The demand is strong, and so Labor is tackling the wrong problem. Our focus has been on overcoming the setbacks, the setbacks initially of not getting the 3.4 million doses from Europe, the setbacks of the changed advice in relation to AstraZeneca and making sure that we have strong supply through the rest of this year. Stand up new distribution outlets as you said, they're the things that will actually get the job done.
Patricia Karvelas: I understand you're saying that they're tackling the wrong problem in so much as it's too wide an option. But I heard what you said yesterday. Also heard very clearly what the Prime Minister said. So do you concede that your comments, ruling out incentives were premature, that they went too far? Because I didn't hear this nuance yesterday.
Simon Birmingham: Patricia. I absolutely talked yesterday about the fact there might be different approaches in the opening up phase-.
Patricia Karvelas: Including today, cash has been put on the table today.
Simon Birmingham: What we're ruling out is the idea of giving three hundred dollars to every single Australian, millions of whom have already done it, millions of whom are wanting to do it and do it voluntarily-
Patricia Karvelas: How about giving cash to a specific cohort of people who are stubbornly not getting vaccinated later on in the rollout?
Simon Birmingham: I think that remains unlikely because if you look at the advice that that has come from a range of different health experts, they suggest that that could actually create levels of distrust or concern in communities about the reasons why government is providing that type of incentive towards the medical procedures. So what's most important is to continue the education effort. And that is very clear in terms of the modelling the Doherty report has put out. The safety and efficacy of all the vaccines that are available to Australians at present. The fact that whether it's AstraZeneca or Pfizer, it reduces by around 90 per cent the likelihood of somebody dying from COVID-19 getting that message out there to all Australians so that we continue to drive that demand through. We have confidence as a government that if 80 per cent of those over the age of 70 have already turned out to have their first jab, then every other Australian age group, I'm sure, is just as committed as those older Australians to protecting themselves, their loved ones and their communities.
Patricia Karvelas: On this incentive idea and a cash payment the Doherty modelling and the Doherty report, it was actually silent on this issue. It didn't tell you not to do it. It just didn't tell you anything about it. Right?
Simon Birmingham: That wasn't the question they were asked. Because they are there as modellers in relation to the spread of the virus. And they were asked to give us advice about at different levels of vaccination, how we might best manage the Australian situation to keep saving lives and to be able to reopen, but do so in the safest possible way. And Australia is world leading in terms of being in a position to get that sort of detailed modelling undertaken and to be able to undertake our reopening following that type of scientific advice that clearly steps out the types of approaches that we can undertake at 70 per cent vaccination rates across the country and then the further types of steps we can take at 80 per cent vaccination rates.
Patricia Karvelas: Politically speaking, we have now spent two days talking about Labor's proposal. I'm going to be blunt here. Isn't that because the government doesn't have a proposal?
Simon Birmingham: Labor are the ones who chose to throw this out there-
Patricia Karvelas: Because you haven't put anything out there in terms of incentives. So trying to get people motivated to get vaccinated.
Simon Birmingham: Because Patricia right now-
Patricia Karvelas: They've actually run the agenda on this because you haven't put anything out there.
Simon Birmingham: I completely reject what you're saying there, because right now the complaints I hear from Australians most often are about they want to get an appointment, they want to get a vaccine. They want us to make sure that. We're opening up those additional distribution points, but they want us to make sure that we're getting the extra supply into the country, they're the things we're doing to make sure Australians can get what they want, which is a vaccine. They would be aghast if the government was distracted by thought bubbles like this, as Labor has been, which I gather Anthony Albanese didn't even take to his shadow cabinet. It's literally just a thought bubble it seems. They want us to focus on the things that are going to give them the fastest, safest access to vaccines despite the setbacks as a country we've had. And that is precisely what we're doing as a government.
Patricia Karvelas: Ok, I just want to get your thoughts. We don't know much, but this FIFO worker in Perth who has tested positive to COVID, they say it's a low viral load. Are you comfortable, despite the new approach by the federal government, which is go in hard, go in fast, that they haven't opted for a lockdown at this stage?
Simon Birmingham: I only caught snippets of the press conference just before coming on air. Now of the fact that the Premier McGowan will be operating according to the health advice there. I don't know whether they're aware as to whether it's Delta strain or not yet. I heard them indicate that this worker, in fact, previously had COVID. And so I suspect there's a range of further questions that they'll need to answer to determine the real circumstances underpinning this case. And I'm sure they'll do that thoroughly and as quickly as they can.
Patricia Karvelas: The government has just in the last week extended its airline deal so you can go and travel across the country. But that's not going to work, is it? We can't really do that. Look at the country at the moment. Queensland shut down, Sydney shut down. 2021 is vastly different to the kind of plans and schemes that the federal government had organised for us.
Simon Birmingham: 2021 is vastly different. At the end of 2020, the words Delta variant, hadn't passed the lips of any of us because we didn't know that challenge was coming our way. So of course we've had to adapt during the course of 2021. That's meant that we've engineered new economic support programmes for people in lockdown circumstances and who are losing hours of work and those payments are rolling out. Some five hundred and fifty million dollars of them have been paid, particularly to people in Sydney, but also in Victoria and South Australia and will be now in south east Queensland. Support for the airlines. Yes, we extended the recovery piece, if you like, which is the incentive to book and to travel. And it makes sense to extend that given the challenges we currently face. But we're also negotiating putting in place new deals with airlines to protect their workforce across the country to make sure they can stand back up again quickly when we get past these current lockdowns and the end of the border restrictions that are in place. But these are all functions of having a new, different circumstance. The pandemic that came last year was unforeseen in terms of dealing with COVID-19. The Delta variant was a new curve ball. It is around one hundred per cent more transmissible than what we were dealing with last year in terms of COVID-19. And that means that we have to face the reality of quicker, shorter, sharper lockdowns, as you asked before, because of that high transmission rate attached to Delta.
Patricia Karvelas: How about harder lockdown's? There was a question to the New South Wales Premier today about why the Reject Shop was open and she wasn't very happy about answering it. She moved on quickly. But you're the federal government. You now endorse short, sharp lockdowns and hard lockdowns to try and get rid of Delta and smash it down. Do you think yourself why's the Reject Shop open?
Simon Birmingham: I hadn't heard that question. And yes, in putting it to me, I do question that. I think it is really important that Sydney, in going through the pain and difficulty that so many people across Sydney are feeling at present, give themselves the best chance of success. It's why, as a government, we offered to make sure that there were Defence Force personnel available to help New South Wales. And we pleased that eventually they accepted that offer because we want them to make this lockdown a success. It's important for those people in Sydney who are doing it so tough right now. And it's important, of course, for the entire national economy to make sure that they do so.
Patricia Karvelas: So it does seem strange to you, as it does to me, that those sorts of retail outlets are still open, right?
Simon Birmingham: It doesn't sound like something that's essential to me.
Patricia Karvelas: It doesn't sound very essential, although there's sometimes great stuff in shops like that. But not essential.
Simon Birmingham: Sure, indeed. And look, these are difficult times for state governments, particularly in terms of how you draw the legal boundaries around certain shops and so on. But I hope they take a look at that.
Patricia Karvelas: Yeah. OK, another question on the South Australian approach. You're from South Australia. You've seen your hard approach and it's a coalition government hard and fast and across the state, which means ring of steel, essentially. Right. Do you think Sydney should be looking at that? I know in Victoria there are lots of concerns about it leaking across the border. Shouldn't Greater Sydney be doing that as well?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we've seen New South Wales to date and seemingly managed to contain the spread. And I hope they manage to continue to do that in terms of where they have applied the lockdown to. I understand the frustration that exists in regional communities when they face a lockdown, often being hundreds of kilometres away from the source of an outbreak. Different states and territories have applied different approaches there. Ultimately, what matters is ensuring that it works, despite the fact this lockdown and these challenges, an outbreak of going on in Sydney for some time, we haven't seen it leak broadly into regional New South Wales yet, let alone into other parts of the country. And so I trust they maintain the systems there. And it's certainly something that I'm sure everyone in regional New South Wales is very conscious of. And that is making sure that if there were people who appeared to be breaching the lockdown coming from greater Sydney, that they would be reported pretty damn quickly because I know no community in regional New South Wales wants to see the delta variant enter their community or face an unnecessary lockdown in their community.
Patricia Karvelas: Just a couple of other issues before I let you go. Australian of the Year. Grace Tame says the decision to make Christian Porter, acting leader of the House while Peter Dutton is in isolation is a proverbial slap in the face to the entire nation, given the serious alleged allegations against him, which he strenuously denies. Why was Mr Porter elevated to this role, given women like Grace Tame are raising these concerns?
Simon Birmingham: Christian Porter stepped aside from his previous roles due to legal matters that he was pursuing. He's continued continuously to be a cabinet minister and this is just him filling in part of the duties of another colleague as cabinet ministers are often called upon to do.
Patricia Karvelas: Ok, but doesn't speak volumes that someone like Ms Tame says there is no way this decision was accidental. It is transparently deliberate, definitive statement that reeks of abuse of power and a blatant disregard of the people.
Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I disagree with that assessment. Getting a cabinet minister to act in the role of another colleague, particularly if they've held that role previously, is quite standard practise.
Patricia Karvelas: But the question is, she is Australian of the Year. She has been raising these issues about women and these kinds of allegations. Does it not send a signal, Minister, to victims that the government doesn't get it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, it's important, as we've discussed these matters before, that those who are tasked with investigating them are the ones that are right and proper to investigate. And I don't think it's fair to undertake a process that prejudges or predetermines guilt, which in a sense is what that comment insinuates.
Patricia Karvelas: Just on another issue, I think Australia Post has today agreed to pay former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate one million dollars as a termination payment after the Cartier watches scandal. Prime Minister Scott Morrison also told parliament that if she did not want to stand aside, she should go. Hasn't your government and the kind of hyper extreme language that was used at the time led to the taxpayers having to dish out a million bucks in this case?
Simon Birmingham: Well, this is a settlement between Post and Ms Holgate, and I wish her well for the future. I have a regard for Christine and the work that she's done. In terms of what happened back then. Let's remember, they were Labor senators who were pursuing Ms Holgate through the Senate estimates process. Mr Albanese himself asked questions in Question Time of both the Prime Minister and the Communications Minister. The Public Sector Union called for her to resign, and indeed, many Labor figures said that her going was the right thing, including Mr Albanese. Now, all of that was the politicking that occurred at the time. I find that the high moral ground that some in Labor try to occupy now pretending that they actually weren't the agitators at the time to be preposterous. But Ms Holgate made her decision to resign. They've concluded that contractual negotiations and settlements between Post and Ms Holgate and I wish her well for the future.
Patricia Karvelas: Just final one. There are reports that the coalition is divided over whether to make vaccine certificates, which would remove the need to quarantine mandatory for international and domestic travel, for instance. What's your view on this?
Simon Birmingham: Well, firstly, I mean, they're two different questions. In terms of international travel, I think people will find that it will be a requirement for them to have proof of vaccination, potentially not just for Australia's borders, but potentially for border entry and other parts of the world as well. And so we're certainly working on the technology solutions to ensure that not only can Australians have credible, provable proof of vaccination, but also that those who might be seeking to come to Australia from other countries, we understand how we're going to be able to assess their vaccine status, particularly in some of those transition stages that we're likely to go through as a country.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.