Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 19 August 2021
Scott Emerson: Let's talk to the finance minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, and he joins me now. Minister, thanks for being on the show.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Scott. It's great to be with you again.
Scott Emerson: Now, look, I see the numbers came out today. I heard the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, talk about it today, but clearly welcomed that number. But there's a lot of hesitation out there. We know what's happening in New South Wales. We're seeing, what, four capital cities currently locked down. Looking forward you can see this numbers going to go up.
Simon Birmingham: Scott, this is a very low number. And so I think some volatility in it would be unsurprising to anybody. Obviously, what it does show is a couple of things that the underlying strength in the Australian economy is quite strong. And we've seen that over the last 18 months, that Australian businesses have demonstrated their ability to deal with all manner of shocks and yet to continue to not just maintain their staff, but actually to, on the whole, grow their staff, particularly as soon as restrictions are lifted. It also shows that the type of supports we've got in place, be they the individual supports the COVID disaster assistance payments that are now the JobKeeper like assistance flowing to those in lockdown areas or the targeted business supports that we're doing in conjunction with state and territory governments, that these are all working and serving their purposes well, which is to ensure we don't have masses of people needing to go on to JobSeeker and unemployment benefits, but actually are able to keep people in that sort of period of status, staples, if you like, while lockdowns are in place. But actually, have everything moved quickly out of that as soon as possible thereafter.
Scott Emerson: Alright, you say that the numbers are going to be volatile, yet this is a very low number, four point six per cent. And look, to be honest, if you go back 12 months ago during the pandemic, we can never imagine this number being the case. But the reality is, given what we're seeing in New South Wales, that eight week lockdown and look, it's not showing any sign of that easing up. We obviously seeing lockdowns in other parts of Australia as well. Volatile numbers. Do you- how much more do you think it could go up when the next figures come out for August?
Simon Birmingham: I wouldn't expect to see huge shifts in that regard, Scott, but I'll leave the estimates from those who like to make predictions. What I think it does show is that people should have a real degree of confidence about the Australian economy and planning for the future. That just as we came back very, very strongly from last year's challenges and indeed, we faced a lockdown that lasted a very long duration in Victoria last year and other challenges along the way that we came back strongly. Australia, got to a position where our economy was bigger than it was pre-COVID. And we were the first developed country in the world to achieve that. We got back to a position where we had more people in jobs than pre-COVID. And again, we were amongst the first developed countries in the world to achieve that sort of outcome. And I think these unemployment statistics today should give everybody a high degree of confidence that the Australian economy is resilient, it's adaptable. It's come back strongly before during this crisis, and it should come back strongly again.
Scott Emerson: Now, we're in the middle of the September quarter. Now, given the figures, we're seeing what's happening in terms of the lockdowns, are you expecting this to be a negative quarter?
Simon Birmingham: I think most economists are anticipating a negative quarter for the September quarter that when you have the nation's largest city and state locked down for the bulk of the quarter, it will clearly have a significant impact in terms of economic activity. But once again, if we can continue to see the massive growth in the vaccination rates we're achieving as a country and more than 300,000 doses having been administered in the last 24 hours, setting yet another daily record for Australia. And to put that in some context, we've now, in the last 10 days as a nation, administered one dose to a population almost the equivalent size of the entire city of Brisbane. So that's a huge national logistical undertaking to have that many vaccines being distributed across the country, being administered by health professionals across the country. And it does show very much that the systems are scaling up as we had hoped they would, and that Australians continue to respond strongly to that vaccine message. And that's now got more than half of Australians having eligible Australians over the age of 16, having had their first dose, which is a very important milestone to have achieved.
Scott Emerson: Look, yes, it is good news that seems to be getting the vaccination rollout is grabbing speed there. And obviously, we've got not only those extra Pfizer are coming into Australia, but Moderna will also arrive soon. And obviously more people are willing to take the AstraZeneca as well. But let's just get back to these economic figures here, Minister. As you can see, most likely it's going to be a negative quarter in September. Now, given the numbers we're seeing in New South Wales today, 681, you really can't see New South Wales coming out of this lockdown any time soon. Obviously, we've got those lockdowns in other parts of Australia as well. The potential there is for another negative quarter and the next quarter, that would be two quarters in a row. Could we see a double dip recession going into a technical recession after two quarters of negative growth?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think the reasons why people should have confidence are firstly, that strength in the Australian economy that I referenced before, which has shown our ability to come back really strongly from periods of prolonged lockdown. But also the reason I referenced the real strength in those vaccination numbers before is that, again, I think that should give optimism to where the New South Wales is likely to go in the future, that the ability to actually reach 70 and 80 per cent vaccination targets is achievable. And as we move into the coming months, we get to a point where we will see more than two million doses of the Pfizer vaccine coming into the country. Each and every week will go from getting one million doses a month initially of Moderna up to three million doses a month of Moderna. All of that is going to give us a real capability on top of the availability of AstraZeneca to get really high levels of vaccination. If you look at the age cohort who were first eligible to be vaccinated the 70s, we've now got more than 84 per cent of them have had a first dose and nearly 55 per cent have had a second dose and are fully vaccinated. And if our oldest Australians can show that momentum and drive us towards those 80 per cent targets I trust that every other Australian can show the same commitment.
Scott Emerson: Well, indeed, Minister, but just on that issue of another recession, two negative quarters, are you ruling that out or is that a real possibility?
Simon Birmingham: I can't rule it out because there have been so many uncertainties that we've confronted in the last 18 months of COVID-19. We didn't anticipate the huge increase in transmissibility that would come with a new variant, the Delta variant this year, essentially a 100 per cent increase in transmissibility that has knocked many parts of the world around significantly. And our neighbours in New Zealand are in lockdown themselves as a result of outbreaks there. Singapore, which was in lockdown not that long ago as a result of outbreaks there. And everybody knows the continued high rates of transmission and higher death tolls that parts of the world like Europe, the UK, US are experiencing. So there are many uncertainties. But I think based on what we know at present, which is that as a country, are economic statistics, as indicated in those unemployment figures today show enormous resilience, that the economic support of the government we're providing is hitting the right targets and keeping businesses afloat and keeping people off the unemployment queues and our vaccine rollout has really got a lot of momentum behind it right now. And that should give us optimism to think that will not only get through this, but hopefully that we can avoid those sorts of negative consequences you've raised.
Scott Emerson: Now I'm talking to the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, just quickly, an update on the Pinkenba COVID-19 camp, that deal between the Feds and Queensland. What's the latest on that?
Simon Birmingham: So the facility at Pinkenba at the Damascus barracks there quite close to Brisbane Airport. We have completed a memorandum of understanding between the Federal Government and the Queensland government to be able to proceed with that facility. We'll move towards construction as soon as we can in the next couple of months. Expediting all of the design and approval processes, using as much as we can, particularly some of the design templates from the facility we're already constructing in Melbourne, it will be a 1000 bed facility with the first 500 we aim to have delivered certainly in the first half of next year and preferably as close as we can to the end of the first quarter of next year. And the other five hundred added to that quite soon thereafter. And it's really about creating a network of national resilience capability, not just to respond to the immediate challenges that we know about in terms of COVID-19, but future unknown challenges we might face. Should there be other variants that follow the Delta variant and cause us to need to respond in different ways, as well as providing greater ability to respond to natural disaster situations or other international crises, such as the one we're seeing unfolding in Afghanistan right now.
Scott Emerson: Minister, I appreciate you being on 4BC Drive today.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.