Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 25 August 2021
Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham is the finance minister and he joins me this afternoon. Minister, welcome.
Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia, good to be with you.
Patricia Karvelas: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the national mood is shifting on lockdowns, yet WA, Queensland and the ACT leaders are standing firm, warning border restrictions will remain after the 70 per cent vaccination target is hit. What is the evidence for this shift in mood?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I think you can see from Australians that there is a strong sense of wanting to get to the other side, wanting to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And with that, the Doherty Institute modelling scientifically based, independently undertaken, showing that as we hit fully vaccinated targets of 70 percent and then 80 percent, we will be able to step down from some of the restrictions that are impeding people's lives at present and that it won't be a singular freedom day. Nobody is suggesting that. There will still be a place to targeted restrictions and indeed, perhaps in some circumstances targeted lockdowns. But critically, it's a plan that can give certainty to Australians, to Australian businesses and to Australian families, that they will be able to resume some more aspects of their life that far too many are missing out on right now.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister, you've been pretty up front there, and I'm glad to have heard it so clearly that there will be possibly lockdowns even when we hit 70 per cent, because that's in the Doherty modelling. So I want to ask you this. The Treasurer was asked about what would happen after the 70 percent. He said that states that don't follow the national plan will miss out on federal financial assistance once that target is hit. So when there are targeted lockdowns, because it's as I say in the modelling you've agreed to, will you still pay for people who are locked down in those scenarios?
Simon Birmingham: As always, Patricia, the detail matters. And what I said was highly targeted lockdowns, because that's what the Doherty Institute envisages. As you get further and further, lockdowns become much less likely. And if they do occur, you're talking more about a particular geographical centres. And of course, right now, understandably, people living across Victoria, living across New South Wales and indeed living across most parts of the country when they hear the word lockdown they think that what we're talking about, what we're facing is the potential of their being, of course, a prolonged statewide lockdown. That's not what the Doherty Institute envisages either. So what we want to do is work with the states and territories to implement the national plan, to implement the recommendations of the Doherty Institute-
Patricia Karvelas: If I can point you politely to my question, which is, will they be financial assistance when lockdowns may be necessary, even after you hit that 70 per cent target? Do you think the federal government should step in in those scenarios and provide that financial support?
Simon Birmingham: Where it's consistent with what's been agreed and where the evidence stacks up, of course, we'll respond, as we always have done. We've made sure right throughout this pandemic that we have adapted. Whether it be the national emergency days where JobKeeper had to be created or today where we provide enormous assistance by way of disaster payments, more targeted, more directed and more temporary in the sense that we're able to turn them on and off depending on where lockdowns are happening. We've been able to tailor that assistance. Now, if the states and territories - and I hope and trust they do - play ball with the national plan to reopen, respond by making lockdowns less likely through that 70 and 80 per cent threshold, respond for if they occur, they are much more targeted and directed at finite geographic areas or particular groups. Then, of course, we'll work with them-
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, that is interesting. Does that mean you keep the architecture because you've set up a new architecture, these emergency payments, you keep them in the system for a long period of time, and then, you know, when there are targeted lockdowns because they might be necessary. The Doherty modelling shows that they might be. No one wants them. Can I be clear? But they might be that you do still pay that seven hundred and fifty payment, for instance, for people who are stood down because they are locked down?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, we will respond, as I said, to the circumstance. I think we have a good architecture right now-
Patricia Karvelas: So philosophically, though, should people feel like if they're subjected to those lockdowns after that 70 per cent trigger, they will be looked after by the federal government?
Simon Birmingham: Australians should know that we're not about to walk away from them. But we also do want the states and territories to uphold their end of the bargain. And I think that is what Australians want as well, that there is a dividend for being vaccinated. You know, I'm very heartened by comments such as what Dan Andrews said a couple of months ago now, that he wasn't going to keep locking down to protect those who wouldn't protect themselves. That, in the end, is what we're striving towards. Nobody's talking about changing the approach right now. We've got to reach those targets. Now, we're doing so at breakneck speed in terms of having more people being vaccinated. In recent days, in the last couple of weeks, as a ratio of our population than the United States or the U.K. ever achieved during their vaccine rollouts, or have to date.
And so that shows that we are managing in terms of Australians turning out with record demand. The distribution system holding up. And it's we've got these increased supplies we're effectively getting them from point of delivery into people's arms very, very quickly. That's enabled us to get more than 17.7 million doses administered to date to have around one point eight million administered over the course of the last week. That's the entire state of South Australia, my home state, the equivalent of having had an injection in the space of one week. It's a huge logistical exercise. And yet we have plans to take the some 8900 distribution centres we've got right now and have even more come online as we get more pharmacies coinciding with even further dose deliveries happening, particularly during October when we'll see the current one million or so of Pfizer doses per week we're receiving increase to two million doses per week, as we see Moderna come online, reaching three million doses per month-
Patricia Karvelas: Ok, so the message from you as finance minister is that you won't walk away from financially supporting states and individuals in those states, because that's who matters. And businesses, if they need to lockdown, even after those bench, there's benchmarks are met?
Simon Birmingham: If it's being done in the spirit of the agreement around the national plan and around the Doherty Institute modelling, and what we don't want is a situation where states impose restrictions way beyond what that modelling ever considered open to-
Patricia Karvelas: Sure, but that modelling, as you can see but that modelling, as you can see, because I think this has been lost amongst ordinary Australians, that the modelling doesn't say never a lockdown again. Even then, we'd love to declare that, wouldn't we? It says it will be less likely. And in fact, 30 percent is this is my memory of that report. I haven't got it right in front of me. Basically, potential it will still happen. So you need to give security in those circumstances.
Simon Birmingham: And we've given security to Australians all along, and what we would hope is, of course, to be able to push from the 70 percent mark through to the 80 per cent mark quite quickly. And that is going to coincide with all of that extra supply of the vaccine coming into Australia and all of those extra distribution points. And so we'll really be able to have that momentum continuing as a country, we hope at that stage to get people right through the different stages of vaccination. But the important thing is everybody has to uphold their end of the bargain. And we don't want to make any threats to Australians, to Australian states, to anybody else. That's not the intent. The intent, though, is to be clear that we all need to give certainty to people too. That getting vaccinated is going to be worth it, not just for protecting themselves or their family, but to changes our situation from where we are now with lockdowns being statewide, prolonged and widespread to a situation where lockdowns are rare, avoided wherever possible. And if they need to occur, highly, highly targeted,
Patricia Karvelas: But sometimes they may not be targeted right because or they need to be broader because of the Delta variant or whatever might be the next variant. Isn't that the issue?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the whatever might be next is the uncertainty that we always deal with. And so and we've had to respond this year to a big whatever might be next in terms of the Delat variant, just as we had to respond to the fact that contracted doses of vaccines didn't arrive as expected from Europe or the changes in health advice in relation to AstraZeneca. These are all the unknowns that we have just had to respond to. And as a government, we've taken that on the chin. We've responded to them, and we've got the vaccine program to a point now where we are breaking, in a sense, some of the world records in terms of doses being administered for populations of our size. And so we want to keep that momentum going. That's what gives us the potential to reach the targets and the targets themselves. They need to have that message of hope attached to it. As you said before, nobody wants to be in lockdown. And Australians want to know that if we've got the vast bulk of the population vaccinated and if everybody's had the chance in that process to be vaccinated, well then of course, lockdowns should, by and large be a thing of the past. And if they're needed, they should really only be targeted on what is absolutely, critically essential.
Patricia Karvelas: Yesterday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison likened Western Australia's tight restrictions on interstate arrivals to a kid's movie about the Stone Age. Should the Prime Minister apologise for calling West Australians cave people?
Simon Birmingham: No, Patricia. Because that's not what he did yesterday, I mean, he used an analogy around the movie, but again, it was an analogy looking forward about the precise discussion we were just having. When you were hitting those 80 per cent plus targets. Of course, you want to see people being able to move more freely, regain the liberties that we had before. That's the message that he was giving and it's the message that I think is shared by Australians. We're grateful for the fact that all the states and territories. While, we haven't agreed with every step every time, and nor have they with us. In the end, as a country, we've still, despite the current difficulties, saved more lives than most other nations of the world, 30,000 plus by estimates in terms of the suppression strategies that have worked across this country. Our economic outcomes, despite current difficulties, are still better than much of the rest of the world. We want to keep that in place, but that does require us to shift from the widespread suppression strategies of now to the fact that as we achieve those vaccine targets, we get more liberties back, we reopened and we get parts of the economy moving and give people the confidence to be able to regain their freedom.
Patricia Karvelas: So even when we get to these 70 per cent level, do you respect states not letting New South Wales residents in because of higher rates? I mean, our domestic borders are what I'm asking about essentially here, given the high rates of cases in New South Wales. Are you sympathetic to borders being closed internally to New South Wales for longer?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I really want to engage in in what is a bit of a hypothetical debate, depending on what New South Wales cases look like. By the time we get to those 70 per cent thresholds, I respect that states have got to respond to their constituencies. They are, as John Howard has acknowledged and been have been using through the pandemic powers that they've always had and powers they're not really used all that much before. And I want to see borders reopen as quickly as possible. I want to see Australians have some confidence that if they have loved ones interstate, they're going to be able to see them by Christmas. And we should have that confidence, we should be clearing not just the 70, but the 80 per cent thresholds if Australians keep turning out in these numbers. And that at that point, I think most Australians would think that it becomes unreasonable for states and territories to maintain those sorts of restrictions.
Patricia Karvelas: Queensland is introducing a two week pause on arrivals from New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. There'll be exemptions for medical or compassionate grounds. What do you make of this? I understand even a federal cabinet minister won't be allowed to go back?
Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I have seen the reports, I haven't seen Queensland quite explain what's driven this or how it's working, you know-
Patricia Karvelas: They're full. They've been loved to death or something. I think the language that the premier used. Too much love.
Simon Birmingham: Well many states and territories have effectively for Australian citizens being able to use different approaches to home based quarantine. That seems like a sensible way to enable at least essential movement across borders to to have people come in, to have to do the 14 days. I've done it myself a few times around during the course of the pandemic, as many other Australians have, who've had to cross state borders, but then face those requirements. I understand the need for restrictions, but completely sealing off does seem like quite, quite a large step. And I think Queensland's got to explain why it can't manage to make those sort of home based arrangements work at least for a cohort of people.
Patricia Karvelas: Trade and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan has spoken about the expansion of travel bubbles. I'm going to be really- who is going to want to establish one with Australia now that New South Wales has these extremely high case numbers?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it's a thing to remember that Australia is Australia's case numbers and the deaths in Australia are still way below that of virtually every other country going around. So, yes, for Australia, these are tough times, especially tough times for New South Wales, but they're tough times right around the world. You still have high case numbers and high deaths relative to Australia, across parts of Europe, across the Americas, across much of Asia. Indeed, the countries that have been comparable to us or closest to comparable to us, Japan, South Korea, places like Taiwan or indeed New Zealand, they're all dealing with outbreaks. We were all in the same position when it came to broadly the receipt of vaccines that those continents, Europe and North America in particular, that had the big mRNA vaccine manufacturing facilities and capabilities in place also prioritise their populations for receipt of those vaccines given the huge COVID waves they've had right throughout the pandemic, the huge death tolls that continue to be in excess of ours. Now, whether you, Japan and South Korea or Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, we're all dealing with the fact that, yes, we've managed to suppress it. We've done pretty well in saving lives compared with the rest of the world. And now our vaccine scale is, as you can say, are all ramping up.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister, the medical panel advising the government on immunisations is set to decide if all children between 12 and 15 should have access to the Pfizer vaccine this week. The idea of vaccinating whole families at the same time has also been floated. Do you think that's a good idea? And should we be prioritising this cohort in the national rollout to get them back to school?
Simon Birmingham: I think what we should be doing is certainly looking at how we can ensure that cohort gets access to vaccines as quickly as possible once we get that advice from the immunisation experts and that they get it in a way, as the prime minister said, that is delivered really concurrently with the rest of the population. We do, as I said before, have a big step up expected in our vaccine supply. Pfizer going from one million doses a week to some two million doses a week. Moderna coming in at around three million doses a month in the near future. That's going to provide huge extra capacity and supply across Australia, we'll stand up at that stage, even more pharmacy outlets to go with the thousands of GPs, and the state distribution clinics across the country. And at that stage, I would hope that we can see a situation where across the country people are able to get the vaccine done as easily and freely as possible at those many different points.
Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon, Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.