Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Sunday, 6 February 2022
Jayne Azzopardi: Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce will be ordered to lift his game by angry Nationals MPs at a party room meeting tomorrow after the release of his text messages labelling the Prime Minister a "hypocrite and a liar". Joining us to discuss, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham and Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers. Good morning to both of you. Simon, I start with you. It is sounding very messy. Is the Coalition imploding?
Simon Birmingham: No, look, not at all. These issues of what Barnaby Joyce might have said in a text message a year ago...
Jayne Azzopardi: Did say...
Simon Birmingham: He was in a pretty dark place, blaming a lot of people for what had put him on the backbench at the time. He's addressed that, he offered his resignation, Scott Morrison's been big enough to not accept that and to say we should all focus on the main game for Australians, which is precisely what the Government continues to do. The implementation of our economic plan, the Labor Party no doubt will want to spend all week talking about this. No doubt Jim will want to talk about it this morning. We want to focus on the things that matter to Australian's lives. This week, the Reserve Bank upgraded the economic growth forecast for Australia, projected unemployment to get below 4 per cent. That is a demonstration that our economic plan is working, the 1.7 million additional jobs that have been created are delivering for Australians. The tax cuts, putting $1.5 billion extra a month into the pockets of Australians are making a difference in terms of a stronger economy, and are helping people deal with cost of living pressures in these tough times. They're the real issues to focus on and that's where we're going to keep our attention.
Jayne Azzopardi: It is not really where the attention is though, Jim. It is though they are writing the campaign ads for you. Is this making the election easy for Labor?
Jim Chalmers: I don't know about that. But the really concerning thing is that Simon somehow seems to think these things are unrelated. But the fact, is that this Government is a smouldering ruin of disunity and dysfunction and division means that the issues that Australians really care about, the skyrocketing costs of living, the fact that real wages are going backwards, these issues aren't getting a look-in. The crisis in our aged care system. That's because this Government spends all of its time giving free character assessments of each other and of the Prime Minister, not just Barnaby Joyce, Gladys Berejiklian and another unnamed Cabinet Minister, our friends in the international community, you know, it seems like the people who know Scott Morrison, the people who know Scott Morrison the best trust him the least. That does have implications for some of the issues in the economy and some of the issues in aged care, and some of the other problems which are being left unattended by a Government which spends all its time blewing with each other and none of its time thinking about the actual welfare of the Australian people.
Jayne Azzopardi: When you say that, get a bit of deja vu, sounding an awful lot like the Rudd-Gillard years?
Jim Chalmers: And the Australian people mark that very harshly. The disunity at the end of that government, we've all said, we've learnt from that. This Government doesn't seem to have learnt from it. That's what the issue is here. The people who know him the best, trust him the least and if the people who work with him can't trust him, then Australians can't trust him. Then Australians can't trust him to deal with the skyrocketing costs of living, real wages going backwards or the crisis in aged care.
Jayne Azzopardi: Simon, I mean, obviously Jim does have a point here. It's not just one person talking about Scott Morrison and his relationship with the truth. Barnaby Joyce has known him, they've worked in Parliament together for 15 years. Surely you can't expect the Australian public to believe that Barnaby has just worked out now that he thinks the Prime Minister is trustworthy.
Simon Birmingham: Because as I said before, Barnaby was in a pretty dark place at the time. He was on the backbench. He was bitter about the fact that he had lost his position in the Ministry and was blaming lots of people. They're all matters for Barnaby Joyce. I'm not going to spend any time over the next couple of weeks thinking about it beyond the types of questions that the media or the Labor Party want to ask. I will spend my time focusing on the challenges we face as a country and continuing to implement the policies to recover from the shocks of COVID-19, which have been real shocks but for which Australia continues to have withstood better than most other parts of the world. That we have some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, some of the lowest fatality rates and some of the strongest economic outcomes. That's a product of the fact that Australia, with leadership, with the right policies, has managed to work through these tough times. Nothing's perfect in terms of dealing with the global pandemic, but we continue to stand out with better outcomes on most measures than most other countries around the world.
Belinda Russell: Good morning, gentlemen, it is Belinda here. You talked about COVID there. I just want to talk about the aged care system. We know it is crisis. The Aged Care Minister disagrees and the PM is backing him. We know that Richard Colbeck decided to go to the cricket rather than attend a COVID inquiry. When more than 566 Australians have died of COVID in aged care, Simon, what does it take for a Coalition Minister to be sacked?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Richard Colbeck has been virtually every day engaged in briefings and discussions about making sure that the tens of millions of pieces of personal protective equipment that we have been supplying to the aged-care sector are delivered. That the 8 million rapid antigen tests that we have been supplying are delivered, that we respond in terms of the additional payments being made to the aged care workforce to recognise the particular challenges they face.
Again, when you've got a pandemic and you you’ve got COVID spreading throughout the community, there's no silver bullet to keep it out of aged care facilities. But if you compare Australia's results with the rest of the world, the fatality rates in Australia are lower in Australia than comparable countries because we managed the pandemic better than those countries, because we managed to get some of the highest vaccination rates amongst aged-care residents. Whilst times are tough for those who are working and living in aged care, and we absolutely don't resile from these challenges they face, we should also recognise that the types of measures being put in place and continuing to deliver support into that sector are achieving better outcomes than what many other countries are able to achieve around the rest of the world.
Belinda Russell: Jim, Simon has a good point there. COVID has devastated countries all over the world. What could the Government have done differently to help save lives in aged care?
Jim Chalmers: There has been issues around PPE, there has been issues around vaccines and boosters, issues around the workforce. You know, we've got a crisis in aged care. The Minister ducks off to the cricket. The Prime Minister's off doing another cringe worthy photo op, while some of the most vulnerable people in our country are frustrated and fearful about what this pandemic means for them. At the very least, we should have a Government that cares sufficiently to do their jobs, and that's why Minister Colbeck should resign or be sacked. It's why the Prime Minister needs to take responsibility for this crisis in aged care. We've known for a long time that aged care is one of the places which is confronted most seriously by this pandemic. We're two years into the thing and yet, still, we've got a system in crisis, a Government at war with itself and unable to deal with it, a Prime Minister off doing icky photo ops and a Minister who ducks off to the cricket. It's not good enough.
Richard Wilkins: Richard Wilkins here, good morning to you. Some welcome news, the return of international travel within a few weeks. Simon, begs the question why aren't they already open and, for heaven's sake, what about cruising? Shouldn't that be up and running?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we're following the health advice as we have throughout the pandemic around border controls. One of the most important things Scott Morrison did was two years ago close our international borders. That kept the more lethal versions and variants of COVID-19 largely out of Australia whilst vaccines were developed, whilst vaccines were administered, and now we're in the situation we're having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and Omicron, a less lethal variant of COVID-19 that is around 70 per cent less likely to result in severe illness, being the dominant variant. It means we can now take these steps to reopen. We always said it would be a staged reopening process, but I know tourism operators around the country will be very, very pleased to see those international borders reopen. We'll get the health briefings and have the discussions about border control at the National Security Committee of Cabinet tomorrow. We will work through it very carefully to make sure we keep Australians as safe as we can, but let's get those tourists flowing as quickly as we can too.
The steps that we can take around cruise ships to address that question, they're obviously ones that have to be taken with the states who control the different ports that cruise ships stop in. So there will be further discussions to be had there.
Richard Wilkins: Just finally, you guys, you lot on board for this steady as she goes approach, we all know that we need tourists here desperately, don't we?
Jim Chalmers: Absolutely. I mean, we do need to follow the health advice, but we also need our tourism operators and small businesses and workers in beautiful places like Maleny here on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, we need them to have those tourists arriving from overseas. Let's make sure that the Government implements this properly, they've got the systems in place, but hopefully we can open up when it's responsible to do that. I think a few people will be a little bit worried though that this is another thing that's been dropped out. The decision hasn't even been taken yet by the sounds of it, but dropped it out on a Sunday to try and distract from these other things. A bit like the skateboarding dogs you had on a moment ago. Let's hope it is a good decision taken for the right reasons and that we can get international tourists here again.
Richard Wilkins: Lovely analogy. Thank you both very much indeed. Happy Sunday. Let's see what the week ahead brings.