Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 17 February 2022
Andrew Clenell: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining me.
Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you.
Andrew Clenell: Now, are you prepared to repeat outside the house what the PM said yesterday that Richard Marles is a Manchurian candidate?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I'm not going to go around in terms of specific phrases. I think what is important for Australians in the run up to an election is to understand the choice and the contrast, and there is going to be a clear choice at this next election between the Liberal and National parties who have been strong and solid in all aspects of national security, not least of which the growth six per cent year on year we've applied to defence spending. After the Labor Party drove defence spending down to its lowest levels since 1938. So we've got a strong contrast there. There are contrasts as well in terms of what Mr Albanese has said in response to economic coercion from China-
Andrew Clenell: Alright. Let me just stop you there. What was the PM getting at with calling Richard Marles a Manchurian candidate?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Mr Marles has got a speech in remarks on the record that he doesn't like having on the record. They're not even on his website in terms of the speech that he gave on his last trip to China. That's for Mr Marles to defend as to why he wants to airbrush that speech away from the public record and took it off his website and isn't publishing it. But national security is a key factor in terms of who Australians will decide, governs and protects this nation in the years ahead. It is absolutely one of the factors upon which the government has focussed over these last nine years in terms of our increasing defence investment, our passage of legislation for the protection of critical national security infrastructure, foreign interference laws, strengthened foreign investment laws. And these are all been measures and investment and legal protections designed to increase Australia's resilience. And our government has got that leadership track record.
Andrew Clenell: Alright, well, I'll have to ask you about Mike Burgess' comments the ASIO Director General. He says there's foreign interference on both sides, and he says it is not helpful for the government to be using this issue politically. I mean, how do you respond to that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Mr Burgess was talking in the general in terms of where he said politicisation is not helpful. And the government doesn't seek to politicise. But we absolutely will seek to draw the contrast of where the Labor Party has a different track record to us in areas such as defence spending, where we have shown leadership in areas such as legislating for foreign interference or where Mr Albanese has gone out and used language that suggests that he would be less firm in relation to response to economic coercion than we are being and demonstrating.
Andrew Clenell: Dennis Richardson says this only helps China.
Simon Birmingham: This is about the democratic process in Australia. An election is always a choice and that choice is framed on the issues of substance. National security has been a topic of contrast at many elections in the past over many decades between the parties. Our track record of record levels of investment in defence of growing that to more than two per cent of Australia's GDP when the Labor Party took it to levels not seen since 1938 is a sharp contrast and it is contrast on the track record of the parties and that is fair game, absolutely for an election.
Andrew Clenell: Do you do you believe Labor would appease the Chinese Communist Party?
Simon Birmingham: Andrew, it worries me when I see Mr Albanese make comments like he did at the press club, suggesting that some industries may get left as the subject of coercion and that he wouldn't stand up for some the same as he might stand up for others. We should stand up for all Australian jobs and all Australian industries, that's the approach of our Government.
Andrew Clenell: This is a bit reds under the bed, isn't it? This is sort of a bit scare- they support AUKUS, for example.
Simon Birmingham: Well, they say they've indicated support for AUKUS and that is welcome. But AUKUS is possible because of what our government has done in defence spending. AUKUS would not have been possible if you had the same trajectory of defence spending that was the case when the Labor Party was in office.
Andrew Clenell: Alright, well, let's move on. The job numbers, pretty good news 4.2 per cent. How low can it go and why are you so far behind in the polls when unemployment's so low? Because traditionally that's not the case.
Simon Birmingham: Well again, I'll let poll commentary be one for the commentators, but the unemployment outcomes are very encouraging to have 4.2 per cent for the second month in a row, the lowest figures in 13 years. It's an incredibly strong outcome. At the time when Omicron was hitting and causing significant disruption across the Australian economy. Now, it's little surprise that the number of hours worked was down due to the number of people in isolation. But in terms of the strength and resilience of the economy and the ability to rebound quickly from that disruption, it's demonstrated by the fact that we had unemployment at such a low rate, youth unemployment down to its lowest rate since 2008. That's a very strong achievement when you think that historically in recessions, youth unemployment has had a long tail and had enormous costs on the lives of young people. In this recession we've not only avoided a spike in youth unemployment, we've actually, from our economic policies, driven youth unemployment to even further lows than it was beforehand.
Andrew Clenell: On labour shortages, would you like to see a system where COVID isolation rules aren't so harsh in terms of household contacts, seven days. Do you think we'll move to that sort of system this year?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we've shown a responsiveness to that already in terms of the easing of those isolation rules. If you think about the Doherty Institute modelling that was undertaken late last year. Obviously, the number of cases predicted by the Doherty Institute proved to be far higher than the worst case scenarios because of Omicron. But the health impacts the hospitalisation rates and the deaths, didn't prove to be as bad because Omicron is far less severe. That's enabled us along with the evidence about how quickly transmission occurs from Omicron to already shorten, in some cases halve those isolation requirements, and we'll continue to work with the health officials in the states and territories to do that so that we can manage COVID in the future as normally as possible with as minimal disruption on the economy as possible.
Andrew Clenell: Eraring's decision, Origin Energy's decision, should I say on the Eraring power plant. I mean, that's 20 per cent of the power production in New South Wales. What's your reaction to that and the New South Wales government's response to it with the battery, I guess?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it underscores the importance of decisions our government had already taken, particularly in areas such as the Kurri Kurri gas plant that we had already committed to invest in. That the Labor Party had to be dragged kicking and screaming to supporting. But that investment is now shown to be very prescient in terms of meeting some of the potential capability or supply shortages that could exist. Obviously, there'll be much closer analysis around this decision, and I'll leave it to the energy minister to provide further info.
Andrew Clenell: When will we hear about the future of Alan Tudge? Will that be within days or more likely weeks?
Simon Birmingham: Officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet went through the process that the Vivienne Thom enquiry and review is at. Whilst the work on that has been completed, there's a process of consultation with third parties to confirm which parts of Dr Thom's report can be provided to both Ms Miller and Mr Tudge. And once that's concluded, then I would expect all other matters to be concluded fairly swiftly.
Andrew Clenell: So within days?
Simon Birmingham: That really depends on what those third parties have had to say and how quickly the work from that can be completed.
Andrew Clenell: Is he gone?
Simon Birmingham: There's a process underway and I respect the process.
Andrew Clenell: But his name is even off the door.
Simon Birmingham: He stood down-.
Andrew Clenell: Do you know what was the reason for that, to take it off the door so quickly?
Simon Birmingham: I can't speak to the decisions of those who put the nameplates on the doors. Mr Tudge stood down late last year on the day that these allegations were raised, and Prime Minister took swift action in putting in place the independent enquiry. We're now concluding those processes, but we're trying to make sure this process is a fair one to everybody involved.
Andrew Clenell: Thanks very much for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, mate. My pleasure.