Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 23 March 2022
Stacey Lee: But for now, cost of living pressures, I'm sure, are top of mind for Senator Simon Birmingham. He's the Minister for Finance and will be handing down the Budget next week. Good morning, Senator.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Stacey. Good morning Nikolai and listeners.
Stacey Lee: Well, we've seen on the front page of The Australian today that the unemployment rate is set to drop over the next few months and it means there'll be fewer people on welfare. That's got to be good news for the budget?
Simon Birmingham: It certainly is, Stacey that obviously every person we can successfully move from unemployment into work doesn't just get the benefit of that job opportunity, the higher income that comes from being in paid employment and of course, the many social benefits that come from being in a job as well. But for the government, it means that we are paying less out in terms of the social safety net and support for jobseeker payments. And we've got more tax payers across the economy. And this has been a key factor in improving the budget bottom line over the last couple of budgets in particular that we have managed to grow the economy faster and more strongly than forecast, create more jobs than forecast. And across Australia we now have 375,000 more Australians in jobs today than was the case prior to the coronavirus hitting. And that's a world leading performance in terms of job outcomes in economic growth amongst the major developed economies. And it provides positive dividends for the lives of Australians, but also for the Budget, meaning that our debt levels will now peak at a lower level and earlier than had previously been forecast.
Stacey Lee: So that's good news for the country's bottom line. Does that mean it's now more likely you might cut the fuel excise?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Stacey, it means that the budget is better than we would have expected, but it is still a budget running significant deficits that the deficit and debt we've had to incur to get through COVID-19 is of a scale that none of us had previously anticipated. But it's manageable and that's evidenced by the fact that all three of the major international ratings agencies have upheld Australia as having a triple-A credit rating. And we're one of only nine countries in the world to have that triple-A credit rating from all three major international ratings agencies. And we saw yesterday Standard and Poor's give a very strong endorsement to the budget and fiscal strategy that our government has deployed to keep that debt under control and to bring it down, which means decisions have to be careful. But we are very conscious of the fact that people are feeling the pinch at the bowser right now, that fuel prices have spiked in part as a result of the terrible conflict in Ukraine at present and Russia's actions. And so we're looking very carefully with the budget next Tuesday around how we can provide any sort of targeted relief to those cost of living pressures, which we think are temporary, given the nature of that conflict in Ukraine and the likelihood that we will see some stabilisation of those prices over time.
Stacey Lee: So that sounds to me like you're not cutting the fuel excise?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Stacey, we'll see the specific measures in the budget on budget night that is something that Josh and I will brief the press gallery on next Tuesday and he'll give the budget speech to all Australians next Tuesday night. But as I say, we're looking very carefully at how we can give targeted relief to Australians for the pressures that we know people are genuinely feeling right now. We hear that, we appreciate it, but we have to make sure we do it in a manner that is responsible for the long term structure of the budget too.
Stacey Lee: Okay. Okay. We've also seen you comment about a road user charge. This is this was flagged in South Australia a couple of years ago by former treasurer Rob Lucas as the increasing number of people by electric vehicles and the not paying that fuel excise because they're not buying petrol. This was a road user charge, but the current Labor government here is going to scrap that. So what does that mean for your plan for a road user charge nationally?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Stacey they're not quite my plans for it, but I was asked about the importance of revenue streams for providing infrastructure. And of course, if government doesn't have revenue streams from road users through fuel excise at present or by other means in the future, then you lose the ability to fund critical infrastructure. Be it major upgrades like the north-south corridor that we're investing in in South Australia, or of course a whole raft of other smaller road projects that particularly state governments pursue. I think that Rob Lucas was responsible to flag that. I think the Victorian Labor Government has been responsible to flag that work needs to occur in those areas and I encourage the states to actually collaborate and discuss what can occur to address what will be a changing revenue mix available from road users over the future. And it's not an urgent pressure or question today, but it's the right one to be asking and to be talking about. And I hope that the new State Labor government and I haven't done an 891 interview since so I extend my congratulations to Peter Malinauskas and his team. And I hope that despite some of what they've said in this space, that they will perhaps sit down with their Victorian colleagues and, and with other states and think about how we will address the longer term challenges of a change in the revenue base there.
Nikolai Beilharz: Minister, speaking of the state election, you were at the Robin Hood Hotel for the state election on election night really as the most senior Liberal representative. It was party headquarters for the night. I was there too. The mood for me was pretty upbeat right through the night, even when it became clear about what the result was going to be. Should it have been so upbeat given how significant the loss was?
Simon Birmingham: Nikolai, I can't say I was feeling terribly upbeat, but look, I think people at the end of a long campaign like to have a couple of beers and maybe let off a little bit of steam. So some may have been upbeat. I was feeling very much for Steven and for his team. I think as I've said publicly, that history will judge the achievements of the Marshall Government more kindly than the election result suggests. The fact that they accomplished so much in attracting industry investment to this state, that they took it from being at the bottom of the rankings in terms of economic growth to being at the top, that they cut a whole range of taxes to help achieve that payroll tax, emergency services levy and indeed for most, land tax payees they cut land tax too.
Stacey Lee: So why did they lose so convincingly? You've just listed off a whole range of good things they did.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Stacey, there will have to be a review by the party undertaken to look carefully at that. I think there were a couple of juggernauts that Steven faced. One was Omicron happening right at the very moment after Borders reopened. Indeed, Omicron was reported as a variant of concern the day after the South Australian border had reopened, and you couldn't have had unlucky a timing there, and that COVID-19 went from being something that people celebrated. The fact that it had been kept out of the state to being irritated by all of the various ways in which it intrudes into our lives. And I think that was a factor. Look, I think obviously the Labor Party also ran an effective, a highly targeted, highly focussed campaign. It may have had some misleading elements, as the Electoral Commission found, but it obviously resonated with voters.
Stacey Lee: So is now the Federal Party, the Federal Liberal Party looking at Labor's campaign, Labour's targeted campaign and learning some lessons from that because we're hearing that maybe Boothby and Sturt could even go to the Labor Party federally.
Simon Birmingham: Well, you always look to learn out of every single campaign losing ones and winning ones, your own and your opponent's. And you'd be foolish not to do so. And we'll certainly be looking at that. The federal campaign will be fought on different issues. Australians historically have seen federal governments as having key responsibility for the national economy. And we were just talking about that. We face the most uncertain of global times with the continuing aftershocks of COVID-19. But global inflationary pressures that Australia is withstanding better than many other countries. Our inflation rate is running around half that of the United States and of course, a war in Europe that's taking a terrible toll there, that has huge consequences to the national security and economic management globally. And so they are the very, very big issues that the federal campaign will be fought in the environment in which we face and our government will proudly go forward with a track record of having foreseen the need to increase investment in defence, having created 1.7 million additional jobs since we were elected. And, with that track record plans to continue to lower taxes and provide more opportunities for Australians.
Stacey Lee: Just finally, I want to ask you your thoughts on who should lead the South Australian branch of the Liberal Party now that Steven Marshall has stepped down from that role?
Simon Birmingham: It's very kind of you to ask me, but I don't have a vote and I will leave it to my state colleagues to work that through.
Stacey Lee: Surely you have a view?
Simon Birmingham: I may have lots of views, Stacey. That doesn't mean I have to share them all with you and the 891 listeners. There's a time and a place for everything. Much as I love chatting with you.
Stacey Lee: Okay, fair enough.
Nikolai Beilharz: Senator, thank you for your time this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, guys. My pleasure.