Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan and Ali Clarke

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: JobKeeper; Reopening of Civic Services
24 April 2020

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. How are you?

David Bevan: Very, very well. How do you think this pandemic is working out now? What week are we in?

Simon Birmingham: I've lost count of weeks now. We're, of course, almost at the end of April and in one way or another, it's been with the world since December but obviously, only with us since really the end of January and only at a more intense level as we got into February. But on the health side, it's working out exceptionally well. Australia is a standout country. South Australia is a standout state within the standout country. Only four days of zero reported new cases over the last week; only 40 active cases now in SA. This is just such a wonderful achievement for our state and our country when you compare it with, as you were just talking to a guest from New York. You compare it with the mass graves in New York with the overwhelming of the health system in the UK or many other countries around the world and lives have unquestionably been saved in Australia thanks to the measures we're taking. But there are many people doing it pretty tough as well because of the impact on the economy and their businesses.

David Bevan: Indeed. And just when you think actually things aren't too bad and then you see the terrible news of things like- well the individual companies but they put a face on. Things like the Kings Head Hotel having to close down; the Gulf is wondering whether it will survive. Look, there are plenty of other bigger businesses but they put a human face on the economic tragedy.

Simon Birmingham: They sure do, David. And I've said before, they've probably had some of the most heartbreaking conversations of my career over the last few weeks often with small business owners who can see their entire life's work going down the tube. And that's why we've taken the extraordinary measures we have, as a Government, in terms of pumping billions of dollars into the economy and trying to provide the support for people to sustain jobs, sustain businesses and that is now all starting to starting to flow.

The Australian Tax Office has paid out around $3 billion to 177,000 businesses as part of the cash flow initiative. We'll see the JobKeeper payments starting to flow out from next week; billions of dollars more going out particularly targeted supporting employment. The first of the $750 payments to pensioners, carers et cetera has gone out to some 6.8 million Australians. So it's happening and the help is going out there but it still means, as we've said all along, you can't save every single business or every single job and it is heartbreaking to hear those cases where people are going under.

David Bevan: Now in a moment we'll take your call. We'll go to Roger, Mary, Gordon.
This text came in yesterday from Bob. He says: I feel we need to keep an eye on JobKeeper. I have a friend who was let go from her job in hospitality. Now, her employer has said they'll take her back on JobKeeper. This is a venue which is for the most part closed, so she doesn't know yet what she'll be doing. Rather than earning her $1500 over a fortnight. Her employer said they'll get her to work 50 hours next week and not at all the following week. Now, that doesn't seem right to me, says Bob. This is above a standard week and no penalties will be included. Is it the Wild West now, Simon Birmingham, when it comes to JobKeeper?

Simon Birmingham: No, it's not. Whilst there were some provisions put through in the legislation to give more flexibility for employers to negotiate with employees around changes to working terms and activities because obviously, if the current job that you do is not able to be done at present, an employer might want somebody to fulfill a different job in return for the wage that they're receiving. But certainly not all the rules have not been thrown out and I would encourage people to ring the JobKeeper employer tip off line if there is somebody that you think is doing the wrong thing. They can contact these people. They will refer them onto the Fair Work Ombudsman if need be or they'll provide advice around what people's rights are.

That number for anybody who needs to do so is 1-800-060-062. This is, of course, Government trying to do our best to provide help to people and the vast majority of people do the right thing including the vast majority of employers but there will always be the odd unconscionable one or two who might push the boundaries and that's why we've put in place some protections there and some help for people who need it.

David Bevan: Roger has called. ABC Radio Adelaide at 14 minutes past nine. Good morning, Roger.

Caller Roger: Good morning, David. Good morning, Minister. In these uncertain times, I would just like to pose the suggestion that when it comes to intellectual property renewal, I'm not talking new applications or pending applications but the renewal fees, would it be practical to ask IP Australia not to delist patents or trademarks that are coming up for renewal over the next few months to keep them on their records until such time as the patent holder or trademark holder can actually- or owner can actually do something about paying these new renewal fees? Is that practical or possible or part of the $130 billion package [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Roger. Look, it's not an issue that I've had raised with me so far. We've, in a number of areas, sought to waive, vary, defer Government fees and charges and the like to deal with cases in hardship. I'll reach out to the Industry Minister, Karen Andrews, who oversees IP Australia and see what policies they've put in place. You know, we don't want to give a free ride to lots of people who don't need it at times like this because that would just be a waste for taxpayers and there may be many companies with IP protection in areas of particularly health care, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing of medical devices, those sorts of things, who might be doing quite well at present and probably don't need fee relief even though their work is [indistinct] their profit's probably holding up quite well, but there might be others who do. So, it might need to be something required more on a case by case basis but I'll reach out to Minister Andrews and suggest that IP Australia have a look at that for those who might be in tough times.

David Bevan: Roger, thanks for your call. Mary's called regarding the libraries – hello, Mary.

Caller Mary: Yes, hello.

David Bevan: Your question?

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Mary.

Caller Mary: My question is when are the library's going to be reopened? Because when the libraries were closed that cut off my access to the internet, I don't have the internet at home.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Mary. And I actually went to try to return some library books the other day to discover that we couldn't do so because the drop off shoots were sealed off as well at the local library. So- but I understand, particularly for people where the library's the source of internet access, that's all important. Look, I think in terms of the areas of restrictions, as they are listed, I would hope that some of these basic civic services will be amongst the first few that are considered - we've seen the progress this week around elective surgery, we're going to see progress next week in terms of kids going back to school. And I would hope that in terms of some of the basic civic services - be that access to playgrounds in a careful way where parents are given advice to do the same sorts of things they have to do at the supermarket, keep distance between one another as adults but perhaps let kids get back into the playground, and equally in terms of local councils at least offering some of those basic services, even if it means that every second computer is closed off so that people are sitting that socially distanced appropriate apart from one another. So-

David Bevan: What's the timetable here, though? Because you've got some modelling that will be released, and based on that you'll be able to make announcements on the lifting- the easing of some restrictions. So- but is everything definite- the status quo is maintained for at least what, the next three weeks? Can you explain what's going on?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, David. So, probably over the course of the next few weeks, if we continue to see the very, very low rates of transmission around Australia, and around SA in particular, if we continue to see increased capacity and capability in terms of testing - which SA has done an amazing job in stepping up that scale of testing - if we have success in launching the new contact app and in the ability and confidence, not just of that app, but also physically of states and territories in terms of contacting people and tracing those contacts and individuals who might have a positive diagnosis, and so that we can then have really successful targeted, narrow isolation of those individuals. All of those things come together over the next couple of weeks, as well as we expect that they might and continue to track in a positive direction, then I think we can see some lifting - maybe not to the extent that we'll all find ourselves back at the pub watching Friday night footy - but certainly that I hope that, as I say, some of those basic civic services, things like outdoor exercise and maybe indoor exercise and so on can also come back online to people too.

David Bevan: But just as a guideline - and we're not going to nail your colors to the mast 100 per cent - but just as a guideline, expect things as they are, no easing at all for the next three weeks?

Simon Birmingham: Certainly no dramatic easing for the next few weeks. The National Cabinet last week went through the strategies required around that testing, tracing, isolating type strategy and what was going to be necessary to seek progress there for easing to occur. They'll be getting updates on that at the National Cabinet today. And if we see good, strong progress at all those levels over the next couple of weeks, then there could be some movement, I would hope, in that sort of two to three-week timeline. But, you know, people shouldn't expect dramatic changes in the next couple of weeks.

David Bevan: Okay. Gordon's called ABC Radio Adelaide at 9.20 to speak to Senator Simon Birmingham. Good morning, Gordon.

Caller Gordon: Good morning. Good morning, Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Gordon.

Caller Gordon: Some time back, and correct me if I'm wrong about this, that you were talking to David about the fact that we had more brands of motor vehicles here than America - is that correct or am I wrong?

Simon Birmingham: Well, okay. We certainly have one of the highest rates of diversification in our motor vehicle fleet in the world, whether it's more than America, I suspect it probably is to be honest. But yes we do have one of the greatest number of different brands and makes of cars as part- making up our motor vehicle fleet.

David Bevan: Gordon, a lot of people want ask the Minister a question. Have you got a question for him?

Caller Gordon: Yes. That was the question, wouldn't it have been better to be like America and limit the amount of brands that came into the country and still have a car industry?

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, it's a debate people can have. Consumers have voted with their feet, their wallets, their driving choices over the years in terms of the cars they've bought. And that meant that a very diversified car industry in Australia, did make it hard for motor vehicle manufacturers to be competitive in the long run. If the sort of reason for the question relates to our manufacturing industries, I would point out that Australian manufacturers at the very advanced level have done an amazing job in this pandemic of changing their practices so that we are making more respirators in this country, making more face masks in this country, making more hand sanitiser. And they've been able to simply to change their production lines and their activities in the space of weeks, demonstrating that contrary to some of the perceptions around manufacturing in Australia, we do still have significant advanced manufacturing capabilities and we can respond at times like that.

David Bevan: Gordon, thanks for your call. Helen on the text line says, I'm perplexed, libraries are shut but schools are open. Where's the logic?

Simon Birmingham: Libraries tend to be places where you'll find greater congregations of older people. Schools by their nature are places where younger people congregate. As the public health advice has been consistent, the rates of transmission around young people are very, very modest and far lower than the general population. The risks to health compared with older people is much, much lower. In South Australia, there have been no cases of student to student transmission, no cases of student to teacher transmission, and that risk profile is vastly different in terms of if a younger person catches it versus if an older Australian catches it. But ...

David Bevan: Is it also- what you're sacrificing by closing down a library as opposed to closing down a school? If you close down the school, you put at risk the kids' education. If you close down a school, you put at risk people going- the parents going to work. So it costs you much more as an economy and as a community if you close down a school.

Simon Birmingham: Definitely, David. And there's been lots of debate around this as to what is essential, and plenty of people will make different cases as to what's essential in their day to day lives. So there is a community and a society, and the education of our children is unquestionably one of the most essential things that is undertaken. I want to thank those many teachers who will be going back to work next week for the efforts that they will be undertaking. I know that having to practice social distancing in the staff room, having to use hand sanitiser and hand washing practices in and out of the classroom all the time, encouraging the children to do the same, and having to vary school drop off practices so you don't have parents hanging around, and having to more carefully monitor the kids in the playground so that you don't have too much interaction between classes or across classes. You know, that's all going to put extra stress and pressure on our teachers. But they're fulfilling an essential social service. And we ought to show them our gratitude, but they ought to also go back knowing that the public health advice is very clear, that they can do so safely and with confidence.

David Bevan: And we'll be finding out what's going on in the private school sector coming up after half past nine. But let's go to Bob from Croydon. Hello, Bob.

Caller Bob:  Hello. So thank you for taking my call. I've got a question that there's a friend of mine that was placed on Newstart, which is what was previously called, for over five years. She's been trying to work out for a long time but hasn't been able to really clarify it. She's obviously now going to be on a new system and it is now called something else, which I apologise for not knowing what it's called. But I guess the question I've got is basically, does the rate that she was previously on Newstart actually get increased? And then how long does it stay increase for and how long will they determine that to be? And then at one point it will be determined that then that price will drop down, or because she was previously on Newstart, does she not qualify for that new increased rate?

David Bevan: Right. There's one way of summing that up, Bob. When all this is over, is she going to go back to the pre-corona levels?

Caller Bob:  Does she even get that in the beginning because she was previously on it?

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: So the new JobSeeker payment, which was created out of some reforms to the social safety net which were entirely coincidental in terms of the restructuring and renaming of it. But the new JobSeeker payment is in place now. Those who are in receipt of it, whether they were in receipt of JobSeeker or Newstart years ago, or whether they've only just come to a position where they need to be accessing that social safety net, will also receive the coronavirus supplement payment for the six-month period that that supplement has been has been legislated, that's been put in place. Now the combination of recognition of the need to stimulate more economic activity during this time, so that support for those individuals is designed to encourage people to spend where they can and to support and sustain other jobs in the economy. It also recognises the reality that actually finding an alternate for the present is not as possible as it was back when...

David Bevan: But is Bob's friend- when all this is over and we're back to something that approaches normal, is Bob's friend going to go back to the old Newstart level?

Simon Birmingham: It's a temporary six-month supplement.

David Bevan: Right. So don't get used to it.

Simon Birmingham: Correct.

David Bevan: Andrew has called. Hello, Andrew.

Caller Andrew: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I've just got an observation on the boost in cash flow measure, which is a very generous measure where businesses get up to $100,000 through a fair [indistinct] installment credit over the year. And it's done through the tax running account. So my observation is that most people will get these credits, but if applied it means that you get the GST payable. So it's not, if you like, real money. It's a set off against a tax payable. So I'd just like the Senator's comments on that because it seems to me that it's a bit [indistinct] - it's generous for sure, but the tax man has paid himself back in priority to all the other creditors of a business like the landlord, the suppliers, everybody else. So I'd like the Senator's comment on that.

Simon Birmingham: For many of many of the businesses who'll be receiving credit, their GST collections may well have dived to next to nothing if they're no longer open, operating and undertaking sales. So for many it will actually be a direct cash back to the business. For some, it may be that they're simply in net term's, paying less tax overall. But if they're paying less tax overall that means we're still selling and collecting GST and have that revenue coming through the door, but it's still a supplement and a discount on the tax that they would have otherwise been expected to pay. And again, it gives them greater capacity to either employ more, or invest more, or be better structured when they come out the other side.

David Bevan: Okay. Andrew, Thank you for your call. We're talking to Senator Simon Birmingham and he is South Australia's most senior Liberal in the Federal Government. He is the Minister for Trade and Tourism and he's been taking your questions after nine o'clock on a Friday for several weeks now to try and get our head around all of these big changes. And Glenn has got- I like this question, Glenn. Good morning.

Caller Glenn: Hi. My granddaughter up in Darwin has got a part time job. It looks like she will get, through the employer JobSeeker support. But because she's part time is she able to get a second job if it doesn't interfere with her commitments to her first employer?

David Bevan: Sorry. Does she get the JobKeeper?

Caller Glenn: JobKeeper. Sorry, JobKeeper, yeah.

David Bevan: So it looks like she'll get JobKeeper, but if she gets another job on top of that, so she's got two jobs, can she keep her JobKeeper?

Caller Glenn: Yeah. And I know that she can't get JobKeeper twice.

David Bevan: No.

Caller Glenn: But can she get another job without jeopardising the JobKeeper allowance?

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Glenn, congratulations. Your granddaughter's clearly very hard-working and it's great to see. And yes, she can get a second job and she cannot receive JobKeeper twice, you're correct in that understanding. But if she has a couple of casual jobs and receives JobKeeper from one of them, and the other one is a business that may not be eligible for JobKeeper but still wants to employ her and has work for her, then that's fantastic and good luck to her.

David Bevan: Is it- is this going to be policed? I mean a lot of people who have got JobKeeper, are they going to be at home watching telly, you know, Judge Judy? Or is somebody making sure that they actually put in, make some effort at all?

Simon Birmingham: Look, that is, to an extent, up to the employer. The reason we put in place those changes I referenced earlier to the industrial relations laws so that employers could work through more flexibly to vary the jobs that people might be undertaking is to try to encourage employers to say well you might not normally have had this person in helping to rearrange the business or reorganise the business in the different ways that you need to reopen. Remember - that's perhaps helping with some minor basic capital up trades or who knows what that people might be pursuing. But you can get employees back in to do that, noting that if you can't really open to trade, then you won't be able to have those people undertaking their normal routine job.

But, you know, the ambition here is to keep people in place with their employer so that when they do get back to normal business they're able to restart quickly.

David Bevan: Right. So there's not a lot of work being done. Nobody's going to come around and police it. But the idea is just to preserve the job so that when we do get through this, they'll be able to get back on deck.

Simon Birmingham: That's right. Even if it's just getting people in for the one day a week of planning and strategy; and basic upgrading or it might be building your customer databases, while you can't go out and approach them or thinking of new customer loyalty programs – a range of-

David Bevan: Can a boss say to his accounting staff, you know what, I'd really like you to mow my lawns this week?

Simon Birmingham: Not for their personal benefit. No. So, so that was very clearly laid out. So they can't have them going round to the boss's house and helping tidy up the house. So, so you're fine there, David. Your part time job on the side as a barista, your employer there can't have you mowing his laws.

David Bevan: No, fair enough. Thank you, Glenn. Valerie, I think, will be our last caller this week, trying to sort out the effects of all of these big changes. Good morning, Valerie.

Caller Valerie: Good morning David and Simon. Look just quickly, I got a call from my dentist the other day wanting to institute my normal check-up and clean which was cancelled in March. Now are they allowed- I mean I am over 70. Are they still allowed to do that?

Simon Birmingham: So dentists, in terms of their basic practices, as I understand it, are restricted at present. That's a combination of obviously the proximity and the high risk of transmission from literally working in other people's mouths and also making sure we manage the supplies of personal protective equipment and so on carefully as we've been doing – hence the elective surgery decisions.

Because you're over 70, look, there might be some additional measures that allow them to proceed. I would have to double check that in terms of the details there around what is firmly restricted for dentists and whether flexibility applied. But if you have any doubts, then obviously you should simply defer your appointment until such time as you're confident yourself in terms of their personal safety, and that the law is clear.

David Bevan: And just be- thank you, Valerie. And just before you leave us, you're the Trade Minister, so talk of having some sort of inquiry into the origins of this pandemic in China. Seriously, what do you think is going to be achieved here? Is anybody going to be able to get into China and find out what went on there? Or will it be a- you know, what sort of an inquiry would it be like- be without that sort of cooperation?

Simon Birmingham: It is important that that we expect transparency from the World Health Organization, from China, and frankly all countries around how the virus started, how it's been controlled, where controls worked and where it's failed. And the work that we've been undertaking as a government is to try to encourage the rest of the world to sanction a clear inquiry into how the WHO's powers can be strengthened in the future, so that they could have weapons inspector type of powers to go into countries and demand and expect information in events such as an unfolding pandemic. And also to get to the bottom of questions around these exotic wildlife wet markets and the role that they've played, potentially, in kicking off this pandemic.

And it is, I think, beholden upon China as a global citizen to be responsible in providing transparency to the world, answers to the world and engaging in a way that can give us all confidence that we won't see a repeat of this at any time in the future.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

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