Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Free trade agreement with Indonesia; Newstart payment; JobSeeker payment; China.
08 May 2020

David Bevan: Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. I feel like I should start by saying mate.

David Bevan: Yeah, mate. Now, the- we're happy to take calls but can we just begin with something that's right in the middle of your portfolio and that is the free trade deal with Indonesia. Now, as world trade shrinks, global activity shrinks. Can we look to this free trade deal, which I think is going to what? Kick start in the next few weeks. Is that going to bring us any joy?

Simon Birmingham: Well certainly it is great news, which is something that Australia has aspired to secure for a long period of time and our Government's been working on. And I'm delighted that Indonesia- I spoke to their Trade Minister earlier this week and they, in the following days, concluded negotiations to ratify their end of the free trade agreement with Australia which means that it will come into effect, given we had already fulfilled all of those processes, it will come into effect on July the fifth.

And it does mean that around 99 per cent of Australian goods that go to Indonesia will either enter tariff free, duty free or at least under significantly improved terms. We can see better arrangements of up to 500,000 tonnes of Australian wheat to enter Indonesia, 250,000 tonnes of rolled steel coil, horticulture sector, meat sectors, all of them really enjoying real opportunities as well as in the services sector. So this is a great chance for us to think about the recovery phase that will come at the end of all the economic challenges we’re facing as a result COVID-19. This will be a big opportunity for Australian businesses to step into a large market right on our doorstep that's growing and to give them more choices about with whom they do business.

David Bevan: Who are the first movers and why do we- is that going to mean anything, us being a member of this group?

Simon Birmingham: So this is the discussion sort of a collective of countries that the Austrian Chancellor has invited to hold some occasional dialogue about how people are handling COVID-19 and how they're responding to it and the economic challenges. So Austria and Australia, Israel, Denmark, Singapore, Greece, Czech Republic, Norway; it's an interesting collection of countries and I think it provides a format for a diverse sharing of experiences, knowledge and advice, all to a general [indistinct] mid-sized countries. So they've got that in common but with different communities and societies which allows for just that expertise to be shared, knowledge about keeping supply chains open, scientific cooperation. Prime Minister Morrison in speaking with this group overnight, discussed the review of COVID-19 and the World Health Organization talked as well about how we've rolled out the COVIDSafe app and the millions of Australians who've taken that up by now, as well as other- other important work we’re pursuing internationally.

David Bevan: Okay. Now, in a moment, I'd like to ask you about China because we had a really interesting discussion with Justin Peters. He's a South Australian businessman, Executive Chairman of Leigh Creek Energy yesterday and he's very critical of the row that the Government seems to be getting itself into, on behalf of the United States, he suggested, with China and why- why, why bother doing that? But let's go to calls now. Nigel has called from Marino. Good Morning, Nigel.

Caller Nigel: Yeah, good morning. Yesterday, there was a software engineer on Sonya Feldhoff’s program that had five- at least five major criticisms of the COVIDSafe app. Things like it doesn't work in the background on iPhones, cuts off diabetes apps for monitoring diabetes and numerous other things. And also the response of the Government to coping with these criticisms. Can you tell me what- what is happening with that? And the- [indistinct], well, I [indistinct] think a number of people have informed the appropriate authorities. But still nothing’s happening.

Simon Birmingham: So look, in terms of COVIDSafe app, firstly, thank you to the hundreds of thousands of people in South Australia who would be part of the millions of people across Australia who have downloaded the app so far. We've sought to design it with as much simplicity in mind as possible in terms of the way in which it works and as much security as possible so that Australians can download it with absolute safety.

I didn't hear that interview on Sonya’s program. So I haven’t heard those particular criticisms or questions in terms of the way in which it works. I’d be surprised if it had that sort of interference with the- with other apps such as diabetes. And we've been working with the Australian Cyber Security Centre and others to make sure that it works as effectively as possible but with maximum safety for people as well.

And I have had- I don't think in terms of my office, any calls or criticisms around the way in which it works. Certainly, some calls asking for help about how to download it. And we're always happy to try to help people with that.

David Bevan: So you’re answer to Nigel is you're not aware of any problems that actually seriously undermine this app. Is that what you’re saying?

Simon Birmingham: Well it is what I’m saying there, David. I haven't- I haven't seen or heard publicly any great array of issues that have come forward, and there will be niggling issues people have on individual items of technology saying that their particular phone that might have an issue. But we'd have heard by now over the course of the last couple of weeks with millions and millions of downloads happening already, if there were some chronic or major problems. There'd be a [indistinct] outcry by now if that were the case. And far from that, millions of Australians have downloaded it. It's operating in the background on their phones and they've gotten on with life and completely forgotten about it.

David Bevan: David’s called from Maylands. Hello David.

Caller David: Hi David and good morning, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, David.

David Bevan: My question is about Newstart and JobSeeker. Now, prior to the COVID crisis, there hadn't been any increases in the Newstart payment for about 20 years and I think a lot of people were actually living below the poverty line only with the support of charities. Now, a lot of conservative economists were suggesting – as much for economic reasons and stimulatory reasons, as for social justice reasons, that the Newstart payment should be increased. So, my question is once the COVID crisis does abate, and we don’t need that surge in payments, would the Government consider going back to a higher level of JobSeeker payments or Newstart payments, for a number of reasons, both social and economic?

David Bevan: Minister? Minister Simon Birmingham. We seem to have a problem there -

Simon Birmingham: Hello.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, you’re back with us. David’s question from Maylands was, look, Newstart it was always too low, there were big problems even before the pandemic started. You’ve bumped it up, are you going to keep it up?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, we’ve said pretty clearly that the additional payments, the coronavirus supplement that was put on top, an extra $550 a fortnight, was time limited. It’s there in part of an economic stimulus to try to get more spending happening at this type of downturn. They’re also in recognition that obviously many, many businesses are not in a position to be employing and that makes job seeking that much harder at this point in time but it’s there for a temporary period of time.

David Bevan: So again, the answer to David's question is we're not going to change this? It's going to go back to what it was?

Simon Birmingham: It, indeed, that very significant extra supplement will come off at the end of the time limited period.

David Bevan: I wonder, on the issue of unemployment, is that we’ve been told that unemployment will probably go up to about 10 per cent, because the last figures that came out, official figures didn't give us the full impact of the job losses brought on by the pandemic. And expect it to effectively double it up to around 10 per cent. But, I wonder whether that is itself artificially low, because people who are on JobKeeper, they would not be considered unemployed, would they?

Simon Birmingham: No, they’re not. And we've acknowledged that. I think the Treasurer's indicated that unemployment without JobKeeper would have gone up to probably 15 or 16 per cent on various estimates.

David Bevan: Right. And the thing about JobKeeper is that not all the people who are on JobKeeper are going to come out of this with a job. Some of those companies that have been handing over- cooperating with the ATO and giving their employees JobKeeper, some of them are going to fall over. So you're going to have a percentage of people who are on JobKeeper switching across to JobSeeker sometime in the next few months.

Simon Birmingham: It is possible that that some who are receiving JobKeeper will not have a job to go back to, when it comes to an end. Equally, many who are on JobSeeker will probably have a job to go back to, when it comes to an end. Those who were casuals in the workforce for less than 12 months or those who’s employers haven't qualified for the JobKeeper or whatever other circumstances that led people to being on JobSeeker. So, there may well be a bit of a flow between the two. Our ambition and that is why today's discussions of the National Cabinet about reopening are so crucial. Our ambition is to get people back to work. It will not be a successful management of this crisis if we have, yes, kept people safe but, we have entrenched unemployment unnecessarily so into the future. And that’s where, yes, we’re taking a range of steps to slow movement, which has slowed economic activity, so that we crush the spread of this virus. That's been incredibly successful. Now, is the time where leaders have to carefully take the steps to re-engage movement and activity across our economy. Of course, monitoring it every step of the way against that health advice and impact it's having. But, we need to get as much activity happening back, as quickly as we safely can, so that so that we do maximise the number of people who get back to jobs this year.

David Bevan: Yesterday we spoke to, Justin Peters and he's executive chairman of Leigh Creek Energy. They're trying to run a business up at the old Leigh Creek fields. And he said: look, I've got Chinese investors in this company. I've dealt with China many, many years- over many, many years; I was there in China back in January of this year. He's extremely critical of the fight that the Federal Government is getting itself into and the way that Australia is perceived as basically the United States attack dog. This is a little bit of what Justin Peters had to say yesterday to our listeners.

[Excerpt]

Justin Peters: The Chinese believe that Australia's basically is America's Jack Russell Terrier. We're there to basically do the bidding of the US and I find it intriguing that we've known about COVID-19 for three months and decided we would come out on the front foot and attack China over this particular issue, only days after Donald Trump had come and done the same thing. We could have raised these issues weeks and weeks and weeks prior to the US and seen as an individual. We could have, rather than being the lead player and asking for an independent investigation into how this virus actually started, we could have been a supporter of the World Health Organization. Let them take the lead on it and be a supporter of them, rather than be the lead player. Or alternatively, we could have got another country that doesn't have such a large trade relationship with China, to be the lead player and I support them. But instead, we've chosen the aggressive path where we're attacking a trade partner that's annual trade with Australia is actually higher than Japan, South, Korea India and the United States put together. And we go out and do that, it's like playing poker and you're bluffing with a pair of threes, except the problem we have is that we've got the cards facing the Chinese instead of us.

[End of Excerpt]

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham. Do you share any of Justin Peters’ concerns?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think there's a lot of mischaracterisations in Justin's comments there. Australia's made its decisions about how we approach the need for an investigation into COVID-19 based on our own policy decisions. We're actually supporting a European Union proposal that will be considered at the World Health Assembly. So, we're not doing this as some sort of lapdog of the United States, as Justin might seem to imply or suggest. We're doing it because we've got a situation where the jobs of millions of Australians have been put in peril; the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been lost and billions of people have had their lives disrupted. And we think that an investigation is a pretty basic thing to have.

You’ll see there are some marked differences between some of the things that the Australian Government has said and some of the commentary coming out of the United States and that's because we take our own analysis, our own evidence, our own advice and we will take this issue through to the World Health Assembly where, as I said, there’s a European Union policy motion for an inquiry that we're supporting and working to help build support for. We want China to be a part of that investigation and inquiry — that is crucial — and China, of course, want that as well.

But I would also say to any Australian business people that they don't help matters by suggesting that somehow Australia should constrain our public policy position on matters of national security, or public health, or anything else because of the views of any other foreign government. The Australian Government has to make our policy decisions around the interests of the Australian people — putting our security and health first. And that- but of course we do so in a way where we equally try to have the most positive relations with any other country we can, especially our trading partners.

And as a minister who's travelled to China more than any other in this government, I am eager for us to continue to have a good positive business-to-business, people-to-people relationship, and also to cooperate in a range of government-to-government issues where we possibly can. And we saw that just this week with the commencing of a new interim appeal arrangement through the World Trade Organization for example.

David Bevan: Are you saying Justyn Peters from Leigh Creek Energy is not being helpful?

Simon Birmingham: I think that anybody who suggests that Australia should somehow subordinate parts of our health or security policy to the views of another country is not helpful, and not putting Australia's interests first.

David Bevan: Chris has called from Heathfield and at 25 minutes past nine, good morning, Chris.

Caller Chris: Good morning, David. Good morning, Simon. Simon, come September I’m concerned, I've heard other commentaries. What will continue in the support of all the monetary supports that are in — not just Newstart and JobSeeker? But September is only four months away and I don't think we hear anything, because we've heard comments about we'll do whatever it takes earlier on in this situation. Are we going to have that same comment come September when these financial arrangements are coming to an end? Do we have a commitment that if we have to continue it, we will?

Simon Birmingham: We the commitment I can give is that we’ll stick the principles we set right at the outset which was the type of things we will apply in terms of the economic support to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 will be targeted, proportionate and temporary. And those principles have been since- Scott Morrison’s Government will hold onto right through our handling of this.

Temporary I say because we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past where government locks in big, new, permanent ongoing spending commitments that mean you can never get out of a budget deficit – so a cycle that will create huge problems for future governments. So, we’ve got to keep doing things on a temporary basis knowing that we want to get things back to a degree of economic normality as quickly as we can.

But we’ll make sure they are targeted to the areas that need it, and proportionate to the problem that's faced. And so we will have a review of the JobKeeper payment over the next couple of months to see how that is working, and that will obviously form any decisions that have to be made down the track when we get to the point where it is due to come off.

David Bevan: Chris, are you satisfied with that?

Simon Birmingham: But getting- getting people back to work is the most important thing.

Caller Chris: I’m concerned about the social fabric, fabric for our country. I think we talk about mental health and the social fabric has to outweigh monetary considerations because, you know, we’re- we've got a society where we're all living together. And I’m looking at mental health, even the rising crime rate that’ll possibly happen when people see some have got it, and I haven't got it — I'm going to grab it. You know, that sort of philosophy and feelings come through when, when people are desperate.

Simon Birmingham: Chris, I share those concerns. But the best way for us to address those concerns is to safely get people back to work, get businesses open again, get people back in employment. And so long as we keep maintaining the social distancing where we can, the hand and health hygiene practices, keep getting people to download the COVIDSafe app, and apply all the other safeguards. And I hope that we can keep the numbers of cases as low as they've been, or relatively low at least and have people back in jobs, because that's going to be the best way to make sure that we maintain people's mental health and social support. We can't pretend that there's going to be an environment where government can provide to people forever, and we've got to get the economy — jobs and businesses — functioning again too.

David Bevan: Bryce has called from West Lakes to speak to Senator Simon Birmingham. Good morning Bryce.

Caller Bryce: Yeah. I- my wife's a piano teacher, she's been teaching piano for 40 years. She's been paying tax. The Tax Office has got her records for the last 40 years but she's never had an ABN and all of a sudden, she can't teach. But she’s- she can't get the JobKeeper because she hasn’t got an ABN on 12 March. What's the magic about 12 March? The Ides of March was 15 I thought.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I can answer that. The magic about 12 March was the date that we announced the JobKeeper payment and we couldn't have a circumstance where a whole lot of people went and registered for an Australian Business Number on 12 March and then claimed eligibility for JobKeeper. Some, like your wife, may have been perfectly legitimate to have done so but an ABN is essential for anybody who’s undertaking a business with a turnover of more than $75,000 and therefore has to look at GST and undertake those sorts of things. For people who essentially are self-employed operating below that level, without an ABN, not handling GST or those other types, then it’s very hard to have run a system where there's any type of integrity to it if we allowed JobKeeper to be paid in those circumstances.

And so that's why unfortunately, there are some cases such as your wife where JobSeeker becomes the only viable alternative there. For JobSeeker, we've changed a number of the practices there in terms of eligibility being eased so that assets weren’t taken into consideration in the same way, partner income wasn't necessarily considered and the same way and the income earned ability of the individual was relaxed. We made all of those changes so that practices like your wife's could be considered and potentially their eligibility for JobSeeker increased as part of the changes.

David Bevan: Before you leave us, Simon Birmingham, you're a former federal education minister, South Australian Senator. You know Adelaide University very well. Are you concerned about the knock-on effects of an ICAC looking into suspected mal-administration at Adelaide University?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the risk to reputation is always a concern and I would want to stress at a time like this that it would appear from the allegations that are being made and the investigation apparently being undertaken, that it should in no way reflect upon the high calibre of research and education that's undertaken at the University of Adelaide. I have enormous confidence in Professor Mike Brooks, who is the Acting Vice-Chancellor and who's fulfilled that role before, and provided great leadership to the university previously. And I would, at a time like this, really want to emphasise that the University of Adelaide's role as an outstanding institution of education and research, is one that all South Australians are proud of and that we need to make sure we preserve and protect it for the future.

David Bevan: The Commissioner has made it quite clear he's not looking into allegations of corruption, but mal-administration using his Ombudsman powers. Would it be better if something like this was done by an Auditor-General or an Ombudsman rather than ICAC because of all of the, well, the sensationalism surrounding ICAC?

Simon Birmingham: I think that is a reasonable question that you ask, David, and I know that the South Australian ICAC Act has many elements to it including the secrecy and constraints upon what any of us can discuss publicly. But in this case, it has spilled out into the public arena and I think it does create a perception, when you have the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption undertaking an investigation, that somehow there is corruption or otherwise involved.

Now, the Commissioner has sought to dispel that, but where people only absorb the headlines or the snippets of news, it's very hard to get around the fact that the word corruption is attached to this investigation. That's why I am, first and foremost at pains, yes, as a former education minister but also just as a proud South Australian who’s concerned with his state's economic future, that we talk up the reputation of the university when we make clear that its standard, its capability, its research, its training is not under any question or doubt as a result of this because that university is not just important to the education of South Australians, it is the core economic driver in itself. And we need to make sure that it stands in a very strong position to the future.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure. Thank you.

David Bevan: Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham.

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