Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings with David Bevan.

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Coronavirus, JobKeeper payments
09 April 2020

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, and good morning to your listeners.

David Bevan: Do you think you're getting the hang of this, this whole coronavirus thing? We're settling into it now; we understand what the new normal is.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I wish we didn't have to. But yeah, look, I think there is a slightly greater degree of calm that exists across the country now, and frankly across governments than there was a few weeks ago. It's been a very intense month or so of responding to this, the restrictions being put in place and the economic responses being put in place. But I think that yesterday with the Parliament having met, passed the $130 billion JobKeeper program that provides much relief to many Australians and both employees and small and medium sized businesses that they're going to have a life line to be able to get through this, however long it takes.

David Bevan: Let's go to your calls. Susan(*) from Goolwa. Good morning, Susan.

Caller Susan: Morning.

David Bevan: Now, you're concerned about your son?

Caller Susan: Yep, just hang on Dave I'll turn the radio off.

David Bevan: Yeah, turn that radio off.

Caller Susan: I'm very concerned about my son. He's actually - this is a long story but I'll try and keep it quick- short – he's a reservist in the Australian Navy and he also studies in a university in a town called Jamestown, North Dakota. And he- what he does is he comes back at round about the same time every year which is around about now or May, works on the patrol boats up in Darwin, and then saves up his money and goes back to university. He's been doing this for about 10 years, so my question is that, he's stuck over there now, he can't get back, so he's now running out of money because he would normally be home. And I've been to Centrelink and they've told me that he's not entitled to the JobSeeker allowance because he's not in the country. I've been emailing – well, myself and my son, not just me – have been emailing the Navy in the last two days to see if he would be entitled to the JobKeeper allowance because he has a regular pattern of work with the Navy. So, we haven't got a response back yet but to be fair they've only got the emails yesterday. I've rung lots and lots of people to try and get some help and we're just stuck - and I'm really worried that they're going to say no and then how do I get money to him? What's the Government going to do to help there?

David Bevan: Okay. So your son, he's stuck in North Dakota, he wants to come home but he just can't get on a plane and he's running out of money?

Caller Susan: Well, he's running out of money. He can't leave until his semester's ended in the end of May this year, however, even if he wanted to get home, he'd have to fly from Fargo to Denver, Denver and then try to get into Los Angeles and it's-

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yep. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, is there anything you can do for Susan's son?

Simon Birmingham: Susan, there's- I mean, it's limited in terms of what we can probably do there. I would encourage your son, if he hasn't done so already, to get in touch with our consular hotline and services. So, if he visits the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website to DFAT, dfat.gov.au, he will find ability if he hasn't done so to register with the consular services to seek advice around how he may be able to get home. Obviously, we have many, many thousands of Australians in different circumstances all around the world trying to find their ways home in incredibly trying circumstances because of the collapse of global aviation. But there are still pathways and there should still be pathways out of somewhere like the United States, if he registers, pursues those options, clearly once he gets back he'll be into the - if we can get him here - he'll be into that mandatory quarantine for 14 days. But given the circumstances you describe, it is worth him putting every effort into trying to get back first and foremost.

David Bevan: Susan, thanks for your call. Let's go to Tony(*). He's also called from Goolwa. Good morning, Tony.

Caller Tony: Good morning. How are you?

David Bevan: Good. What are your thoughts?

Caller Tony: Look, the stimulus concerns me, I'd like some clarity on it. People that, let's just say you work for a coffee shop, you're on $100 a week for a year, and then suddenly there's this problem we've had, you're now on 750, the main chef there that's on 1200 now drops down to 750. The owner of the shop gets no money; he has to go either on the dole or he has to- but he becomes a pay clerk, he starts paying that guy 750, this guy 750. And I just feel that, can't we just go back to pay what you lost in your wages and none of this cash splash? You know, people are getting way too much.

David Bevan: Okay. Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: David, I think we tackled this last week when I was speaking and said at the time, there is a trade-off here in terms of the Government doing something extraordinary that we've never done before in terms of wage subsidies as to how we do it in the simplest, most effective way possible and making that a flat and consistent payment is one of those trade-offs. And it does mean that a small number of Australians will potentially receive a windfall gain out of that, but that will be a small number relative to the many people who it's providing a basic lifeline to. I would stress that there's no reason why a business owner who draws a wage usually from their business equally doesn't receive the same support in terms of being able to claim and pay themselves as their employees being able to have that $1500 a fortnight paid to them as well. So the support is there for sole traders, for business owners, and for their employees.

David Bevan: James(*) asks: can you clear up the issue of the JobKeeper allowance? If a business has closed its doors, can they pay their employees the JobKeeper wage? So they're actually from James' text, I take it his scenario's they're actually not doing any business but they want to keep people on the payroll.

Simon Birmingham: Yes, they can. Now, they should use the notional hours of employment to perhaps be thinking about other things that they would want done in their business over this period of time and that's why some of the changes that passed through the Parliament yesterday enable employers to, within reasonable limits, ask their employees to undertake different tasks to what they might usually do so – so helping with basic maintenance in a closed business, engaging in some of the planning activities for how it might reopen or what might occur. So we've tried to create that flexibility there, knowing that for many businesses business as usual isn't possible even though they're keeping their employees on the books. But if there are ways for them to engage them in a reasonable sense in different activities, then they ought to try to do so.

David Bevan: Okay. The cargo ship- the cargo ship, the cargo flight, this plane that arrived from Wuhan, it arrived in Sydney. Was it last night? What was it carrying?

Simon Birmingham: So it's carrying around 90 tonnes worth of medical equipment, as I understand it. So, this is equipment that helps with respirators as well as protective equipment and the like. It was perhaps one of the ironies at the outset that as Wuhan was shut down, it did cause some pressure on global supply chains

because it happens to be a centre of provision for much of this sort of protective equipment and it placed pressure on China's system at the time as well. And Australia did provide some degree of assistance to China at that stage and obviously, they've now been able to re-establish production. But I want to assure everybody that every safety check is undertaken firmly in relation to a flight like this arriving and that the crew face very strict quarantine and isolation for the limited time that they are in Australia.

David Bevan: Do you believe the coronavirus statistics that have come out of China? And the next question is: can you explain why – if we're to believe those statistics – they've been so successful in keeping the virus restricted?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it's- I mean, it's hard for me to say. Do I believe- Look, I accept the statistics that are there. They certainly show- and I think it's consistent with other anecdotal evidence we have that the rate of transmission in China reduced dramatically as a result of extreme lockdowns being applied. There are still lockdowns in certain regions of China. So they are pursuing, you might sort of describe it as a whack-a-mole approach in a sense, of putting in place lockdowns where and when they're seeing cases popping up and obviously, containing that spread.

I think there are lessons from all sorts of international examples now of what to do and what not to do. And touch wood, thus far, Australia is managing to follow seemingly a positive trajectory of flattening the curve, reducing the rate of spread, and having done so with serious social distancing restrictions, serious shutdowns of certain activities, but not having to pursue the complete lockdown that some have, like China, to contain it.

David Bevan: Elizabeth(*) has called from the Barossa to speak to Simon Birmingham, South Australian Senator, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Good morning, Elizabeth.

Caller Elizabeth: Good morning everyone. I'm just ringing about frontline nursing staff. I'm a retired clinical nurse and I was very concerned that radiologists and radiographers working within the Barossa Valley haven't been able to get surgical masks. Now, I would have thought that these people who are in the frontline should be the first ones- well, no, major hospitals obviously. But people working in this area should be provided with the surgical masks before it goes to pharmacies. Now, that's just my opinion, but I think they are the people we need to protect. So…

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Elizabeth, I'll happily follow up with Stephen Wade's office, the SA Health Minister, in terms of what is being provided to those health professionals in the Barossa Valley. We've stepped up both the purchase and production of masks extensively across Australia, many millions of additional masks are being produced in Australia and being imported to build our national stockpile and there have been distributions of significant quantities that are intended to reach health professionals. And if there's a gap there that somehow occurred in the Barossa, then I'll try to find out why and make sure we get it rectified.

David Bevan: Elizabeth, we're also going to talk to Professionals Australia which represents a lot of pathologists in about 10-15 minutes time, so we'll take that issue up with them. Let's go from the Barossa to Hawthorne, hello Jeff (*).

Caller Jeff: Yes, good morning. Morning Simon. My query's about an inconsistency in dates that my daughters been getting from Centrelink and Services Australia for commencement of the JobSeeker payment. She registered as soon as her company closed down and she got an email from Services Australia saying that the payment would commence from the date she made the claim. Almost straight away she got an email from Centrelink, saying that the payment would commence from yesterday - that's a difference of about 9 days and the pay difference of a payment of about $700. So we're just wondering which one is right?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Jeff. If she made a proper intention to claim a declaration, as it's called, then it should – payment should be made from the date of that intention to claim declaration. More than happy to get your daughter's details off-air and for us to follow-up with Centrelink. There's obviously a processing delay as to when payments start to be- to hit bank account but they certainly should be back dated to that intention to claim date. And if there's been a failure there then we want to get to the bottom of it quickly.

David Bevan: Jeff, thanks for your call. Let's go to Murray Bridge, hello Cameron(*).

Caller Cameron: Hello.

David Bevan: Hello Cameron. What's your question, Cameron?

Caller Cameron: Oh, hello. My wife's got a business in Murray Bridge and she is a sole trader, doesn't employ anyone. Just wondering if she's entitled to the JobKeeper thing at all or whether it's just Centrelink?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, she is. If she's seen a reduction in revenue as a sole trader of more than 30 per cent, then she is definitely entitled to a Job Keeper. And if she visits the Tax Office's website she can register herself, her business to receive that and to be able to effectively pay herself that Job Keeper payment.

David Bevan: Cameron, good luck. Judith is calling from the city, hello Judith(*).

Caller Judith: Good morning. My niece is a professional musician, she teaches viola and that is already starting to dry up. Most years or some years she's invited to play for a season with a very well-known orchestra in Sydney and that's no longer operating. There are no benefits for her. How does she live? How does she pay her mortgage, et cetera?

Simon Birmingham: Well that again, I would expect is the same answer as we just had for Cameron. If your niece undertakes private tuition in providing lessons of viola and if those lessons have ceased and therefore people are not coming and not paying anymore, then she should be classified as a sole trader in terms of her personal circumstances and that should enable her to register to receive JobKeeper. Because it's important to stress that for anybody, where the gap exists in terms of not being able to qualify for the JobKeeper payment, there is still the JobSeeker allowance that they can claim through Centrelink. And that that JobSeeker allowance comes with the additional benefits we've put in place in terms of the coronavirus supplements too.

So one way or another, based on those circumstances, I would expect that there is an avenue for support.

David Bevan: The change in name from Newstart - which is the dole - to JobSeeker, that only happened a few weeks ago. Was that done knowing that the Government would have to introduce a JobKeeper, that is a wage support system?

Simon Birmingham: No, that was coincidental, David. So the reform to create JobSeeker had been quite a long way in the making in terms of consolidation of a number of payment streams around Newstart that were based on some previous recommendations to Government about how to better streamline and address complexities in aspects of the social safety net [indistinct]-

David Bevan: So it's just a coincidence.

Simon Birmingham: Yep.

David Bevan: Yep, okay. Glenn(*) from Edwardstown. Hello, Glen.

Caller Glenn: Gidday. Simon look, I'll admit now I'm not a fan of your government but I will give you kudos for jumping up and trying to keep the income stream going. But now is definitely not the time to rest on your laurels. There's obviously, you know, within the first couple of weeks' holes being spotted in there. And the arbitrary number of 12 months in a job; 12 months is a very long time for a casual job.

Any business that tries to employ people casual or not, should be rewarded and the employees should be not left out to hang dry simply because of an arbitrary number of twelve months. It should be reduced to a few weeks, if that is the case, simply because it's going to do far more damage to the economy by going from, let's say $1,800 dollars a fortnight down to what is it $450 a fortnight. It doesn't make sense to just stop there. So are you guys interested at all in trying to patch the holes? Or are you just going to let people starve?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we're certainly not doing that Glenn. The JobSeeker payment, at its basic level, tallies up to around 1100 a fortnight, in terms of the JobSeeker plus the coronavirus supplement that's being paid. That's then before other considerations like rent assistance or the like are potentially provided on top of that.

We put in place the JobKeeper payment for a couple of reasons. One was that there was a risk of the Centrelink systems being overwhelmed without an alternate structure, in other words to make sure that, yes, there was clearly support there for employees. But also, critically, to maintain the productive capability in the economy by not having employers lose the relationship with their long term staff, or potentially employers being tipped over the edge in terms of going bankrupt because they were having to pay redundancies out to those long term staff - those permanent staff who would have built up entitlements.

And that's why there's a distinction there between permanent staff and long-term casual staff who've been there for a long period of time versus the shorter-term casual employees - it relates to maintaining that core capability within those businesses so that they can restart again afterwards. But we have firmly scaled up with the coronavirus supplement and so as support for anybody who is on the JobSeeker side of things too.

David Bevan: Glen, thanks for your call. Simon Birmingham, last week we put to you the case of Cornelius. Now, he said: look, I am eligible for JobKeeper but my employer won't apply for it and the employer seem to be taking the position: well look, I'm not going to sign you up for this because you'll be getting more money than I was paying you.

Now, you're office we're told has been in touch with him but he hasn't heard back - he's still in limbo. Do you have any- any more advice for those people whose employers won't sign them up?

Simon Birmingham: We did- we have discussions there and obviously we only got the legislation passed through the Parliament yesterday, so it provides a bit more clarity around the circumstances. We can't make an employer decide to register for JobKeeper - hundreds of thousands are doing so across the country and tens of thousands in South Australia have already done so - but we can't make every single one do so.

And so that comes back to the discussion we were just having about there is the alternative there of JobSeeker. It has been scaled up with the additional coronavirus supplements being paid to those recipients as well. So the dollar figures are getting closer to one another between the different payment types depending on eligibility for some of those supplements like rent allowance and so on.

But I would urge people to have the discuss honestly with their employer. We are making the JobKeeper payment as hassle free for employers in terms of registering, receiving and passing it through at that simple flat rate to all of their eligible employees. So there really shouldn't be impediments to employers doing so and really would encourage any employers listening to see the simplicity in what we've done and the fairness in providing that support to their employees.

But ultimately, we can't make them and that's why we have the JobSeeker payment there as- as a strong and significant fallback.

David Bevan: Your South Australian Liberal colleague, former Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, has tweeted: we either save avoidable deaths and destroy society or accept avoidable deaths and save society - the moral dilemma of our time. Is he right?

Simon Birmingham: No. I think there is a middle path that we are trying to- to navigate and that middle path is that we do minimise the deaths that come from a virus like this by ensuring that our health system is not overwhelmed - and that's the key thing about slowing the spread. And we, tragically, have to accept the virus is there, people will catch it and- and tragically some people will die.

But if our health systems are overwhelmed by hospital admissions that fill up all of the ICU beds in our hospitals, then many more people will die - not just of coronavirus but of other conditions because they won't be able to get that medical treatment that they need. And that's why we're taking the steps to slow the spread, to stop deaths - not just from coronavirus but from a whole range of other things that would ensue.

I don't think that the steps we're taking will destroy society - they're certainly shaking society at present. But I think the economic responses we've put in place are providing a pillar of stability that that can see us through the tough months ahead.

David Bevan: And just finally, you're the Federal Tourism Minister telling people to stay at home.

Simon Birmingham: It sounds like a Monty Python skit but yes, my tourism advice to everybody is that right now is not the travelling time it's the dreaming time. So, you know, by all means spend- spend your Easter weekend not only with families at home if you can watching an old movie, reading a good book, if you can afford to do so, getting some takeaway from the local restaurant or the like. But also you can dream there will be another side to this and we will get past all of these restrictions - people will be able to travel again and so it's this weekend may be-

David Bevan: [Interrupts] People are talking about maybe not being able to go overseas for not- not in six months' time but in 12 months or maybe it might be two years before people can confidently travel overseas.

Simon Birmingham: I wouldn't want to put a guess on it at present because that's what it would be right now - is a guess. There are so many unknowns around exactly how the transmission rate evolves here and overseas and what timing we see around any type of vaccine if one can be successfully developed.

And so all of those questions make it hard to say when international travel restrictions will be lifted. But I do think it's likely that domestic travel restrictions will be lifted before international travel restrictions are. And that's- that's why I guess my- my one positive message, as Tourism Minister it might be to stay at home this weekend and to not make any immediate travel plans, but you can dream, you can plan, you can look to the other side of this. And I'd hope that in doing so you think about supporting some South Australian tourism operators when they're able to get going again, because they'll- they'll need the business, they'll need the help from those who can afford to do so when- when we do get to the other side.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure. Thanks David. Happy Easter and stay safe everybody.

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

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