Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Mornings with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: JobKeeper review, IR debate.
29 May 2020

David Bevan: But let’s introduce Senator Simon Birmingham to you right now, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Good morning, Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. Happy Friday to everybody.

David Bevan: A week ago — that is this time last Friday — the Government was trying to work out how are we going to tell everybody about the JobKeeper stuff up? How do you think it's gone in the last week? Do you think people have bought your line that well look, you know, mistakes happen and it was on the right side of the ledger? Or do you think people- your credibility has taken a hit?

Simon Birmingham: I think it's always in political discourse, David. There's probably a couple of entrenched camps out there and- and then there'll be a whole bunch of far more reasonable minded people in in the middle. Now, what happened last week was that the Treasurer stood up and publicly explained that that the information the Australian Tax Office had provided him and the Government with about the registrations for JobKeeper had some errors in the calculations they had done. No extra payments had been made and that's really important to reinforce to everybody — so no money had gone out the door that shouldn't have.

But in terms of the estimates of the number of claims that had been made, some businesses had erroneously put in the amount they thought they were entitled to rather than the number of employees. And obviously, if you're putting in 1500 for a single employee that's going to quickly add up to a lot more employees than were anticipated. And so it was an admin error — Treasurer fronted up, the Government acknowledged, the PM took it on the chin on the weekend when he fronted the media and said we acknowledge the buck stops with us in a sense. But no money was spent it wasn't meant to be spent, the federal budget remains deeply, deeply in deficit. But we've been able to make these sorts of spending commitments because at least we started with a balanced budget through the efforts and repairs we've done over the last six years.

David Bevan: A question from a listener, why are the- and I didn’t know this was the case — this listener says why are employees of private universities getting JobKeeper but not employees of public universities?

Simon Birmingham: So essentially, we've said that government entities aren't eligible for the JobKeeper and universities established under Parliament — under Act of different parliaments around the country – are, in that sense, quasi government entities, they’re public entities. The JobKeeper has been there to sustain jobs in the private sector where those entities would otherwise potentially have become insolvent had they had to make their staff redundant and pay them out. Whereas those working more in the public sector have obviously other resources to draw upon.

David Bevan: Okay. Now, the confusion over the case of the woman who is originally from the UK then went to Melbourne, she cut her time short in quarantine, was allowed to come to Adelaide but the Adelaide authorities didn't know — they blamed Victoria and then said actually it's not Victoria's fault, we just didn't read our emails. Has all of that undermined support for reopening the borders — which you are very keen to see happen?

Simon Birmingham: I would hope not, David. I think that if there's an administrative error or oversight there, then obviously that needs to be fixed and the State Government has been upfront about working through that and acknowledging that if the fault sits on their side, then better systems need to be put in place. And that in fact they’re going to suggest, I gather, those better systems for all state governments so that the repeat of an unread email or something so it doesn't occur again. I do think some of the reaction to this case has been something of an overreaction across the media — this is one case. We need to remember that a couple of months ago when we started to put in place the massive restrictions that were imposed across our society, the ambition at that time was to suppress the spread of COVID-19 so as to not see it overwhelm our health systems, our hospitals and leave us in the type of mess that we've seen overseas.

We have far and away exceeded those ambitions. Every single state and territory in Australia has far and away exceeded those ambitions. That’s not just suppressing it, but states like South Australia have all but eliminated it; it would seem. Now, that's not a reason for complacency in terms of maintaining the very high levels of testing and checking. And once again, I would say to every listener out there: if you've got the slightest tickle in your throat, if you've got a little cough stay away from anybody else and go and get tested straight away — that's the most important precaution we can all take. But having had such enormous success- and we do have to get on with the- getting people back into their jobs so that we can continue to have an economy that pays for the type of health system and public service that has delivered us this success.

David Bevan: Should the SANFL and the AFL be allowed to have a limited number of spectators at their games? I mean these are big stadiums — you could have a few thousand people there responsibly spaced apart.

Simon Birmingham: Logically, yes, you could. My priority is on getting people back into jobs, not back watching the footy necessarily. But there are many South Australians whose jobs are as caterers, cleaners, security officers or the like at major events like footy matches and they'd all be pretty keen to get back to their jobs. And I hope that as the health officials have so successfully set out the first few stages of the road map to reopening, and we've seen not a glimmer of a spike anywhere in the country in cases so far as that reopening has been undertaken, that they can now turn their attention firmly to how we move as quickly as possible into those next stages of reopening that could involve seeing those parts of activity come back on stream in a safe way so that those people whose jobs depend upon it can get back into them.

David Bevan: Okay. That's the voice of Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Tony's called from Somerton Park. Good morning, Tony.

Caller Tony: Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Tony.

Caller Tony: Good morning, Senator. Would it be possible that the anti-levy dumping charges for barley, would that be a tit for tat for all the anti-dumping charges that Australia levies on aluminum and steel and the like? Is that a maybe an overture for a trade war? Or is- what's your opinion on that?

Simon Birmingham: Well thanks, Tony. The Chinese Government has, in the last week, in public comments referenced the number of anti-dumping decisions that Australia has made over the last few years in relation to product coming into here, and pointed out that the decision they’ve just made on barley, is the first such time they’ve leveled anti-dumping duties against Australia. The point that I would make in response to that, and do make, is that this is not something that should be done on a scorecard basis — it’s not about tit-for-tat or keeping up with decisions against one-another. Every anti-dumping decision has got to be made on its merits and on the evidence of the arguments that are put forward.

Now, we have an Anti-dumping Commission that operates with a degree of independence and a high level of transparency, and it goes through and assesses the evidence. Global steel production is acknowledges as being in over supply and that’s granted a number of market distorting factors that have led to the type of decisions that have been made in recent years. Where they’ve been taken in relation to product from China — or product from a number of other countries, because we’ve done that in a number of cases, not just China — any of those countries can feel free to challenge Australia’s decision, through the World Trade Organization appeals processes. And it’s those sorts of processes that I am reserving our right to use in relation to the barley dispute where I don’t believe the evidence China’s used stacks up, and I don’t accept that our barley producers are subsidised or have dumped their product below cost on a global market.

So, and its- each of these cases should be decided on their merit, not on the basis of how many one country is levelled against another.

David Bevan: Okay, it’s not tit-for-tat. Tony, thank you for your call. Would you have preferred Victoria had not signed up to China’s belt and road initiative?

Simon Birmingham: On the whole; I would have preferred they had not.

David Bevan: Why?

Simon Birmingham: I think agreements between national governments should be rightly made between national governments. If a state or territory wants to enter into an agreement with a region or a province, or something else overseas, well that’s in their domain. But I don’t think it’s the place of the states or territories to be signing on to agreements with other sovereign national governments — that’s the right place for the Australian National Government to do so.

In terms of the Belt and Road initiative we've been clear all along that where projects are brought forward that respect the sovereignty of another nation; that are for appropriate, productive and highly valued infrastructure; and, that don't impose unreasonable debt conditions or otherwise on other nations well then, we would welcome that and are up for cooperation. But they're the type of parameters that we would put around that type of program.

David Bevan: Nigel, has called ABC Radio Adelaide to speak to Simon Birmingham. Good morning, Nigel.

Caller Nigel: Yeah, good morning. My daughter works in the arts and entertainment industry, she teaches and she performs and that and hasn't been able to get any – well, it’s not working at the moment because things are locked down. And I want to find out what support you can give that industry? Because she can't get any JobKeeper or anything like that. You seem to have a spare 60 billion, so I was wondering if perhaps 20 of that could be used to support festivals and various other arts and entertainment activities around the country? So what can you do for that industry?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Tony. And without knowing any of your daughter's specific employment circumstances it's hard to comment on support for her. But clearly anybody who is on a casual basis — had 12 months of employment or is employed on a permanent basis — is eligible for JobKeeper payments if their employer is not a public sector employer and has suffered a 30 per cent downturn and so on. If she's not eligible for those JobKeeper payments then she would, presumably, be eligible for the JobSeeker payments if see if she's out of work.

David Bevan: Well hang on. Let's just ask, Nigel, how old’s your daughter? Well, Nigel is gone. Nigel, are you there? No, Nigel is gone. If his daughter is — what under, is it under 22 — she wouldn't be eligible for JobSeeker, she'd have to take the youth allowance and she might not get the Youth Allowance if her parents are earning, I think it's over $55,000?

Simon Birmingham: That also depends on how long she's potentially been in the workforce, and where she's been living, and a range of other criteria there, David.

David Bevan: So, it's quite clear there's a large pool of people out here who have been hit very hard by the pandemic and who are not being picked up by JobKeeper? And who might have a lot of difficulty getting hold of JobSeeker or the Youth Allowance?

Simon Birmingham: Well I'm not sure about the last point of that in terms of a lot of difficulty. We've waived a number of the eligibility criteria, or adjusted them around to JobSeeker to make that easier for people to receive that payment. So, asset tests and spousal income and those sorts of things have been varied to address many of these circumstances at present. So, a lot's been done to make many of these government payments easier.

In terms of support for the arts and entertainment sector, there have been some specific payments made there. I'd contest the idea that we have a spare $60 billion lying around — that was $60 billion that would have to have been borrowed-

David Bevan: But it was 60 billion you were prepared to spend?

Simon Birmingham: It was $60 billion — just like many programs. So JobKeeper was established as a demand driven program — just like JobSeeker, just like Medicare. We pay for the numbers that come through the door.

David Bevan: Well, Nigel’s saying the demand is there for his daughter. But, Nigel’s saying the demand is still there for the daughter and you've got 60 billion you were prepared to spend — how about spending a little bit of money in the arts sector?

Simon Birmingham: We have been making funds available in targeted ways for certain parts of the arts sector, and we've been looking at that. But again it comes back to the question you asked me about footy before — are there ways we can safely get some of these things back to business and back in to work? Because the best thing for people employed in the arts sector is to find a way to get them back into work.

And while we have this so well under control across the community, that's again where I hope that our health officials can — having worked through how to reopen pubs and clubs and hopefully to move that along even further, over the next little while, and, have done the same with a range of other things — that they can start looking at these other key parts of the economy and how we get them into their real jobs again. Not just whether or not they qualify for JobKeeper or JobSeeker or Youth Allowance — important though those safety nets are.

David Bevan: …Alright. At 23 past nine let’s go to Michael from Panorama. Good morning, Michael.

Caller Michael: Good morning. Look, I just want to say I’ve never met the Senator and I’m not necessarily agreeing with any of his politics. But I do congratulate him on talking in plain English that people like me can understand. It’s refreshing to hear answers given in plain, A, B, C, language. I think he should be congratulated for that.

David Bevan: Michael from Panorama, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Uncle Michael. I was just joking.

David Bevan: Uncle Michael from Panorama, thank you. Monica from Eudunda. Hello, Monica.

Caller Monica: Good morning.

David Bevan: Your question?

Caller Monica: I’d just- I’d like to talk about employers- employees who, for whatever reason, were not entitled to JobKeeper. So, permanent part-time, but maybe they were employed between 1 March and 23 March, have been stood down. Now that the businesses are opening up they are only employing or giving hours to people that are actually on JobKeeper, so even though they’re perm- have permanent part-time work they haven’t been reemployed by these businesses.

David Bevan: Minister.

Simon Birmingham: So JobKeeper is up for review that starts essentially next week, next month. We said at the three month mark we’d review how JobKeeper works. Jobkeeper has provided an important link and safety valve in two ways – it’s kept, in the private sector, the vast majority of employees connected to their employer.

Now yep, we couldn’t create a circumstance where businesses, after JobKeeper had been announced, could keep adding more people to the payroll and simply give all of them JobKeeper as well — that would have been a honeypot for rorting right across the board. So there had to be a date where we drew a line and said it’s people who are on the books now, who are eligible — not those who come on the books later. And that's why we put those present perspectives in place.

But the other thing that was that was crucial there, and it was said before, if we hadn't had JobKeeper then, in terms of permanent employees many businesses would have had to — not just stand them down in terms of the hours they worked, but made them redundant. And if they'd made them redundant that would have triggered a whole raft of redundancy payments those businesses would have had to pay out. and in many cases that would have tipped those businesses over the edge and they would have become insolvent themselves, and then would have had a whole different crisis on our hands. It’s a big enough problem we face right now getting people back to work, but if we didn't even have those productive businesses operating in the first place it would have been a bigger world of pain.

David Bevan: Monica from Eudunda, thanks for your call. Let's go to Flagstaff. Good morning, Ron.

Caller Ron: Good morning boys and girls. Yes, I’ve got two questions, first one is those on the JobKeeper who were receiving only 1500, how come so many lawyers are complaining that they’ve contracted their employees to come back to work and the employees of said, look can you leave us off for a few more weeks? We're getting much more money from the government and we're much better off financially. So can you put this off for a few more weeks?

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, is that the case?

Simon Birmingham: Ron, I haven't heard of too many instances of that. Certainly coming back to work won't change the JobKeeper payment that people get for now. So JobKeeper is there and that’s $1500 per fortnight and unless somebody is working more hours that would entitle them to more than the $1500 in which case the employers has got to pick up the difference — they'll keep getting the 1500

Employees who are asked to come back to work should come back, and there are rights for employers who challenge that if somebody is simply refusing to work under reasonable terms. And so I'd encourage any employer who's facing those issues to work through the appropriate channels of dealing with those employees if they need to. But I think in the main, most employees are pretty keen to get back to work as well.

David Bevan: Minister, we know you have to go right on the dot of 930 this morning — it's 27 minutes past nine. Paul has sent us a text saying it's time to reset the social security system. He makes a good point doesn't he? Because the prime minister wants to reset the IR debate, why not reset the debate over welfare? Given the pandemic and what it’s shown us.

Simon Birmingham: Well, right- and we've discussed the coincidence of this that Newstart became JobSeeker very early on in the pandemic — and that was a coincidence and it was part of a reform process driven by reviews and reports that had been done over the last couple of years, trying to consolidate a number of payments into a simpler structure. And I don't think that process is completely at an end, and my SA colleague, Anne Ruston, is doing a sterling job in the policy work of trying to simplify, where we can, those safety net payments.

So obviously the initiative the prime minister’s shown this week in industrial relations and vocational education is the same. The top priority for government now is firmly how do we get people back into work, and those things that are impediments to that need to be looked at. And particularly to seize the opportunity that's come about in this pandemic where unions, and employers, and government have — perhaps for the first time in many years — sat down and in a spirit of goodwill come up with practical solutions to the problems that we've faced. And we want to try to seize that in a very short process over the next few months and to keep those people at the table, without the type of tribalism or the like that we've seen over recent years and see if we can make the IR system work better for everybody to help us get Australians back into work.

David Bevan: We'll give the last word to Belinda from Rose Park. Hello, Belinda.

Caller Belinda: Hello, David and Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Hi, Belinda.

Caller Belinda: I want to acknowledge the just fantastic job all of the state and federal leaders and our chief medical officers have done in handling this COVID-19. I just feel very grateful that we live in a country where our leaders have placed people's health before the economy. And I have been particularly impressed by observing how the National Cabinet, irrespective of the politics of all of the Cabinet, they’ve worked together for the whole of Australia — they’ve done it in such a mature fashion and I think they're to be commended for that. And I-

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham- Belinda, Simon Birmingham’s got to go. So we might ask him to respond.

Simon Birmingham: Belinda, thank you. And I think it's a reminder that we're all incredibly lucky to live in Australia where our political arguments are often about important things, but by no means always the life and death matters that we can see sometimes in other parts of the world. And as we wake up this morning to see images from the United States and the concerns in relation to Hong Kong, you know, there are a range of other things beyond even the COVID-19 pandemic that remind us as to why we are so very lucky to be Australians and to be living in this wonderful country. And that, for all our political differences, I think governments of all persuasions have, in the main, served us pretty well over the years to work with Australians, to hold on to some great values, and to get some very amazing outcomes for our country.

David Bevan: Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you David, my pleasure.

David Bevan: Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

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