Interview on ABC Radio , Mornings, with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: New Finance Minister portfolio, Supercars, Trans-Tasman Travel.
30 October 2020

David Bevan: In the car, on his way to be sworn-in as the country’s new Finance Minister is South Australian Senator, Simon Birmingham. Good morning and congratulations, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, and listeners. Thank you very much

David Bevan: Is this the pinnacle of your career?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s taking on the Finance Ministry and the leadership of the Government and Senate. It’s an enormous responsibility, particularly at this time of a great world-wide challenge where we see the biggest global economic downturn since The Great Depression. So, it’s a somewhat daunting task, but as I say, it’s a huge responsibility and the real focus is on making sure that we create the jobs and the economic growth to get us back to where we were pre-COVID. And that’s going to be a long, hard slog, but we are very determined to do it and we’ve got plans to do so.

David Bevan: What exactly does a Finance Minister do? Because you’re not the Treasurer, you’re the Finance Minister. What’s your job description?

Simon Birmingham: It’s a very close partnership with the Treasurer and the Finance Minister, in many ways, is responsible for the internal finances across government, while the Treasurer has lead responsibility for the economy and economic management. But the two of those things go very much hand-in-glove together, so Josh and I will be working very closely, together with the Prime Minister, on the overall economic strategy for the nation. But the Finance Minister then has particular responsibilities there about the oversight of the government departments spending programs, a number of the governments business enterprises, those types of things.

David Bevan: So when our listeners look at the front page of The Australian today and it says Closing the Gap, $35 billion funding short on checks, what it's saying is that the Productivity Commission has looked at billions of dollars that's been spent on indigenous programs which it says have actually returned very little to the people it needs to help. Is that the sort of thing that you would look at and think we need to get our head around this? I need to be involved here?

Simon Birmingham: Those sorts of issues that go to the quality of government spending as well as the quantity of government spending are absolutely crucial, and I think most fair minded listeners would know that in an area like that on indigenous support programs over the years in terms of closing the gap – in educational attainment, in health outcomes, in all of those different areas – that enormous efforts are made by governments. Some things work quite well, we have managed to increase the level of Year 12 completion rates for indigenous Australians and improve those educational outcomes. But some things just don't go fast enough, or frankly don't work. And governments do need to be big enough to acknowledge when things don't work and change course and change programs because there's never a clear silver bullet to many of these complex issues, we have to acknowledge that it's about continually working with taxpayers’ dollars. And as Finance Minister I'm very, very conscious there are always taxpayer dollars or debt that we are managing, and so we have to manage it as carefully as possible.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, when you and I first met I was a humble reporter and employee of the ABC, and not much has changed. You were a humble staffer for Jane Hall, the Tourism Minister – you have now gone on to bigger and better things. But way back then, one of the problems facing Joan Hall as Tourism Minister, your boss was to fill the gap left by the Formula One Grand Prix. Today we learn, all of these years later, South Australia is back in that same position because we've lost the Supercars.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I woke up and saw that news this morning on the front page of The Tiser, and I think there'll be many fans of Supercars who might be a tad disappointed there. But also, I caught the tail end of an interview with Ian Horne's Hotels Association earlier and heard Ian explaining how, even from their perspective, the economic value and benefit had noticeably declined in recent years. And the Supercars are taxpayer subsidised event – we were just talking about governments needing to be A, careful with taxpayer’s money and B, be big enough and brave enough to say when something's no longer working – and it looks like Steven Marshall has done that here. It won't be a universally popular decision, but if the cost of this event to the taxpayers was such that you couldn't really justify compared to the economic return to the state, then that's a wise and sensible decision. But, yes, I'm sure Steven will be looking, and I'm sure the Tourism Minister is for at least the next couple of months too, and I'm sure Steven will be looking at how the state builds on the other tourism assets it's got, particularly the other festivals and events to replace that that loss of the Supercars.

David Bevan: Well, that's the lesson here, isn't it? He's got to do a Dean Brown and Joan Hall – he just can't say, oh, sorry, we've lost this. They came up with the Tour Down Under, they came up with the Supercars – you've got to fill this gap.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is something that the state has to, has to look at. Now, the post-COVID world is going to be a challenging one, all the forecasts are that travel and tourism aren't going to return to what they used to look like, if at all – certainly not for a couple of years. So I think it's wise to take careful steps right now around what it is that the state invests in, where it puts its tourism and events dollars to get the maximum, maximum result. And what we really want to make sure there is that where you are investing, you're getting visitors who come, who stay, who spend, and you have to really assess in terms of these events that they're the returns you're getting. You're not just being put on for, shall we say, the, you know, the entertainment value of South Australia. That's important but when it's- when the taxpayer is being asked to fund it they’re being put on to generate a return that is about jobs and incomes to South Australians as well.

David Bevan: You're about to be sworn in as Finance Minister, before you do that, though – New Zealand. Do you think South Australians will be able to fly to New Zealand before Christmas?

Simon Birmingham: I'm pretty optimistic there. I really hope that we do see that movement, that Jacinda Ardern has just won a significant election victory, and I congratulate her there. Her government hasn't- has yet to be sworn in again, so they're still in the caretaker period – we expect that will probably happen next week, the New Zealand High Commissioner was telling me earlier this week. I've been in touch with my New Zealand counterpart this week and I'm speaking to him again today. And I'll keep encouraging them to reciprocate now that we are open to Kiwis – we'd like them to be open to Aussies, and then we can get a true tourism flow happening between the two countries. That, again, will be really important to save the jobs in airports, airlines, hire car companies, hotels – all of those sectors that rely on people taking proper trips, and they're the ones that are feeling the real pain still of COVID in terms of not being able to get back to normal business.

David Bevan: So it all comes down to Jacinda Ardern? Australia wants it. South Australia wants it. It comes down to New Zealand. They're the only people blocking this from happening at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: The ball is in the Kiwis court and we hope that they- hope they pick it up and run with it on this occasion.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, congratulations again and thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, David, thank you.

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