Interview on Radio National, Breakfast with Fran Kelly
Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade and Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate. Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Thanks for the opportunity.
Fran Kelly: Minister. Before we get to this parliamentary sitting week, the borders are reopening from today. Melbourne starts receiving international flights again. Western Australia’s expected to announce that its reopening to Sydney and New South Wales. Given though, the stuff up on the weekend, when those two overseas passengers flew from Sydney to Melbourne without quarantining, can we have confidence that this can be done safely?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, we can, because Australia has done so with enormous volumes of people returning to Australia, of Australian citizens returning to Australia through the course of this year. Indeed, more than 400,000 people and Australians have come back since the call to come home, if you could, was sent out. Now it's a challenging task and the incident in Sydney is yet another reminder of the fact that there's no cheap and easy way to have returning Australians coming in massive volumes. For all of the criticism that the federal Labor Party makes to suggest we should be able to magically somehow bring people home faster, these are reminders that the processes need to be thorough, they need to be rigorous, and the safeguards need to firmly be in place. And we've been working with the states and territories to make sure that they tighten those processes, and obviously further tightening is required in New South Wales.
Fran Kelly: Yeah, there's obviously a gap that was exposed here. The gap seems to be around exemptions and exemptions approvals. There's a bit of confusion when it was first realised what had happened — Border Force was called on to explain and then it turns out it was the police. What's the Federal Government doing to make sure all the proper protocols are improved to close this gap?
Simon Birmingham: So, yes, ultimately, the New South Wales Police apologised for this and their apology is welcome. But obviously, what is more important is that systems are strengthened and tightened to make sure that there's not a repeat in that regard. And so Border Force officials will work closely with New South Wales Police. All the states and territories joined together in terms of the type of national hook-ups and processes we have to strengthen these systems. So when South Australia had its incident involving a cleaner, every state and territory, I understand has followed suit subsequently to tighten the testing regimes around those ancillary staff who work, associated with those hotel quarantining environments, to make sure we have other safeguards. And no doubt the same type of procedure will take place here, where there'll be another closing of the net in response to this challenge. But pleasingly, with Victoria and South Australia coming back online, that will lift the total number of Australians who can get back each week to 6700. And that's good news for those people in tough circumstances overseas. But for everybody here, the difficulties of New South Wales, of Victoria, of South Australia, of Queensland, they've all had different incidents, some far greater than others. Obviously, Victoria is the greatest of all. All of those different issues are a firm reminder that this is a fraught process, a risky process, and that all of the different safeguards need to be as strong as possible, and there is not a quick and easy pathway back for everybody.
Fran Kelly: In terms of numbers coming in, I've had a lot of people asking this morning, how come to two German nationals are allowed in when Australians can't get in? Can you tell us more about these two people? Are they permanent residents? I mean, presumably they're not tourists, given places are meant to be reserved for Australians?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, I can, because I asked the very same question myself about this. I'm advised that there is a mother who is an Australian citizen and her son is a German-born Australian citizen. So they are both still returning Australian citizens.
Fran Kelly: Okay. Thank you. The big legislation this week is the omnibus bill to reform IR law. This was the bill that was agreed around the tables hopefully. Team Australia and the ACTU and the industry and business groups sat around together. There's going to be a new definition of casuals, a more flexible, better off overall test or BOOT test, faster approvals for enterprise bargaining agreements, employers will be able to pay higher loaded rates rather than penalties and other allowances. Is the Government guaranteeing that no worker will be worse off by any of these changes? Because otherwise you're going to have a fight on your hands in the Senate, aren’t you?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, it's sort of boiling down to those simplistic questions that has plagued the opportunities to have a better industrial relations ...
Fran Kelly: Well it’s pretty vital questions. It might be simple, but it's vital. I mean, can you guarantee that no one's going to be worse off for these changes?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, what we are seeking to do here — and you did go through a good list there in relation to a number of crucial areas — the opportunity for casuals to convert to permanency. It's an important reform. It's a necessary one to ensure that we don't have employers facing potential claims of double dipping in terms of entitlements being paid, an enormous ballooning cost, potentially up to $39 billion in penalties being paid as a result of the way in which federal court determinations have been made. It's important for employees who, under the reforms we're proposing, will have a clearer definition of what it is to be casual and therefore clearer rights to be able to convert to permanency after just 12 months of employment if that definition is met. And so that's good news for many Australians. And what we are wanting to do as well is to make sure that in this regard, whether it's casuals getting into the workforce, there's no handbrake on employment, but an encouragement for employees- employers to take on more employees. Equally, when it comes to greenfield sites to make sure there’s certainty for investment to proceed in an industrial landscape, where those who are deciding to undertake very large investments, know that they can do so in an IR framework that makes their investment worth proceeding with and minimises the risk of industrial disruptions just a couple of years down the track. And so these are all about trying to find the right sweet spot in the IR landscape that absolutely protects workers, their entitlements and their rights. But does so in a way that also protects employers from heightened risk of major payout claims, of major disruptions on sites, and enables job creation to happen and that’s ultimately at the heart of everything we're doing at present, job creation.
Fran Kelly: Okay. We'll get some response to this from Sally McManus, ACTU Secretary shortly. Just in terms of this is meant to create jobs. How many jobs will these changes create? Has the Government looked at this?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, all of these reforms are happening in an environment where the world faces the greatest economic challenge of our time since the Great Depression. And so Australia has fared far better than most. We've seen more than 600,000 jobs created in recent months. These are about working hand in glove with the other measures that we outlined in our budget — incentives to invest, the JobMaker hiring credits to particularly encourage employment of young Australians. And the impacts of all such measures are credited in aggregate in terms of the employment forecast that we outlined in the budget.
Fran Kelly: Will job hiring credit be available for hiring casuals?
Simon Birmingham: So the JobMaker hiring credit is there with- no, it's not for casuals. There are minimum hours that have to be met on an ongoing basis.
Fran Kelly: Okay. There's a separate bill to allow union demergers. This has sort of popped up. Is this about splitting up one of the country's most powerful unions, the CFMMEU, and particularly about nailing John Setka? Is that what's driving this?
Simon Birmingham: Well, no, I understand it's driven by feedback, including from the trade union movement, that they want these types of opportunities to be able to structure themselves in more agile ways and the Government respects that.
Fran Kelly: Okay. One of the biggest challenges facing the Government, obviously, is the China relationship at the moment. We've spoken about that many times, you and I here on this program. The Foreign Relations Bill has now passed the Parliament, though there are still some amendments to be tidied up. But now that you have the power to do so, will the Federal Government veto Victoria's Belt and Road agreement with Beijing?
Simon Birmingham: So the Foreign Relations Bill, which we hope will pass all final stages during the course of this week, will give the Federal Government the power to be able to approve or not approve agreements between states and territories and overseas governments — national governments in foreign nations.
Fran Kelly: So are you going to use it to veto Victoria's Belt and Road agreement?
Simon Birmingham: And the process for that is that all states and territories have a three-month window in which to provide details of the some 130 different agreements that exist between states and territories and foreign governments. More than half of those, overwhelmingly, more than half are with countries other than China. They'll have to provide all of those, whatever country they're from, and they will all be then considered, carefully, methodically against Australia's foreign policy settings. And the Foreign Minister will make the ultimate call. We're not going to prejudge any one agreement.
Fran Kelly: But the Federal Government’s already prejudged Victoria’s Belt and Road agreement, it’s already criticised it. Has been highly critical of it for a long time. Would you expect the Foreign Minister will cancel that?
Simon Birmingham: I would expect the Foreign Minister and her department will receive that agreement from the Victorian Government, along with all of the other ones Victoria has signed and all of the others from other states and territories and will consider them all carefully on their merits against the legislation and the foreign policy settings of the day.
Fran Kelly: Okay. So if it doesn't get cancelled, if that Memo of Understanding between the Victorian Government of Beijing doesn't get cancelled, that'll mean that the Government accepts the deal is in the national interest, yeah?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, let's work through the process and not deal with the hypotheticals of where it may or may not go. We've got the legislation we want to get through the Parliament this week. It will then provide a process to make sure that whoever the national government in Australia is of the day, whether it's a Labor government or a Liberal-National Party government, that it is in the best possible position to be able to make sure every agreement this country enters into, by a federal government or by the states and territories, is in the national interest consistent with our foreign policy settings, just as we already have those types of safeguards in place, for example, for foreign investment arrangements.
Fran Kelly: Okay. Just finally, Minister, on the push for more ambitious climate action from Australia, will our Prime Minister tell a global summit on Saturday that Australia has abandoned its plans to use surplus credits to meet its 2030 emissions targets, the so-called Kyoto credits?
Simon Birmingham: Australia has carryover credits. They’ve always been reflected in the Kyoto agreement that that was struck. And the reason we have them is because we have met and exceeded all of our emissions reduction targets from the first Kyoto period and indeed, from the second Kyoto period ending in 2020.
Fran Kelly: So are we going to use the carryover credits?
Simon Birmingham: Now, the Prime Minister has been very clear in relation to the 2030 targets, our ambition has always been to meet and to exceed those targets and that he hopes that we may not need necessarily those carryover credits. And so the PM will make his speech. That's up to him as to making his speech. But we have always been clear that Australia, when it makes these commitments to the rest of the world, we strive to meet them and exceed them. Many other countries, including some who are often lauded in relation to climate policies, rely on purchasing international credits from overseas to meet their commitments. Australia, we have made ours and met them through change within Australia and we've exceeded that, generating these types of credits.
Fran Kelly: If we don't use our carryover credits — we’ve been strongly criticised by other countries for even proposing this idea. Will it be because of international pressure and will we only get there effectively because of the sharp fall in transport emissions due to COVID restrictions?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, I again stress that the right to use carryover credits was there in the very first Kyoto agreement that was struck.
Fran Kelly: Most countries aren’t using them and they don't think it's in the spirit of the agreement.
Simon Birmingham: Most countries aren't exceeding their targets and in fact, going and purchasing international carbon abatement units from the international market to be able to meet their domestic targets. Australia is quite rare in terms of exceeding our domestic targets in the manner in which we have quite consistently.
Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran. My pleasure.