SUBJECTS: Vaccine rollout; Federal Budget; Economy; Belt and Road Initiative; Australia's relationship with China; Chinese Consulate in Adelaide; Uyghurs; Treatment of women; Domestic violence.
DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Finance here in our Federal Government, but South Australia's most senior Liberal politician is in our studio. Good morning Senator Birmingham.
SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM, GOVERNMENT LEADER IN THE SENATE: Good morning, David.
BEVAN: And on the tie-line, Senator Penny Wong, Labor's Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Labor Party in the Senate.
And you're the Leader of the Coalition in the Senate too, aren't you (Simon Birmingham)? So, our two Leaders in the Senate, good morning Senator Penny Wong.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE: Morning David, morning all.
BIRMINGHAM: Morning Penny.
BEVAN: You've both got such long titles.
WONG: Ah yeah, don't worry about it. 'Simon and Penny', that'll do. They all know who we are, don't they?
BEVAN: It's Simon and Penny, you know who they are. Where should we begin? The vaccine rollout. Penny Wong, I think you'll probably get the discussion going because you'll think it's a dog's breakfast. Tell us what you think they should have done by now.
WONG: Well it is a shambles, David. And what's worse is it's a shambles that the Prime Minister hasn't fronted up to. He keeps turning up and telling everybody it's okay till it became obvious it wasn't. He told Australians in November last year "we're at the front of the queue". Unfortunately, that ain't the case. We see the Government massively behind schedule. They said they'd vaccinate 4 million people by the end of March, well we're in April and we're nowhere near that. They said that aged care facilities would be a priority; we're well behind schedule for that. I think Anthony's visiting a home where no one's been vaccinated. We're behind schedule on vaccinating the aged care workforce and only one in 15 people with disability in facilities have been vaccinated when they're a priority. And the Government keeps telling us this is on track.
The reality is that it isn't and there are consequences for our economy as well as for Australia's health. We said last year the Government should have secured more contracts, regrettably, they didn't. We said earlier, the Government should be engaging more closely with the states. Well, I think there's a National Cabinet meeting today where the Prime Minister is finally going to try and do that. But the consequence of all of this and continually being told it's okay is that we have far fewer Australians vaccinated than was intended. We're behind the rest of the world. That's got consequences for health and it's got consequences for the economy.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, it looks like you dropped the ball. You had a good year last year, you helped keep the place safe, but when it came to 2021, you dropped the ball.
BIRMINGHAM: Vaccinating all Australians with vaccines that were only just coming to market was always going to be an incredibly complicated process; was always going to be very difficult – the biggest, essentially, undertaking in our peacetime history in a logistical sense and what we've seen is that it's proving even more challenging than was forecast based on the contracts in the terms that we wrote. We have contracted for enough vaccine to do the Australian population multiple times over, but they haven't arrived on time. They haven't arrived in the sequencing that we expected and indeed we've had the complications in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
What we have got though is 1.7 million doses have been administered to date. We're now regularly tracking at more than 60,000 doses being administered on a daily basis. The rate of vaccine rollout in Australia has actually been tracking at a faster rate on equivalent standards compared with New Zealand, compared with Japan, compared with Korea - countries that like us have done a very good job of managing COVID and suppressing it across the community, but have therefore tended to be at the back of the queue when it's come to the release of those vaccines because they don't have the same, we don't have the same health crisis that is affecting other parts of the world like Europe, the UK and the US.
BEVAN: Penny Wong, the polls, certainly seem to show that while some of the paint has come off the Morrison Government, people are prepared to cut them some slack on a whole range of issues. They're still well in front in terms of managing the economy and managing the pandemic. People are, perhaps, a little more forgiving than you.
WONG: I think it's very clear from the roll out of the vaccine that the Government has mishandled this. We have come through the pandemic in far better shape than many other nations and I think you saw the Opposition take a very different approach to the traditional role of opposition during the crisis of the pandemic. We offered bipartisan support, we were constructive and I think really the credit for coming through this pandemic doesn't lie with Scott Morrison, it lies with the whole of Australia. Australians responded, we accepted restrictions, we accepted borders being closed, we accepted economic shutdowns and Australia and our frontline workforce responded magnificently.
But I think what people are tired of is being told that things are going well when they're not. And people are tired of the Government not fronting up – as Simon just failed to do – to their errors. We were told we would be amongst the first in the world to receive a COVID vaccine. We were told that we'd be put at the front of the queue – that is exactly what the Prime Minister said in November of last year. That is demonstrably not true. We were also told by Mr Hunt that the EU's blocking of the AstraZeneca shipment would not impact the roll out. That's what he said on the 5th of March. Yet Simon just used that excuse in the interview and I think Australians might be more willing to accept some of the Government's excuses if they fronted up to their errors, but it's never their fault and it's never their responsibility. And we have less than a quarter of about - the 4 million Australians who were supposed to be vaccinated by the end of last month didn't happen. The people in the priority categories – aged care residents, frontline workers – still haven't been vaccinated and, as I said, disability care residents were supposed to have been vaccinated by now and they've only vaccinated one in 15.
BEVAN: Well, Don in Belair says it is a dog's breakfast: "My industry of events and conferences won't be back without the vaccine". Simon Birmingham –
BIRMINGHAM: Well I know that people in businesses like events and conferences are absolutely doing it tough as a result of the border closures and the reduction, particularly in relation to travel across the country. But those border closures have been essential.
Now let me agree with Penny on one point in particular and that is that Australia's successful management of COVID is a testament to the work of all Australians to the fact that absolutely people like Don have copped, indeed, pain and sacrifice. As we've gone along, we made the decisions – around this time last year we had finally decided to close all international borders into Australia and that was probably the most consequential decision in terms of keeping Australians safe and it remains really the number one protection to keep Australians safe.
The economic measures we put in place have been about sustaining our economy in a way where we actually have more people in jobs today than we did in March of last year. That's quite remarkable and just as people around the rest of the world look at countries like Australia and say ‘how on earth have you protected Australians from the COVID pandemic so well?’ They also look at our economy and say ‘how on earth have you managed to get employment to such a strong level again in the face of such global disruption’.
But on the vaccine front, if we could go back in time would we have set out the timeline that we did based on the contracts we'd signed and the expectations of when vaccines would roll out? Well clearly you wouldn't do that again because, obviously, those vaccines didn't turn up when expected. We didn't foresee the type of disruptions that would occur. And so, to Australians we created a sense of expectation around the delivery, which has proved to be even harder to meet than we anticipated. We always said it would be difficult and that it was a challenging logistical exercise...
BEVAN: Well, but maybe you shouldn't make promises you can't keep or you should work harder to keep your promises?
BIRMINGHAM: Well, we were trying to be transparent at the time. Having signed contracts, entered into undertakings...
BEVAN: Maybe you got cocky.
BIRMINGHAM: Well David, look, I think we were simply trying to outline to Australians, in the face of questions that we get all the time, as to when we expected things to happen. It turned out that those things which were beyond our control, couldn't be delivered. But we have now got a vaccine program – it still has its challenges, no doubt about it, but that is seeing more than 60,000 doses administered per day, more than 4,000 general practice clinics across the country administering the vaccines, more than 1.7 million doses administered to date; 184,000 of those administered in aged care and disability services settings. They continue to be our priority, although again, we did make changes –transparent about those changes – to say that before we got to those settings we were going to give absolute priority to those frontline staff working in our medi-hotel facilities, in our quarantine facilities on our borders, to make sure we gave maximum protection against incursions.
BEVAN: You're the Federal Finance Minister, are we going to see tax relief in the budget in a few weeks?
BIRMINGHAM: We're going to see a budget that puts first and foremost the ongoing safety, security – including economic security – of Australians. As I said, the jobs recovery we've seen in this country has been remarkable and the type of tax measures we've put in place to encourage investment, to put more money back into the pockets of Australians, the tax cuts that we brought forward...
BEVAN: It's speculated this week that the low- and middle-income tax offset will be extended. Is that a reasonable expectation?
BIRMINGHAM: Well, I'm not going to announce the budget in advance of the budget that will be handed down in May as scheduled. But I do want to assure listeners that continuing to provide the strong underpinnings for investment across our country, for consumer confidence, for business confidence will be a focus of the budget. It's essential we know, given all of the uncertainty that exists over the vaccine rollout, over international borders, over just the disruptions that are happening around the rest of the world with further COVID shutdowns disrupting those economies, that we maintain confidence.
BEVAN: So, there will be stimulus in the budget for the economy and you're not ruling out some kind of tax relief making up that?
BIRMINGHAM: Well, I'm not announcing the budget here and so I'm not going to rule in or out those sorts of things aside from making it very clear that we will make sure the type of measures that have worked to date to keep Australia economically secure and jobs growth in Australia continue to be invested in.
BEVAN: Penny Wong, tax relief or putting money in people's pockets by way of extending or reintroducing JobKeeper – what would you do?
WONG: Well, can I come back first. There was one point I wanted to make on vaccines and targets because you asked a good question: well maybe you should work harder to meet your targets. Well, the way in which Scott Morrison has dealt with that is to now say he doesn't want to set any targets anymore. So that's how he's dealt with the fact that it's been a shambles. He's said ‘I'm not going to make any more announcements about targets that I can't meet’, because he doesn't want to be held accountable to them.
The budget is an important budget. It's a budget that's about setting the trajectory for the recovery. And while Simon might tell everybody it's okay, I can tell you as somebody who talks to a lot of people, engages with a lot of people, that a lot of people are doing it tough and there are a lot of people who say ‘well, this might be a recovery, but my business is really struggling’. The Government does need to deal with a whole range of issues. The withdrawal of JobKeeper is having a very substantial economic effect.
I think we need to deal with the years of flat wages that we've seen under this Government. From Labor's perspective, I think we also need to deal with job security. One of the things the pandemic has demonstrably made clear to people is what happens to people who have insecure work. And overnight, as you might recall, with the economic shutdowns and rolling shutdowns we saw a lot of workers for whom their lack of job security, their lack of entitlements, really caused a lot of hardship for them and for their families. So, I think Australians are looking to this budget to see what sort of plan the Government has for the future of the Australian economy. We've come through a difficult time. Simon might say everything's rosy; I don't think it is. I think there are a lot of sectors who are really struggling.
BEVAN: Well, he didn't say everything was rosy, he said there are sectors that are still in trouble, but the economy's doing pretty well isn't it compared to other places?
WONG: The economy did a lot better through the GFC in Australia than in many other places too.
BEVAN: And that's to our credit.
WONG: Yeah it is, absolutely.
BEVAN: We're actually pretty good at managing crisis, aren't we, in this country?
WONG: And Australians are a resilient people. I'm simply making the point that I think there has been an enormous change in our economy as a consequence of the pandemic and that those changes are not short lived. The borders being closed for a long period of time is going to have an effect on our economy and I think people will judge this budget on the basis of what this looks like for Australia going forward.
BEVAN: Did the Federal Government do the right thing tearing up the four Victorian Government deals with China? This is the Belt and Road Initiative, Penny Wong?
WONG: Well, Anthony Albanese has made clear that a future Labor Government wouldn't sign up to the BRI. And in terms of the Federal Government's position, as soon as that legislation was passed with our support, I think it was pretty clear that this was where the Federal Government was heading.
I would make a comment though. I do think under this Government we've become more trade dependent on China than ever. And that's the reality. Trade diversification is important, and it should have been a greater priority and will need to be a greater priority going forward given the circumstances that we find ourselves in in terms of the relationship with China.
BEVAN: But tearing up those four Belt and Road Initiative deals that Victoria did with China with the blessing of the Federal Labor Opposition shows that Dan Andrews really – he was working above his pay scale, wasn't he?
WONG: I think over time people's view about the BRI has changed. I think Simon and other ministers previously, certainly Steve Ciobo, might have made more positive comments about the BRI than we would now make. I think people's views have changed. As I said, I think this is to be expected. As soon as that legislation was passed, this is what we anticipated would happen.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham –
BIRMINGHAM: Well the legislation we put in place is about ensuring that whoever the Australian Government of the day is, be it a Coalition Liberal-National government or a Labor government, they set the foreign policy for Australia and that where other governments across the country – state and territory governments, local governments or otherwise – go and enter into agreements internationally, they need to be consistent with that foreign policy setting. So that's why we put these reforms in place. We're going through a process now that has on the first flush identified four agreements – two with China, one with Iran, one with Syria – that we see as being inconsistent with the international foreign policy settings of the Australian Government, and therefore those agreements will be cancelled.
This is about carefully, simply ensuring that we do have one consistent foreign policy for Australia and that everybody applies and works to that consistency. In relation to the Belt and Road agreement, it has become apparent as time has gone by that for certain countries across our region, issues around debt traps, issues around compromising of, perhaps, elements of their sovereignty have been raised around the operation of the BRI and that's heightened concerns in terms of those types of agreements.
BEVAN: So, state governments need to be really careful in getting involved in what really is the purview of the Federal Government, which is foreign affairs. Leave it to us guys, we're setting the rules here and you should just follow, which leads us to Steven Marshall. Should he be turning up and opening up the Chinese Consulate here in Joslin?
BIRMINGHAM: We have absolutely no problem with state and territory leaders engaging in positive diplomacy and engaging in positive agreements. Of the more than 1,000 agreements I think that were part of this first checking process by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, 350 of them were with China and have all sailed through quite happily; that's state and territory governments having those agreements with China, getting the tick of approval.
BEVAN: Because some people in your party thought he shouldn't have gone.
BIRMINGHAM: I understand the debates, but ultimately we do aspire to have positive relations on Australia's terms, in Australia's national interest with all of our major partners around the world, with all of the countries in our region and that includes with China. We have areas of disagreement, that's very clear. We have areas of our national interest that we have to protect, be it the fundamental elements of our foreign policy or indeed the types of changes we've made to foreign investment laws, the types of protections we've put in place for critical national infrastructure. All of those sorts of changes have been about ensuring that Australia can have confidence that we protect our national interest but do it in a way that still extends the hand of friendship firmly to the countries across our region.
BEVAN: Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, were you happy to see Steven Marshall opening up the Chinese Consulate in Joslin?
WONG: Yeah look I can understand why, particularly the Uyghur community here in Adelaide, were very upset about that. And if I had been asked, I suppose the way I would have dealt with that would have been to engage with that community about their concerns as I have already. I do think we do need to continue to engage with China. China isn't going anywhere, but we have to recognise that China is becoming much more assertive about its place in the world and its interests and the nature of our relationship with China has changed and we are going to have differences which will need to be managed and we need to do that, I think, carefully, consciously and recognising that there are times where that is going to cause some real difficulties in the relationship.
I gave a speech on Monday in Hobart where I talked about some of the things we could do in relation to the human rights abuses, which are being reported in Xinjiang, which are obviously a major concern and very distressing concerns for the Uyghur community. And I said we should pass what's called Magnitsky legislation, which enables more flexibility in terms of the sanctions which can be applied. And I said we should also be strengthening the Modern Slavery Act because that is the way in which we can ensure that we don't purchase goods, wherever they're from, which have been contributed to by forced labour.
BEVAN: So, would you have gone?
WONG: I probably would have, but I would have done that after and engaging with the Uyghur community who were demonstrating outside because I don't think we're disengaging, but we also have be clear in that engagement that we are going to be consistent about our values and our interests, including human rights.
BEVAN: Now, we're quickly running out of time. We're only about three, three-and-a-half minutes away from the 10 o'clock news, but I did want to ask you both where are we at in terms of stopping the abuse of women. We saw five weeks of rage in our national capital and all around the country and then Parliament got up and that seems to have disappeared. But where are we at, Penny Wong?
WONG: Well, the issue will never disappear as long as there remains the treatment of women, too many women in our society. We have a woman a week who is murdered by a former or current intimate partner. We have the awful and tragic story of Kelly Wilkinson that has been in the media in this last period also who was allegedly murdered by her former partner.
I think the rage that you describe is because one; there is probably no woman who hasn't either had the experience of sexual violence or had someone she loved be a survivor of sexual violence and secondly, women and men felt that too many people in the government and people in power were not responding sufficiently. Now, I hope that we can as a society, not just have this in the media, but actually act upon this, because women are entitled to be safe wherever we are.
BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, we don't want to be angry, we want to be safe –
BIRMINGHAM: And that is a perfectly reasonable and indeed totally basic element of expectation that anybody should have, that expectation of being safe. Since the Parliament rose, the Government's handed down its response to the [email protected] inquiry, dealing with sexual harassment issues in the workplace and has committed to a number of reforms and will continue to undertake investment in those areas.
My South Australian colleague, Anne Ruston, has continued work in relation to women's safety and violence protection and domestic violence protection measures with state and territory ministers and we'll have more to say in terms of ongoing work and reforms there.
As Penny rightly said, this is not a few-week issue. This is a lifetime issue for everyone always, that continuing to strive – and for governments that means continuing to work on the policy responses that promote respect, that promote and ensure prevention wherever possible, but also have appropriate intervention services there and continue to build the laws, the policies, the communications campaigns that are necessary to achieve positive outcomes there.
BEVAN: Senators Birmingham and Wong, thank you very much for your time.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.