PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you all for the opportunity to come and be with you here today. Can I also acknowledge the Gadigal people, the Eora Nation, the elders past and present and future. Can I also acknowledge any veterans here in the room today or members of our defence forces and say thank you for your service. Can I acknowledge my colleague Michaelia Cash, a minister wearing quite a few hats at the moment and she’s doing an outstanding job, and I appreciate her being here with me today. And to a former Parliamentary colleague, even for a brief time, Peter Costello. But he’s better known for being our longest serving Treasurer and, of course, Chairman of the Nine Group and the Future Fund, and it’s good to see Peter, as always.
A year ago I spoke at this very summit and said ‘whatever you thought 2020 was going to be about, think again.’
I said we ‘confronted a new, complex, hydra-headed and rapidly-evolving challenge. COVID-19”.
On that day, a year ago, there were 113,210 cases of COVID-19 globally, across 108 countries, and more than 3,975 lives had been lost.
Already at that time, even a year ago, that number of lives lost exceeded SARS and MERS put together.
Today, there are more than 375,000 additional cases and 20,000 additional deaths occurring every single day around the world.
Now, in recognising we were not immune a year ago, I said that we were taking decisive and timely action to get ahead of this.
The National Incident Response Plan had been activated in mid-January, including standing up the National Incident Response Centre in Canberra. The Chief Medical Officer at the time, Professor Brendan Murphy, was convening daily meetings of the National medical expert panel, the AHPPC.
The National Security Committee of Cabinet was meeting regularly, under my direction, to direct our national response to the pandemic.
The National Coordination Mechanism, within the Department of Home Affairs, had been established to address economic and supply chain issues, particularly in critical medical equipment and supplies. And this would later be joined by the National COVID Coordination Commission to ensure greater private sector involvement led by Nev Power.
We had officially called the pandemic two weeks before the World Health Organisation in Australia and we were one of the first countries to move to close our borders to mainland China.
And by the close of the very week I stood here a year ago, we had announced the first of our three major economic responses and we had formed the National Cabinet.
We were getting ahead of this.
But to stay ahead, I warned, ‘we had to work together and continue to take decisive and timely action’.
‘Our goal’, I said, ‘was to protect the health, the wellbeing and livelihoods of Australians through this global crisis, and to ensure that when the recovery comes, and it will, we are well positioned to bounce back strongly on the other side’. That was the mission.
That is what we did and that is what we continue to do.
It has been a tough 12 months. In fact, it’s been the toughest our country has seen since the Great Depression and the Second World War.
But here we are, leading the world out of the global pandemic and the global recession it caused.
Our health system withstood the pandemic storm.
Our federation and our policy-making institutions adapted to bring about unprecedented cooperation.
Business, the research and scientific and medical community and expertise from all sections of society, finance and so many, came together to support this common purpose in a national effort.
And above all, Australians, in millions of acts of patience, of caring, kindness and responsibility, stood up, looked after each other, did their bit, and succeeded in pulling Australia through.
Australia’s remarkable performance in saving lives - the third lowest mortality rate from the pandemic among G20 nations - is the first point of conversation when I speak with foreign leaders, I’m proud to say.
But we’ve been equally successful in protecting livelihoods, better than almost every other advanced economy in the world today.
The actions of Government have been critical to Australia’s success.
At this summit a year ago, I set out the principles that would guide our Government’s economic response to COVID-19.
Our response would be proportionate, timely, scaleable and targeted.
I said it would be aligned with other policy arms, in particular monetary policy and we had fantastic collaboration with the Reserve Bank.
It would use existing delivery mechanisms, to avoid implementation failures of the past.
It would be temporary and have a clear fiscal exit strategy, and wherever possible it would favour responses that boosted productivity.
They were the principles.
A year on, we have remained faithful to those principles and that strategy.
And that strategy is working.
Emergency policies such as JobKeeper and the COVID supplement for JobSeeker provided the bridge that Australians and the economy needed as we looked into what was an abyss.
This was supported by our emergency cashflow payments for small and medium sized businesses and wage supports to retain apprentices.
Economic stimulus payments of $2,000 individually to Australians in the welfare system were injected. The last $250 payment was made during the past week.
There was our targeted support to the aviation industry to keep planes in the air and ensure our exporters could continue to service their international customers in the bellies of those planes.
We provided grants even to zoos to feed their animals.
Our push for the states to adopt emergency commercial tenancy arrangements for small and medium sized businesses, avoided nationwide evictions and unsustainable tenancy debts.
The Treasurer worked closely with the banks, and I want to pay particular credit to Matt Comyn who is with us here today, and I want to thank him for his leadership during this crisis, to ensure repayment relief to both businesses and households. The Treasurer and the financial community, Josh and that team, worked closely together.
And we gave Australians emergency access to their own money, their own resources, their own savings, their superannuation balances, to help see them though the worst of the crisis.
And this doesn’t include the increased federal expenditure on child care, mental health, critical medical supplies, aged care, state hospitals, a 50/50 deal on COVID related expenditure in state public hospitals and the thousands of defence force personnel who are deployed around the country, just to name a few.
All up the Australian Government, as at the last fiscal update, has committed $267 billion to our COVID-19 response, that is 13.5 per cent the size of our economy, of GDP.
On the direct economic support alone it’s 12.6 per cent, some $251 billion, and this rates as one the most significant COVID responses anywhere in the advanced world.
In Australia it has also been a united effort with the states and territories, who have also significantly added to this economic response, with an additional $122 billion or around 6 per cent of GDP.
But, I think even they would say, it is fair to say that the heavy fiscal lifting has been done by the Commonwealth over this past year.
Australian Government funding for the response has more than doubled the combined investment of all the states and territories put together, and some.
And even when considered as a share of revenue, the federal response eclipses those of each and every state and territory and those combined.
So, it has been federal taxpayers that have underwritten Australia’s COVID response, at every level of Government in this country.
Our Government does not take issue with that – none whatsoever. That was our job, that was our role, that was our responsibility to see Australia through. And so we have.
Thankfully, we are now entering the post emergency phase of the COVID-19 response. We can now switch over to medium and longer term economic policy settings that support private sector, business-led growth in our economy.
Because you simply cannot run the Australian economy on taxpayers’ money forever. It’s not sustainable.
So since October last year, as the economy began gearing up, we have been gearing down JobKeeper and the JobSeeker COVID Supplement.
Both measures will now cease as planned at the end of this month. And that is consistent with the principles that I set out a year ago.
For those who are in need of ongoing income support because of unemployment, this will now be delivered through the newly increased Jobseeker safety net payment. This is the first time Jobseeker has been increased, above indexation, since 1987. Not a small thing.
And we make this transition, and as we do so, it is also reassuring to know that the unprecedented support we have provided to the Australian economy during this past year will continue to support activity once these emergency measures come to an end.
Our $251 billion in direct economic support, while largely delivered in 2020, has a very long tail.
As the chart shows, treasury estimates direct support measures will see expected economic activity 5 per cent higher in the current year and 4.5 per cent higher in 2021-22, compared with no support.
We can see our economy’s remarkable comeback in the latest National Accounts.
The Australian economy grew by 3.1 per cent over the December quarter, led by the private sector – outperforming the G7 and the OECD average.
Household consumption was strong – backed by confident Australian consumers whose incomes have been supported through the crisis, also increasing retail spending.
But it also includes ongoing support, such as the over $50 billion in lower personal taxes for 11.6 million Australians announced in the October Budget.
The rise in private business investment was supported by government investment incentives worth over $30 billion. In particular, our supercharged instant asset write-off, the instant expensing, has encouraged firms to start investing again. And I see it on shops floors all over the country where I visit.
An example of this has been the strong rebound in vehicle purchases - every time you see a tradie driving a new ute, it is further proof that the Australian economy is on the comeback.
But it is not just small businesses that are benefitting. Visy Glass in Western Sydney, out at Emu Plains, a couple of weeks ago announced that they were bringing forward $380 million of capital investment because of the Government’s accelerated depreciation policies and our commitment to recycling as one of the priority sectors under our $1.5 billion advanced manufacturing strategy.
This forms part of a $2 billion commitment by Visy to Australia over the next ten years. That’s a great vote of confidence and a real shot in the arm for the Australian economy.
Residential building approvals and dwelling investment also grew strongly – supported by our Government’s HomeBuilder program which has seen almost 90,000 applications and driven private housing approvals to record levels.
This has all meant more jobs.
The unemployment rate has fallen down from 7.5 per cent in July last year, that’s the measured rate, down to 6.4 per cent in January. That’s 814,000 jobs I’d say recreated since May of 2020.
Even more striking, as I was noting at the time, was the fall in the effective rate of unemployment, that takes into account exits from the labour force and hours that had been reduced to zero.
Now the effective rate of unemployment peaked at around 15 per cent in April last year and it is also now at 6.4 per cent.
By January around 94 per cent of the 1.3 million people who lost their job or were stood down on zero hours in April were now back at work as of January.
As a result our labour force participation rate has already recovered to record highs.
Job ads are now well above pre-pandemic levels, up more than two and a half times from the bottom of the downturn. There are more than 20,000 more job ads per month now than there were pre-pandemic.
Business and consumer confidence has rebounded.
This confidence is critical to further unlocking business and household balance sheets in the months ahead.
In the June National Accounts we saw the household savings rate increase to a record 22 per cent. Australians were understandably taking shelter from the storm. By December this had fallen to 12 per cent, which is still above the peak reached during the GFC.
So just as was the case at the beginning of this crisis, confidence remains key. This is how we can encourage Australians, by boosting that confidence to open their storehouses once again and drive the next phase of our economic comeback, through increased consumption and investment.
So what are the next steps? While there has been significant progress, we know the job is far from done yet.
The impact of the COVID economic shocks will continue to persist for specific sectors beyond the end of JobKeeper. We understand this.
That is certainly true of the international aviation, tourism and travel sectors that will remain severely impacted as long as international borders remain effectively closed, and certainly if arbitrary state border closures continue.
So while it is necessary to draw JobKeeper and the JobSeeker COVID Supplement to a close, we do understand that ongoing targeted measures will be necessary to maintain our aviation and travel sectors, while assisting those regions that are heavily reliant on international tourists by boosting domestic tourism demand in those areas.
We will be saying more about that in coming days.
We also recognise that, while the labour market is strengthening, there are still Australians out there looking for work and who need to upskill.
We have never forgotten those Australians. Never once.
At the outset of the pandemic, Minister Cash and I, we made keeping apprentices in their jobs one of our first priorities. In addition to Jobkeeper, used by so many companies to keep their apprentices in work, our Supporting Apprentices and Trainees Programme has successfully kept over 122,000 apprentices on the tools.
These apprentices would have been the first to go. Such a loss would have been devastating for our economy, as years of training would have been lost and, I suspect, never recovered. By holding onto those apprentices, we have kept them on their career path and we have maintained the emerging skills pool that was building, that will be much needed for our economy in the future.
This was backed in by our JobTrainer programme, creating a $1 billion fund, shared with the states and territories agreed in record time through National Cabinet, to create 320,000 new training places. So, when you combine that with the 30,000 extra university places we put in place this year, this meant school leavers entering a post-recession economy, they had options and a future to look forward to.
But just holding onto existing apprentices, we didn’t think was enough.
Through wage subsidy programs like Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements, our Government is helping employers retain and take on new apprentices and trainees as the economy recovers.
In less than five months, we have already reached the target of 100,000 under this program.
40 per cent of those new apprentices and trainees have gone to small businesses, with the largest take up in the construction, food and beverage, administrative, and repair and maintenance sectors. Around one-fifth of the new apprentices were over the age of 35.
Today, I am pleased to announce that the Government is removing the cap on eligible places and extending the duration of this program support under this program to 12 months from the date the apprentice commences with their employer.
The timeline for eligibility is out to end September this year, and that aligns with the JobMaker Hiring credit initiative announced in the budget.
Now, this will ensure an apprenticeship place is there for any Australian and every business who wants one as our economy recovers.
It is also important to acknowledge that our continued economic recovery is inextricably linked to our ongoing success in combating the virus.
Our $6.5 billion vaccination programme, now underway, marks the start of a new phase of Australia’s comeback from COVID-19.
Now, rather than rushing headlong into this, as many countries were frankly forced to do because of their circumstances, we have worked carefully to put our portfolio of vaccines together, to secure our supplies and prepare our vaccination programme for rollout.
This week we will have vaccinated, we estimate, some 100,000 Australians from our first priority group of frontline health care workers, aged care and disability residents and staff and those working in our quarantine system.
This week Australia is also on track to have received one million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, secured notwithstanding tight international supply chains that we’re facing, particularly out of Europe.
We’re still getting the job done, we’re still getting the vaccines in. I particularly want to commend the work that DFAT and the Department of Health has been doing. Minister Payne, but of course, Frances Adamson is here today from DFAT.
Most importantly, Australia is one of the small number of countries to have sovereign domestic vaccine manufacturing capability. CSL will be ready to supply one million doses every week from late March as we move to the next phase of our vaccination rollout.
The scientific evidence from Israel and the UK on vaccine efficacy is very, very encouraging, especially the ability of vaccines to prevent serious and severe illness and transmission. This is good news. In other words, with sufficient vaccination of the population, we can start treating COVID like a bad flu.
And if we can continue to manage new strains of the virus, this changing risk profile will allow for controls to be further relaxed, as we recently discussed at National Cabinet.
But to the future – in July last year, I addressed the National Press Club about our JobMaker plan, setting out our longer term agenda to rebuild the Australian economy post COVID.
Today I want to briefly highlight what I consider to be key priorities of this plan once again.
Our workforce, what I call D&D - data and digital - and ensuring reliable, affordable and lower emissions energy.
Building the scale, capacity and skills of our workforce, I believe, is the single greatest economic challenge our country faces.
It is why we established JobTrainer and are working closely with the states and territories to develop a new and reformed National Skills Agreement.
We need a VET system, a training system, that’s more responsive to the private sector and its needs for the future. We need a better, more granular understanding of where the jobs of the future will be, and the skills needed to do those jobs.
It is why we established the National Skills Commission under Adam Boyton’s leadership, which is doing fantastic work.
As well as dealing with immediate needs, the Commission is also undertaking detailed long-term analysis of the skills our country needs in the future to inform the significant investment we’re making in our programmes and policies.
For example, Australia will require almost one million direct care workers by 2050 to meet the growing demand for aged care. That’s aged care alone.
This is almost triple the existing aged care workforce and is in addition to the rising demand for care workers in the health and disability sectors.
Now, part of its initial response to the Aged Care Royal Commission, we recently announced that it will be investing $92 million to train an additional 18,000 skilled personal care workers by mid-2023.
But more will be needed to establish a strong longer term pipeline of skilled and professional care workers for our country.
That’s why I have tasked the National Skills Commissioner to undertake a broader, in-depth study into the factors affecting the supply and demand for care workers both in the near-term and out to 2050.
Now that’s just one sector. The Commissioner will finish his report in September this year to inform the Government’s care workforce strategy, but getting a handle on the skills we need is critical to economic policies for the future.
Training and skilling our workforce though is one thing, but the scale of our workforce and getting access to that workforce is proving to be completely another.
The retreat of backpacker, student and seasonal labour from temporary visa holders during COVID has exposed large gaps in our workforce, particularly in the agriculture, tourism and hospitality sectors, and especially in regional Australia.
These workers are also an important workforce source for the care sector, including aged care and nursing, where demand for workers is acute.
Seasonal and Pacific work visa holders alone provide a standing workforce of around 12,000 people a year ready and willing to work. These workers are complemented by tens of thousands of backpackers who would normally be working in regional Australia.
ABARES estimates that the impact of COVID has resulted a workforce shortfall of around 22,000 workers in horticulture alone.
Now, despite targeted measures to incentivise Australian JobSeeker recipients to relocate to where the jobs are – $6,000 to move there and take those jobs – unemployed Australians are simply and regrettably not filling these jobs.
Right now there are 54,000 jobs going in regional Australia.
Michael McCormack, the DPM, will tell you that, if you give him half a second on any day of the week and he’s right. 54,000 jobs are out there right now in regional Australia that they can’t fill.
And every day we hear the stories of employers, especially in regional areas, unable to fill positions. It’s got way past anecdotal.
The knock on effect of critical skills shortages also forces up prices for consumers, increasing the cost of living for Australians in our cities. That’s how it impacts Australians at home right now.
If we can’t get the workers in our regional areas, then the price of your groceries goes up. And so it’s in all of our interests to address this very important issue.
Our responses are twofold.
Firstly, to strengthen the mutual obligation requirements for job seekers receiving the JobSeeker payment. Now, we recently took this action to announce several weeks ago by the Minister - Minister Cash - in tandem with the recent increase in the Jobseeker payment. And that’s a fair exchange. If there is a job available, and you are able to do that job, then it is reasonable for taxpayers to expect that you will take it up, rather than continue to receive benefits. And if you don’t, then payment should be withdrawn. But that won’t be enough to fix this problem. This problem goes pre-pandemic.
We must also re-look at the role the temporary visa holders play in meeting our economy’s workforce requirements, where Australians do not fill these jobs. Of course we want Australians to fill these jobs, of course that is our first priority. But we also need to understand that by looking at this area we need to see that rather than taking Australian’s jobs, we need to instead appreciate how filling critical workforce shortages with temporary visa holders can actually create jobs elsewhere in the economy and, in particular, sustain growth and services in our regional economies, and that Australians get a net benefit. It’s a value add to the equation.
I assure you this issue will not go away when the pandemic ends. It’s a thorny issue for us to deal with and we must.
We must become a world leader in D&D. In just the first 8 weeks of the pandemic, consumer and business digital adoption vaulted five years forward.
Post COVID, we need to keep our foot on that digital accelerator.
Now, this requires Governments to adopt a different mindset to regulation.
Modernising regulation, whether around competition, consumer protection, finance, safety or security – these things shouldn’t be seen as a hand brake on innovation. Through smart regulatory design, working with the sector, the challenge is to open up new economic opportunities in the private sphere, while ensuring the benefits of the digital era deliver broader public goods is our aim.
Now, our Government successfully took on this challenge, most recently, through the news media bargaining code with the Big Tech platforms. Plenty of people said ‘you can’t get that done’. Well, we have.
But it’s not only the regulatory frameworks we need to consider.
Data needs processing, just as oil needs refining.
Data will power much of the transformative technology of the future – artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and predictive analytics.
Data doesn’t need huge refineries, but it does need smart people and businesses and digital infrastructure.
And that’s why our digital infrastructure program, but also most importantly, our skills agenda is so important.
It’s also why we have progressed so many other initiatives - the regulatory sandbox for FinTech, the Singapore Digital Economy Agreement, the world’s leading Consumer Data Right, the rollout successfully of the NBN, support for 5G, e-invoicing, digital identity, single-touch payroll, the 2020 Cyber Security Strategy and the eSafety Commissioner. We haven’t been still on this issue.
The next instalment of our plan, the Government’s digital strategy, is now being worked on by the new Minister for the Digital Economy, Jane Hume. And we’re looking forward to receiving that later in the year.
Now thirdly and finally – affordable, reliable and lower emissions energy.
The world’s response to climate change is simultaneously reshaping the global economy, global politics and the global energy system.
As Daniel Yergin wrote in his recent book, The New Map, which I highly recommend to you, he said our response to climate change will “bring continuing changes in how energy is produced, transported and consumed; in strategies and investment; in technologies and infrastructure; and in relations between countries.” Very true.
We are preparing. Australia is preparing. The Australian Government is preparing for this new geo-politics of energy and climate change. It’s gone into another gear. We must address the threats and we must realise the opportunities for Australia.
We are committed to doing so in a way that preserves the jobs and livelihoods of communities right across the country, especially in regional Australia, while ensuring Australia is part of the new energy economy. We want both and we can get both. And by backing technology to drive that change, not taxes.
This includes our commitment to investment in energy infrastructure, some $35 billion invested in renewable energy from 2017 to 2020.
Our investment in Snowy 2.0 and supporting development of all major priority electricity interconnectors identified by the Australian Energy Market Operator.
Our gas fired recovery plan, and I acknowledge Andrew Liveris for his part in driving that strategy for the Government, ensures that Australia’s record investments in solar and wind have the firming support needed to drive reliability of energy supply, while also critically supporting the feedstock needs of our manufacturing industries to advise to drive our advanced manufacturing strategy.
Renewable energy, hydrogen production, critical minerals – they’re all part of our agenda and likely to generate significant investment and jobs for regional and remote Australia. A good example is the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbara, supporting 3,000 jobs when fully operational – and some 20,000 direct and indirect jobs during the construction phase.
Our Technology Roadmap aims to leverage some $70 billion in investment in low emissions technologies over the next decade.
Now, as Bill Gates set out in his new book, Greg Hunt recently joked with me that after I had my vaccination that I was talking about Bill Gates all the time, but anyway, I just read his book. You’ll get it in a second. He sets it out – it’s about driving the nexus between innovation supply and demand. That’s his key point. And that’s what we’re seeking to do.
And we will play our part, not just in Australia, but we’ll do it as part of a global effort.
Australia’s former Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has been commissioned to lead this work, reporting to Minister Angus Taylor.
And we have set ourselves an ambitious timetable to establish new energy technology partnerships this year with major partners, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. And I acknowledge the ambassador today.
Affordable and reliable energy will continue to be an important focus of my Government as we transition to a low emissions economy and we move towards net zero as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050.
So, ladies and gentlemen, with each passing month, Australia’s comeback and economic recovery from COVID-19 is building and we are leading the world.
We are making our own Australian way through this challenge and I remain confident that we will emerge stronger, safer and more firmly together on the other side. And at the same time, we’re preparing for a world and an economy beyond the pandemic.
Our success though will depend, as always, on the strength, resilience and on the ingenuity and decency of the Australian people.
And on that score I am nothing but filled with confidence for the future.