Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

18 Mar 2021
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: Good afternoon. It is one year today since the Governor-General authorised the Biosecurity Emergency Declaration in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been an extraordinary year in Australia's fightback in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. While it has been an absolutely terrible year, a year of uncertainty, of hardship, of terrible loss here in Australia, but frankly all around the world and in so many parts of the world that loss still runs on, it accelerates, it devastates. But while all of that is true, in Australia we have seen one of the most remarkable performances of Australians in our Australian economy that we have seen. In less than 12 months from when the recession began, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are now more jobs in the Australian economy than there were before the pandemic. That is something that is truly remarkable and is a great credit to every Australian who hung in there, every Australian business who kept people in jobs, everyone who played a role in ensuring that we did everything that we possibly could to see that Australia continues to come through this COVID-19 pandemic and recession in the best way we possibly can. More jobs now than when the recession began.

For us as a Government, together with the Treasurer and our entire team, it’s always been ultimately about jobs for us when we come and form governments. We want to see more Australians in work because we know when an Australian has a job, it is good for their wellbeing. It is good for their hope. They can plan for their future. They are in control when they are in a job. That is why we want to see so many Australians in jobs and, indeed before the pandemic, 1.5 million jobs had been created since we first came to government. And those jobs are now restored. They are restored. There is still a long way to go. Unemployment has fallen to 5.8 percent. 876,400 jobs have been recreated in our economy since the start of that recession. 88,700 in net terms in February have been created, all of them full-time. 84 per cent of the jobs in this February figures for women. But we aren't there yet. There are more hours still needed. There is still a lot more to do, particularly for young people and even though the youth unemployment rate has pleasingly fallen, there is still a distance to travel. The pacing of our supports into the economy are proved again to have been wise. We brought it in when it was most needed and we didn't hold back. We kept it in as the crisis went through its most virulent period. But as we got to the other side, as it began to emerge as companies were getting back on their feet towards the end of September, we started to gear down those supports and the jobs increased. We geared down the supports again at the end of December and the jobs increased. So as we go into this next phase, we go in with a strong run up. We go in with a very strong jobs run up into the next phase of Australia's comeback and Australia’s recovery. Our plan is working, Treasurer. We need to stick to the plan. Treasurer.

The Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP, Treasurer: Thank you, Prime Minister. The strength and resilience of the Australian economy is on display again today. An unemployment rate at 5.8 per cent. 88,700 new jobs. A participation rate which remains around a record high. What is particularly pleasing in these numbers is that of that 88,700 jobs, all of them were full-time. More than 80 percent went to women and more than 40 percent went to young people. New South Wales and its economy has led the charge. 42,000 jobs being created in New South Wales over the month and their unemployment rate falling to 5.6 percent, the equal lowest of any state in the country. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. But months from here will continue to be challenging because we are still in the midst of a global pandemic and the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression. There are sectors, there are regions across the country that continue to do it tough, but these numbers are encouraging and these numbers give Australians confidence about their economic future.

Journalist: [Inaudible] these numbers change the strategy around fiscal repair and the timing around that fiscal repair and, indeed, how do these rapid recovering job numbers also provide an argument for greater liberalisation in the labour market?

Prime Minister: Well, first of all, we want to keep creating jobs and right now we have been seeking to do that in the Parliament. And there are those in this Parliament, led by the Labor Party, who want to stop us from creating more jobs by frustrating our plan. But we will keep creating the jobs, despite the Opposition, despite the blockages that are put in the way, whether it is in the Senate or elsewhere. We will keep pressing forward, as we have done over this last year, as we in fact all have always done as a government. We will press ahead and see the jobs created and we will deal with the challenges as they present. But those changes are important, but there are those in this place who don't want to create jobs as passionately as we do in the Government. 

In relation to the fiscal issues, the Treasurer will comment, but we need to be cautious, even with these numbers. Of course, they are very pleasing. They are incredibly encouraging. They say to Australians, ‘Well done on the hard work. You are getting the job done by getting Australians into jobs.’ That is what Australians are achieving. We need to see that continue. The Budget will be in May. We will be addressing those issues in May. We have many, many challenges that go beyond that pandemic and I have outlined those on other occasions, but the Treasurer may wish to add further to that.

The Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP, Treasurer: Thanks, Prime Minister. As you know, we laid out a new fiscal strategy ahead of last year’s Budget and had two phases to that strategy and the second phase referred to the fact that the unemployment rate needs to be comfortably below 6 percent. 5.8 percent is not comfortably below 6 percent. The other point I would make is that the unemployment rate in February of last year was 5.1 percent. So that was where it was pre-pandemic and we know that JobKeeper is coming off at the end of March and it will be bumpy. It will be challenging and the economy will continue to go through the transition. But just as JobKeeper ends, the Morrison Government’s economic supports continue and that is extremely important because it is like the $1.2 billion tourism and aviation package that we announced the other day, as well as the hiring credit, the infrastructure supports, the tax cuts. There is a whole host of government economic support measures that are going to continue to create jobs.

Journalist: What will removing JobKeeper do to these numbers and is it the right time to do it? Would you consider extending it?

Prime Minister: JobKeeper must come to an end. It has done its job. The job is now taken up of the many other measures that the Government has put in place. The Treasurer has just referred to them. The instant expensing issues, which is driving increased investment, the HomeBuilder programme which is seeing jobs in the residential building sector now extended out over the next two years, the tax cuts that are putting money in the pockets of Australians, the $2,000, the most recent of those payments getting to those through the welfare system in just the last couple of weeks, the continued rollout of our infrastructure programme. All of these things continue to drive the economy forward, just as so many were driving the economy forward before we came into this pandemic. As I said, at each stage of our gear change on JobKeeper, we have seen the economy continue to move forward. Now, we are going into that final phase when it comes to JobKeeper and that is why I am pleased we are going into it with a strong run-up. Kieran?

Journalist: The survey suggests that there was a fifth of the JobKeeper money was going to companies with rising profits at the end of last year, the second half. Would you like to see some of those companies or all of those companies with the rising profits pay a bit of it back?

Prime Minister: I have always said that is a matter for those companies and many have and I commend them for doing so. But let's not forget what JobKeeper was doing. I mean, I would rather have profitable companies than non-profitable companies. A profitable company is putting people in work. A profitable company is putting investment into the economy. Those resources find their way into the economy. That is what JobKeeper was doing. It is the single largest economic policy that any government in our history has ever put into the system and it has saved Australian jobs. It has saved the Australian economy. I am absolutely certain that JobKeeper has saved lives in this country. And so it has been a tremendously successful programme but even tremendously successful programmes must gear into the next phase and that is where we are heading now. Chris?

Journalist: Prime Minister and Treasurer, is it your expectation or your advice that unemployment will rise after JobKeeper is withdrawn?

The Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP, Treasurer: I can refer you to the RBA board minutes for their monetary policy meeting in March which only came out a couple of days ago and they said the end of the JobKeeper programme was seen as "unlikely to result in a sustained increase in the unemployment rate". And Chris, I point you to both the MYEFO forecast about unemployment, which came down even after JobKeeper ended and the more recent forecast that came from the RBA who were predicting by year’s end we would have a 6 percent unemployment rate, bearing in mind that before today it was at 6.4 although it was revised down to 6.3. So it is the trajectory we have been focused on and, as you know, Treasury advised the Government last year when they did a review of the JobKeeper programme and they said it had some particular characteristics in the programme that, as the economy strengthened, would lead, if the JobKeeper programme was kept in place, would lead to adverse outcomes, particularly hampering mobility of labour across the economy.

Prime Minister: That is a very important point that the Treasurer is making. If these programmes go beyond what have been their effective period, can actually start to hold the economy back. It can create problems in the mobility of the labour force. We have got tens of thousands of jobs in the latest job vacancy data coming through. We are seeing job vacancies continuing to rise. As the Deputy Prime Minister will tell you if you give him half a second, more than 50,000 jobs in regional Australia are out there. There are jobs out there being created every day and we will keep creating those jobs and that is what people can look forward to going forward that in the position where they may be in a business if they don't find themselves in the same job at the conclusion of JobKeeper, then this economy is creating jobs for them to move into. David?

Journalist: Is the Senate going to pass all of your IR reform? Most of it is being blocked in the Senate. How important is that IR bill? Is it so important that you need to take it back to Parliament and fight for it again and is it so important that you would take it to the next election?

Prime Minister: Well, look, it is still being dealt with in the Senate now. So I think we will just wait to see the outcome of that process. I’ve always have gone into this process on these changes on the basis that I thought they could play an important role in assisting the recovery in Australia. I believe they would and I do believe we do need them now. But there are many in the Senate, and the Labor Party in particular, who don't share my passion for creating jobs and the Treasurer's. So they are working against the Government as we are seeking to create jobs. But I am a practical person, too. That means if this Senate is saying they don't wish to support those measures, then we will have to consider that in terms of how we go forward because I will send them other things to approve. I will send them other job-making initiatives they can support. If those don't want to support these job-making initiatives, then that is on them. If they don't want to create jobs as much as the Government does, then they need to answer to that.

Journalist: Has Christian Porter as Industrial Relations Minister, has he done enough to explain to the crossbench why these IR changes are important?

Prime Minister: Christian Porter was working on these matters in countless hours of consultations with employers and unions. You know, as I said back at the Press Club last year, we will give this a go. We will bring everybody together. We will get them around the table. We will seek to come up with a sensible package of changes in this area and that is what we did in good faith. I think it demonstrates that still in this country, even when you do that, even when you engage in good faith, the obstructionism that we are seeing in the Senate and from the Labor Party seeks to overcome that good faith. I think that reflects badly on those who haven't sought to support that process. We have engaged in this in good faith. We have put forward sensible, modest measures that we think can make a real difference. Now, the crossbench and the Senate and others, if they want to reject that and the Labor Party in particular, well, that is a matter for them. But it won't deter us from seeking to create more jobs. This Government has a strong record of job creation and we achieve it because we work in partnership with businesses, with employees, right across the country because they are the heroes of these job numbers. It is people who have gone out to get those jobs and it is the Australians in businesses who have created those jobs that has produced this incredibly encouraging result for Australia at this difficult time. Clare?

Journalist: The Government is introducing legislation today to protect the Kate Jenkins review from the Archives Act and the FOI Act. Are you confident that will be enough for staff to feel comfortable to come forward to that review and on one of the other reviews that is currently under way, the internal departmental one about who knew what with regard to the allegations Brittany Higgins has made, when can we expect that to be completed and made public?

Prime Minister: I addressed the second question in the House yesterday and I have nothing further to add to what I said in the House yesterday on that. On the other matter, I certainly hope it does. That is what we’ve agreed as an Opposition and as a Government. We agree that is a measure that should hopefully provide that comfort and provide that security for people to do that. That’s what is agreed between the parties and we both have the same objective here and I hope we will be able to deal with that fairly expeditiously today and give people that confidence.

Journalist: Prime Minister, last night a male staffer lost his job over a vile slur he made against a woman. Yet the Defence Minister is still in your Cabinet for a similarly vile slur she made against Brittany Higgins, the alleged rape survivor. How do you choose what language is a fireable offence and what is not?

Prime Minister: The particularly vile language that was expressed by that staffer, not on one occasion it is my understanding, and this only recently came to our attention. We dealt with this over the past couple of days as I think you would expect us to. Greg?

Journalist: [Inaudible] said yesterday, While the voice to government legislation should be drafted, he says that should be set aside and should not be passed through the Parliament until constitutional recognition is achieved. In other words, the constitutionally enshrined voice. Are you willing to consider going to a referendum to enshrine a voice into the Constitution or do you rule that out?

Prime Minister: We already have. It has never has been the Government’s policy to have that process enshrined in the Constitution. That never has been the Government's policy. I think that is pretty clear. It is not the Government's policy.

Journalist: Do you still think it is a third chamber to Parliament, effectively?

Prime Minister: It is not the government's policy, Greg. It has never been the Government's policy. There is no change to the government's policy. What we are proceeding with is the co-design process that we set up that is seeking the best possible way to have that voice to government and I've had numerous meetings myself on this matter and the Minister for Indigenous Australians is progressing that. On the other issue of constitutional recognition, more broadly, then there is still no clear consensus proposal at this stage, which would suggest mainstream support in the Indigenous community or elsewhere. So we are focused on pursuing the co-design process, on the voice to government and in addition to that, we are getting on with the very important job of closing the gap. Closing the gap to make a real practical difference for Indigenous Australians living across this country, to ensure that we get more Indigenous children in school, to ensure that we deal with the very serious issues of health impacts on Indigenous Australians, right across the country to get more Indigenous Australians in jobs and, importantly, to ensure that Indigenous Australians, particularly women Indigenous Australians, can be safe in their communities. That is the change that I particularly want to see that is going to make a big difference in the lives of Indigenous Australians across this country. Michelle?

Journalist: Treasurer, we have heard about the 50,000-plus regional vacancies for a long time and it has been repeated again today. What practically can you do about this? Your scheme to relocate people has not been successful. Do you need to look at new visa arrangements for people already here or what other initiatives have you in mind to attack this?

The Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP, Treasurer: There are definitely labour force issues and workforce issues around the country. The fact that the JobSeeker payment is tapering down and that we have moved to a $50 a fortnight permanent increase, but it was higher as an elevated level, Michelle, obviously during the pandemic. Now we also have put in increased mutual obligations and I think the combination of that, together with the end of JobKeeper, will see more labour mobility across the economy. With respect to visas and the Prime Minister referenced this in the context of his AFR business speech recently, we are going to be looking to obviously at the first opportunity bring the skills into the country that we can and there is a great opportunity for Australia to do that.

Journalist: There are people already here who could have visa arrangements changed, though.

Prime Minister: It’s true. They are the sort of things that we can look at and we are looking at that with a pretty open book, Michelle. It is important that we do because I think one thing that has been demonstrated during the pandemic, you know, I have been working on this issue for a very long time and we have tried any number of things to try and deal with those regional skill shortages and labour force shortages across the country and it breaks my heart that fruit is getting ploughed back into the ground now. It breaks my heart and I can only imagine what it means for those producers in those communities. We have seen that there are jobs, even when high rates of unemployment were in place during the pandemic, that Australians have not gone and done those jobs. That is a challenge which is holding the rest of the economy back and so it is not only impacting on those producers directly, but it is impacting on the broader working of the economy and is holding back job creation for Australians in so many other parts of the economy. So that is an important discussion that we are going to have to have, filling those jobs to support regional communities, which means that the services in those rural communities become more entrenched and sustainable in those communities. You get people in jobs in regional towns, then you keep your schools, you keep your health staff, you keep your nurses and this is a big, big challenge that we have and the Deputy Prime Minister and I and the Treasurer and the Immigration Minister are very focused on.

Journalist: The vaccine rollout is seeing significant challenges. Are you frustrated by them and will it improve?

Prime Minister: We are going to hit 250,000, jab 250,000 Australians this week. In fact, I suspect that will occur in about the next 24 hours. Last week, I was telling you that we had reached 100,000. The vaccination programme continues to accelerate. We said when I stood here in this very courtyard with the Health Minister and other health advisers at the time, whether it be Professor Skerritt or Professor Murphy or Professor Kelly. We said we hoped to start the vaccination programme in mid to late February. Well, we did. We said that we hoped we would be able to get to about 80,000 vaccinations a week in the early phases and we have. We said that we would hope to be getting by the end of March to the position where we would be getting major rolls off the line of the CSL vaccines out of Melbourne and we will. We said we would be doing it through various phases and that process is already under way and that we would be enlisting thousands of doctors around the country in that effort and we have. We will continue to communicate as clearly as we can with Australians. 

I am pleased that so many Australians want to be part of this vaccination programme. The surge in interest yesterday was extraordinary and that just says to me that Australians understand how important this vaccination programme is. We will continue to roll it out. But the thing I always stress when it comes to the vaccination programme is this; were it not for the fact that our Government took the strategic decision last August to not rely on international supply of vaccines, then Australia would not have a vaccination programme now. It is because of the foresight of the decision that the Government took to do that and to put in place the plan and it is a big project, it is a tough project, it is on a national scale unprecedented and we continue to step forward every single day. I appreciate the patience of Australians as we do that, but I also appreciate their enthusiasm and I appreciate their support and today they can hear this news about how Australia is coming back from the COVID-19 pandemic. These jobs numbers are a real shot in the arm and that will only boost us as we go into the next phase, as we get to the end of this month and Australia will continue to lead the world out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession it created. Thank you all very much.