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2 December 2021

Interview with Leon Byner, FIVEaa

Note

Subjects: National Accounts; MYEFO; Greg Hunt; 2022 Election

LEON BYNER:

I caught up with Treasurer Frydenberg, just a few minutes ago. The Australian economy went backwards in the three months to September. Are there any green shoots? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Firstly, it was no surprise, Leon, that there was a contraction in the September quarter after our two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, went into extended lockdowns. But the good news is that since the start of this pandemic, Australia’s economic recovery has been stronger than all but two major advanced economies – stronger than Germany or Italy, stronger than Japan, stronger than Canada, stronger that the United Kingdom. And we’ve actually seen 350,000 jobs come back since the start of September. We’ve seen strong retail sales including for the Black Friday event last week. And we know that non‑mining investment intentions are the strongest on record with over $100 billion expected to be spent over the course of this year. The economy is looking strong for 2022, and overnight the OECD actually upgraded the growth forecast for Australia from 3.3 to 4.1 per cent and said the Australian economy was recovering rapidly.

LEON BYNER:

Tell me, as the Treasurer, are you expecting this Omicron variant of the COVID virus to have much effect on the economy, particularly Christmas trade? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

I don’t think it will have in this first instance, as we’re learning more about it. We need to understand its transmissibility, its severity and whether or not our existing vaccines are a defence against the Omicron variant. We’ve taken a considered sensible decision to pause that reopening of the international borders by two weeks. That was based on medical advice. But I’m confident that we will be able to reopen safely and that the economy and the restrictions that have been lifted will continue to recover. So, from everything I see right now the trajectory the economy is on right now is a positive one and it’s not deviating from that.

LEON BYNER:

Now, I know that you’re delivering a budget update in the next few weeks and then, of course, you’ve got the Federal Budget expected on March 29. Is this a time when Australia needs to start reining in debt? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Certainly, the best way to repair the budget is to strengthen the economy, and earlier this year I gave a speech on our fiscal strategy, Leon, and I pointed out that there were 200,000 more people in work than we were expecting just four months prior. Now, the pay‑off for the budget from having 200,000 more people in work was very substantial. It was worth $5 billion, $3 billion lower welfare payments required and $2 billion extra in tax revenue as a result of people being in work. That is how you improve the budget bottom line. And from the deficit that I announced last October, we’ve actually seen an $80 billion improvement in the final budget outcome. And the key reason is because the labour force, because employment levels have been higher than expected. So, that’s my first focus: how to keep the country safe but how to keep more people in jobs.

LEON BYNER:

Now, look, Health Minister Greg Hunt, who I think has been an outstanding Minister – in fact, the public really like him. The kind of emails I get from people listening is he’s a no nonsense bloke, whether you admire his politics or not, he speaks and shoots from the hip. So, he’s announcing his retirement today, and Christian Porter says he’s quitting politics also. You’re losing a couple of heavy hitters, aren’t you? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, Greg is my best mate in the Parliament, Leon. I am the godfather to his daughter and he is the godfather to mine, and I was the best man at his wedding and he will be greatly missed. But he can be very proud of what he’s achieved in public life. He has been a strong supporter of extra funding for mental health. He’s helped list a record number of drugs onto the PBS. He’s encouraged and supported medical research and, of course, he’s steered our country through this first pandemic in a century and the fact that Australia today has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and one of the lowest mortality rates in the world is a real credit to all Australians and particularly our front‑line health workers. Greg can rest assured and be very proud of the role that he’s played in that outcome.

LEON BYNER:

Well, both those ministers Hunt and, of course, Porter are in what’s marginal seats in Victoria. Do you reckon you can hold onto them? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Certainly. Flinders and Pearce are two important seats in Parliament and I’m hoping that we preselect some very strong candidates there.

LEON BYNER:

Tell me, are you expecting a minority Government after the next election? You probably hope to win outright and both sides would say this, but would the Coalition be able to deal with Independents if that was going to happen? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, I’m not going to speculate about post‑election outcomes. What I can say is that we will be putting our best foot forward to the Australian people at the next election. I mean, you remember Leon – we’ve had lots of conversations over the course of this pandemic, but you remember back in last March there were tens of thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australians, lining up outside Centrelink having lost their jobs. There was fear right across the community about people losing their lifetime savings and small business losing their business or indeed their own homes. At that time, we responded with a full‑court press. Programs like JobKeeper helped save more than 700,000 jobs to the point that unemployment is now lower than it was when we came to Government even after the first pandemic in more than a century. And I’m very proud of that economic record and the trajectory that the economy is now on. We’ve got a lot of unfinished business to carry through and we will be putting our plans to build for the future as well as lock in the recovery at the next election and at next year’s budget.

LEON BYNER:

What’s your hope for the new year as Federal Treasurer? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

I’m hoping that everyone gets a safe and enjoyable Christmas; that they can catch up with their friends and with their families and reflect on what has been a very challenging time; and that people can have optimism, people can have confidence, people can have hope. That’s what I’m seeking to provide as Treasurer. It’s been a great honour to serve in this role, particularly at this time, but there’s a lot of work still to be done, and that’s why I’m committed to doing what I’m doing. And I just hope that Australians get some time to reflect and come back recharged, energised and with plenty of hope for 2022.

LEON BYNER:

That’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. He’s a bit of a class act, I think, isn’t he? And very accessible and happy to answer any questions.