ABC News with Greg Jennett, Singapore

07 Jun 2019
Prime Minister
Global leadership; D-Day; Economic growth; AFP investigations

GREG JENNETT: Well Prime Minister it’s been quite a trip, as Churchill might have said, from the old world back to the new here in Singapore today. As you reflect on it, is there anything different about this – your first travel as Prime Minister in this term – do you feel, in your engagements, you’re anymore legitimised by your election win on the 18th of May?

PRIME MINISTER: Well no doubt there were some surprised members of the international community, and pleasantly surprised too, which was very generous and very nice but the work continues and there’ve been quite a few elections this year amongst the major democracies and so I think we’re getting to the backend of that phase of those elections. So it means that the second half of this year and going into the G20 Summit in June in a few weeks’ time, that provides a good opportunity I think for us all now to get on with some major issues. I mean, there’s still the election in Canada later this year, that’s the next major one.

GREG JENNETT: So you’re saying there are some surprised people out there, you encountered-

PRIME MINISTER: Well there was in Australia too.


GREG JENNETT: The Queen. Your encounter with her was your first in any capacity in public life. I know there are meant to be some restraints on what you say about those engagements, but it might have been relevant, mightn’t it, to offer some reassurance the churn, the recent churn, Her Majesty has witnessed in Australia’s leadership, theoretically obviated somewhat now by new rules?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that wasn’t a matter we discussed but I mean, this is a Queen that has dealt with every Prime Minister since Sir Robert Menzies in the Australian context and every one since Sir Winston Churchill in the UK so she’s spent a lot of time with a lot of Prime Ministers over the years so it was a great privilege to meet Her Majesty and for Jenny and I to go to Buckingham Palace but what I think was more significant was the next day we were there for the commemoration of the D-Day landing and of course that was something the Queen lived through as a young woman. I noticed when we were there the next day, her engagement with the ceremony was quite significant and clearly had a great personal meaning for her as well as a national one, and a global one. She is one of the most, if not the most extraordinary person-

GREG JENNETT: By definition it must have an impact on her far greater than any other current crop of leaders.

PRIME MINISTER: No doubt, and having lived through it and importantly everything that’s happened since. A key reflection around D-Day was the peace was won, the liberty from tyranny was won. But then prosperity was then built like the world had never seen before off multilateral, global institutions being formed around trade, the IMF and others, and this set up a rules-based order that has been so successful. It was a reminder that it’s important we keep that rules-based order up to date because if we go back to the causes of the Second World War, there’s the obvious ones, but ensuring there’s an economic inclusiveness in the global order, that there are rules-based systems for engaging with each other on trade and other economic engagements is incredibly important, they have to be up to date. Which is what Prime Minister Lee here in Singapore was saying a week ago.

GREG JENNETT: Do you make that comparison cognisant, aware of the importance of that comparison I suppose, do you see the risks in the current tensions playing out in our region as great as the build-up of pressures back in the last century?

PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn’t be rushing to that conclusion but I think it’s important to simply make the observation these trade tensions are having a very negative impact on the global economy, there’s no doubt about that and it’s important in our national interest and I think in the broader interests of the global economy that they be resolved in a positive and constructive way and that’s what we’d be encouraging both of the principals to achieve.  

GREG JENNETT: It certainly has been a constant theme of your travels these last six days but while you were away it also demonstrates itself back at home with weaker, much weaker than anyone was talking about during the election campaign, growth of under two per cent, will you, frankly, surprised by that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well no I wasn’t because we had a very strong quarter coming out of the through year figures and that was a quarterly figure of over one per cent that dropped out of the start of the through year figure so I was anticipating there being a lower through year figure but the quarterly figure that just came out was actually higher than last quarter and I think there has been some uncertainty in the Australian economy particularly this year and now that the election is over and there’s some certainty about economic policies going into the future, I think we’ve already seen an initial positive response to that and we need to get on with it to ensure that is maintained and continues.

GREG JENNETT: There are a couple of remedies you’re obviously pointing to there obviously that $1000 worth of tax cuts if you can pass them, a 10 year pipeline of infrastructure projects, but what if that’s just not enough to stimulate a faltering economy? What more are you able to do within the remit you’ve got to manoeuvre?

PRIME MINISTER: I would say that we’ve got a clear plan, we’re going to implement that plan, we’ll be putting that plan in full to the Parliament but the Coalition has never let Australians down, I believe, in taking the economic decisions that are necessary to ensure we strengthen our economy into the future. And so we will keep close watch on these issues but right now the focus is on implementing the plans as we set out in full at the election and any frustration of that, I think, would be very disappointing to the Australian people who’ve said very clearly that want the Government to get on with their plans, to back aspiration in Australia and to put those tax measures in place and the many other issues we took to the election.

GREG JENNETT: So just to clarify, there is a preparedness by you if necessary to do more?

PRIME MINISTER: We have always done that. I mean that’s not news, that’s nothing novel-

GREG JENNETT: But you are hinting to some degree, wouldn’t you say-

PRIME MINISTER: …pragmatic. We’re a Government that believes in ensuring that we have a strong economy because without that you can’t pay for pensions, you can’t pay for affordable medicines, that was my entire point during the course of the election campaign. So we will always be taking decisions that strengthen our economy and that’s why you have Budgets, that’s why you have Budget updates at the end of the year, they’re your opportunities to constantly scrutinise how the policies are working and what other measures you may need to take. I mean, there’s nothing remarkable at all about that.

GREG JENNETT: In all of your travels this week you’ve been emphasising themes and values to do with openness, transparency, the importance of democracy, and yet playing out at home – you’re well aware by now – has been great controversy about these leaks investigations. The ABC,  your own captain’s pick chairwoman in Ita Buttrose has said today she’s gravely concerned, a career-long journalist described these as unprecedented. Your response to the ABC Chairwoman?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Ita always said that she’d speak her mind and that’s why I picked her and that’s why the Cabinet endorsed that because she is someone who will speak her mind and she’s raised these issues and her concerns with the Minister and I’m sure when we meet, which is not too far away, she’ll reflect similar sentiments. But what’s important here I think is two things. The Government is committed to press freedom, of course we are. Second, the Government is absolutely committed to ensure that no one’s above the law. What has occurred here is understandably causing anxiety but at the same time we need to keep this in perspective. The raids that took place, took place under the laws that were actually in place well before the changes that the government made. Point one. Two, the raids were undertaken using a warrant. You know, to get a warrant, you’ve got to see a judge and so they were made consistent with the law. So I think Australians carry these two things closely, they believe strongly in press freedoms – as do I – but they also believe no one’s bigger than the law. I’m not, you’re not, no one is.

GREG JENNETT: You use the word ‘anxiety’, does it go any deeper than that though? Do you believe if it continued at the current breaking pace, there are a few afoot and there have been in fact for a year or so, leaks investigations, that there may be what they call a ‘chilling effect’ on the exposure of actions even decisions that governments are making or actions that have been taken in the past?

PRIME MINISTER: No look we will deal with this matter soberly and calmly and these are investigations and these are investigations that are being undertaken by the Australian Federal Police. They’ve been commenced on the referral of senior public servants. Such referrals are not extraordinary in these circumstances and it’s actually up to the Federal Police as to what actions they take and what investigations they pursue. So the suggestion that somehow, that has been implied, that government ministers were somehow involved in this is simply not true. This is the simple outworking of the legal system where a serious matter of complaint has been raised with police. The police are conducting an investigation and that’s the point of the process we’re in now. So I think we’ve got to be careful not to get too far ahead of ourselves in making analyses of what the implications of this are at this point. Let’s just allow the AFP to continue their investigation and I’m sure they will advise when they’re at the next stage.

GREG JENNETT: And are you prepared to allow pieces to land wherever they may in these inquiries if they continue into the future? The reason I ask is it’s not unprecedented in Australian Government history that very occasionally the source of classified leaks might be from the Ministerial Wing at Parliament House at different points in our future.

PRIME MINISTER: Well no one’s above the law. No one’s above the law. But I’m not going to get into the process of second guessing where things go. I don’t think that’s very helpful. And I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate on these things at this point-

GREG JENNETT: But you see the point of the question? Where do these things stop?

PRIME MINISTER: Through the successful or otherwise conduct of the investigation and they’ll have a finding and that would be a matter that would either be taken forward by the DPP or not and in the case of journalists in particular there are specific protections built into the law for journalists. Specific protections that no one else gets. Journalists get them for a very important reason because of freedom of the press and so that is what is also available so that’s why I think it’s important, Greg, that we allow this issue to run its course in accordance with our laws. If there are deficiencies in that process, then the Government always looks at these things. But at this stage I think it’s a little early to be making those sorts of judgements.

GREG JENNETT: I know you’ve got to get a plane back to Australia but just finally on that, you’re suggesting are you, that if there were a need for a legal remedy, let’s say a change to the Crimes Act, you’d be prepared to look at it? Some people are arguing for instance the offence of receipt of classified documents, not the leaking of them but the receipt of them, could be expunged, could be removed.

PRIME MINISTER: I think it’s very early, I think it’s too early to be getting into those discussions. I think there’s a process that is underway, I have no intention whatsoever of interfering in that not only because it’s the wrong thing to do it’s also a crime and I think it’s important to allow the AFP to continue to do their work professionally. I’ve made it very clear to editors that if there are any complaints that they have to make about the way the investigation has been conducted they’re always free to raise those issues. Of course they are, and they’re matters that can be directly raised with the AFP as well. But I think we just need to allow this process to run to its conclusion. It has been running, as you know, for some time and this is a matter that goes back well over a year.

GREG JENNETT: Which raises the question ‘why now?’ I suppose you’re going to say you don’t know.

PRIME MINISTER: Of course I don’t. I’ve no involvement in the operational nature of those investigations, in fact, nor should I. The AFP have explained those matters I think very clearly. But there is no connection with the Government about how they conduct- and that would be irregular if there was.

GREG JENNETT: There may be a bit more to play out on that issue but you can deal with that when you get back to Australia. Thanks for your time this afternoon here in Singapore.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Greg, it’s been I think a very successful visit but we’re back at work and getting on with it.