Doorstop interview - Geelong

07 Jan 2023
Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister
Geelong; Priorities for 2023; AUKUS; Visit to Papua New Guinea; Nuclear Submarines; Defence Technology Exports; COVID; Mental health; Medicare; China; Ash Barty; Kimberley Floods.


Welcome, everyone, to Geelong. Happy New Year. We are in the first week of January and the Prime Minister is already here in Geelong. And having known the Prime Minister for a very long time, he stands apart as a Prime Minister of this country in terms of his commitment to regional Australia. He's a former Regional Affairs Minister. And I can tell you, having known the Prime Minister for a long time, he is a very, very good friend of Geelong. So it is great to have you here, Prime Minister, in the very first week of January of what's going to be a very big year in 2023. The Prime Minister is one of thousands of people who is in our region this weekend, and particularly down on our beaches. And so let me give a shout out to the thousands of people who give up their time to be surf life savers in Australia. This is an iconic movement. And as we are talking right now there will be nippers programs underway in all the various towns along the Surf Coast. That's a great experience for those young kids. But they grow up to participate in what is such an important movement, which really provide safety for Australians to enjoy our summer. And when you look at this wonderful day that we're experiencing today, it is a day to be at the beach. But being at the beach in a way which is safe only happens because of our surf life savers. So I really do want to give a shout out to them. Swimmers also have to play their part. So those who are down on the beach today, make sure that you are swimming between the flags. But with those introductory remarks, can I please welcome the Prime Minister of Australia to Geelong this morning.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Richard. Great to be here this morning for my first major news conference of 2023. And I wanted to make sure that I did it with the Deputy Prime Minister here in his local hood, this beautiful city of Geelong that we can see in full display behind us here. I was at the cricket yesterday. I can say that nothing bad happened at the cricket but nothing good happened either because a ball wasn't bowled in Sydney, and this stands in very stark contrast here this morning. This year my government has four challenges, but also four opportunities going forward. The first, of course, is to deal with the difficult international economic situation arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine that is ongoing. The impact on global energy prices continues to have an impact globally on inflation, on higher costs for energy. And at the end of last year, we brought the Parliament back to deal with those issues in a constructive way. And as the year goes on, we'll continue to deal with that in the lead up to the budget in May, dealing with the trillion dollars of debt that we've inherited, making sure that we continue to act in a responsible economic way, with responsible measures going forward to ensure that there is growth, and to ensure also that there is pressure taken off people in terms of living standards and the higher cost of living that we're seeing flow through as a result of those international economic circumstances. The second, of course, is our national security. And in the first quarter of this year, you will see Australia laying out the optimal pathway that we have to advance the AUKUS relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom, including the development of Australia having nuclear-powered submarines in order to ensure our national security going forward, and also receiving the review that's being undertaken by Angus Houston and Stephen Smith into not just Defence Force Posture, but also our Defence Strategic Review that is taking place to make sure that every dollar that we put into defending our country and into our national security is done in the best way possible. Linked to our national security is our relationship with the region. And this week on Thursday, I'll be visiting Papua New Guinea and being given the great honour of being the first non-PNG leader to address the Parliament of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. And I want to thank Australia's great friend, Prime Minister Marape, on giving not just me, but I believe Australia, that great honour that will occur on Thursday. In PNG, we'll be speaking about the importance of our relationship, our economic relationship, our security relationship, our support for PNG's economic development. But we'll also be talking about our role in the region, in the Pacific region in particular, making sure that Australia's interests are the same as the interest of our Pacific neighbours. And, in part, a necessary precondition of Australia advancing our friendship in the region has been my government taking climate change seriously. It stands in stark contrast with our opponents making jokes about rising sea levels in the Pacific. For our Pacific neighbours, climate change is no laughing matter. It's a serious threat to their very existence of some of the low lying islands in the Pacific like Tuvalu and Kiribati. But it's also a great issue of economic future in the Pacific as well. And so that also coupled with national security and the environment are the focuses of us in terms of the first three. But the fourth, of course, is what Labor governments always do; how do we promote fairness in our society. And in that we'll continue to advance issues, like from January 1 the cheaper medicines, like gender equity by supporting cheaper child care measures that come into play this year. But also, of course, the Voice to Parliament referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation's birth certificate, in our constitution that will take place in the second half of the year. So my government, I'm very proud of the way that we've begun. We have fulfilled many of the commitments that we made to the Australian people on the 21st of May. I know that Richard Marles had a particularly good 2022. He was pretty happy on the 21st of May. But I think perhaps he was even happier on the 24th of September when the Cats won the Premiership. And it's great to be in Geelong. It's my first visit since Geelong won very convincingly against the Swans in the Grand Final. And that was a deserved victory for Geelong. To the people of Geelong in this region, congratulations, a deserved victory, and I know one that you celebrated long and hard. Certainly no one longer and harder than the Deputy Prime Minister, whose productivity was not much that week. Apart from that he has been terrific. That is perfectly understandable, and I can relate to it very much.

JOURNALIST: What's your response to the Heads of the American Senate Armed Services Committee warning Joe Biden against selling Australia submarines?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're very positive in the relationships that we've built with the Biden administration. I have had meetings with President Biden now in Tokyo, in Madrid, in London, and then in Bali. I met twice with Vice-President Harris, in Tokyo and then in Bangkok. We have been engaging very closely on ensuring that the optimal pathway is delivered. We're very confident that it is in the interests of Australia but also in the interests of the United States and the United Kingdom. When we were asked about this, as Leader of the Opposition, I said there's no surprise. The US Alliance arose out of World War II and John Curtin's leadership, together with the United States. Under John Curtin, Australia looked to America. We still regard the US relationship as so important, as our most important alliance, and we place great stock in it. I'll ask the Defence Minister himself to make some comments on this as well. But I'm very positive with the discussions that have been advanced, and that will come to realisation in the first quarter of this year that will see cooperation going forward and a plan. The National Security Committee has been meeting almost weekly since I've been the Prime Minister to advance Australia's interest.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Prime Minister. Australians should be under no illusions as to the significance of the step of the United States and the United Kingdom in working together to provide Australia with the capability to operate nuclear powered submarines. But, as the Prime Minister has said, one of the reasons both the US and UK are doing this is because it's in their strategic interest to have Australia with this capability. And the meetings that we held in December last year in Washington of the AUKUS Defence Ministers meeting, but also AUSMIN were very significant in the commitments that were made by all three countries to making sure that this endeavour is to its completion. And there really is a shared sense of mission between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia in seeing Australia acquire this capability. But there are lots of challenges and there's no doubt that the pressure this places on the industrial base of the United States, also the United Kingdom, is really significant. We're very aware of it. It's why it's so important that Australia develops its own industrial capability to build nuclear powered submarines, which we will do in Adelaide. Last year, I met with Senators Reed and Inhofe. They are both very strong supporters of Australia and really I have no doubt, at the end of the day, that we will be able to deliver this with support across the political systems of both the United States and the United Kingdom.


DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: As I said, we had a meeting of the AUKUS Defence Ministers in December in Washington with Secretary Austin, Secretary Wallace and myself. There is an enormous shared sense of mission to delivering the optimal pathway which we will announce in the not too distant future, which will see Australia acquire this capability with the support of the United States and the United Kingdom.

JOURNALIST: The goal was to buy them off the production line, is that still the case, to get ours first off their production line and then build our own? Or will we have to build our own first?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We'll need to wait until we announce what the optimal pathway will be. One point that we have consistently made which is relevant in the context of the comments that both Senator Reed and Senator Inhofe have made in the last 24 hours is that we understand that we will need to make our own contribution to the net industrial base of the three countries. And that's why we have said that we will develop the capacity in Adelaide to build nuclear-powered submarines and we will do that as quickly as we can.

PRIME MINISTER: I also make this point about our UK friends. I've now met three Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom in Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. All three have had in common support for AUKUS and all three have been very constructive. And in meeting with Rishi Sunak, who I will meet with again in the first half of the year, he was very, very positive. And it was good that I got to spend a fair bit of time, we sat next to each other during the two days of the G20 meeting, and the dialogue that is occurring between the three countries can't be more constructive, can't be more supportive of each other and our common interests.

JOURNALIST: Are you comfortable that Australian-developed weapons technology is being exported to countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: All of our exports are done consistent with the very tight export guidelines that we have, as well as being consistent with our international obligations and our human rights obligations. I'm not going to comment on the specifics of any particular export, but Australians should have a sense of confidence that the way in which we have engaged in exports over the course of the last twelve months, and certainly the way in which we will do so in the future, is consistent with the very tight guidelines that we have and the international obligations that we also have.

JOURNALIST: Is it possible that these weapons are being used to commit war crimes or human rights violations?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Look, all of those are issues which are very much considered in the context of any export that we undertake. The question that you've asked goes to the very criteria that are applied when we are engaging in exports of this kind. Every export that we have undertaken in this government has been done with these guidelines in place and these guidelines being adhered to.

JOURNALIST: It's very hard for the public to know what's going overseas and what they are being used for. Should there be more transparency on exactly what these exports are and what they're being used for?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: That's precisely why we have these guidelines in place. It's not just guidelines, it's legislation.

JOURNALIST: Should there be more information to the public?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: This is the law of the land. And the law of the land is completely transparent in terms of the obligations it places upon us as a government, in terms of the exports that we undertake. And we are meeting those obligations.

JOURNALIST: A new COVID variant has been discovered in Australia dubbed 'the Kracken'. Have you been given any advice on that?

PRIME MINISTER: We receive ongoing advice from the Chief Medical Officer, but also the state health officers who meet regularly and provide advice to the government. There are a range of these variants developing, and we can expect that that is something that will continue into the future. It's one of the reasons why our government continues to provide advice to Australians to make sure if they're eligible for vaccines to get themselves vaccinated, continue to take health advice, and continue to also engage with the precautionary principle. I find it astonishing that the Opposition this week has sought to engage in political partisan commentary about the decision that the government took at the time that we released the Chief Medical Officer's advice. We released that advice, it wasn't done any other way, at the same time as Health Minister Butler announced the changes to arrivals from China. And we implemented exactly the same provisions that apply for Australians travelling to China are now applied to people from China visiting Australia. That is, that they should have a test before they journey here. That is a simple measure. It's one that's consistent with the governments of Japan, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Malaysia. And it's extraordinary that somehow the Coalition decided to make this a hill in which they would take a stand and fight. We've been transparent about it. We'll continue to be so. Australians need to be aware that COVID is still out there. I myself isolated for a week in December when I contracted COVID for the second time. It's not a pleasant thing to go through, but we will continue to take the best advice from the health authorities and we'll continue to be transparent about it.

JOURNALIST: You said one of your challenges this year was fairness. Some Australians have spoken to us at Nine saying that the temporary psychological sessions that they needed to deal with their mental health issues helped save their lives. Do you acknowledge that cutting those back will impact their financial stability, their emotional well being? Is that something that will be reversed this year?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let's be very clear about what happened. There was no cut back from the Federal Government, from my government. There was a temporary measure put in place which stopped at the end of 2022. And if you look at the commentary which has been made about people getting access to the program, these issues are quite complex. And the evidence was there as well that for so many people, they weren't able to access any support at all. That was something that the government bore in mind. This is something that will continue to work through, but temporary measures which were put in place to end at a particular time, do have to end at some time. And that is what occurred in this case.

JOURNALIST: And you didn't mention in terms of your top bullet lists, fixing Medicare, I don't know whether that comes up under fairness.

PRIME MINISTER: That certainly comes under fairness. Well, let's be clear about the health system and fixing Medicare. The Federal Government, as much as state governments, particularly ones facing elections, will try to say that they're in the advance. My party went to an election with $750,000,000 on the table to fix GPs in particular and access to GPs. We set up a committee that involved the AMA and the Royal College to provide advice to the government on how to do that. We did that. This actually has very little to do with any request from state governments. I appreciate that all of the health systems of state governments are under pressure in terms of the hospital systems. And one of the things that my government has done through the National Cabinet where we've had constructive discussions, is to look at ways in which the interaction of the primary health care system, together with the hospital system, work together. So, quite clearly, there are a whole lot of people who are using the hospital system because they don't have access to GPs or because of issues with the aged care system, people who should be getting treatment. For example, nurses in aged care homes. The Royal Commission found that if you have a nurse 24/7 with aged care residents, then if you can get that care immediately that's needed, then you won't end up in hospital in many cases. So you end up saving money. In addition to that, Urgent Care Clinics are something that our government announced during the election campaign. We're rolling them out around the country. It was a major centrepiece of our reform of Medicare and Strengthening Medicare. We'll continue to work constructively, including with Daniel Andrews. I'll continue to have discussions with him, as I have with other Premiers as well.

JOURNALIST: On testing flights from China, has that decision set back some of the gains made in the relationship with China?

PRIME MINISTER: Not at all. And that's why it's perplexing, some of the commentaries of our Opposition here, essentially saying that this is a bigger deal than the fact that Australians have to get tested to go to China. That's already in place. We notified the Chinese administration before the announcement was made. We were transparent about the announcement and released the CMO advice. We made it clear that this was a precautionary issue and also that it was about being consistent with the governments of which you would normally align Australia, the United States, the UK, Japan, South Korea, India, these countries who have all made similar announcements. What I have said about the relationship with China is we will cooperate where we can, we'll disagree where we must, but we'll engage in our national interest. It is in Australia's national interest to have better relations with China. It is in China's national interest to have better relations with Australia. We have economic relationships that are very important. They're Australia's most significant trading partner. And I look forward to further constructive developments in the relationship this year following my meeting with President Xi and then Penny Wong's visit as Foreign Minister to Beijing on the 21st of December to commemorate the 50th anniversary of relations between Australia and China. It was the right thing to recognise China 50 years ago and to develop that relationship. It's the right thing now for us to be constructive. And certainly the discussions that I had with President Xi were very constructive.

JOURNALIST: Do you have a message for Ash Barty?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is just fantastic news that Ash Barty is going to be a new mum in 2023. Ash Barty is someone who is a great credit to Australia. I had the privilege of being there to watch her win the Australian Open in January last year following her Wimbledon victory. Ash Barty carries herself so well and is just a great Australian, and I think that all Australians will wish Ash Barty all the very, very best. This is fantastic news and I look forward to seeing Ash Barty, in whatever she does, she's going to be a winner, on the court and off the court. And I'm sure she will be a fantastic mum. So congratulations.

JOURNALIST: Just on Western Australia, can you give us an update on that?

PRIME MINISTER: A C130 has arrived in Western Australia to provide support. That's the second Defence Force aircraft full of defence force personnel to provide on the ground support. And we're working with the McGowan Government to provide support in the Kimberley region. These floods are having a devastating impact. Many of these communities, of course, are communities that do it tough, and the resources simply aren't there on the ground. So we're working constructively with the WA Government, and my government stands ready to provide whatever support is requested from Mark McGowan's government, just like we've provided ongoing support in New South Wales, in South Australia, in Victoria and in Tasmania. In the coming week, I'll be visiting regional New South Wales and Queensland on the way to Papua New Guinea. And certainly there will be a presence from the Federal Government there in WA. I wish those communities all the best as they deal with this difficult issue. And just once again, a shout out to both the professionals, whether they be ADF personnel, emergency services personnel, but also the volunteers in the SES and other organisations who provide such incredible support, who put their own safety often on the line to help their fellow Australians. And we've seen once again, people winched to safety through these flood waters. This is a very large flood that is the largest they've seen in the region for a very long period of time. And I would ask people once again to make sure that they follow the recommendations from the authorities. 

JOURNALIST: On AUKUS, how ready are our local defence industry? And in terms of our industrial base what needs to be done to ensure they are ready?

PRIME MINISTER: Getting ready is what we're putting in place. And I'll ask Richard to finish the press conference by talking about this, but one of the things that the National Security Committee is talking about is exactly that, the preparedness and training and upskilling of our labour market here. Whether it be through universities who are playing a role there in South Australia, but also other universities around Australia in areas such as nuclear technology, or whether it be those blue collar skills that will be required. There are other issues that have been developed that will be released as part of that optimal pathway. When we talk about optimal pathway, we talk about not just the issue of what is built, but how it is built as well. The optimal pathway in terms of developing a capacity of skills of the Australian workforce. And that is one of the are really positive things that my government is determined to do here: how does Australia benefit from this technology and from this very advanced manufacturing so that it has a flow on effect throughout the economy. And here in Geelong, of all places, is an appropriate place to give a reminder that the government that we replaced told the car industry to leave Australia. And as a result, we lost skills. Not just in the car industry, in the automotive industry. It was the flow-on impact in deskilling Australia that that had an impact on. Now we are determined to have a future made in Australia including upskilling, so that it has a benefit not just in South Australia but throughout our entire economy.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The Prime Minister has really said it all in that answer. I mean this is a really exciting opportunity for Australia to develop the industrial capacity to build a nuclear powered submarine for our nation. And one of the things we are really clear, as I said earlier, is that we will need to develop that capability in order to contribute to the net industrial base of the three countries of the United States, the United Kingdom and ourselves. And we are doing this apace right now, working very closely with the South Australian Government about exactly how we will proceed at Osborne, down in Port Adelaide, where the submarines will be built. Coming out of the Jobs and Skills Summit last year, we've established an initiative with the South Australian Government where we will be working with them about how we can develop the skills that the Prime Minister has talked about across the whole spectrum required to build a nuclear powered submarine. But as the Prime Minister also said, this is not just going to be a huge opportunity for South Australia. This is such a large endeavour that it will require the industrial base of the whole nation. This is going to provide opportunities in WA. It's going to provide opportunities right here in Victoria. And this is a really exciting opportunity for the nation in terms of what it enables us to do with developing this industrial base.


DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: People are going to need to wait until we announce the optimal pathway, which will not be too far away. But the point that we've made is that we will need to develop an industrial base in this country to build a nuclear powered submarine, and we seek to do that as quickly as we can.