Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sky News

17 Jun 2021
Prime Minister

Andrew Clennell: Prime Minister, thanks for joining us.

Prime Minister: Thanks a lot, Andrew.

Clennell: Now, we've all been over here with you and seen what another world is really, what living with the virus is like, what's your impressions of what you're seeing?

Prime Minister: It confirms the view that I've often expressed when we've been home, and that is in Australia, we're living life during COVID like few, if any other country around the world and we’ve had quite a bit of a glimpse of that here, whether in Paris here today, or in the UK over the course of the weekend. The rest of the world is carrying a load when it comes to the virus and the pandemic, which is extremely heavy. And the decisions that they're making, just like Prime Minister Johnson had to make just most recently, I think continues to highlight the uncertainty of the pandemic and it means that even though there is much we do know now about the virus, there is still a lot we don't. It means we need to continue to be cautious to protect lives and protect livelihoods as Australia is doing.

Clennell: Well, that struck me as well. Boris Johnson, just before you met him, gave that press conference where he spoke about extending lockdowns and he spoke about the unpredictability of the Indian variants and so forth. And it just made me think that we have to learn to live with this virus for some time, for some years. Is that how you are seeing how it plays out?

Prime Minister: This is what I've been saying now for some time, that the nature of how you live with it will change over time as well. And the UK, indeed, a country with almost 80 per cent, well over 70 per cent of the population vaccinated, but yet still having those very significant challenges. It just goes to show that there's no one thing. There's a range of things that we have to do. And I'm pleased that our vaccination programme is growing stronger. Of course, we've had the issue with the TGA advice and that obviously impacts, but as it has previously, we've just worked through that. We’ll get it done. But we just have to keep learning, acting together, making sensible choices. And importantly, this is something I think was fed back to me when I met with leaders these last few days. They see us managing that balance between the health issues and the economy issues very well. It's quite a thing to be able to say that Australia's economy is bigger now than it was before the pandemic and more jobs now than before the pandemic. Only South Korea could say that. And so getting those two things right has been recognised.

Clennell: I guess I could say we're an island nation, we could shut our borders. But so is Britain, they could have gone for that option.

Prime Minister: They could have taken that option. They didn't take that option at the time. And that just highlights the point that, once you pass through the gates of decisions like this, it's very difficult, difficult to go back. And that's why we've been cautious on those issues.

Clennell: Well, you were someone who through the pandemic has tried to shift public opinion gradually. When you think about international borders, if you just did it suddenly, apart from the fact, you'd probably be voted out if the virus spread everywhere, people just wouldn't accept it. If, when we do get to that international border decision, I assume you're going to do it very gradually and methodically.

Prime Minister: It isn't one decision. It isn't closed one day, open the next. I mean, the challenge, the next challenge we have, in addition to getting Australians home, is our workforce needs. You know, that's incredibly important. And today we were talking about those around agriculture visas and we know the challenges that our agriculture sector, but not just our agricultural sector, our defence industry sector, our infrastructure sector. This is one of the challenges of having closed borders is it puts real constraints on the size of your workforce. Australia is a migration nation. It's an immigration nation. And so that has been cut off for us largely this last 18 months. And so we've got to find practical ways to solve those problems over the next 12 months. And that's what other countries are trying to do. So whether it's that, or whether it's the student pilots we're doing, it's the gradual process of opening things up safely, but also in a way that is targeted on the things that will give us the biggest benefit for our economy in doing so.

Clennell: So green zones for some countries, safer countries, for example?

Prime Minister: That is a common discussion amongst the leaders and even discussions I've had these last few days, even with countries that are have much more open borders because the virus is riddled through their countries, they will still be making those choices of green countries and red countries and amber countries across Europe. I mean, we will see over the course of this summer in Europe, where a lot of people will be moving around under those new arrangements and we'll be able to see what the impact of that is. Now, while hospitalisations in the UK were rising in this last week or so, I think the Prime Minister noted that, and that is an issue of great concern for them. If the virus is there, but the hospitalisations and the serious illness doesn't occur and we see that on a sustained basis, well, that says that there is a potentially different pathway there. But the jury is not in on that yet. There's new variants like Delta and so on that can change all of that.

Clennell: People do look to vaccination as a cure all. It's not a cure all, but it is very important, isn't it? It's one, well you just said, it's one of a number of weapons.

Prime Minister: It's one of many things. Borders is another. Rings of containment on how we run quarantine and how we do testing and tracing and how we use QR codes and how we do all of those things. I mean, just these last few days, you and I have both been having daily rapid antigen tests so we can operate and do the things that we've been doing.

Clennell: Could they become more used in Australia?

Prime Minister: I wouldn't prejudge any of it at this point. All I'm simply saying is there's no one thing. There never has been just one thing. And there is still a lot that is unknown. But Australia is doing better than most, if not all.

Clennell: It seems part of this trip on the G7 was about showing the strength of liberal democracies, the old allies in the face of China, frankly. And Boris Johnson was saying that was important today, but he was also saying he didn't want to see a Cold War.

Prime Minister: Yeah, that's a shared view. That’s a shared view of all the leaders. It's our view…

Clennell: But are we sliding towards that?

Prime Minister: We are working hard to prevent that type of an outcome, and that is achieved by having as much engagement as possible. The countries that have sort of met together, whether it was in Cornwall or, you know, where I am today when we're catching up on the discussions I had over these last 24, 48 hours in London. All of this is about finding that way where you can get that balance, where we can trade, where we can interact, and we can give confidence and assurance that this is all possible without interfering in the sovereign independence of nation states. And we've got to find that way of working together, find that way of living together and not put ourselves in the position where we're being told how to live.

Clennell: Australians fear war with China, you hear that anecdotally. What would you say to reassure them about that?

Prime Minister: That is not an outcome that we would wish for in any circumstance. I mean, that is why you take the steps that we do take to ensure that we can get some stability in the region, a free and open Indo-Pacific, of which China is a part, and the ASEAN nations, that the relationship we have with Japan, I think has been very important. And how we've progressed this understanding. Of course, Japan and Australia know full well the challenges in the Indo-Pacific, but I was being greatly encouraged that particularly across Europe and of course in the United Kingdom, and has always been the case with the United States, there is an increasing and profound understanding of the challenges we face and that we have to manage to get to the very outcome you're saying, a happy and peaceful coexistence.

Clennell: Now, your first meeting with Joe Biden, what were your impressions of him?

Prime Minister: He has a deep understanding of the Indo-Pacific. He does understand. He has a very strong institutional understanding of the United States system and the role the United States has played in our region over a very long time. And he's certainly not fresh to these issues. And that is enormously useful in our partnership. His leadership within the Quad leaders meeting, in convening that first meeting. This is a very high priority for him. And he sees the Quad as we do, as not just about the traditional defence relationships, but a broader way of engaging the Indo-Pacific and doing that through ASEAN's eyes to endorse and support and reinforce the role that ASEAN, the sovereign independent states of the Asia Pacific, their outlook, what they're seeking to achieve and how nations such as Australia, India, Japan and the United States can enable and support that.

Clennell: Some Australians will question this trip. I've seen how busy you've been. And obviously it's very important for an Australian Prime Minister to meet a US President, to have that face to face. What would you say to them? I mean, for them, the international borders [inaudible]?

Prime Minister: Well, this is essential. This has been essential. This has been the first time when these nations have been able to gather together in person for some time. There was never a more important occasion for Australia to be around this table. We're talking about how we're managing COVID, the recession that it's caused, understanding the fracturing that we've seen around big international institutions like the World Trade Organisation and getting that back on the right foot to ensure that it plays a positive role. Ensuring that our cooperation more broadly in multilateral institutions. This all impacts on Australia's interests. It all impacts on our security. It impacts on our prosperity, and it impacts on our well-being, our health. Today, I was speaking with Boris Johnson about mental health issues and Headspace and the fact that Headspace is keen to do what it does in Australia, in the United Kingdom. There's a lot of interest in this. Australia has a lot to offer from what we know and how we do things. And there's a genuine level of interest in that. So it's not just in the commercial sphere, it's in the wellbeing sphere. It's in the security sphere. So this has been important for us to be here. And the key thing, Andrew, is we're here by invitation. We weren't knocking on the door. The invitation was sent out and we were invited enthusiastically in. And then the ability to land this in-principle agreement around the free trade agreement with the UK, the first that the UK's entered into and the opportunity to speak also with President Macron is a very welcome one.

Clennell: I want to ask you just briefly about climate change.

Prime Minister: Sure.

Clennell: It seems to me a lot of these nations want a target out of Australia. You've indicated that could well happen, but at the moment, it's as fast as we can do it and it is technology, not taxes. How are you going to convince The Nationals?

Prime Minister: We're just working the problem. And the problem is how we address a world that is moving to a new energy economy, a new carbon neutral economy. That's going to happen. Financial markets, capital markets, whether it's governments, internationals, this is where the world is heading and that has profound implications for Australia.

Clennell: Why is Boris Johnson...

Prime Minister: We have to ready ourselves for that. And that's why the technology partnerships are so important. Yesterday, I had a technology roundtable on clean energy with those operators in the United Kingdom. And there's a shared view about how we have to find these solutions, but not just that, make them scalable. So these are technical tasks. These are practical things that we have to achieve to be successful. I mean, when you sit down with countries like Japan or South Korea, where Australia has been a major energy exporter and driver, ever since the 50s and earlier. We get to do that again in a new energy economy and be successful again. But we have to adapt to be successful.

Clennell: Why is Boris Johnson so hot to trot on the issue, do you think?

Prime Minister: He's got a deep commitment and I think people in the United Kingdom do also. And that's fine. And they also carry the responsibility of COP26 this year. I thought Boris did an incredible job at Carbis Bay. I thought the way he created an atmosphere was one of the most candid, free speaking international summits I've ever been to. There was a genuine dialogue and there was a genuine rapport. I mean, a number of the leaders now, we have been meeting with each other, whether it's been on screens or in person, pre-pandemic, post-pandemic, during pandemic, now for some years. And so there is a good understanding amongst particularly that group. And even with Narendra Modi only being able to join us by video screen, Narendra and I and the others in the room already have a good understanding of each other. So this is a, I think, an important, an important exchange. It's more than a dialogue. It's a genuine exchange.

Clennell: I know you get asked this every interview, but even though you keep saying the election's next year, people are still saying the election could be this year.

Prime Minister: I don't know what they're doing that. Why do you keep saying that?

Clennell: Well, you did say if there was a major political event, it could happen.

Prime Minister: I'm not aware of one having occurred.

Clennell: Yeah, well, that's what, that's the trajectory we can see that's the end of it.

Prime Minister: The election's due next year. There's too much to do now. And Australians expect me to be focusing on that. I mean, that has always been my view. 2021, I knew was going to be an even bigger challenge than 2020. I mean, in 2021 you were dealing with coming through the pandemic and the challenge of 2021 is only accelerated because of the fallout from the pandemic to date and the more uncertainties that are coming, the delivery of the vaccination programme, these other major events that are coming up later in the year. I'm very pleased that the Australian economy has been able to weather the storm better than almost any other advanced economy in the world. But we have to keep that up. And so we're constantly having to adapt. So that's where my focus is. And it has to be. That's where the government's focus has to be. It can't afford, for the sake of the Australian people, to be taken off and looking at those issues, unless they are forced upon us.

Clennell: Do you have confidence then, the vaccination programme is on track, that it's looking perhaps better than it was, that you know...

Prime Minister: Well, it's certainly accelerated.

Clennell: By the end of the year, we could look pretty good on that front?

Prime Minister: I would certainly hope so. But there are shocks that come along the way. As, we're only seeing again now. And, you know, you have to deal with those and you have to respond to them. There's also the broader challenge of the vaccination programme, not just in Australia, but in our own Pacific region. I think an important point that was made at Carbis Bay, was that for each of our own nations to be more protected, than more of the world needs to be vaccinated. And that's certainly true in our region when we're thinking about South East Asia, Indonesia of course, but also Papua New Guinea and the islands in the Pacific. So that is an even bigger challenge than just our own country. But we are, I think, making great progress there. And there's a lot more to be done. And we want to continue to encourage people to come forward and get those vaccinations. But then you've got the additional supplies which have been coming through for Pfizer and you’ve got Moderna to come in later. And the sprint later in the year will be very important. But you've just got to roll with the challenges that come your way and get the job done.

Clennell: Thank you so much.

Prime Minister: Thanks a lot, Andrew.