Interview with Anna Henderson, SBS World News

25 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

ANNA HENDERSON: Thanks so much for joining SBS World News.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Anna, good to be here.

HENDERSON: For the people sitting at home on their couches, all these high level diplomatic talks and discussions, what does it actually means for someone at home watching this right now?

PRIME MINISTER: Keeping them safe and secure. It is that straight forward. We live in a part of the world that is changing dramatically. It is the focus of world attention. What's happening in what we call the Indo-Pacific, that arc that goes all the way up from North Korea down through Japan, of course taking in China, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, Australia, right around through to India. This is a part of the world that is just changing how everything is happening all around the world and its future is going to determine all our futures. And so making sure that Australia and Australians can be safe and secure in a rapidly changing environment is incredibly important. It's the most important responsibility a prime minister has.

HENDERSON: What do you say to the critics out there who see this is overblown rhetoric to make people feel insecure and then you create the political answer to that question, that you are the Prime Minister that keeps them secure? Are you making more of this than it really is right now?

PRIME MINISTER: I think it's a very cynical view. I mean, Australia has always, through prime ministers over generations, been right here in this city and many cities like it around the world, forming partnerships that keeps Australians safe. I mean, in particular if you go back, it was John Curtin who looked towards the United States during the Second World War. This was followed up by the Menzies government that put in place ANZUS 70 years ago. And here we are today in a whole new chapter, bringing the United Kingdom into our defence partnership. I mean, these are the things that are necessary to keep Australians safe. They go well beyond politics. And that is a responsibility that governments have, I think all parliamentarians have and as a prime minister, there's none more important.

HENDERSON: We don't have boots on the ground, but are we effectively in some kind of proxy war with China already?

PRIME MINISTER: No, of course not. A lot of what our new arrangement addresses is areas of scientific cooperation and technology. I mean, later today, we will be meeting with the Quad, a great initiative by President Biden to get the leaders of the Quad, which is India, Japan, Australia and the United States. And we're focused on a very positive agenda. See, to create peace and stability in our region and security in our region. It's just not about security cooperation. It's also about things like getting COVID vaccines to developing countries. It's about creating what we call clean energy supply chains to ensure that the developing countries of our region can get access to the new technologies that is going to drive the world economy over the next 30-50 years. And Australia wants to be very much part of that. See, when you can encourage prosperity in the region, when you have stability that does that, then everyone’s safe.

HENDERSON: Everyone's hanging on the actual detail of your technology not taxes approach. Did your meeting with Dr Daniel Yergin create more fodder for thought for you? What is the technology that you're going to rely on to do our part in the globe?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Dan Yergin is a highly respected academic here in the United States. He's advised many administrations on both sides of politics here in the United States. And he has a very simple proposition. And that is if you look over world history, what are the big changes that actually drive geopolitics and the cost of energy? Well, it's technology. It's technology. Each and every time. If we want to address climate change, then we need the scale of change that only technology can bring. See where we are now, it's not about if, it's about how. There's a lot of talk about what people want to do. But we need to take the conversation to how are we going to do it? Not just Australia, not just the United States or countries in Europe, big advanced economies that have access to the technology that can achieve this big change that needs to happen over the next 30 years. But in countries like India, in Vietnam and Indonesia. And see, they want jobs, they want industries, they want prosperity like the advanced countries have had. And we need to ensure that they can achieve that with these new energy technologies and to ensure that that's sustainable in the future. And the more successful they are, the more prosperous all of us are.

HENDERSON: OK, so what fossil fuel industries are you prepared to immediately wipe down and switch to a technology approach to meet that agenda?

PRIME MINISTER: None of them. And we don't have to because that change will take place over time. What's important, though, is we are working on the transition technologies and fuels and the ultimate technologies that will be there over the next 20, 30 years that can get us to net zero. I mean, this doesn't happen overnight. And the suggestion that it can, I don't think matches history. What you need to do is build the capability, the technology, the understanding that's got to be at scale, the right cost, it’s got to work all over the world. And that's what the partnership should be. We need better partnerships on technology, better partnerships on science, all of these things. Yesterday, we agreed, Prime Minister Modi and I, that we would enter into a similar partnership that we have already with Germany and Singapore and countries like that to ensure these new clean energy technologies have a good supply chain and can be rolled out and make the difference in the world that we want to make. Technology is what's going to get us there. That's what is actually going to cause the change we all want.

HENDERSON: Are you detecting a shift in the mood in the Nationals Party Room towards your way of thinking here? I'm hearing as few as four members of the Nationals are currently rusted on to the sort of Matt Canavan approach. Do you think that you now have the backing of the majority of the Nationals to go forward with this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's not about my view. It's about what I think Australians are clearly looking for. And what they're looking for is not just the action to get us to dealing with climate change. I mean, we've been, in Australian politics, we've been going through this issue for many years and there've been many approaches, but what we have to do ...

HENDERSON: Many political careers ruined as well.

PRIME MINISTER: Sure. But what my job is to bring my government together to focus on the plan that can achieve it. And the thing about a plan is this; a plan says to Australians, whether they're up in the Hunter, or down in Bell Bay, or up in Gladstone or up in the Pilbara, it says this is how we achieve net zero emissions in the future. This is what it means. Our view is that we can achieve that by keeping the costs low, keeping people in industries, ensuring we're using transition fuels that take us from one place to the next, and we take people on the journey. Plenty of people like to make commitments, a lot of people making commitments, but not enough people are making plans and we're making a plan. And that plan, I believe, will address the concerns that Australians have about such a big type of change. Change can be concerning. And I want to give them a plan that enables them to go, OK, that's what they're going to do. I can work with that. I can see my future in that. I can see the future of my town, my region in that. And that's the assurance that prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, governments want to give. And that's the way through.

HENDERSON: And will that happen before Glasgow? The plan, the unveiling of the plan?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll be returning from here and be working through that with my colleagues. But my approach is always just to keep working, just keep working with people, stay focused on the goal, bring people together. I'd like to get there as soon as I can and ultimately as to what the ultimate plan will be. But in government, you've got to work with everyone in the government and take everybody in the one direction. And over the last three years, we've been able to achieve an incredible unity within our government. That's been a big change and that is enabling us now to deal with these, I think, very challenging global issues and do things that are necessary. But we're going to do them together.

HENDERSON: Can I take you to the French relationship? How important is it to you that the French Ambassador is back in Canberra? Is that an important diplomatic goal for you to repair the relationship so that he does return?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what's important is that we get back to a normal relationship with France and we get on with the work we were doing before because the submarine contract was only one element of our relationship. France and Australia enjoy a unique perspective on the Pacific. We've been here a long time. We have, France is literally in the Pacific and France are a great partner in the Pacific. France are a great partner amongst liberal democracies. We share values, we share an outlook and we want to be partners with France. Now, we have had a contract. It's a contract that we couldn't continue with. It's a contract that had we done that, it would have been terribly against Australia's interests. And so, of course, I couldn't continue with that. And of course, when you make a tough decision like that, it's not going to be welcomed by the other party to the contract. I understand that. But we're just going to have to persist through it, engage more. And I believe we'll get there because ultimately we share the same principles, we share the same beliefs and we share the same goals.

HENDERSON: Sources close to the French Government have accused you and your government of stealing military and intelligence secrets in this process because you've been privy since 2016 to their military approach and the capability. What do you say to that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it's nonsense. I think it's nonsense. I mean, we were working in good faith in a contract, working together, paying our bills, too, by the way. And over the course of paying our bills in that contract and working, a lot of our people developed great skills. That's great for Australia.

HENDERSON: You're going to get fresh bills from Naval Group in the coming weeks, I read today. So how big do you expect them to be?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we'll work through those issues and we'll do that in accordance with our contract. We've been very clear in our understanding of what our obligations are here and we're acting in accordance with those. Let me just be really clear. The suggestion that some seem to be making, that Australia should have gone ahead with a contract costing taxpayers in Australia tens of billions of dollars to build a boat that was not going to meet our needs, would have been negligent. So I had to make the tough decision and I understood in doing that, it was going to cause some upset and disappointment with our friend and partner, France. But at the end of the day. I'm always going to put Australia's national interests first. And I know the French, our good friends, would do the same thing if it was in their national interest. And at this level, we all understand that as leaders, we all understand that all nations will act in accordance with their national interests and our job, whether here in Washington this week with the Quad coming together, or the many other forums with ASEAN that we worked with in particular, it's all about trying to align our thinking as much as possible. But there will be times when we have a different view. And at those times I can assure you what's foremost in my mind is what's best for Australia and keeping Australians safe.

HENDERSON: The evacuation from Kabul has come up a number of times this week during various talks. How many of the 3,000 places at least that you've set aside in humanitarian visas have been filled at this stage?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're still working that through because we took 4,100 people out of Kabul. And it's been a good opportunity here in Washington to say thank you to the United States because it was their troops that were on that tarmac that enabled us to be able to get those desperate people out of that city. And 13 of those soldiers lost their lives in a terrorist attack. And for me, be able to say thank you to the President for the sacrifice that enabled Australians and those who were seeking to get out of Kabul. We thank the Americans for that as we thank the British troops who are there also. At this stage, we've had a lot of discussions over this past week and we'll have more today, which is about pathways that we can get more people out of Afghanistan. And that's still not very clear. It's still very early days. It's on the Taliban to be good to what they've pledged to enable people to leave if they wish to. And out of that process, that would provide us with the opportunity to settle people here in Australia. But there's still a lot of work to do. We've already had around 100, at least, that have already come to Australia under that programme that I said was there. And if it needs to be bigger, it will be bigger.

HENDERSON: What's the cap?

PRIME MINISTER: I haven't put a cap on. We did about 3,000 people in one year when we were doing the special intake from Syria and there was more that came, but in that first year there was only about 3,000. And so that's what we based our intake out of Afghanistan. It's been difficult to take people under our humanitarian programme during COVID for obvious reasons. And so that means there's already quite a lot of room in the programme to take people immediately. But if we need to take more, then we will.

HENDERSON: Just in relation to the Taliban. We've seen brutal beatings. We've seen reports of killings, women not being allowed to attend educational institutions. I think it was Julia Gillard, our former Prime Minister, who recently suggested sanctions could come onto the table at some stage. Is that under discussion by your government?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't want to be premature about any of those things. I mean, these things and these reports are obviously terribly concerning and very distressing. The Taliban have made a whole range of statements and commitments to the United States and others. Well, they've also got form. So Australia will take a lot of convincing and there’ll need to be a lot of demonstrated performance from the Taliban before Australia starts moving in a direction that will give them any sort of legitimacy.

HENDERSON: Would you accept a Taliban representative at an embassy in Canberra? Would you be happy to see that occur?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that is something that is not in contemplation.

HENDERSON: As we walk around the streets of Washington and people aren't wearing masks, people aren't using QR codes and people are out having dinner sitting down in restaurants, which is an absolute revelation to many in lockdown. Why is Australia not in the same position?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're coming from different places. As you know, here in the United States and particularly here in Washington, if you head down to where the memorials are, you'll see the white markers there.

HENDERSON: Yeah, very moving.

PRIME MINISTER: It's very moving. And it's a reminder that in Australia that didn't happen. In Australia, we’ve saved well over 30,000 lives. If we'd had the same fatality rate of COVID, whether it's here in the United States or across the OECD, more than 30,000 Australians would have perished. So here the virus ravaged their society and their community, and so their path has been different to ours. For much of our country, there has been little COVID, particularly what we call now the non-COVID states, outside of New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria. And so we will go into living with the virus in a different way to here. But we need to. And at 80 per cent you can. And we know we can. And it's important that we do do that. And my message to Australians is that is something the Commonwealth Government absolutely supports and we don't believe it should be denied.

HENDERSON: Do you sympathise with people who feel like they're living in an authoritarian state? Who don't feel that they had the freedoms that they expected under a democratic government in Australia right now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, public health and viruses, they don't take any account of anybody's beliefs. They can just kill you. They can just cause you to be very, very sick. And that's why as countries, what we've done, I was talking to Prime Minister Suga about this this morning, is just ensure that our vaccination rates are where they are, we're over 50 per cent double dose, over 75 per cent single dose. We're getting there. By the middle of next month, perhaps even sooner, everyone in Australia who wanted to have a vaccine, there will have been enough vaccines for them to have had one. So once you've done that, you know, Australians have voted with their arms to be able to open up and to get those vaccination rates that we clearly set out. And they should get what they voted for by getting that vaccination in their arm.

HENDERSON: And if all this goes well, you return to Canberra, the vaccination drive is successful. Is an election on the cards in the next few months?

PRIME MINISTER: No. Why would there be? I've never said there would be.

HENDERSON: Things can change.

PRIME MINISTER: The election is next year. There's been nothing that has happened that would require an election like that this year. I mean, I've got work to do. We've been at work here this week keeping Australians safe. What we've seen, we've been able to bring together here, has taken many, many months, almost two years in some respects, to bring together. The work of government requires you to put those hours in and we've been putting them in, and we've been getting the results. Keeping Australia strong, keeping Australians safe and bringing them together on important issues like climate change.

HENDERSON: What were the intelligence agency representatives doing here in Washington this week, from Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Working with their colleagues and counterparts, part of our important partnerships.

HENDERSON: Were they taking part in meetings that you were having with other political leaders?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they were there when we were discussing security intelligence issues. That's fairly normal. They're the officials who look after those things.

HENDERSON: Well, thank you so much for your time, Prime Minister. We appreciate it.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much.