Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

13 May 2021
Prime Minister

BEN FORDHAM: On the line, PM, Happy birthday to you.

PRIME MINISTER: G’day, Ben, thank you very much. Well, Ben, the plan that you referred to, the Premier and I have already discussed these matters before and they've been working away on this. And we've always said that we want to be working with the states and with the sectors about how we can address these issues and we will be working cooperatively with them. We already have been working with states like South Australia and the Territory up there in the Northern Territory where we've had pilots and other programmes running of a similar nature. So this is what we mean when we say you just deal with these challenges. You come up with these innovative solutions and we work together. And there's still a long way from landing this, I should stress, at this point. But it's something that we're encouraging of. But it's got to be done safely and we've got to be able to do it in a way that obviously doesn't risk the great success we've had. That's what the Budget is about, Ben. It's about securing Australia's recovery. And with all of these initiatives we're seeking to work our way through these challenges, then, you know, these are practical proposals and look forward to working further with them.

FORDHAM: So there's a possibility that we could welcome back foreign students under strict conditions before we allow Aussies to travel overseas without permission?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, not necessarily, because the other proposal we're working on, which I've tasked through the National Cabinet, the medical professionals who advise us on, is I've been seeking to get support for Australians who are vaccinated would be able to travel overseas and return in some sort of modified quarantine arrangement. I've been seeking that for some time, but that also has to be done safely. These are all of the options that we need to work practically on. Borders is just not a binary option of open one day, shut the next. There are various grades of that and that's actually what the Budget assumes. So that they need to be practical, they need to be safe, they need to ensure that we don't put at risk the great gains that have been made and that New South Wales has led the way there throughout this pandemic and been practical. So this is a cooperative process.

FORDHAM: I'm just having a look at the Budget papers. It does have an assumption that the national border will be closed until mid-2022. You say you can't guarantee that we’ll be able to return home without quarantine after 2022. Look, it's really a mug's game, isn't it? I know everyone wants to know the date. When can we fly? When can we can do this, when can we do that? But it's a mug's game when you're trying to guess what this virus is going to do next.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's exactly the point. And so what you do is you deal with what's known. You work with proposals that are real. You make them work within the medical advice, which keeps Australians safe and you get on with the job. And that's how we've been able to achieve what we've done over the last 18 months. That's what we've been doing. That's why right now, Australia has more people in work, 13.1 million, than there were before the pandemic hit. Those 900,000 and more people who'd lost their jobs in the months following the pandemic hitting us, those jobs have all come back. And also we've been able to protect the health of Australians. If we'd had the average fatality rate of COVID-19 in Australia that you have in the more than 30 countries of the OECD nations, like countries to ours, you know, developed countries with sophisticated economies and health systems, 30,000 more people would have died in Australia. So we've achieved a lot together as a country. And the Budget is about how we secure that recovery now as we go from that emergency phase and we're now well into the recovery phase and the Budget drives that forward by strengthening our economy, continuing to fight the virus, guaranteeing essential services and the resilience of our nation, whether it's against pandemics or natural disasters or changing climate or in particular the security threats in the region. That's what the Budget is about.

FORDHAM: Prime Minister, those repatriation flights from India are set to resume on Saturday. They were suspended because of the crisis in India and worries that it would put too much pressure on our quarantine system. So are we now confident that we're ready? 

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, that's the advice I have, Ben, and we took that decision last week, and that was always our intention. I mean, what is happening in India is a terrible humanitarian tragedy and that's why we're providing so much support to India at the moment. The oxygen concentrators, the respirators that we've sent. I spoke to Prime Minister Modi on Friday afternoon and India are very grateful for the support that Australia is providing, as many other nations are. And it's not just obviously Australian citizens and residents who'll be returning from those repatriation flights that we've been concerned for. But the people of India more broadly, that the virus now, Ben, is ravaging the developing world. We've already seen it ravage the developed world of the United States and Europe and the United Kingdom. But now we're seeing it move through these developing countries and it is truly heartbreaking. And it reminds us that this virus hasn't gone anywhere. It is a fierce enemy and that's who I'm fighting, that virus. 

FORDHAM: I'm guessing going forward, we need a bit more muscle from the World Health Organisation. It turns out that the WHO can't tell the world about a new virus unless it has the permission from the country where the virus has been found and now this expert panel chaired by the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark says those rules need to change. I mean, it's crazy, isn't it, that they can identify something but can't tell the world about it or declare it a pandemic until the host country agrees?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Ben, I made exactly this point when I called for this very enquiry. I made exactly this point about ensuring that these are the World Health Organisation had the authority. I mean, I even used that example of things like weapons inspectors that you have in other areas. I was mocked, I was bagged, the Labor Party mocked me when I said it.


PRIME MINISTER: And now the WHO has come out and recommended the same thing. So, look, I think it is important that we learn the lessons from this pandemic, but that's not about any one country. We all know how this started, but what it's about is ensuring that we protect against future pandemics. And that's why we suggested this process should be done and that's come and they've made those reports and I thank them for doing it. But there's a lot more, I think, to discover there. But what's important is we learn the lessons to protect the planet, the world's population from future pandemics. 

FORDHAM: Prime Minister, I know you'd be concerned about the rising tensions between Israel and Palestine. And yesterday, we had a woman charged in Sydney after burning an Israeli flag in Lakemba. How important is it to make sure that those tensions in the Middle East don't become tensions on the streets of Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, incredibly important. I mean, of course, we're all very concerned about what's happening there. And we've been urging restraint from all parties involved there to not take any unilateral action on those very stressful and tense situations that we're finding there. But those things should not be played out here in Australia. We're a peaceful country. We believe in a two-state solution. That's the Government's policy at least. And we want to ensure that people live in this country with tolerance and respect. By all means, I think people can have concerns and views and there's a tolerance for that. But at the same time, we do not want to import, import the troubles of other parts of the world into this country. We’re Australians,, that's who we are here. We're Australians and we're interested in Australian interests and we provide support around the world. And we're an agent for peace. That's what we want to see happen.

FORDHAM: I mentioned it's your birthday today. 53 today, is that right?

PRIME MINISTER: Starting to get up there a bit, Ben. But feeling good, feeling fit. I sadly won’t get to see Jenny and the girls today. But that's pretty regular for me. But that's alright. I'm sure I'll get to talk to them soon and yeah, it's just another day at the office, mate.

FORDHAM: I'm just having a look at a photo of you when you became Prime Minister and you looked about 43 when you became prime minister. 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the job certainly has its stresses, as you and I know this particularly these last two years. I mean, it started with those floods in North Queensland and it has gone through bushfires and it has gone through cyclones and more floods and of course, the pandemic. And you know what? Over that entire time, Ben, I've just been humbled every day by the Australian people. Today, we're going to be handing out Emergency Service Medals to the brave heroes of Australia. And I couldn't think of a better way to have a birthday than celebrating those who have done so much for our country. 

FORDHAM: Happy birthday to you and I know you'll be looking forward to catching up with Jenny and your girls. Happy birthday, PM.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Ben. All the best.

FORDHAM: Thank you for your time.