Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

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03 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

FORDHAM: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a lot on his plate at the moment. I'm very happy to say he's offered himself up for a quick chat this afternoon. He's on the line from Parliament House. Prime Minister, good afternoon.


FORDHAM: Are you worried about all those empty shelves?

PRIME MINISTER: I think what's important is people need to understand that they can go about their normal lives Ben, I mean, this is obviously a concerning global virus and it's having its impact in over, in 70 countries around the world. But here in Australia, we got ahead of it early. We're staying ahead and we've got to keep doing that, working together. And that's what the government's doing with our health response and then every other response we've got running, particularly with states and territories. I actually spoke to Coles and Woollies this morning and they've got their supply lines under control and they're they're addressing those things. But people should be aware of these things, but they can go about their normal business like they always had, we’ve only had a very rare case of community transmission, to date. And the number of cases are still sitting around 34 as I speak at the moment. But 21 of those cases, people have actually cleared the virus. So it's serious. But, you know, we're on it. And I think people should focus on just going about their daily lives. 

FORDHAM: There was also a danger of a toilet paper shortage, you’ve spoken about that today. I bet you never thought when you became PM you'd be talking about a toilet paper shortage.

PRIME MINISTER: No I didn’t, but Kimberly-Clark has opened, reopened the manufacturing of it down in South Australia, which just goes to show that, you know, that people respond to these situations and solutions are put in place. And that's what I am being impressed by, that whether we're dealing with health issues or issues at the border or standing up the quarantine arrangements that we had to do, the great support we had from Qantas to get people out of out of Wuhan, and to get them out of, off the Diamond Princess. And today already we've seen Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank fully pass on the 25 basis point rate cut that was announced today. Looking forward to NAB doing the same thing, and ANZ because, you know, if Qantas stood up and those other big companies have stood up as part of this response, then I’d only expect others to do the same. So people are working together, and staying on it. And that puts Australia, I think, in a very strong position and stronger than I'd argue almost any other part of the world. 

FORDHAM: I know I’m switching around a bit. But you just raised the rate cut today. So I might just bring that up because the Reserve Bank Governor has kind of made a bit of a play of saying, look, don't leave it all up to the banks to go stimulating the economy. Maybe it's time to forget about the surplus and for the Commonwealth to start spending some money. So are you, are you suggesting you're not of a mind to bring in some kind of stimulus package? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I flagged last week that the government would be delivering on that. And that's a discussion I also had with the Reserve Bank governor on Monday. And he's made specific reference to that in the meeting he's had today, and the statement he’s issued today. So the Reserve Bank, the government, we're all working together. We're all pulling in the same direction. And most importantly, we have a very aligned view about what the nature of this problem is. See, it's not like the global financial crisis. It's completely different. This is a health crisis with very serious economic consequences. And that means once we can deal with the health issue, the economy will bounce back and we want to bounce back as strongly as possible. And that's what we're working on with the measures that we will announce and they will complement certainly what the Reserve Bank has done today. 

FORDHAM: Okay. Just, just for my benefit, I haven't read the Reserve Bank board meeting minutes or anything. I expect most my listeners wouldn't have either. So that's on the table a stimulus package possibility?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, I said this last week, Ben, at a press conference last Thursday, that the government would be delivering, a targeted, scalable and what I've described today as a measured response. And it's going to be focussed on jobs. It's going to be focussing on keeping businesses and businesses can be focussing on investment because we need to get through what is a very difficult period. And when we've got global supply chains that are breaking down, that's what a health crisis does. It breaks up all the connections between business and customers and their businesses that they’re buying services from. That means fewer people are travelling around. It's hard to get your exports to market. That's what the impact of it is on your economy. And what we need to focus on is the cash flow, particularly of small and medium sized businesses. And that's what the Treasurer and I are very focussed on. 

FORDHAM: The Chief Medical Officer says expanding the travel ban from China to include countries like South Korea and Italy won't contain coronavirus. It would only slow the spread of the disease. But if it's going to slow it, shouldn't we do it? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is what I've asked the medical officer and the other advisers, health advisors on this to come back to us on, that’s these are reasonable questions. We don't rule anything out Ben, in dealing with this because the information changes almost on a daily basis. And, you know, we've got large numbers of people who've been affected around the world. I mean, we've got just around about 90,000 cases, over 3,000 people have lost their lives to this virus. Now, this is nowhere near as severe as what we saw with those SARS and MERS incidents, but a lot more people are contracting it. Because it's a lot more transmissible and so we understand that and that's why we got in ahead really, really early with the travel bans. I mean, our travel ban was in place before the US travel ban was in place. And similarly, we called this a good week out from the world health organization on the first occasion back in January. And we did it again last week when we said that we had to now prepare for a pandemic. Now it's gone from 40 countries to 75 countries in the space of just the last few days. So we're on it. But it changes quite readily. And that means, you know, you got to be constantly working on your responses and and being open to it to all the options.

FORDHAM: On a moving beast like this it's hard to get everything right. And I spoke to some passengers who were onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Jan and Dave Binskin, and they said, look, we can't work out why we were left on that Coronavirus cruise ship for nearly three weeks before being rescued. What would you say to Jan and Dave? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the advice we had at first is that the cruise company working with the Japanese government, had put a quarantine in place on that vessel, and that would have meant, had that quarantine been effective, that they would have been able to get off the ship after those 14 days and fly home normally. Sadly, what happened is that quarantine was not successful. And as a result, because of that quarantine not not working we had to put the other arrangement in place. 

FORDHAM: Now, you've maintained throughout the sports rorts saga that you and your office had no involvement in awarding the grants, but 136 e-mails were exchanged between your office and the office of Bridget McKenzie. How can you send 136 emails about something you had nothing to do with? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I've said is that we provided information based on the representations made to us, and that included information about other funding options or programs relevant to the project proposals. And that's not unusual Ben, it's not unusual for Prime Ministers’ offices to be communicating with Ministers across a whole range of issues. I mean, the Labor Party just wants to throw mud around on this. I mean, they're running around in circles on politics. And frankly, we're focussed on dealing with the coronavirus and the drought and the bushfires and all of these things. These are the things that are of great concern to the Australian people. Labor wants to throw mud around. 

FORDHAM: Did you play down your office’s involvement? 

PRIME MINISTER: No, I was very honest about it.

FORDHAM: The North Sydney Olympic pool underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge copped $10 million under a federal program designed to help regional areas. How many people from the bush do you reckon would be regulars at the North Sydney pool? And do you agree with Jilly Gibson, the North Sydney mayor, who says it's a regional facility? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, this is one of the bits of misinformation that are out there Ben. When I announced the program, I didn't say it was for regional areas. It was for areas right across the country. And so that was that was a piece of information that was provided incorrectly by the department, that it only applied to regional areas. And that's what often comes out of Canberra mate. I mean, all this stuff comes out there and then it's repeated 50 times as if it's true.

FORDHAM: The Canberra bubble. 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is mate. I mean we’ve seen the bubble of operation on regular occasions. I'll tell you what people outside the bubble are focussed on, and that's coronavirus.

FORDHAM: Let me clear something up with you because I promised my listeners I would, including some people who have been sadly victims of child sexual abuse and I’ve got to keep my promise to them, it relates to your trip to Washington last year and whether or not you asked the Trump administration to invite the Hillsong founder Brian Houston to the White House state dinner, now the reason this is of interest is because Brian Houston is under investigation by the NSW police for not reporting child sex abuse allegations involving his father, now this may have been a case of you not knowing at the time that Brian Houston was under investigation, I don’t know, but what I do know is that you didn’t really give a straight answer when asked about it, you dismissed it as gossip, so I wanted to clear it up once and for all, and keep the promise that I made to my listeners, did you seek an invitation to the White House state dinner for Brian Houston?

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve known Brian for a long time, and the Hillsong Church has a very big network of churches all across the United States, and their ministry when it comes to their music and so many other things have been a very big, it’s probably the single largest organisation that is known in the United States and Brian Houston actually turned up to the White House a few months later at the invitation directly of the White House, on that occasion we put forward a number of names, that included Brian, but not everybody whose names were put forward were invited. But the point about this is, they’re a very large church. I mean, they’re well known in the United States and a lot of people in the United States go along to their services every week. So I’m not quite sure what the accusation is about that.

FORDHAM: Well well, as I said, it was relevant because as it turns out, he was under police investigation and he still is, according to New South Wales police. Would it be fair to say you weren't aware of that at the time?

PRIME MINISTER: These are not things I follow closely. All I know is that they’re a very large and very well attended and well-supported organisation here in Australia. And and, you know, they are very well known in the United States, are so well known that Brian was actually at the White House a few months after I was. So the President obviously didn't have an issue with it. And that's why I think that's where the matter rests. But I mean, honestly, I mean, people have chased this round and round for months but at the end of the day what's important is the relationship we have with the United States and it's never been better.

FORDHAM: You know, while I followed up on it, though, because sometimes when things are passed off as gossip, I think sometimes we just need to chase down the answer. And you've given me what we've given me one this afternoon. So I appreciate that. And good luck with dealing with the coronavirus. I've got a feeling that you're going to be very busy over the weeks and months to come. Thanks for joining us this afternoon.