Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

17 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

Ben Fordham: PM, good morning to you.

Prime Minister: Good morning, Ben. Good morning right across Sydney.

Fordham: Big, big news yesterday. When we hear language like that, when you say the relatively benign security environment we've enjoyed over many decades is behind us, that has some people worrying. What are we bracing for?

Prime Minister: Well, this world is changing. It's as simple as that, Ben. The world we used to knew, know, over many decades has changed in our own region in particular, and there's a lot more, a lot more of the space is contested. There's a lot more competition. Our economy's changing. All of this is changing. And that just means Australia needs to work closely with our partners, with our friends, people in the region, to ensure we can keep things as stable and as peaceful as possible. And that's what yesterday's announcement was really all about.

Fordham: Yeah.

Prime Minister: About keeping Australia safe, keeping our region secure and stable, so we can continue to be the country we want to be.

Fordham: It was really about China, wasn't it? And I heard someone say yesterday, no one wanted to mention the panda in the room.

Prime Minister: Oh, look, I've seen all that commentary. All I know is that we're doing this to ensure that our region is stable, it is safe, that we keep Australians safe, as we always have. And as the times change, then you have to move with those times and you have to prepare your defence forces, the way you set all these things in place, the way you work with your partners and allies. Not just the United States and the United Kingdom. We work with countries all throughout the region, and it's in everybody's interests, including China's interests, for a stable, a stable and safe region.

Fordham: That's not the way that China sees it. They've gone on the attack, describing this pact as extremely irresponsible. But, I would have thought it was extremely responsible to protect your own people?

Prime Minister: Well, all countries take decisions in their national interests, and we have, and certainly China does. China has a very substantive program of nuclear submarine building, and their, have every right to take decisions in their national interests for their defence arrangements. And, of course, so does Australia and all other countries.

Fordham: Are you keen to start dialogue again with China?

Prime Minister: Of course. And we've never been, we've always been open to it. That has always been an open invitation. That remains to this day, and will continue.

Fordham: Well, what fresh attempts are you making to get that dialogue started again?

Prime Minister: It's an open invitation. Our embassy up in Beijing is always available and always offering those opportunities.

Fordham: The eight nuclear submarines will be vital, but we're being warned that they might be at least 15 years away. So, does this leave us exposed in the meantime?

Prime Minister: No, because we also announced yesterday what's called a Life-of-Type Extension. What does that mean? That means that we will be able to expend the life of our Collins class submarines, and we will doing that in South Australia as well. And that will mean they'll be operational well out into the 2040s. And, in addition to that, the agreement, which is called AUKUS - which means Australia, UK, United States - just like ANZUS - Australia, New Zealand, United States - AUKUS, what it does is it gives us access to a whole range of other defence capabilities. So, yesterday I announced Tomahawk Missiles. I also announced - which can be launched from our various platforms - and the other thing I announced yesterday was missiles that can be launched from the air, and all of these things on counter cyber arrangements, other sub- subsea defence systems, all of these things are things that we now have access to as part of this historic agreement. It's the biggest agreement we've had with our allies since ANZUS itself 70 years ago. And, just so people understand how significant that is, there's only one country in the world that the United States has shared its nuclear submarine technology with - that's the UK. It happened in 1958. So, it is a very significant development in the depths of our relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom.

Fordham: Ok. Just on the subs, they're powered by a reactor containing …

Prime Minister: Yep.

Fordham: … enriched uranium. So, we're going to import these reactors. But, we have a third of the world's uranium right here. Why can't we relax the ban on nuclear energy and build them right here in Australia?

Prime Minister: Well, there's no reason for Australia to need to do that because we can do exactly as you said. This doesn't require the development of Australia's civil nuclear capability, and and the other key thing that is involved here is these reactors on these vessels are able to be there for the, for the whole life of the vessel. And, they are the two big game changing things from a technology point of view that has happened since where we were back in 2016. Neither of that was available to Australia, and in particular the access to the technology from the United States.

Fordham: Well, why are we reluctant, though, to go down the nuclear path? The International Energy Agency says to guarantee energy security and reach our climate targets, nuclear power must play an integral role. So, if nuclear’s going to power our submarines, why can't it power our homes?

Prime Minister: Well, right now we believe we can achieve the goals that we have for emissions reduction through the issue, through fuel sources like hydrogen, in particular, and the many other, the many other things that are set out in our technology roadmap. That sort of technology is is being worked on in Australia for many years. I mean, ANSTO has been around for a very long time. My father-in-law worked at ANSTO from the 1960s. And, so, Australia has capability here. We don't come to this new, but in terms of going ahead with a civil nuclear capability, that is, that is not something that's linked to this decision.

Fordham: Prime Minister Scott Morrison joining us this morning. A few things to get through.

Prime Minister: Sure.

Fordham: Christian Porter, he's under fire for accepting money from anonymous donors to pay his legal bills. So, if he paid that money back, can he stay in his job?

Prime Minister: Well, I'm just taking some advice on those arrangements and the ministerial guidelines, and that's what's occurring at the moment. And I know Christian's looking carefully at those things as well. And, so, we'll allow that to take place.

Fordham: I don't know how you'd pay the money back if you don't know where it came from, though.

Prime Minister: Well, these are the issues that are being worked through.

Fordham: It's bizarre, isn't it, when you've got someone handing over a bucket load of money to a Minister of the Crown and we can't trace the money back. I mean, that's not going to stand, right? You're going to make a tough decision on it? Is he going to go, are you going to boot him from Cabinet?

Prime Minister: It's a serious issue, Ben, and that's why I'm taking it very seriously and acting carefully and taking the advice on what this means for the standards and guidelines. And I always act in accordance with those standards and guidelines.

Fordham: Is it right you want to make a decision on that before you take off to Washington?

Prime Minister: The timeframe I haven't set out.

Fordham: Just on a few other issues. During the pandemic, you've spared no expense to save lives. Are we going to have the same approach when all of this is over? Because, we have Aussies, as you know, who have to take out loans to pay for medication not listed on the PBS. Every week we all get an email from some poor family who's got a sick child trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for lifesaving treatment. So, are we going to keep that spare no expense mentality post-pandemic?

Prime Minister: Well, we've always been targeted, and even what we've done through the pandemic, Ben, and our heavy lifting on the pandemic, keeping people in jobs. I mean, the Labor Party's bagging JobKeeper, saying it wasn't worth it. I mean, I couldn't disagree more with them. It saved jobs, kept, saved businesses, actually kept Australia going ahead. And that has been probably the most successful economic program the country has ever run, and I think there are Australians all across the country who understand that personally because of what JobKeeper meant to them themselves, their own jobs, their own way to get through. And, even now, Ben, as we're working through the lockdowns that continue in New South Wales. I mean, we've already pumped just under $5 billion into New South Wales alone, in the same types of economic supports that were available under JobKeeper. These supports in New South Wales have been continuing for the 12 weeks now that people have been in lockdown. So, that's important. Going forward, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Ben, that is something we've championed as a Government. We've listed more medicines than any government, and and that has been a mainstay of a commitment of mine. But, think about the last Budget - $17 billion to support aged care, $2.- just over $2.3 billion to support mental health care reforms. Massive changes in all of these areas. So, you know, while we've been dealing with COVID, that's very true, at the same time, we've been ensuring that our services are maintained right across the country, our health and education, but also that Australia's national security interests have also been protected and and progressed. And you've seen that in the significant announcement yesterday with AUKUS and the nuclear-powered submarines. I said stress, conventionally armed, they’re they're not nuclear weapons on those on those submarines. We don't seek that. We'll comply with all the comprehensive, all of the Non-Proliferation arrangements that are associated with these things.

Fordham: Just on hotel quarantine, I’m wondering how long we can keep on going with hotel quarantine. Yesterday, there were 1,351 new cases of COVID in New South Wales. Not one was in hotel quarantine. If hotel quarantine was considered an LGA, it wouldn't be one of concern. And now we've got, you know, the Australian Golf Open and PGA Championship. They've been rescheduled because vaccinated players don't want to sit in a hotel for two weeks. The Formula 1 set for November in Melbourne has been moved to next year. Tennis players don't want to quarantine before the Aussie Open. We're hearing the same thing about English cricketers and the Ashes now being in doubt. We've got a $60 billion tourism industry on hold. How long can we keep up with hotel quarantine?

Prime Minister: It's got a use by date on it. There's no doubt about it. I've been saying that for some time.

Fordham: What’s the date?

Prime Minister: Well, I believe the use by date is when we get home quarantine in place, and that's what the New South Wales Government is doing right now. It's what the South Australian Government is doing right now. In the national plan I set out back in early July, it actually requires this once you get to the high levels of vaccination. And the good news is, Ben, I mean, yesterday, right now we will have hit 70 per cent first dose around the country. New South Wales, one in two people will now be fully vaccinated, aged over 16. That will have already happened yesterday. Over 80 per cent New South Wales reached yesterday, four out of five people. Down in Tassie, they’ve just gone over one in two as well, when it comes to their vaccination rates, double dose. And importantly, in aged care facilities, we now have over 95 per cent of aged care workers who have had their first dose, which is what those mandates required, and those mandates have worked.

Fordham: Very impressive numbers. Just on the COVID vaccine, are you getting sick of all the conspiracy theories out there? Because we get emails and text messages every day. And even yesterday, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago had to release an official statement denying the vaccine can lead to swollen testicles. This is after the singer Nicki Minaj told two million social media followers her cousin's friend ended up developing the problem and it led to a cancelled wedding. There are some very, very nutty conspiracy theories out there, PM.

Prime Minister: Well, I'm concerned about it, I am. That's absolutely true, because it's dangerous. I mean, one of the things we're dealing with, particularly in a lot of disadvantaged communities in Australia, and in particular in Indigenous communities as well as some particular cultural communities, is that these conspiracy theories, this misinformation, and those who are out there peddling this misinformation - whether they're sending it into people's phones by text or they're putting it over the airwaves or they're parroting it from wherever they're doing it - they are putting people's lives at risk, and it's not right. And they should stop doing it.

Fordham: I know you've got to run. You're off to Washington. Now, Joe Biden yesterday, I can’t remember what he called you, ‘Old mate from down under’, or something.

Prime Minister: He called me pal.

Fordham: What did he call you?

Prime Minister: He called me, he called me his pal. That's actually how he usually refers to me on the phone, too.

Fordham: He knows your name, though, right?

Prime Minister: Of course, he does.

Fordham: Have a good trip. We’ll catch up when you’re back.

Prime Minister: Good on you, Ben.

Fordham: Good on you.