Interview with Chris Kenny, Sky News Live

19 Nov 2020
Prime Minister

CHRIS KENNY: Prime Minister it’s always good to talk to you, but this a very 2020 interview, I’m in my second to last day of hotel quarantine, you’re starting 14 days of isolation at the Lodge after your trip to Japan. This really must bring home to you the brutality of the lockdown that's been imposed on South Australia now, has Premier Steven Marshall done too much to tackle too little there?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the signs in South Australia are very promising. I've spoken to Premier Marshall again today. I’ve spoken to each day over the last few days, obviously, and there's a bit of uncertainty regarding what is potentially a further strain there, and this is a very precautionary action that he’s taken. Obviously, they want to avoid what occurred in Victoria, which involved months and months and months of lockdown. And as a result, I mean, their tracing system is working very well. Their isolation system is working very well. Their testing system has been extraordinary and that has picked up a number of cases. So, look, I mean, we're going to back his judgement on this, and within a week I'm very confident that we’ll have things back to normal. But the one thing I would say is this, Chris, is that this will be in place no day longer than it has to be in their view. This is not some exercise in, you know, pursuing a particular response for its own sake. This is as a result of some careful consideration on their part and some new uncertainties that they're dealing with and it's highly precautionary. It's not because something hasn't worked. Those other elements of the package of tracing and testing and so on are working with the support of the Commonwealth, Western Australia, Victoria, now New South Wales. That national system coming in support is actually being very quick and very, very effective. 

KENNY: But it’s very clear now that these states are running a virus elimination strategy, the Chief Medical Officer in South Australia, Dr Nicola Spurrier yesterday said they were living a wonderful life without the virus at all behind their closed borders and that’s what they wanted to get back to, the Premier of Western Australia yesterday Mark McGowan was quite open, he said the New South Wales approach of containing the virus, and tracing down and isolating outbreaks is the wrong one, he just wants to keep the virus out. Isn’t this at odds with the national approach of suppression?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the national approach, the National Cabinet decision is suppression, and the states will engage in their own descriptions of that. I mean we’re a Federation, Chris, and I think the focus on the points of difference between the states, honestly, at the end of the day, they are responsible for public health in their states. That's what the Constitution says. We haven’t changed the Constitution. You seek to achieve as much alignment between the approaches as you possibly can. But at the end of the day, what's most important is we ensure that we get the right result for the country, both economically and most significantly, on the health front. On both of those fronts, Australia is doing better than the rest of the world. So I think it's fine to set high standards of collaboration and coordination. But when it comes to the international comparisons, Australia virtually stands alone, particularly when it comes to the coordination between provincial governments. I mean, I've spoken to so many over the course of this pandemic in other places that work under these federated systems. And despite the differences of view which are inevitable. I mean, to think otherwise, I think would be naive, to think that every single state and territory is going to run out exactly the same points of view 100 per cent of the time. You've been around in politics long enough to know Chris, that that is not a realistic expectation. 

KENNY: But you must be desperately worried about the consequences, the businesses forced to close, the jobs disappearing, the community dislocation, the kids not going to school, the families separated, there are enormous consequences from these hard borders and hard lockdowns?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, of course when borders go up and restrictions are put in place, they do come at a cost there’s no doubt about that. And that’s why as a Commonwealth Government we’ve sought all the way through this to keep Australia as open as we safely can. And there has to be a recognition that these things do impose a cost and that has to be weighed up against the alternatives. And what we have here is not a 4 month lockdown, what we have here is not a lockdown that has been put in place because of the failure of any tracing system or the other measures that are available not being effectively implemented. This has been done by the Premier to give the best opportunity to return to that normal state as soon as possible. Let's remember it was South Australia that in the early phases, in particular, kept their schools open, and kept as much open as possible. So I think there's an understanding in South Australia that these measures have been put in place extraordinarily and would be lifted as soon as possible. This is not pursuing these measures for their own sake at all and that's always important that they are only done on the basis of clear health advice. And I think the Premier has been very clear about that health advice.

KENNY: Prime Minister you’ve had a successful visit to Japan, deepening our security ties with that country through the agreements and talks with Prime Minister Suga, you must be distressed about that inflamed rhetoric from China now saying that if you make China an enemy then you will be an enemy of China. They have accused Australia of sticking its nose in and interfering in Chinese affairs, what can you do to try and reset that relationship with Beijing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've seen those reports of the document that had come from the Chinese Embassy here in Australia. I think I'd make a couple of observations. First of all, Australia is not seeking to make an enemy of any country, least of all I’d say China. We've got a comprehensive strategic partnership with them. Our trade with them is, while there are tensions in a number of particular areas currently, it is still at a very high level, record levels. Almost $170 billion every year and those volumes and others are increasing. So it's in the mutual interest of both countries to continue to successfully pursue this relationship. But I would note, given the tensions that have been, that people are very well aware of that, if that is the source of tension that is being raised, then these are matters that go to Australia's national sovereignty. And it's not clear to me those who would seek some improvement in the relationship with Australia, how that would be achieved and what that would mean if it would mean compromising on these clear areas of national sovereignty. And, of course, we're not going to do that. I think one of the other problems is, Chris, is that Australia is often seen in this relationship through the prism of the strategic competition between China and the United States, and what that fails to respect and understand is that Australia makes its own decisions in its own interests. We don't make, we don't set our national laws to please the United States or China or any other country. We do it in our own national interests. And the suggestion that Australia might be taking particular positions, whether it be trying to honestly understand how a pandemic started and how that has led to what has happened all around the world and seeking the cooperation of countries all around the world. The positions we would take on human rights issues in concert with other countries, how we would seek to build our communications networks or, indeed, what we would do to ensure that investment in Australia is done on our terms in accordance with our interests, on foreign investment and indeed a free press and a free and liberal and open democracy where elected members of Parliament can speak their mind. I mean, these are things that are fundamental to who we are as a country and if that is the cause of tension with China, then clearly Australia being Australia cannot be considered a point of tension. 

KENNY: Absolutely, I think all thinking Australians would support you standing up for Australia’s interests and Australia's values but nonetheless the relationship desperately needs a reset, would you jump onto a plane to Beijing if Xi Jinping would agree to meet with you and try reset the relationship?

PRIME MINISTER: We're always open for that dialogue. We have not prevented such dialogue. We've been open to that dialogue consistently. And so the obstacle to such a conversation is not with Australia, but if the conversation only comes at the price of Australia having to compromise on our clear national sovereign interests in the 14 areas that are noted in that unofficial document, then of course, Australians would never agree with that and neither would I Chris. I think, in one way, this document, I suppose, for those who are rightly genuinely concerned about tensions in such an important relationship, I think it provides some interesting perspective. But it's not about whether people are sitting down and having a cup of tea and a chat. This is not what is in that 14 points. Those issues go to something far more fundamental and over a much longer period of time, but that really is for our partners in China I think to clarify what those points that have been made unofficially through the, reportedly through the Chinese Embassy. So I will continue to be patient about this. But we, there has never been an obstacle for Australia to have a fair dinkum conversation about these things, directly between ministers and indeed between leaders. We would be happy to do so.

KENNY: A couple of other very important issues I just want to get your thoughts on Prime Minister, by the time this goes to air Australians will know a lot more of the shocking and confronting details about all these war crimes in Afghanistan, what are your thoughts, what’s your advice about the standing of the Australian Defence Forces in our country and around the world after all this is revealed? And also about the morale within our forces?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they’re very good questions. And first of all, I think that the high esteem in which we hold our Defence Forces earned. It has been earned. Over more than a century, and that stands and firmly. And it stands for a number of reasons. The first of which is the obvious, the great acts of our defence forces over many, many years. And their selflessness and their service and the choice that is made by serving men and women to pull on that uniform and to serve their country in the way they do. From that moment on, they have earned our respect and their conduct beyond that in the overwhelming majority of the Defence Force’s experiences backs that up. The second point is this, Chris, and that is where things don't measure up to those standards as a country and indeed as a Defence Force, we look seriously at those issues, take them seriously and deal with them seriously to uphold those standards. The members of our Defence Forces, more than any other, would expect us to do that. So the very act of the Inspector-General's report commissioned by the Chief of Defence Force is consistent with that standard, and then I must say the action our Government has taken in how we receive it, and that is to respect the rule of law in this country and in our justice system. And that this report will be received and provided to the office of a special investigator to pursue any matters that must be pursued and can be pursued under our rule of law and that justice is indeed served. And these are the assurances that I have provided to the Afghan government, that this is the process that we will follow. We will take this very seriously and we'll deal with it as Australians under the Australian rule of law. And the third point I'd make about this, and this is very important, Chris, for all those veterans out there, I want to assure you, and serving men and women as well, that this process doesn't just look at any particular events or acts, but it also looks at the environment and the sets of rules and other conditioning factors that were relevant here. Because it's important that where alleged acts take place, then it's important that lessons are learnt to ensure that they can’t be repeated. And that's just not actions of individuals alone. That is the environment and the sets of, the environment and the conditions and the rules of engagement and other things that were relevant at the time as well. So I made that commitment over a week ago. I stand by it. Both to protect the integrity of our defence forces, to protect Australia's integrity as a country that operates by the rule of law, and justice system that all Australians can have confidence in. And to ensure at an international level that we're a country that deals even with difficult news in the most appropriate way, consistent with our values. And that's why I think we can be proud of our defence forces and all of those who have served.

KENNY: Okay, we’ve seen the rather unedifying spectacle over the past couple of weeks of two former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull blame their political demise effectively on News Corp, complain about a lack of media diversity, there’s now going to be a Senate Enquiry into media diversity. Do you believe there’s a problem, the lack of diversity in Australia’s media?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we were talking before that apparently our media is too free, according to some unofficial reports. But look, media freedom in this country is incredibly important to who we are and the rules and arrangements that are put in place to protect that diversity, the two former Prime Ministers you are speaking of played a key hand in what those rules should be. And what those arrangements should be. I think we have to remain constantly vigilant about this. And of course, our government will be. I mean, they’ve aired their own grievances on this issue. It’s  not something that I have engaged in nor really intend to other than to do my job, and that is to protect the integrity of our media diversity in this country and I believe that is exactly what we’re doing.

KENNY: Okay finally then Prime Minister, the potential here for your answer to be the most controversial answer of your political career, do you believe that Josh Addo-Carr should have been awarded a penalty try last night?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I certainly think he was going to get there. He- Jack Gibson used to say about Andrew Ettinghausen that he could turn the light off and get into bed before it got dark. And I think Josh Addo-Carr is a rival to that claim. So I think he certainly would have got there. But, you know, you've got to play the whistle. You've always got to play the whistle. And it was a great Origin and the fact that we had an Origin series was fantastic. I congratulate the Queenslanders. I mean, after their thumping in Sydney the way they came back was truly extraordinary and I really do think that the crowd up there in Brisbane was a great lift to them. But it was another tremendous spectacle. That will go down, it will be one of those decisions that they talk about forever. But it is disappointing that the professional foul was committed there and because, I think if you lined them up at the 20 yard line, there is no doubt about who would have got to the line quicker. 

KENNY: Absolutely, Prime Minister you’ve been generous with your time, good luck in isolation, from day 13 - my recommendation is stay busy. And I don’t think you’ll have any trouble doing that?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we won’t, Chris. I mean I was saying this morning, I mean, it will be quite extraordinary. I mean, we will be - from right here - we will be participating in the G20 summit, the APEC summit, the European, Europe Australia virtual summit, and of course Cabinet, and indeed Question Time in Parliament. So it will be another interesting chapter in Australia's pandemic 2020 year.