Interview with David Speers, ABC

22 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

DAVID SPEERS: Prime Minister, thanks for your time this evening. I want to come to the big economic rescue package you've announced today in a moment. But can we start with, there’s a bit of confusion on a few fronts as we sit here tonight, let's start with movement. You announced today you're strongly advising against non-essential travel. What exactly does that mean?

PRIME MINISTER: It means if you don't need to go somewhere, you don’t. If there is essential travel relating to your work, particularly if it's in a critical area. If it’s on a compassionate basis or it's in relation to health care or things of that nature, then these are not- these are trips that you would need to undertake. But otherwise, whether it's discretionary travel, whether it's holiday or that sort of travel, the advice is very strongly against that and particularly how far you're planning to go. If you’re planning to go interstate, if you going to other far flung places within the state but even more closer to home.

SPEERS: What about locally, going to shops?

PRIME MINISTER: You can do all of those sorts of things, provided the arrangements are in place where those places are open.

SPEERS: Parks, you can go for a walk?

PRIME MINISTER: If you're not ill and if you're not in self-isolation, then you can obviously get about your life in that way. But when it comes to, you know, piling all the kids in the car and taking them four hours away, or getting on a plane and flying to the other side of the country, then no, we're saying that should not be done.

SPEERS: Ok, but then the states, a number of them, at least this afternoon, have gone further than that. Well, let's start with non-essential businesses being shut down. Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT have said this will happen over the next 48 hours. Are you aware as Prime Minister what that involves?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's for them to explain how they're doing that specifically within their state as they're making those decisions.

SPEERS: Have they told you?

PRIME MINISTER: I was aware of this, yes. We were having these discussions yesterday. The National Cabinet flagged last week and I reported it at the press conference that we were looking at additional measures that states would be taking within their own states to deal with the situation on the ground. Not all states are in the same position when it comes to the coronavirus. Some are much more advanced along the curve than others, and others are taking- are more vulnerable like the Northern Territory or Tasmania, and they've taken their decisions. The point of the National Cabinet is not to have the same decisions in all the states, but to ensure that as a group that we're understanding the medical expert advice that has been provided and the states are applying the decisions that are best suited to their situations.

SPEERS: Is that working today, because why have you got Daniel Andrews, Gladys Berejiklian announcing these big moves before tonight's meeting?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they haven't set out the specifics, as I understand it, of all of these measures.

SPEERS: They’ve said they're going to shut down non-essential….

PRIME MINISTER: They have indicated that they will be taking further action. And I flagged last Friday and I again did so today that I would anticipate that the states would be doing this very thing.

SPEERS: But a local level, not a statewide level.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, whether they choose to take that to a statewide level is a matter for those states.

SPEERS: So why didn't they wait til tonight's meeting?

PRIME MINISTER: Tonight they will get further advice from the medical expert panel and they are taking advice from their own health experts in their own states. And that expert panel was meeting this afternoon and I convened the meeting first thing this morning that we should meet tonight to consider their additional advice. But at the end of the day, David, the Premiers and Chief Ministers will make their own decisions about what happens on those issues in their states. The Commonwealth, the Prime Minister does not make those decisions, they do, and when they do they will need to set out how that's going to work.

SPEERS: What about your announcement on advising against non-essential travel? Had that actually been agreed to by the National Cabinet?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, we agreed that last night. I consulted with the other states on those matters last night.

SPEERS: Individually or as a group?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes. We have a way of communicating collectively.

SPEERS: Okay, But it did not actually go into the full group meeting like…

PRIME MINISTER: It was all agreed to by all the states and territories last night.

SPEERS: So these states shutting down…

PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn't have announced it in those terms if I hadn't.

SPEERS: If shutting down these non-essential businesses, though, is it clear to you, because a lot of people tonight might be wondering, do I go to work this week or not? You know, if I work in accounting or a lawyer or do they go to work or not?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my understanding is that workplaces have always been defined by the states as essential. And indeed, the legislation that the Victorian government put together on gatherings, essential and nonessential gatherings excluded workplaces, for example. But that said, David, as you know, many workplaces, including public sector workplaces, are engaging in rationing how many people are coming into an enclosed space on each day and that helps actually reduce the pressure on public transport systems and reduce the proximity in which people are travelling together. That's all sensible. That's all sensible arrangements. And one point I don't want people to lose here - Australians themselves need to exercise judgments about these issues. On the weekend…

SPEERS: But trying to find out what to do, just on work. Lawyers, accountants, administrators, should they be going to work this week?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the states themselves will ultimately define what they consider essential. The legislation that they have already considered and have been putting in place for the other bans excluded workplaces. But as I said, there is also the arrangements that workplaces should be seeking to put in place, like I'm putting in place in this very office. The number of people who can be in this office at any one time is 15.

SPEERS: But it's a little confusing, with respect, right now.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s four square meters per person in an enclosed space. And workplaces should be seeking to try and manage that within their workplaces unless for whatever reason, there might be a manufacturing process. And in those cases, those persons would have suitable precautions put in place.

SPEERS: But you’ve got you’re- you’ve got New South Wales and Victoria and the ACT saying non-essential businesses.

PRIME MINISTER: Well you should put that to both of them.

SPEERS: You’re not aware of what it means?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm working off the essential definition that they have been working on today.

SPEERS: Which is?

PRIME MINISTER: Workplaces are exempt from that, but at the same time, David, four square meters per person within an enclosed space should also be observed.

SPEERS: But that's not the blanket ban they're talking about on non-essential businesses.

PRIME MINISTER: What they will be looking to do is take further measures on non-essential gatherings of people.

SPEERS: Have they told you what that means though?

PRIME MINISTER: We’re meeting tonight David, and the medical expert advice will be provided to them. And I think that will provide them with greater clarity about how they're going to put that into place.

SPEERS: Is the National Cabinet process fracturing today?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t believe it is, David, because I think your expectations of what you think it will do may be overstated.

SPEERS: Well, just some clarity on who goes to work and not.

PRIME MINISTER: And that will be provided by those states who are going to put those arrangements in place in their states.

SPEERS: Should they have waited till tonight?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is a matter for those individual states and territories. But this is not the only matters that we consider. I mean, the National Cabinet is dealing with everything from tenancy legislation to ensure that people don't get kicked out of their homes or out of their businesses or they're working on ensuring that we're getting the right support into aged care facilities and hospitals and how we manage the demand on ICUs in emergency departments. There are many issues that the National Cabinet is dealing with. Some of them are predominantly the responsibility of the Commonwealth government, but many, I must say, are the province of the states. Now, they need to make the decision about how much further they go and they need to make that, as I'm sure they are, on the basis of the health advice that they have and the specific situation in their states.

SPEERS: Well just on the health advice. Dan Andrews in Victoria says his state Chief Health Officer has advised they should shut down schools early from Tuesday. That's not your advice, though, is it?

PRIME MINISTER: The universal positions of all states and territories, including Premier Andrews, as recently as late last week was that all schools should remain open.

SPEERS:  That's changed now, though, hasn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, as I flagged at the time, David, if the advice changes into the future, then obviously the measures states and territories will take will also change. But what hasn't changed is that in a situation, if a state or territory was to move to make those decisions, it is vitally important that health workers and other essential workers are in a position to have their children to attend schools. Otherwise, you're taking out 30 per cent of your health workforce and that…

SPEERS:  Are you aware those provisions have taken place in Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I know that they are in New South Wales - I haven't had the opportunity to talk to Premier Andrews today-

SPEERS: This is what I’m getting to…

PRIME MINISTER: We will speak tonight at the National Cabinet. The National Cabinet, David, is the first time this has ever been put in place in our federal history. It works by agreement and consensus and voluntary participation by the Premiers and Chief Ministers.

SPEERS: Are you annoyed at the Premiers getting out this afternoon on this announcement on schools?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I’m not, David. Because it's not for any leader to be getting annoyed about anything. It's about leaders being focused on the job they have ahead of them and respecting the job of other leaders. The Premier of Victoria has a responsibility to the people in his state, as does Premier Berejiklian have a responsibility to the people in her state. They need to make decisions that they believe are in the best interests of their state and I trust them to do that. And where we can do that on a more consistent basis, then, of course, that is helpful. But at the end of the day, I respect their sovereignty in their own states. They will make their decisions and they will explain their decisions and they will implement them to the best of their ability.

SPEERS: So bottom line, should kids go to school this week?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my kids will be going to school and because that is the arrangement, as I understand it, in New South Wales. And if that were to change, then obviously that would be different. And the New South Wales Premier would make an announcement to that effect.

SPEERS: Do you think there's some frustration amongst the states that the National Cabinet isn't going to arrive at the position they want? That's why they're announcing this this afternoon?

PRIME MINISTER: It was the states themselves who were the most adamant about a collective and agreed position on schools. They were the ones insisting on that consistent position between them all. Now, if they want to make different decisions, again, they are entitled to do so. But what they are doing is letting the other states know what they are doing, whether it's the decision made by Premier Gutwein, which was a very sound decision, which dealt with the greater vulnerabilities of a population in Tasmania regarding travel. The same, absolutely, with the Chief Minister Gunner, who I've been working particularly closely with on the real dangers for remote communities. Every state, David, has different challenges. Their geography is different. Their population is different. The rate of spread of the virus is different. Their exposure to international flights at the outset of this virus, it's completely different. And so to think that there is a cookie cutter, one size fits all approach to every single state and territory is naive. The Premiers are not naive and the National Cabinet is not naive.

SPEERS: There's obviously different medical advice going in to different jurisdictions.

PRIME MINISTER: There’s been a consensus of advice on these issues.

SPEERS: Not on schools, though. Not today.

PRIME MINISTER: On schools, that has consistently come forward to the National Cabinet and if that consensus, which I imagine is being reviewed by the medical experts today, if there is a change in that consensus, then that will be relayed to the National Cabinet and states will make their own decisions based on their own individual advice.

SPEERS: Couple of basics. Can you give assurance to Australians tonight that food and medicine will be available through this crisis? They don't need to panic?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is certainly what is occurring right now David,I mean the next six months..

SPEERS: Will it?

PRIME MINISTER: That is certainly the plans we're putting in place. And Australia is better prepared on those issues than most countries in the world. And as I've said, there is no need, as the medical experts have said, there is no need to rush out and do the things that we're seeing some weeks ago. But equally, I need to address this - the suggestion that you can just lock the country down or a state for two weeks or four weeks and the virus passes is naive and it's false. That it will, at the end of that two or four weeks and you ease restrictions, the virus just starts again. If you put arrangements in place that shut down large parts of the country and the economy, then you better be prepared to hold on to those arrangements for at least the next six months.

SPEERS: Does that mean you'd rather not?

PRIME MINISTER: It means that I'll follow the medical advice. It means that I'll ensure that when you do put things in place, that it should be proportionate to the risk and take into account these other factors. Because know this - if we lose health workers out of the system, then that will cost lives and it will cost thousands of jobs. And I am looking at all of those issues and I know as we work together as a group of Premiers, Chief Ministers and myself, we are looking to best balance all of those interests. It's not easy, David. State and territory Premiers and Chief Ministers and Prime Ministers rarely agree. But I've got to say, as we've worked together through this crisis, we've sought to do that as much as we can.

SPEERS: Can I just ask you on food, though, the supermarkets have stopped most food home deliveries. Why can’t-

PRIME MINISTER: That’s not related to a supply of food.

SPEERS: No, okay, but it would be important, right, if people have to stay at home.

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, I got this question today. And- 

SPEERS: Why can’t we use the Army  or someone to help the supermarkets with deliveries?

PRIME MINISTER: All of those options are available in what's called the national coordinating mechanism. That's where the Department of Home Affairs is working with the food suppliers, with the supermarkets.

SPEERS: Will that be done if it's necessary?

PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely, of course it will. I mean, I've already had the defence forces being deployed into the states to assist with the medical check-ups and chase ups, contact tracing, because some states, particularly New South Wales, have become overwhelmed. Now, it's important that we provide that support and we're there to help and the defence forces are turning up now just like they were during the bushfires. But it's a very different need.

SPEERS: And another basic question, some pretty horrible scenes out of Europe. Is our hospital system going to cope with what's coming?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this depends on all Australians. If Australians choose not to self isolate, if Australians choose to not observe the medical advice of keeping the distance that we've recommended, and then we will obviously be forced to take very draconian measures and shutting down, then if Australians don't play their part, they can't then believe that the system won't come under greater stress. And this is why we're trying to be so clear about this. Everybody, every Australian is enlisted against the fight against this virus. And if Australians don't do the right thing, then they are putting other lives at risk. And other livelihoods at risk-

SPEERS: We can see what we see in Europe?

PRIME MINISTER: Now, Italy is a very different situation to Australia. The United States is a very different situation. We have different health systems. We have a different profile of population. We have different medical supports. Italy has a much older population and the social behaviour in different countries is different. Australia, we have done 127,000 tests. We have the lowest rate of positive tests in the world - 99 per cent of people testing negative. We have one of the highest rates of testing in the world. That means our data is very strong which helps us plan for the impacts that are coming.

SPEERS: But clearly what you're saying if people keep carrying on the way some of them have been, we're going to have a problem. Doesn't that underline the need to go a lot further with draconian steps to shut things down?

PRIME MINISTER: But that's what I'm telling you, David. I’m not - that's exactly what I'm telling you.

SPEERS: Why not do that now?

PRIME MINISTER: We will do that on the basis of that medical advice, looking at the data and that data is changing. And as we've always foreshadowed, this is not new. Just because some in the media are catching up to what's happening doesn't mean the government hasn't already been acting on that basis. What we are doing, we foreshadowed. We said there would need to be measures, they would need to be scalable, they would need to be graded up. And that would mean if there is not a broad cooperation in the population…

SPEERS: There’s not at the moment, is there?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, I don't… I wouldn't necessarily agree with that. I think many Australians are doing the right thing, but not enough. And if that continues to be the case, as we’ve flagged, states will have to take more severe measures. But I'm saying they just won't be for a couple of weeks. I mean, kids could lose their entire year of school. That's what's at stake here. I mean, there are very high stakes decisions and there's a lot of opinions flying around based on ‘oh, you just do this or you're just do that’. Well, understand that's going to cost people's health, their livelihoods, their children's schooling and education. There is a lot at stake here now. These impacts as they are felt, as I've said many times today, these are going to break the hearts of Australians. But we must be determined to ensure it does not break our spirit.

SPEERS: Let me turn to the economic announcement today. This is a big package. Perhaps we go through a few things, casuals, sole traders and even Qantas workers, for example, who were just stood down. What do they get?

PRIME MINISTER: They will get access to the double jobseeker payment. They will get the ability to access their own superannuation savings of up to $20,000 over the next six months. They will, because they would have access to this double jobseeker payment…

SPEERS: Which is $1,100 a fortnight.

PRIME MINISTER: That’s right, a fortnight, they would also get potentially access to things like family tax benefit, rental assistance and a whole range of other support mechanisms in the welfare system.

SPEERS: Immediately?

PRIME MINISTER: Pretty much. Pretty much. And that will come in two phases. There is the immediate payment that will come for them being on jobseeker payment. There is the $750 payment, which all of those on jobseeker payment would receive. That was from this package we announced a week ago. And then from then, the additional payments of $550, the supplement, kick in every fortnight, every fortnight, every fortnight. Now that applies to sole traders whose business is down yet, they'll be able to do that while trying to keep their businesses alive. For those who are in casual employment and their hours reduced, that's there for them too. So what we've done is we've broadened the safety net and we've made it stronger because we know those who are going to be in that situation are in the frontline of the impacts of what is occurring. And it's already happening now and it is going to happen more in the future. And to, sorry to labour the point, but the more dramatic the measures we have to take to stop the spread of the virus, the more jobs will be lost.

SPEERS: Well, indeed, if people look at that number, $1,100 plus a few other benefits depending on their situation, if they say it's not enough to cover my rent and my food bills and so on for the family, what happens?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is why we've provided access to people's savings. And that's a significant change.

SPEERS: Their super.

PRIME MINISTER: That's a significant change. But equally, one of the things the National Cabinet is working on is if someone's in rental, for example, that we are working to ensure that there is a ban under rental agreements that people could be thrown out of their tenancies if they can't meet their rent. The same would apply to commercial tenancies as well. Equally, we've been working with the banks to ensure that people can get mortgage relief in those circumstances to reduce as many of their fixed costs. There'll be waivers that'll be on things like electricity and things like that from institutions. So we're all working to get all those prices and costs down and to increase the amount of support and payments that we can provide.

SPEERS: And what about the students on Youth Allowance.

PRIME MINISTER: Youth Allowance other, is covered.

SPEERS: So they’ll get the $1,100?

PRIME MINISTER: Youth Allowance is part of this plan, as is the single parent bonus.

SPEERS: Temporary visa holders? There's a whole bunch of them.

PRIME MINISTER: Under special benefit, they're covered.

SPEERS: So they'll get it as well?

PRIME MINISTER: Those who are on special benefits, that's also included in this package. 

SPEERS: So does that include a foreign student, for example, or?

PRIME MINISTER: It all depends if they're on special benefit. Well, I mean, a foreign student wouldn't necessarily be on a benefit.

SPEERS: Ok, for the businesses, the small, medium sized businesses. You've announced payments of up to $100,000 over the coming six months for them. When will they start to get that?

PRIME MINISTER: That will come in their first, in their BAS in April and they can plan on that. It's about the 24th.

SPEERS: So a month from now?

PRIME MINISTER: But this is the point about the business support is they know it's coming and it's coming out of what they've already got, in many parts of it's a rebate on what they're withholding off their payroll and that will come over the next six months. So they have the certainty of what they know is going to happen with that withholding tax, which they have on their payroll.

SPEERS: What do you think of Boris Johnson…

PRIME MINISTER: Just before I go to that, because this is an important point, what we're doing is trying to give the businesses a lifeline to get over the next six months. And so our expectation is that these businesses we're supporting to do this, on the other side, that they will take those employees back. If they have to stand them down, well, we'll take them into the jobseeker payment. We'll make sure the safety net is bigger and stronger. And if we have to do more, we'll do more.

SPEERS: All right. That’s,

PRIME MINISTER: Of course we will. I made that point very clear today. But on the other side, the businesses we've kept alive through these payments and other things we're doing, whether it's on the guaranteeing of loans with the bank and the holiday on repayments and these sorts of things, on the other side, this is that this is the understanding, this is the moral agreement that on the other side we want you to put those workers back on.

SPEERS: This probably won't be able to stop a recession, though, will it?

PRIME MINISTER: Those sorts of things are now becoming academic. What I'm trying to do…

SPEERS: As in it's going to happen?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that will be what it will be. What I'm trying to do is save as many livelihoods and save as many lives as I possibly can. That is my daily mission.

SPEERS: Just two quick ones - Parliament. You did meet with Anthony Albanese today. What's going to happen with any further sittings of Parliament over the next 6 to 12 months?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, we're still working on that with the opposition. We had a very positive, constructive meeting today. We're working together in the spirit of a national crisis. And I have no doubt we'll be able to come to a very useful set of arrangements, which means that the Parliament can do the job it needs to do, how often it needs to do that under what circumstances? Well, we'll work through those details. But the discussions are very positive and I thank the leader of the opposition for that.

SPEERS: Have you thought about putting him on your National Cabinet?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, National Cabinet is made up of executive leaders of Governments. It's not a cabinet of Parliaments. It's a Cabinet of Governments.

SPEERS: Would it get more bipartisanship?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are five Labor members of the national cabinet and there are four liberal. It doesn't get any more bipartisan than that. And the unanimous view of the National Cabinet is it's got to be governments because it's governments that are making decisions. It's governments that are providing payroll tax relief or changing tenancy laws. And it is a good, tight group. It's working well together. It's going to have disagreements from time to time. But I tell you what, I'm glad it's there and I'll be working night and day to keep it there. It's not going to agree on everything. But I can tell you, it is making a big difference and it's acting with a unity of spirit.

SPEERS: Prime Minister, thanks for your time tonight.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, David.