Interview with David Speers - Sky

02 Oct 2019
Prime Minister
President Trump phone call; State Dinner; China relationship; RBA rate decision

DAVID SPEERS: Prime Minister, thank you for your time.


SPEERS: The US President called you, two weeks before your state visit to Washington. What did he ask for?

PRIME MINISTER: Well let's just start at the beginning, the U.S. Attorney General, undertaking an official investigation, back in May our Ambassador made it very clear that Australia was prepared and willing to cooperate with an official investigation by the US attorney. A couple of weeks ago as you said the President contacted me and asked for officially a point of contact between the Australian Government and the US Attorney which I was happy to do on the basis that it was something we'd already committed to do and then we had a quick chat about looking forward to the meeting we were soon to have in Washington. So it was a fairly uneventful conversation.

SPEERS: So he was just after a point of contact in the Australian Government?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah that's right. I mean we'd said we were prepared to assist and cooperate with that investigation which is not unusual. I mean the United States is a significant, in fact our most significant, ally and we're used to sharing a lot of information. Now Australia would never do anything contrary to our national interests but this would have been I think frankly more surprising had we chosen not to cooperate I think.

SPEERS: Did you find it unusual though that it required the US President to call the Australian Prime Minister to get a contact in the government somewhere?

PRIME MINISTER: Well look I've had many conversations with the President and it was a very brief conversation and it was not one that I'd characterise as being ladled with pressure. It was a fairly polite request for something that the Australian Government had already made pretty clear that we were quite happy to do.

SPEERS: So no pressure you say?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course not. No.

SPEERS: Did he use the phrase ‘favour’?

PRIME MINISTER: No not that I recall at all.

SPEERS: So he's just asking for someone that his Justice Department can contact?


SPEERS: And has any other foreign leader ever asked anything like this of you before?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm not aware of any other investigations that are being undertaken during my time as Prime Minister where they might have occasion to do that.

SPEERS: So did this raise any concern for you that this is obviously an inquiry that's highly politically sensitive in the United States, that Australia might be getting sucked into some sort of partisan brawl in the US?

PRIME MINISTER: Well no I think that is the subject of media inquiry and speculation and commentary that's that narrative. I mean all that simply happened here was the US Attorney is undertaking an official investigation and Australia had already stated in May that we would cooperate with such an investigation and in a conversation I had with the President-

SPEERS: But you know this investigation is very political?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that's a matter for the US, that’s a matter for US politics, that's not a matter for the Prime Minister of Australia. All I have to deal with is there has been a request from the President for us to do something we'd already undertaken to do,

SPEERS: And we automatically say yes?

PRIME MINISTER: And cooperate- well it would have been quite extraordinary for us to deny such cooperation, on what possible basis would we do that we've got certainly nothing to hide. We're not the subject of this investigation nor are we a party to it.

SPEERS: So what cooperation is Australia providing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well our officials will engage with the US Attorney and-

SPEERS: To what end?

PRIME MINISTER: And respond as they consider appropriate.

SPEERS: So will we provide documents?

PRIME MINISTER: Well again Australia wouldn't do anything that would be in conflict with its national interest and our officials are very experienced in these matters.

SPEERS: What does that mean? Will we provide diplomatic cables?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that would be very unusual.

SPEERS: So we won't?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it would be a very unusual thing to do and Australia would never do anything that would prejudice our national interests.

SPEERS: Have we, well, if it’s very unusual?

PRIME MINISTER: At the moment it's quite a hypothetical question.

SPEERS: So we may provide the cables?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm just saying that that would be a very unusual thing to do, that would be very uncommon.

SPEERS: Has the US requested cables?

PRIME MINISTER: Not to my knowledge, no. But these are conversations that are being had between officials David but I mean these go to events that occurred well before the time I was Prime Minister.

SPEERS: Sure but you're in charge now. Will they want access to Alexander Downer?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we will cooperate with these sorts of requests and you know that is a matter for DFAT and those individuals to facilitate.

SPEERS: So that’s a maybe?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we're just going to work with the requests that come David and that's being dealt with at an officials level, I'm not sitting there providing you know an hour by hour clearance on every single request. I mean our officials are quite capable of managing what are fairly non-controversial matters.

SPEERS: Well it's it is controversial with respect Prime Minister and I suspect many would expect that Ministers and the Prime Minister may have some view on whether, what information should be shared?

PRIME MINISTER: Well no information should be shared that is contrary to Australia's national interest, and none will be.

SPEERS: Will Australia, and has Australia been asked to hold any sort of inquiry of its own into the events around Alexander Downer's meeting with George Papadopoulos?

PRIME MINISTER: No, and nor is it the subject of any such investigation. Australia's conduct here is not in question.

SPEERS: But has the US asked for that?

PRIME MINISTER: No, why would they?

SPEERS: So, William Barr, the Attorney-General didn't ask Australia to look into this further?

PRIME MINISTER: No we will cooperate with inquiries that he makes, and again in accordance with our interests.

SPEERS: But you're not aware he's asked already for that?

PRIME MINISTER: These are matters that are being dealt with by officials at this stage-

SPEERS: As far as you’re aware there’s been no requests?

PRIME MINISTER: At this stage. There have been no requests or no recommendations that have been made to me that have required my intervention.

SPEERS: I mean cutting to the heart of this, what do you think went on in that meeting between Alexander Downer and George Papadopoulos?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I wasn’t there. It was some time ago and there's nothing to suggest that has been put in the public domain that there is any matter for Alexander Downer to address, and nor am I aware of anyone suggesting any inappropriate behaviour by him.

SPEERS: Surely you've asked questions about this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it's not a matter that's the subject of an investigation and nor does one, that I've been recommended to undertake an investigation into, so-

SPEERS: No but I’m asking do you think he did anything wrong? Anything-

PRIME MINISTER: If that were the case I'm quite certain that well before my time an investigation would have been undertaken, don't you think.

SPEERS: Well you're the PM now and it's Donald Trump who’s looking for answers now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well no, it's the US Attorney-General who's conducting his official inquiry.

SPEERS: But the President's raising it with you?

PRIME MINISTER: Well he just asked us to follow through on a commitment that we’d already made frankly, and we're facilitating that. I mean there's been a lot of breathless commentary about this but the facts are quite simple when it comes to Australia. He's undertaking an investigation, the United States is a close ally of Australia, we'd already undertaken to provide cooperation, The President in a fairly brief phone call followed up on this and we're engaging with that inquiry. That’s-

SPEERS: And you don’t think it's strange that he had to follow up on this when we'd already offered that?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s a matter for him. But my response could only be the one that it was. And again what other possible response would Australia have provided to any President or any Attorney General?

SPEERS: We’re not withholding anything the US wants?

PRIME MINISTER: Well again the engagement is being had at officials-level and there is nothing that has come to me that would warrant any clearance of information being provided at my level.

SPEERS: And are these foreign affairs officials or are they?

PRIME MINISTER: They’re Australian Government officials.

SPEERS: Home Affairs?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm not going to go into which ones they are.

SPEERS: Just for the record George Papadopoulos has said Alexander Downer was a fool, he was a spy, he says Downer recorded their meeting, there's a transcript. Is that right?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh well it's all very salacious commentary about a meeting which I'm sure whips up people's interest but I'm not going to add to-

SPEERS: No recording?

PRIME MINISTER: His own breathless commentary on these issues,

SPEERS: No recording of the-

PRIME MINISTER: I’ll leave the hyperventilation on these matters to others who are far better equipped to practice it.

SPEERS: You’re not aware of a recording though?

PRIME MINISTER:  Look these are not matters, frankly, during my time as Prime Minister that have been recommended to me as requiring any close attention.

SPEERS: But there's no recording of the conversation as far as you are aware.

PRIME MINISTER: David that's not information that I have available to me and I'll tell you why, because it's not a matter that has ever been raised with me proactively as being a matter that has demanded the attention of the Prime Minister. What has demanded the attention of the Prime Minister is the drought, has been the economy, has been our international engagement in the Indo-Pacific. These are the things that the President and I actually do talk about.

SPEERS: A final one on this, Labor has queried whether there was a special favour asked of Donald Trump and two weeks later you get a special reception at the at the White House. In other words were you played by the President?

PRIME MINISTER: Look it's disappointing that Mr Shorten and Mr Albanese have gone down this path. I think it shows signs of unresolved bitterness on Mr Shorten's part. I think it's a bit disappointing and I think the fact that Australia has a good relationship with the United States is not something that should be, I think, denigrated in the way they've sought to do that. I think that's been a fairly opportunistic and frankly immature response.

SPEERS: Let me turn to some of these other issues. In fact just picking up on your meeting with Donald Trump and others in Washington. Did anyone ask about this, the President or anyone else when you were in Washington, about this whole issue?

PRIME MINISTER: No. And I was asked that at the time.

SPEERS: And no one raised it?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it was a matter that had already been addressed.

SPEERS: In the Oval Office, media is there, Donald Trump raised a whole bunch of issues. One of them was returning foreign fighters. He took a shot at the Europeans in particular, but can I ask for Australia's part we have something like 60 women and children in refugee camps in northern Syria and I think it's around 15 men in prisons, Kurdish run prisons. Given the concern on the American side about this, it's not just the President's, you know the Defence Secretary's called the situation untenable. I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says these refugee camps are like a petri dish for terrorism. Can we just leave them there or do we have a responsibility?

PRIME MINISTER:  Well it wasn't a matter that was raised specifically with Australia in terms of our own citizens that may be there but our response to this is a careful one. We have a regime thankfully now in place that we're able to have legislated for temporary exclusion orders which are designed to protect Australians and to protect our national interests, and they will be applied based on assessments of each and every individual case. Secondly I'm not going to put one Australian in harm's way to facilitate people's return. We have already facilitated some returns, particularly of young children, orphans who are in many respects victims of this terrible process.

SPEERS: But are these refugee camps breeding grounds for terrorism?

PRIME MINISTER: Well there is some quite hideous things that are occurring in these camps and there are some pretty hideous people in them who don't want to do Australia any favours. I can tell you that-

SPEERS: So what do you do with them? Bring them back and control, detain them, whatever you need to do?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David you're making assumptions about the security of Australians who might have to be put in harm's way to facilitate that process. And I'm not putting one Australian at risk for that.

SPEERS: Too dangerous to go in there?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s way too dangerous. Now we work with our humanitarian partners where we have been able to facilitate, particularly young children who have been caught up in all this. But let's not assume that the individuals, particularly obviously the adults who were involved here don't present any potential threat to Australia. That would be a big mistake to make.

SPEERS: Ok, couple of other things, you were asked about Pastor Brian Houston while you were there. Did you suggest he be put on the guest list for the White House dinner?

PRIME MINISTER: David, the White House decides who comes to these events and-

SPEERS: I know that but I'm asking you if you suggested his name?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s who comes to it. And frankly I've noticed again the commentary on this and I've noticed the rather aggressive statements that have been made about Pastor Brian Houston and his wife. I've found that all a very unfortunate incident and particularly for those who are very upset about some issues that have occurred many years ago as well. And so I don't see any profit in-

SPEERS: But it's a straightforward question whether you suggested his name for this dinner?

PRIME MINISTER: No I don't think it's helpful David. I mean there's one un-published source, comment, coming out of allegedly-

SPEERS: But you can clarify this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I don't feel the need to comment on those things David, I really don’t. If people want to put their-

SPEERS: But why is that though?

PRIME MINISTER: Because David I'm not going to go into the habit of just because one journalist somewhere in the world talks to someone who won't put their name to it, and all of a sudden apparently we got to play 20 questions. That's just not how I'm going operate. If people have an established source who’s prepared to put their names to things well that's a different matter.

SPEERS: All right let me, you're giving a speech tomorrow night to the Lowy Institute on foreign policy, China- can I ask you about this? It's a relationship obviously that you're trying to balance right now,


SPEERS: You did describe China as a newly developed economy while you were in the United States. China says we're about 30 years away from being developed. Why do you think China's wrong?

PRIME MINISTER: They're the second biggest economy in the world, David. They have the capacity now as they've just put on display, to launch hypersonic weapons. They've had the biggest-

SPEERS: What do you make of that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well this was not a great surprise for those who'd be aware of these things-

SPEERS: Scary?

PRIME MINISTER: But they have a significant capability and there's no denying that and they’re certainly not denying it, they’re putting it on display. I mean they’ve just celebrated their seventieth anniversary-

SPEERS: Is that flexing muscles do you think?

PRIME MINISTER: It's not uncommon for nations when they celebrate the anniversaries to demonstrate what their capabilities are, it was not the first time we've seen that before but I think it just actually goes to my point. I mean they have had the most rapid expansion of their economy of any nation state in, certainly how our time, and arguably I'd probably say- unarguably of all time-

SPEERS: So that parade shows that they are developed?

PRIME MINISTER: Well they are the second biggest economy in the world, they are investing in the infrastructure and services of nations all around the world. They are a big, developed, nation with enormous economic resources and what's the demonstration of that? Their ability to invest those resources in all of those programs. Now I'm not denying them their choices to do that. I just think it is just an expression that the world has got to a point where after many years of engagement within China and the point was to engage with China so their economy would grow and it would lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty which I think is China's greatest achievement. Now that has occurred. That's great. But that has implications now for the strategic balance that sits within the Indo-Pacific region, within the global economy, how the rules are applied now. I mean should Australian companies seeking to innovate in the technology field have the same rules that apply to them, that apply to Chinese firms operating out of Shanghai? Now of course they should. That's not a criticism of China. That's actually an acknowledgment of China's success.

SPEERS: Final one. Interest rates cut yesterday to a new record low, the banks haven't passed on the full cut, is that justified?

PRIME MINISTER: They never learn. They honestly never learn and it's disappointing. You know I suspect we’re both mortgage holders and like all the other mortgage holders they have a reason to be disappointed in the banks basically profiteering from that decision.

SPEERS: Is that what they’re doing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well of course they are. I mean their profits will be greater because of it. How else do you describe it? I've never been one whether as Treasurer or Prime Minister to give the banks a leave pass when they fail to do these things.

SPEERS: They say it's for depositors that they can't do it.

PRIME MINISTER: I'm sure it is. Yeah I'm sure it is.

SPEERS: You don’t buy it?

PRIME MINISTER: No I don’t. And I never have. They'll put their explanations out there and the public will judge them based on what they say but I'm not buying it.

SPEERS: Prime Minister thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot David.