Interview with David Speers, Sky News

12 Nov 2018
Sydney, NSW
Prime Minister
Bourke St terror attack; migration; East Asia Summit; Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation; Newspoll

DAVID SPEERS: Prime Minister, thanks for your time. Can we begin with the terrorist attack in Melbourne on Friday? Do you regard this to be a national security failure?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t. I do consider it to be a serious terrorism incident and the reason I don’t is because we’ve had 14 thwarted attacks, we’ve had seven attacks of this nature and as we’ve always said you can’t guarantee in all cases. As we’ve gone back and looked over all the issues here – and that process of investigation continues – any lessons, of course, will be learned.

SPEERS: Are there any immediate lessons?

PRIME MINISTER: I think one of the key lessons is the one I pointed out on Saturday and that is the issue of ensuring that we do even more to counter against extremist radical Islam and these teachings and this vile presence.

SPEERS: What more are you going to do?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s about more, I think, raising greater awareness in the community. I think it’s raising a greater sense of proactivity. We already get good cooperation and that’s why we’ve been able to thwart 14 attacks but the only real guarantee that you can provide is ensuring you can get the information out of the community.

SPEERS: How will you do that?

PRIME MINISTER: I’ll give you an example of how this works. It’s not the imam necessarily, it’s that shady character who was at the periphery of the mosque. The one talking to young people. These people prey on vulnerable Australians – vulnerable young men particularly – and they fill their heads full of this hate and this vile rubbish to try and make sense of their lives. Now, they may be faced with any number of personal challenges themselves but these characters are quite targeted in who they go after and if you’re an imam or a leader in one of those communities, you need to know who those people are in your community who might be doing that. They are the infiltrators.

SPEERS: Do you think they know who they are?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think in many cases they will and what I’m saying is you can’t look the other way. You can’t look the other way. Now, the imam themselves, I think, I have no doubt, would be doing the right thing in terms of what they’re teaching and how they seek to manage things within their own community. But these characters, they’re the ones that have to be weeded out. They’re the ones whose influence has to be removed.

SPEERS: So the lesson is what? The imam needs to do more -

PRIME MINISTER: The leaders of the community need to know what’s going on in their community and there can be no excuses for looking…

SPEERS: And you don’t think they are -

PRIME MINISTER: Clearly, clearly not, clearly not. I think many are, but more needs to happen in this area and I want to work with the Muslim community across Australia. I have had a lot to do with the Muslim community in Australia and I’ve built up a reputation for being honest but also being understanding -

SPEERS: So the Muslim community needs to do more on that front. What about the government’s agencies here? They’re very well-funded, we know this guy was, you know, his passport was cancelled, there was fears that he was going to become a foreign fighter, he was on a watch list. All of this and yet still he was able to mount this attack. Is there a lesson there about where he slipped off the radar?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, David, there are 400 people under investigation. There are 230 people with whom passports have been cancelled and not all of them can be under observation all the time…

SPEERS: Do we have to live with the reality that this is going to happen time to time?

PRIME MINISTER: What we have to live with is understanding that the only way that you’re going to be able to thwart something like this – with an individual who was exhibiting no greater level of agitation than the other 399 on the list and had done nothing to elevate their status in the view of agencies who examine this stuff very, very carefully – what you rely on is the relationship with the community and understanding what’s going on. And this is the point that Peter Dutton made as Minister for Home Affairs yesterday. This is not – my encouragement to the Muslim religious communities across Australia is, I think, to raise the level of awareness and alertness and raise the level of proactivity both members of that community and the leaders of that community. Because their community is the one being infiltrated and we have to say that because it’s true and it presents a real risk to the safety of Australians and themselves and their own children.

SPEERS: One of your MPs, Jason Wood, he’s a former counter-terrorism police officer, he reckons anyone on the watch list, presumably if they’re a dual citizen, should be deported. Good idea?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are cases where we do exactly that. They’re exactly the cases of doing that.

SPEERS: Okay, but everyone on the list?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, those cases are assessed on their merits by our security agencies and we hold a pretty strong record of deporting people who we consider to be threats to Australia – whether they’re gangsters or mobsters or paedophiles or indeed suspected terrorists – so this is what we do and Jason’s right, we need to continue doing that and…

SPEERS: But this guy wasn’t deported?

PRIME MINISTER: This guy was an Australian citizen. Let’s be clear about this. He was radicalised here. He didn’t bring this from somewhere else. This happened here in Australia and this is why I’m making the point about the threat of extremist radical Islam in Australia. We can talk about all these other issues but why did this happen? Why was he motivated to do this in this way? Because of what he had been exposed to in his religious community.

SPEERS: Let me turn to some other issues, The Australian newspaper today reporting you’re planning to give the states more say in setting Australia’s migration intake. They do, as I understand it, already have an opportunity to make an annual submission to the Immigration Department as to what -

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, it’s not working.

SPEERS: Right. So what’s going to change?

PRIME MINISTER: I mean, the classic example is the New South Wales Government actually asked for more people, now they say they need less. Now, I’m not making a criticism in that sense, all I’m simply saying is that process is not working as it should be…

SPEERS: So what’s going to change?

PRIME MINISTER: The Commonwealth Government, the Australian Government will always set out migration rates. We’re not going to contract this out to the states, that’s not what we’re contemplating. What we are looking at is the states actually plan the roads, plan the hospitals, plan the schools, they have planning departments that do these jobs, both within particular areas of delivery – whether it’s schools and hospitals or indeed the planning department where the housing is going and all the rest of it. They are in the best position to actually make a judgement about what the carrying capacity is in their states and territories down to local areas about how many people can actually be there.

SPEERS: So how would they put that forward?

PRIME MINISTER: Our process, I think, to date has not been enough ground-up. Just taking a top-down approach to migration levels I don’t think has served us well and so what I’m saying is, yes, we’ll set the target – sorry, I should say the cap because there is no target – we’ll set what the cap is, we’ll let it be demand driven but it has to be based on what the carrying capacity is at state and territory levels. I mean, the frustrating thing about whenever you have this discussion, it’s always polarised, it’s always this or that, but what we actually need is a more sensible, middle course way to manage this issue.

SPEERS: So they’ll put in more detail around what infrastructure they’ve got, what capacity they have and I guess most people will say, “Well, is it going to mean fewer people or more people coming in?”

PRIME MINISTER: It’s a good question because in Darwin, they want more people. In Tasmania, they want more people. In Western Australia, they want more people. South Australia, they want more people…

SPEERS: But you can’t keep them [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, this is not the case. Under non-permanent migration, you can. You can. Now, then people say, “How are you going to police it?” If you want permanent residency in this country and you’re on a non-permanent visa and you haven’t been compliant with the terms of your non-permanent visa, you don’t get a permanent residency visa and you go home.

SPEERS: So temporary workers, students who come on temporary visas, if they want permanent residency, they’ll have to stay in Darwin, Adelaide, Tasmania?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, yeah, where the jobs are, where the services are, where the opportunities are and that’s where you’ve got to work closely with the states and territories. The Commonwealth Government can’t say, “We’re just going to spray them all over regions in Australia.” What we need to know is what regions and where? And where are the jobs and where’s the infrastructure and the services going?

SPEERS: So they’re there for five years?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, about that. I mean, different visas are different but we’ll have a bit more to say about the nature of any changes we’re contemplating on visa arrangements but there are tools and this is the point I’ve been making for some time and that is what has been driving population growth in Australia has not been permanent, permanent intake, it’s been the temporary intake. Because the people who get permanent visas are already here. They’ve arrived as temporary migrants and then they apply for a permanent visa once they’re here.

SPEERS: Could this, I mean just thinking this through, could this mean permanent residents, there won’t be much change, there’s a family reunion and so on, they still come to Sydney and Melbourne, but the temporary workers, the highly skilled temporary workers -

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, where the Far North comes in.

SPEERS: Will all end up going to some of the smaller centres.

PRIME MINISTER: Well you’ll still see people come to major urban centres, I mean it’s not them all going to the regions, and it’ll depend on the carrying capacity of those regions. But what we are saying, that in the past when we have attempted to do this, and I’ve been critical of this in the past, it hasn’t stuck. And the reason it hasn’t stuck, I think, is because there hasn’t been a good enough connection between what the states are doing with their settlement and population policies and what the Commonwealth is doing. So this is, you know, a blinding piece of common sense which says how about states who plan for population growth and the Commonwealth Government who sets the migration levels actually bring this together. Because I can’t say that that has been done well for decades.

SPEERS: Now you’re heading off tomorrow for the start of summit season. There’s the East Asia Summit in Singapore, APEC in PNG and towards the end of the week. You’ll be having a lot of meetings, are you going to see the Indonesian President?


SPEERS: And will you be signing the free trade agreement?

PRIME MINISTER: No there’s no plans for that and I’m not troubled by that. Look, it’s a good deal for both countries but -

SPEERS: Where’s it up to, when will you sign it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, when we get around to doing that.

SPEERS: No timeframe?

PRIME MINISTER: There’s no rush on this, there’s actually no rush at all.

SPEERS: Has the Jerusalem, Israel embassy issue affected negotiations at all?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the negotiations have been completed on the actual agreement and it would still have to go through ratification in the Indonesian Parliament as it would go in Australia.

SPEERS: So what’s the sticking point?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, Australia is always going to look at these issues on their merits. We don’t conflate other areas of non-related policy when it comes to these agreements.

SPEERS: Is that what Indonesia is doing?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’m not making that observation, I’m just saying that Australia will always not conflate issues and we’re prepared to move forward and when the Indonesian Government, who I know is very supportive of the arrangement, particularly their economic ministers have relayed that back to us directly both to the Treasurer and the Finance Minister…

SPEERS: The President though, it sounds like you’re ready to sign this deal.

PRIME MINISTER: I believe he is very supportive of the agreement but look, the timing of any ultimate signing is up to them.

SPEERS: What will you say to him about it, the embassy issue?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’ll update him on where we’re at.

SPEERS: And where are you at?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’ll update him that we’re still working through the issue as a Government and we’ve got a process in place to deal with that internally and we’ll continue to work on that respectfully and restate our Government’s 100 per cent commitment to the two-state solution.

SPEERS: You’re going to be meeting the Chinese President and the Chinese Premier over the course of the week -

PRIME MINISTER: They’re the plans currently, but a lot of these plan fall in at the last, as you know, the last sort of 24 hours.

SPEERS: One of the points of tension over some years has been the South China Sea. What is your view of… how would you describe China’s behaviour in the South China Sea?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I don’t get into running commentaries about this, David, I don’t find it terribly helpful. I mean, Australia -

SPEERS: What is your position as Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia has operated its freedom of navigation, we’ve been doing that under my Prime Ministership and previous prime ministers.

SPEERS: But just your view of what China has done on the South China Sea?

PRIME MINISTER: Well look I don’t think any of that commentary is terribly helpful. Australia’s position is expressed by what we do and what do we do? Well we’ve expressed our freedom of navigation but we’ve gone about it I think in a very constructive way and a very transparent way.

SPEERS: Let me ask you directly - is your view that China now holds these islands?

PRIME MINISTER: Our policy has not changed when it comes to the South China Sea.

SPEERS: I’m just asking you to explain that policy.

PRIME MINISTER: Well we understand what the territorial boundaries are and there’s been no change to our view on that.

SPEERS: So who owns these islands?

PRIME MINISTER: We express our freedom of navigation through this part of the South China Sea and have done so now for many years and I don’t think it’s helpful, I don’t think it’s helpful, for Australia to be drawn into an exacerbation of any of these issues. I don’t think that’s in Australia’s interest, David, for me to sort of respond in the way you seem to be inviting.

SPEERS:  No, no, I’m just saying -

PRIME MINISTER: I’m just saying our relationship with China is getting on with business with China, and we are doing that.

SPEERS: I appreciate that -

PRIME MINISTER: And you saw last week, I think, the success of that approach. Australia’s position is well known, it’s very well known.

SPEERS: I’m just asking you to articulate it. Does China hold these islands? Are they Chinese territory?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David again, our view about the sovereignty of the nations involved have been set out now for a long time and I don’t think there is any great advantage in me basically repeating back our position...

SPEERS: Not even just saying whether these islands are Chinese territory or not?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David I think that is not the case.

SPEERS: They’re not Chinese territory?

PRIME MINISTER: That is the international position, the internationally understood position.

SPEERS: Is it your position as now the Australian Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Look David our position hasn’t changed under my Prime Ministership, the previous Prime Ministership, the previous Labor Government. And so I don’t think there’s any profit in me as Prime Minister agitating on these topics because our position is well known and it’s understood.

SPEERS: Do you think China should be, or should stop, detaining Muslim minorities in these detention camps?

PRIME MINISTER: We always raise any concerns that we have, particularly about human rights issues. We have done that consistently over a long period of time -

SPEERS: On this one?

PRIME MINISTER: But David, we do that privately. We do it directly when we do these things and again, we don’t get into showboating about this sort of thing. We just do it respectfully and within the comprehensive strategic partnership that we have with China is very important to Australia and it enables us, I think, to engage with them on any number of issues which we will continue to do. But we’re not about to do those things in a way that, you know, is public.

SPEERS: But you support, obviously, what Australia… the United Nations on this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David, our view on human rights I think, is very consistent. We raise these issues directly with those with whom we want to raise them and we do it in a respectful way. In the same way we would expect any other countries to raise issues that they would like to raise with us in that way. That’s how we do things, it’s not a livestream approach to international relations, that’s not one that I intend to follow because I don’t think that’s in Australia’s national interest.

SPEERS: Ok but it’s also about stating Australia's position clearly.


SPEERS: And you will with the Chinese leadership?

PRIME MINISTER: We always are very clear about human rights issues and they’re raised in all the relevant forums -

SPEERS: And you will this week?

PRIME MINISTER: David, I don’t get into speculating publicly about what issues I will or won’t raise in a meeting, I don’t think that’s a constructive way to handle relationships.

SPEERS: A couple of other things, you said the other day that you prayed for the refugee children on Nauru. How are many are there still now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we’ve got around just over 30.

SPEERS: Just over 30?


SPEERS: And why are they still there?

PRIME MINISTER: Well because that’s consistent with the policy we have as a Government, that’s why they’re still there. And where there is the ability for them to be transferred to the United States, or whether there are any medical issues that require their transfer to Australia then that’s what will occur.

SPEERS: So those who have been brought to Australia have been brought for medical reasons?


SPEERS: And will they be allowed to stay.

PRIME MINISTER: They will not have a permanent visa in Australia, no.

SPEERS: So what happens to them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well at some point they won’t be allowed to remain in Australia forever. I mean, that’s the policy of both the Labor Party and our Government.

SPEERS: So presumably they’re not still receiving medical treatment, all of them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well my understanding is that many are.

SPEERS: But those who aren’t?  

PRIME MINISTER: There’s been hundreds who have been transferred, some of them subject to court proceedings, which as you know means that maintains their stay here in Australia. Each and every case is different, David, we haven’t changed any of our policies, we’ve just acted in accordance with our policies and we’ve been reducing the number of children on Nauru.

SPEERS: The policy is still to send them back to Nauru?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s always the case, that hasn’t changed.

SPEERS: So if you can, you’ll send them back to Nauru.

PRIME MINISTER: Well that’s the policy, but there are other issues that, you know, get between that outcome and where they currently are now. I mean, there have been hundreds of kids who have been moved off Nauru now for some years and they’ve still been here in Australia. But David, our policy settings have not changed, is my point. The policy settings that have been in place for years, the policy settings that actually stop children getting on boats and dying have not changed and they’re not going to change under my watch.

SPEERS: Final one, the Newspoll. What did you think, Prime Minister, when you saw those numbers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s a big mountain and I’m still climbing it.

SPEERS: Do you look at it and think I need to change anything?

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve got an agenda that I’m working to, and that agenda has ranged from everything from addressing the essentials that Australians rely on like aged care, making sure we get the right response to the drought, that we continue to bring the Budget back into balance next year, that we get the unemployment rate down, it’s now under 5 per cent, that we’re delivering on things like mental health care, expanding Headspace, getting infrastructure, whether it’s the roads or the water infrastructure which I was just announcing up in North Queensland which has been incredibly well received. I mean, in Townsville, they said the other day that our water announcement was the best thing to happen to North Queensland since the Cowboys won the premiership. And we had a great response up in Queensland last week, as you would have seen in the Courier Mail today. So look, we welcome that, but we’ve been moving pretty quickly over the last ten weeks I’m sure you’d agree. I was also very pleased the outcome of that investigation in Queensland regarding the Strawberry tampering, that was one of the many other issues we dealt with in the last ten weeks. But David, I knew when I had to step up just over ten weeks ago, that this was a big mountain to climb, and our Government is getting on with the job. And we’ve got a lot more work to do, I think, to convince Australians -

SPEERS: Well do you? Did you think things would get this bad in the polls?

PRIME MINISTER: None of what is happening is surprising me, David. I didn’t take the job on thinking it would be an easy one. I have always taken on hard jobs in my political career and I have been able, on every occasion, to actually come to terms with those challenges and get on top of them.

SPEERS: Did you take on the job though thinking you can still win the election?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course, and that is why I stepped up. Because what these polls also tell you is that the question Australians I would put to them, and I encourage them to ask themselves, how will Bill Shorten abolishing negative gearing as we know it increase capital gains tax by 50 per cent affect you? How will increasing… taking away, I should say, the tax refunds for retirees - $55 billion a year - affect them? Increased tax on small business, higher electricity prices, a 45 per cent… I was at Boyne Island Smelter the other day. A 45 per cent emissions reductions target, which is Labor’s policy, that would shut the Boyne Island Smelter and take 1,000 jobs out of Gladstone. Now, today’s Newspoll says that’s on its way, and that’s what’s at stake. You cannot take the Australian economy for granted. Australians have made that mistake before. You can’t take it for granted.

SPEERS: But is the issue here PM, that you’ve been running that line, that campaign and the polls are only getting worse.

PRIME MINISTER: It’s ten weeks, David. The election is next year and I think you’re right to highlight the fact that there is a very strong prospect of Bill Shorten being the next Prime Minister after the election, of course there is. Anyone reading that today couldn’t draw any other conclusion. So the question is, do you want Bill Shorten as your Prime Minister? Do you want to put Australia’s economy at risk, that actually pays for hospitals, for healthcare, mental health, affordable medicines, schools, all of these things. Is that what you want? Because a Bill Shorten-led Government will take Australia’s industrial relations back to the 1970’s and pitch worker against employer again in a way that we haven’t seen for a generation. I mean, that is a big risk. Labor is a big risk and I think what today’s poll shows is the real question that Australians are going to be faced with at the next election. And I’ll be putting forward our strong beliefs and why we do things, why I think Australians should keep more of what they earn, why I don’t think we have to bring some Australians down to bring others up, why I think the best form of welfare is a job, and our Government has the best jobs record of any Government.

SPEERS: Alright Prime Minister, thanks very much for your time.