Interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR

15 Apr 2020
Prime Minister

2:53 PM

GARETH PARKER: Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: G’day Gareth, how are you? 

PARKER: I'm okay. How are you? 

PRIME MINISTER: Mate, I'm fine. But we've got a lot of challenges ahead of us and we're all working together to address them and work our way through this and, and our way out of this. 

PARKER: Yeah. We'll come back to the way out of it in a moment. I want to start with the schools, which is obviously something that you have wanted to address directly to teachers today?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, first, my first point is I think teachers are fantastic and amazing and we've got to value them all the time. But particularly at times like this, when there are so many kids who are so dependent on them, those kids who, you know, like some others, don't have the same opportunities at home to be able to learn at home who could lose a whole year of their education at the moment, if we can't get this right and I'm very worried for those kids. I mean, it's alright for some kids and some families that might be able to make the adjustments here, but for vulnerable kids, kids of families whose, both parents are going to work. And if you've got a job in this economy, they're essential jobs. I don't care what the job is. And they need to keep going to work for the sake of the economy and their families. We need the schools to be able to support that. And that's the arrangements we have. But we need to strengthen them. And we also need to recognise that the best way to deliver education for kids, is in schools, on campuses, in classrooms, with teachers. That's the school system we have. If we thought there was another system through distance learning that was better, we'd do that. We don't do that. And I think we, there’s some, some hard facts we've got to acknowledge at the moment. I know it's tough for everyone, but I'm very concerned about the quality of education that is going to be delivered to our kids this year. 

PARKER: It seems there's a real equity issue here that is if, you know, middle class kids or middle upper class kids where parents can keep them home with a good laptop and a good Internet connection will fare better than kids who have, you know, a more chaotic home environment, a less fortunate home environment here. And you don't want that bridge to, well, you don't want that gap to widen more than already is?

PRIME MINISTER: That's true. And it's also about what happens at school. I kept my kids in school up until the last week because they weren't getting taught at school in that last week, I mean, they were sitting in a room looking at a screen, that's not teaching, that's childminding. And schools aren't for childminding. Schools are for teaching and they're for learning. And the point I'm trying to make, it isn't just about, you know, that kids can go along to school and sit in a hall and be minded. We want them to get educated. And it's very important that happens. And, you know, we are going to lose a lot of things during this crisis. And I don't want that to be the education of our children. I mean, we're on school holidays now in New South Wales. And so obviously the kids are home. But I would, I would have them back in school in a heartbeat if they were getting taught at school. But at the moment, we're fortunate our kids can have a learning environment at home, but not all kids can. And I know schools will always remain open for kids to go. But it's the learning there that I want to take place, not just the minding. 

PARKER: So we've spoken on this program and like New South Wales, Western Australia's at the start of the two week school holiday period at the moment, we've spoken to the education minister, Sue Ellery, we spoke to the Premier earlier in the program today, I think it's fair to say that W.A. is sort of on a unity ticket with you here. Do you want the schools open fully for business as of day one of term 2, or does it need to be tailored to whatever each individual state’s health situation is with the testing numbers? Because obviously here in the West, we're in a reasonable position at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, and look, and I totally respect the fact that every state and territory has got to make their own choices on this and set their own arrangements in place. It's not a federal issue. It is run by the states. So there's no creep here from the federal government trying to tell states and territories what to do, they've got to make their own decisions. And through the National Cabinet, which Premier McGowan has been a great supporter of and contributor to, we're trying to get as much consistency as we can. But you're right, there are different risks in different states. If you think about Victoria and New South Wales, obviously the risks are far greater at the moment and to arrange for more and more people to go back to school, it's not just ensuring that the safety of obviously the teachers in the classroom, from a health point of view, it's your pick up and drop off, and to make sure appropriate distancing is being practiced there when you have got parents coming and all that needs to be sorted out. That's why I think from the first day back after school holidays, it's unlikely to look very different to what it did before you went into school holidays. But I do know that over the weeks that then follow, there is an opportunity to move to an even better model. Now, ultimately, you know, I can't see a time during this Covid crisis where, you know, there would be any mandatory position put on parents who really did not want their children to go to school. I understand that and I respect that. I mean, as a Liberal, I've always believed in parental choice when it comes to these issues. And I think that's an important principle, but in the main, I mean, in South Australia, they went into the school holidays with greater than 50 per cent school attendance, in New South Wales it was 5 per cent. I mean, it is possible to get a higher level of school attendance and going back to actual functional learning in classrooms, at schools, that is safe for teachers. And I want to stress we believe it must be safe for teachers and not just have attendance at school as kids sitting in a hall in front of a screen. That's the balance that we need educationalists, teachers, school leaders, parents, everyone working together to get us to a more sustainable model than the one we sort of eased into the term break with. 

PARKER: And I think the point about safety for teachers is what some teachers are telling me. They're saying, look we are, we are happy to teach, but we can't in our own minds reconcile the inconsistency between the advice to people all over the community to practise social distancing yet those rules don't apply in my classroom?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the health advice is very important here. Their workplace is different to everyone else's workplace and the health advice and the research shows that teachers are more likely to catch coronavirus in the staff room than they are in the classroom because of the incidents and the transmissibility of the virus amongst children. Now, if you're in a workplace with lots of children, that's different to being in a workplace with lots of adults. And the health advice is that children can safely go to school. Now, what we're talking about here, I think ultimately, is not full attendance at school, but a functional attendance at school, which enables lessons to be done at school. Obviously, the populations will be lower, which is greater opportunity to ensure better social distancing practices in the classrooms which protect teachers. I think that's appropriate. There will be some teachers who should not be in a school environment. Importantly, in the staffroom, because they are more at risk than many others in the community. If they're over 65 or if they're over 55 and they're indigenous, they have other co-morbidities or other health issues. That's all totally understood. I mean, I've had these discussions with the education unions at a national level. I totally respect the need to protect people in their workplace. But equally, I value greatly the job that teachers do in teaching kids face to face and ensuring that they can have a good learning outcome this year and not have their education wasted away.

PARKER: You mentioned the road out of this. I think that in Australia we are in a very good position at the moment, but there are no easy decisions from here. You said last week that we have bought time to consider options going forward. Can you elaborate on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, the 6 months that we have over, you know, from effectively the start of this month to the end of September, that has been bought by the JobKeeper and Jobseeker arrangements we've put in place the free childcare, the support for our hospitals and universities and all of that to keep them functioning during this very, very strained period. And what we now need to do, having got all of those supports in place, having got our ICU capacities being upgraded and to, getting the production of personal protective equipment and getting access to testing and all of these, by doing all that, we now have the time to put in place a set of arrangements which not just now, but in the hopefully not too distant future. Many, a few, a few, many weeks from now, perhaps sooner in W.A. that's a matter for the Premier that we would be able to ease some of these, not all of them, but ease some get some businesses back into operation, get more people back to work. Get more kids back into schools, which will mean that our economy will be able to support more people and they won't become reliant on JobKeeper or Jobseeker. And that's what we have to do to sustain, to get back. But what we have to do to achieve that is we need an even broader testing regime than we have now. We have one of the best testing regimes in the world, but it still needs to be broader than it is now to provide that certainty that where outbreaks occur, we can, we can clamp down on them very quickly, that our tracing capacity is very important and you would have seen in the media reports that we were working on an app that will massively help our health authorities trace where people have been in contact with others. I mean, that type of technology is being used in other countries. And we've got to work through some technical and some privacy issues and some things like that. So we're not doing it in haste.

PARKER: Do you think people would be willing to do that? Do you think people would be willing to download an app that sends their movement information to the government? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it would only be in an instance where someone had coronavirus. You wouldn't be mandatorily required to sign up to these apps. That's not how Australia works. But I don't know, you tell me? If people believed and understood that if we could trace people's contacts quicker and tracked down the coronavirus faster and save people's lives, which meant we could open our economy up more. Well, it's a bit like buying war bonds during the war. I mean, there are things that we might not ordinarily do. But in these circumstances, to keep people safe, to save lives and to save people's livelihoods and get them back to work. If that tool is going to help people do that, then this may be one of the, one of the sacrifices we need to make, we’re working on the privacy issues very hard. 

PARKER: Yeah, reports are that as many as 40 per cent of the population might need to download it for it to work. Is that right or not? 

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, it is. You'd need at least that. And it's an important tool that other countries have successfully been able to use. And we've based it on what, well we've basically taken with their support, out of Singapore, where it's already in operation. And when I spoke with the Singaporean prime minister some weeks ago, he agreed, and we spoke about it. And he's given us support by giving us access to the coding for how this can be done. So that's important and we thank them for that. There are different apps being done by other companies. But what would be essential here is that the only people who would get the information and the only information they would get, is people that someone who had contracted coronavirus had come in contact during the potential infection period for a period of 15 minutes or more. And what would happen then is the health authorities who would be the only ones who’d have access to that data, would contact those people just like they do now. When they ask someone who has coronavirus, well, who were you with during that period of time? Well, they're seeking that information now anyway. This would just enable us to get it more quickly and not be relying on people's memories, which at the end of the day would mean we'd save more lives and save more livelihoods and protect people from the virus.

PARKER: Sort of just a more efficient version of contact tracing?


PARKER: So some people are starting to advance the proposition, Prime Minister, that the measures that we've taken to slow the spread of the virus are worse than the consequences of the virus. That is that the economic damage is worse than the health crisis. What do you make of those criticisms? 

PRIME MINISTER: I think they should Google Italy, the United Kingdom, New York, any of these countries will do, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands. And look at the horror show that's happening there and ask themselves the same question. 

PARKER: So you're just not having it at all. Basically, you think that we've bought ourselves time with these measures and we can now find a way back from the situation we find ourselves in?

PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely. I think we can. And no country at the moment has been able to successfully chart that course yet. But we're in a better position than many and most, to be able to do that. And I think the West is also in a good position to do that. The National Cabinet has been a great forum to exchange ideas. Not everybody will be in the same situation. Others will be able to trial things more and earlier than others. And we'll all learn from that. And I think if you go back to the Spanish flu over a century ago, or about a century ago, one of the things that went terribly wrong then was that the states and territories did not work with, well the states I should say, didn't work well together with the Commonwealth. They all went their own way and fought with each other. That's not happening. And it's been a great privilege to work with other leaders from all political stripes to just focus on people's lives and livelihoods. 

PARKER: When parliament last week, you made a speech talking about economic sovereignty and the importance of Australia asserting its economic sovereignty. Well, what does that mean? Does that mean cutting ties with China? 

PRIME MINISTER: What it means is that we need to ensure that in Australia we have a domestic capability in our industries, whether that's on fuel. We already have a high level of food security, our manufacturing capability, all of these things that right now we've had to work very hard to either initiate or expand to meet critical supplies in medical equipment and other things like that. Now, that means I mean, it's not an argument for nationalisation, I can assure you that's certainly not in the head of our government, but it is about ensuring that we can have profitable, competitive, successful industries in Australia doing these things and the right policy environment to support that. We are already moving to diversify our trade base. That was already happening. And yes, China has been our biggest trading partner. But let's remember that that is predominated by the resources sector, which is obviously very relevant in Western Australia and Queensland. But with services exports and broader product exports for Australia, they are going to a much broader range of countries, the free trade agreement with Japan and South Korea, with Indonesia most recently, with Singapore we just signed a digital trade agreement with them just a few weeks ago, and of course, working with the UK and Europe. Now all of that will at the moment, won't be as much of a level of activity given what's happening with the global virus. But it's important that we do diversify and also have a capability here that is sustainable economically. Not, not off the taxpayer, but off of a genuine, credible, viable commercial operation. 

PARKER: There's just a couple of very quick ones before I let you go. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, announced that he would suspend funding for the WHO while they investigate whether it's handled the Covid crisis properly. Good move. Bad move?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, I sympathise with his criticisms and I've made a few of my own. I mean, we called this thing weeks before the WHO did. If we were relying on their advice, then I suspect we would have been suffering the same fate that many other countries currently are. We were calling it a pandemic back in early January or mid-January, I should say. 

PARKER: Was the WHO pandering to China? 

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I'm not going to get into that. But what I am going to say is, look, while I have many criticisms of the WHO, and most significantly, the unfathomable decision that they've had about wet markets, and there are lots of different kinds of wet markets. I'm talking about the ones that have wildlife and, you know, I won't go into a colourful description, but to be sanctioning that is just completely mystifying to me. But that said, the WHO is also as an organisation does a lot of important work, including here in our own region in the Pacific, and we work closely with them so that we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. But they're also not immune from criticism and immune from doing things better.

PARKER: Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand says that she and everyone else will take a 20 per cent pay cut among the politicians and the senior public servants. Will you consider that here?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve already said there won't be any pay rise or any of those changes right across the public service. And this is not something that's currently before us. 

PARKER: Not a 20 per cent pay cut though?

PRIME MINISTER: It's not something that's being considered.

PARKER: Fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER: Let me tell you what's happening with public servants in this country at the moment. I've got 6,000 public servants, some of whom we've just recently contracted, others who are working at senior levels in the public service, sitting down at Centrelink right now, processing people's Jobseeker applications. I've got people in the public service that are working like they've never worked before I suspect, they do a great job. And they’re as much on the frontline saving people's livelihoods as, frankly, nurses working in hospitals. They're getting payments to people that they desperately need to get through, you know, the weeks and months ahead. So everyone's working hard. Everyone is working hard here. And everyone is in a job as in an essential job. And I just want to support them in those jobs. I'm not keen to get into a competition. 

PARKER: Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot. Cheers.