Interview with John Laws, 2SM

28 Aug 2020
Prime Minister

John Laws: Would you like the job of leading a nation? Any old nation I mean. I imagine it would never be a very easy task even at the very best of times but to do so during a period like this one, you know, with natural and man‑made disasters and while the state and the Territory leaders are at odds it's a real achievement proving that our Prime Minister is handling things pretty well whether you like him, dislike him, like his politics or dislike his politics it doesn't matter. I'm delighted to say however that we have the Prime Minister on the line, Prime Minister good morning and welcome.

Prime Minister: G'day John, god to be with you. I'm in the car heading out to Cooma, the bush I'm here with an old mate of yours Shane Stone.

Laws: Really? Well good, tell him I say g'day but I hope you have your winter woolies with you because it would be cold.

Prime Minister: It is cold down here. It would be great to be able to be travelling to places like Queensland, Northern Territory and others but we all know why we can't do that but we got the Bush Summit out there today are heading out there today and looking forward to participating in that.

Laws: That's a pretty important thing isn't it the Bush Summit?

Prime Minister: So much has been happening in the bush. I mean, this is why Shane is going out there with me. He’s been working with me on the floods and the droughts and the floods up in North Queensland and the drought and even though it's good to see a bit more green around the subsoil is quite a different story and there's quite a long way to go there as I'm sure everyone in the bush understands. We all drive through us city slickers, city siders we see the grass and we think it's all good again but that's not always the case and there's still a long way to go.

Laws: Your proposal to terminate agreements with foreign powers, does that raise the issues of sovereign risk if the Commonwealth can unilaterally come along and cancel an agreement or a memorandum of understanding?

Prime Minister: It doesn't apply to private companies. So, you know, people got contracts for work and business and those sorts of things so it doesn't apply to that.  What it applies to is where state governments have entered into these memorandum of understanding and what are sort of like quasi foreign agreements, well, these things have to be consistent with what the Australian Government's policy is otherwise you get that position chipped away and it can undermine and [inaudible] the power we protect Australia's national interests and promote them. When people elect a federal government, they elect it to look after our relationships with the rest of the world. They don't elect state governments to do that or local Governments or universities to do that, they elect the federal government to do that. So this just make sure that everybody is heading in the same direction and can't be picked off.

Laws: Ok. The point is with China, I mean, relations with China are pretty strained already. Aren't we potentially making that situation worse?

Prime Minister: This isn't about China. This is 30 countries with which state and territory and local Governments have known arrangements with and there could be far more so this actually asks them, it requires them to let us know what agreements they do have and we just need to make sure that they all line up. Now I mean I imagine there will be a limited number of cases where things will be inconsistent and we can deal with that but what it's really about is trying to ensure that people right across the country in governments understand that if you're going to engage with another country, well you have to do it consistent with the way Australia is pursuing our foreign policy. Otherwise, you know, you undermine what we're seeking to achieve here and look the relationship with China is very important, of course it is, it has been for a long time, we're not seeking to do anything to injure that at all. Our trade with China has never been greater and never been of move value and it's been increasing while people have talked about the relationship and saying it's under strain we keep trading and that happens because we make stuff and sell stuff they want and they make stuff and sell stuff we want. So, you know, it's a mutually beneficial relationship. It's not a one-way street. It's worth stuff to them and it's worth stuff to us.

Laws: Ok so you don't think relations with China are strained?

Prime Minister: Oh look I think they’re going through a difficult patch, I think that's right John but what we've done is I don't believe anything to injure that relationship. We've just been standing up for our own interests. Trade is important but you don't trade away your sovereignty.

Laws: Well that's a legitimate point. What measures are you going to unveil today to help regional areas grow their economies because things don't look good in country regions?

Prime Minister: The things continue to be very tough and one of the most immediate problems we’ve got are those border restrictions as a result of COVID. Now I understand why these are necessary, particularly the New South Wales - Victorian border which was agreed between both Premiers and I that we need to put some things in place there but any time you put a border up within inside Australia it's always going cost to and it's going to cause disruption and in border communities particularly in western and northern Victoria, and southern New South Wales, this is causing real issues. I know both Premiers are trying to do the right thing here to try and smooth this over, but Australia wasn't built to have internal borders. That was sort of the whole point of Australia is you got rid of the internal borders so we have got to try and work through those and get some fair principles, there's a terrible story today John up in Queensland ‑ the families from Ballina that couldn't get into Queensland for medical treatment, had to go into Sydney and it's been just a terrible tragedy there. I mean this is just not OK. That's not acceptable. There has to be pragmatism and flexibility and compassion in how these COVID-19 restrictions are exercised and you just cannot be that rigid. It's just not OK.

Laws: Well I agree, I certainly agree with you. I think it's vicious. When do you think the border with Queensland going to reopen?

Prime Minister: I don't know, because we didn't put it in place. The Queensland Government did that unilaterally. And there are virtually no cases in northern New South Wales. And the disruption that causes is fairly obvious and these most recent examples are I think evidence of that. I think ‑I mean, all I've simply said to the Premiers is where they have put these things in place particularly where they haven't worked with their neighbours in Queensland's case New South Wales or with the Commonwealth Government and they've just done it off their own bat, well they've got to be clear to the Australian people that this is how we've done it, this is why we've done it, this is the medical evidence that supports that, I mean the ACT has declared a hot zone. There are no cases in the ACT.

Laws: Why have they done that?

Prime Minister: I can't tell you John, I don't know because I didn't put it there. These are the legitimate questions that I think people can rightly ask of the Premiers. I'm not saying they can't put them there but I'm saying if you do put them there and you do it on your own well you have got to explain to people and this idea that, you know, facilities in one state only for people in one state, no that's not true.

Laws: It shouldn't be true, but have you talked to the Premier of Queensland?

Prime Minister: Yes, I have. And we've raised these issues directly and as well as in letters and various things and with our office and our departments, and I'm not saying there can't be restrictions, I'm just saying if there are they've got to be exercised properly and they've got to be exercised decently and you can't just have a brick wall there. You've got to be able to manage the complexity and you can't just justify everything on the basis that everything that COVID may breakout. You have to be careful about that but you have to weigh it up because there are costs on both sides of the ledger here.

Laws: And big costs

Prime Minister: Yes it's true and simply saying, where we have made decision as a Commonwealth Government and I appreciate that decisions we've made have come at a cost as well, but I hope I've been clear in trying to convey to the Australian people that we understand that there are costs and risks associated on both sides and that's where you have to make a judgment. A good example of that right now, John, is I know we have a lot of people trying to get home to Australia and it's difficult. I mean there are caps at airports and the reason for that is that we don't put too much pressure on the quarantine so that could potentially break. There are 4,000 people coming back every week in Australia, so it's not like no one can, but most of them come in through Sydney because that's where the flights are going to and Gladys Berejiklian and I, we review that every fortnight and if we can lift that cap, if we think it's safe to do so we will and in the meantime we'll just help people where they are but where there are real emergency situations like with that horrific blast in Beirut and as you know there are many Australians of Lebanese descent and at any one time we have quite a lot about 5,000 Australians are in Beirut, now we've got over 200 people out of there and had a cap exemptions to be able to achieve that, in a very short space of time, so you know in a crisis, in a pandemic, in a drought, in a flood, in a fire, we've seen all of those in the last year, you just got to be practical and keep working the problem and make good calls and explain the calls that you make.

Laws: Yep. Some religious leaders have expressed some concern about a COVID vaccine using foetal cells. Now as a religious man, would you be willing to have the vaccine yourself and recommend it to others?

Prime Minister: Yeah I would. I mean it hasn't been proven to work yet so we'll wait for it to go through all the clinical trials and it will have to pass all the tests. Look I'm always respectful and sensitive to those sorts of issues. Many vaccines today have used that cell source from I understand going back to the 1970s that that research has based on so it's not current, it's not current cells that have been taken from abortions or anything like that. This is stuff going back, you know, 40 years and there are many vaccines at the moment that are out currently in widespread use which draw on that so we'll talk those issues through with people who have concerns about that. I understand those concerns and I respect them.

Laws: But you don't have a problem with them yourself?

Prime Minister: No, no, I don't and neither would my family. Again, you've got to weigh all this up about what's in the public's best interests, and in this case given that the concerns relate to things that happened 40 years ago it's not a current practice, personally I'm comfortable with that. But I mean these are personal judgments that people make and you've got to always be respectful of other people’s views.

Laws: You sure have. New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters says the Christchurch attacker should be sent back here to Australia to serve his sentence. I'm inclined to agree there, would you consider transferring him here?

Prime Minister: I had a chat with Prime Minister Ardern about this yesterday. New Zealand has not made that request I should be clear. What both Jacinda and I are keen to do is ensure that we consult with the families of the victims and I know what one of them, I met, Jenny and I were over there for the memorial service and he came to see me again in Sydney early this year and we just want to be conscious of what they would like to happen and I think that's the first starting point, and I know that's what the New Zealand Prime Minister is doing and we're sensitive to this. It raises a whole bunch of other issues, John, as you know, there are many New Zealanders in Australian prisons and many Australians in New Zealand prisons, I mean that's the standard way you deal with this but I think in this case we'll just deal with it sensitively and the Prime Minister and I are talking about that but there's been no request at this point.

Laws: Well, OK, well, but you are talking about it, it is being discussed?

Prime Minister: We are talking about it now. We had the first conversation about it yesterday, I mean we were talking, she rang yesterday and I was passing on our, you know, best wishes and sincere condolences again because this despicable terrorist who did this and I've been to that mosque, I've spoken to people who were there. It was just an atrocity of unthinkable scale and it's important that that character, that terrorist, never sees freedom ever again whether it's here, there or anywhere else. I'm pleased the New Zealand court made that decision.

Laws: Yes, so am I. You're quite right, he should never see the light of day again. Labor have come out swinging this week and accused your Government of ignoring warnings about the risks of private companies running age care homes, do you think the Government needs to take a bigger role in overseeing the sector? God we hear some dreadful reports.

Prime Minister: This is why I called the Royal Commission John, it was one of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister two years ago and they're doing important work and I said at the time there's going to be some brutal stories that come out of this. In the vast majority of cases people in the aged care system do a great job, but there are cases where that's not true, and I think many of us have had to make difficult decisions about loved ones going into aged care. I certainly have my own case with my late father last year and you want to be confident about the care they'll provide and the people who work in aged care, I mean, they can be angels, they certainly were with my father. That's got to be acknowledged. I think to that suggest that every single aged care facility is not providing good service, that would bed not be a fair assessment. I mean to give you an example, just dealing with COVID, in 97 per cent of facilities in Australia and there's over 2700 of them, there have been no COVID cases and about 8 per cent of Australian facilities aged care facilities have had a COVID case involving either a resident or a staff member. Now, in the UK, that figure is 56 per cent, seven times worse so I don't deny that in a number of cases in Victoria especially and then you have the problems we had at Newmarch and Dorothy Henderson Lodge in New South Wales, those cases have not been good, unacceptable, totally unacceptable. My fear is with that community outbreak we had in Victoria that that could have gone for worse. If we had those UK figures we wouldn’t have 100 facilities, we'd have 1,000 facilities that are affected that like that. So it's tough in a pandemic but I think we've done better than others but in those cases where it's been most severe well they're shocking cases and I've already outlined my apologies for those but when you're facing that COVID outbreak as we did in Melbourne, it's as every other country has found, it will find its way into every part of society. But on the issue of private, well whether it's great stories are in private, public and not-for-profit and there have also been terrible stories in private, public and not-for-profit. I mean the Royal Commission was based after learning what had happened in the Oakden aged care facility when the Labor Government was in power in South Australia so it's not about private, public or not-for-profit. It's about having right stands, sources and clinical supports and workforces and all those things. That's what we'll do. We're increasing aged care funding every year by more than a billion dollars every year so we'll keep putting the resources in, the Royal Commission I think will help but it's a tough area.

Laws: It sure is. I mean, 2020 has been a hell of a year hasn’t it. It's really has been a shocker of a year?

Prime Minister: You remember that film Back to the Future that one with Michael J Fox? I saw someone say the other day there was the Doc in that film should have said to Michael J Fox 'Whatever you do, don't go to 2020.' It has been a really hard year John and said that in the Parliament earlier this year. For many Australians this will be the toughest year of their lives. You know I was reflecting on this other the week, I was down at the War Memorial for the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and it put things in perspective. I met three blokes there one from Air Force, one from the Army, one from the Navy and when we reflect on that I believe our greatest ever generation, the generation that dealt with the depression, that dealt with the Second World War, you can draw a lot of strengths from those Australians and [inaudible]...and that was the way they lived and...

Laws: I think it's great that you touch on those areas and I think it's great that you're sensitive to those areas, it's pretty important. I mean you are not just a politician? No comment? Have we lost it? Oh dear. Did they drop it or did we... all gone. I wonder can we get him back. We were at an interesting stage there. Can you try and get the Prime Minister back? 1300 5646. God, it's annoying when the phone does that right in the middle of an interview that I'm enjoying and I hope the people listening are enjoying. The Prime Minister is very good to talk to, very good to talk to. Whether he's the Prime Minister or not is really immaterial but as a bloke to have a yarn with he's pretty good. And he's a very decent fellow. There's no denying that, whether you like his politics or not, he's a very, very decent bloke.

Prime Minister are you there?

Prime Minister: I am John, sorry dropped out.

Laws: It wasn’t your fault, we can’t go around losing Prime Ministers.

Prime Minister: No, no true, I’m well looked after.

Laws: That’s good let’s hope it stays that way. I can’t remember what we were up to but it would have been interesting.

Prime Minister: I don’t know if you heard me talking about going down to the War Memorial and I was just talking about how reflecting on that generation, that’s a good guide for us today in such a tough year.

Laws: Well it’s interesting that you talked to those blokes. Tell me, you find it easy to talk to most people obviously you’re a very gregarious sort of human being anyway irrespective of being Prime Minister so you don’t have any trouble talking to people that are certainly from a different walk of life and have done different things to your achievements, you don’t have a problem with that?

Prime Minister: I love it and if you don’t love people don’t go into politics that’s the job and that’s the best part of the job whether it’s talking to young kids or old Diggers like those guys you know that’s the great privilege of this job John, you get to meet so many Australians in all walks of life, the good the great and they’re all like that it’s a great privilege.

Laws: When you said you like talking to these people the good, you didn’t include me?

Prime Minister: You go along with that mate, of course of course. It’s good to be on the program again I’m sorry we haven’t spoken for a while and I know you’ve had your own difficulties too mate and I hope you got my letter about Caroline?

Laws: I certainly did get your letter about Caroline and it’s a strange thing to say to the Prime Minister but you’re a very sweet man you’re a very decent fellow and people ought to remember that.

Prime Minister: Well thank you, you’ve had a lot to deal with.

Laws: Well have a good time whatever you’re doing have a good weekend. I suppose you’ve got your sunnies packed and flip flops all ready to go to Hawaii

Prime Minister: I don’t think I’ll be going there for a long time. One of things of this job is you always keep learning you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground and stay humble.

Laws: You’ve got to do that and I am sure you are doing it exceedingly well it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and I hope that we get to talk again. Thank you for your good thoughts about my Caroline.

Prime Minister: Absolutely John, all the best God bless. Bye bye.

Laws: Thanks Scott, bye.