Interview with John Laws, 2SM

08 Feb 2021
Prime Minister

JOHN LAWS: Prime Minister, good morning and welcome to the programme.

PRIME MINISTER: G’day John, good to talk to you and Happy New, first time on the programme.

LAWS: OK, well, is it really? We’ve been neglectful. We should have done it before because it's always good to hear what you've got to say. You're the boss. And Australians care about what you say, they don't care too much about what Craig Kelly says. What your thoughts on Craig Kelly?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we dealt with that last week, I think that got enough oxygen last week.

LAWS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It didn't get oxygen here.

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t know about your programme, but in many other places. So I think we should stick with that.

LAWS: In other words, you're avoiding the question, Prime Minister. That's very unlike you.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm just saying, John, I think, you know, it's very important that we focus on the facts. That's what the Government is doing. And I took some action on that last week and we focused on getting this vaccine rollout and it is exactly as you say, I continue to encourage Australians through the information we're getting out there, the medical advice that we're receiving. I mean, we're seeing already some really good results coming out of places like Israel where there's been, you know, they’ve been able to move very quickly across the whole population. We're seeing some good results there. So it’s promising news, but we're not getting ahead of ourselves. We've been preparing and planning for this inoculation of the country now for some time, getting everything from the vaccination certificates worked out and how that will be delivered,  working with the GPs and the pharmacists and the hospitals and the states. So we’re getting ready to go and it won’t be long now.

LAWS: Well, I'll tell you what, Prime Minister, you're a master at it. You've got me right off Craig Kelly. I need never return again. Listen, you’re very clever that, you know, 10 out of 10, that's very good because you weren’t going to let it get on with the Craig Kelly thing. That's very clever. Good on you, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: It’s important to get the information right, John.

LAWS: That's true. That's very, very important. But the Australian, just before we finally do get underway and I see what you are trying to do. The Australian reported this morning that Craig Kelly has gone on Facebook again about, after reportedly you reprimanded him for his spruiking bogus theories about the treatment of COVID-19. He’s gone back onto Facebook?

PRIME MINISTER: He's not talking about vaccinations, he’s talking about other treatments, but the Chief Medical Officer’s advice to me is clear and only treatments that are approved should be used.

LAWS: You know, we live in a world which is dominated by social media. How dangerous are platforms like Facebook and Twitter to the vaccine rollout? Are they damaging it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they can also be used to help it and[inaudible] pushes the official government sources information out there. And it is important that people only go to the official government sources of the medical advice regarding these things. You know, these are people who have responsibility for outcomes. Every man and his dog can have an opinion. But what matters is those who have accountability of those opinions, and that's the Chief Medical Officer, the Secretary of the Health Department, that's the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Professor Skerritt. These are people who have the trust and responsibility of getting these calls right and that's why we listen to them.

LAWS: If the vaccine rollout is successful, will that mean an absolute return to pre-pandemic lifestyle in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ve got to wait and see. There are two things that the vaccines hopefully address. The first one, we’ve a lot of good evidence on that, and that is it basically deals with the issue of serious illness and fatality. I mean, people die of the flu.

LAWS: Yeah, true.

PRIME MINISTER: But in terms of the increased incidence of fatality, is the increased incidence for serious illness. We know that the vaccine is very effective against that. What we're still waiting for the mail on, is whether it is also preventing it transmitting from one person to the other. Now, we saw some data last week which was very encouraging down that path and so we'll be waiting for a bit more data to come in. It's one of the good things about letting others in some countries where they're in rather desperate situations to have a front row seat to see what they're doing, because if we can prevent the transmission and we can ensure that the virus doesn't have the tools, our ICU departments, the terrible outcomes in aged care facilities or the elderly or the vulnerable population, it's managing the virus and like managing any other virus in the community, and that's where we want to get to. What's not clear yet, John, is how quickly we get to that. That's what we'll be updating very, very regularly. But I'm very hopeful because the early signs are positive.

LAWS: Gladys Berejiklian has called for a specific travel bubble. Will the vaccine allow for opening of international borders to low risk countries?

PRIME MINISTER: We’re [inaudible] with that and she would know from months ago, we opened up to New Zealand and New South Wales was one of the first to go down that path and we are working [inaudible] on countries like Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Fiji and so on, because we also have a lot of seasonal workers, which a lot of your listeners would know about and were really frustrated in not being able to get workers out there in rural Australia. Largely because backpackers aren't here in the same numbers they usually are. And we don't have full confidence yet that they are just going to a complete what's called a green lane as we to New Zealand to be done for those other Pacific countries. But we're working with them to ensure we can just lift that confidence. We’ll be seeking to support them with their testing over there and I hope we can make some real progress on that soon. I'd love to see a Pacific bubble. One of the things I'm concerned about is Australians going there and, you know, we don't we have little, if any, community transmission in Australia. And so the risk of us infecting those Pacific nations, I think has significantly lessened over recent months. If the virus got into one of those Pacific countries, John, as you know, their health systems aren't the same as ours.

LAWS: No, it would go like wildfire.

PRIME MINISTER: It would go through those countries and that would be devastating. I think one of the great successes of COVID in our part of the world is, you know, we're all very concerned about our own indigenous populations here in Australia, our first nation's people and we've been very effective in keeping COVID out of those communities. And in the Pacific, we've been very effective there in Papua New Guinea. They've had more of a challenge. I talk to Prime Minister Marape directly and there are a lot of talent and I think they're doing pretty well.

LAWS: Good. Can the economy survive if JobKeeper comes to an abrupt end in March? I mean, is there some sort to extend the current scheme? I mean, you’ve currently got a strong vote support right across the country. Don't you think it might be a smart idea to get on with an election so we do know where we're going?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, I think Australians see through that sort of stuff, John, as you would have seen over many, many years. The election is due in 2022, we’ve still got a lot to do this year. The most significant things are making sure we come through this pandemic and we get people back into jobs. I mean more than 90 per cent of the jobs that were lost are already back. We've already gone through two changes on JobKeeper and we've seen more people come back into work and the economy strengthened. I'm sure people would agree you can't run the Australian economy on taxpayers money forever. We said it would be temporary, we said it would be proportionate, we said it would be targeted and it was all those things. It saved 700,000 jobs and particularly have kept our airlines in business, which has been very important. But we have always recognised that in terms of sectors, in particular parts of the country, where there is something that can be positively done to alleviate in specific ways that we've never been opposed to that. And we've done things like for travel agents, we put a big programme in $128 million. They had a very specific problem and we sought to address that. But the states have got to do that as well and that's the discussion we had last Friday with the Premiers, that this is something that needs to be done with the states. I mean, I can't run a tax system that says people in one part of the country pay a different rate tax to another part of the country, that's against the Constitution. The states have a lot of flexibility in how they can deliver some of their support and if you add up everything, all the states have done and  I acknowledge particularly New South Wales and Victoria, they've done quite a lot. You add it all up, the Federal Government’s support on these things is more than twice all of the states combined. $251 billion plus, over $20 billion investing in our health systems to combat the pandemic. We've been doing our fair share of the heavy lifting, I think.

LAWS: An editorial was published in the China Daily saying a verbal olive branch from Australia to mend diplomatic relations has been knocked back. Have you heard any official update from the Beijing government?

PRIME MINISTER: There is no agreement to any ministerial level exchanges, you know, not at the price of conceding Australia's sovereignty. But, you know, our position on all of these things is very clear and we've been very upfront about it. We love to be trading and, in fact, we are still trading. I mean, look at prices and volumes coming through our two way trade, but at the same time, we will stand up for what we believe in and we'll have a respectful and an honest relationship between that. But we are just going to ensure that we continue to do that in a way that's consistent with our national interests and obviously we will respect their sovereignty too, but we have to be who we are and will always do that.

LAWS: Do you think we have to treat China with caution?

PRIME MINISTER: I think with the Indo-Pacific, the whole region, you know, this is where we live and there's quite a bit of instability. And you look, you know, down through the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, all of these places. And, you know, China has changed a lot in the last 20 years and particularly in the last five. I mean, most of the increase in our trade with China, particularly a lot of these other commodities, you know, that's really come on only in the last five, seven years and 10 years ago, you know, the volumes of things that were going up there weren't happening. And that's why it's important to ensure we have good diversity of where we're selling what we sell. That's why, you know, we’ll look to conclude those agreements with the United Kingdom and the EU and we've been spending a lot of time on that. That's Dan Tehan’s biggest job at the moment. And I think through this crisis, we've seen Australian companies really start to diversify and not be reliant on any one market. We all know you can get yourself too exposed there that, you know, that comes with a risk. And we all have to manage risk, whether it's in government or in business.

LAWS: Many people suggest, well, not many, but a number of people have suggested to me that we should be frightened of China. Should we be frightened of China?

PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not the approach I take. I think we need to be constructive, aware and know what our values and to pursue them confidently. And, you know, we’re building and have over many years. I mean, we are 70 years this year of the anniversary of the US-Australia, the ANZUS Alliance. They have been an incredibly important partner for us, but also that alliance, which President Biden said to me the other day, you know, is the basis for peace and stability in our region and he's right, and that's why it's so important. I had a conversation with him about that ongoing relationship and how it would continue to affect the stability positively in the region, how we engage with other countries in the region, particularly India and Japan, which is called the Quad and working together. But at the end of the day, we would just like to see the Indo-Pacific go on and get along and trade with each other and respect the peace and democracy and freedom of peoples. And that's our simple, honest objective.

LAWS: OK, I am aware you have more important interviews to do.

PRIME MINISTER: I’m on my way to Williamtown, John.

LAWS: That’s good. That's a good part of the world. But very quickly, China is reportedly planning to build a city on Daru Island. Now, does that pose a threat to Australia's national interests?

PRIME MINISTER: I file that under speculation. I mean, lots of noises get made around these sorts of things. I speak pretty regularly to the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, and we have a very good relationship. And he well understands, you know, our relationship and the importance of our other partners and I couldn't see Papua New Guinea being terribly hasty on anything like that. We'll work closely together with them and many other issues. I mean, the fisheries, I mean, I had the meeting with all the Pacific leaders last week and one of the biggest deals for them is their fisheries and they talk about themselves as blue countries. I visit the Asian countries. They’re massive on that scale, the land is very small. Protecting the fisheries is incredibly important to them as a source of revenue and sustaining them and that's why we, you know, we've built and provided the patrol boats and we support them in policing their fisheries, and that's been very effective and they're very grateful the support Australia gives them to protect their livelihoods. And it's why we're working with them also in countries to ensure we're not dumping plastics in their oceans, which can kill their fish. It's just a very practical thing.

LAWS: It is. But particularly back to the Daru thing. Could you do anything to prevent it [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, John, I honestly think it is so, it is just speculative. It is just, you know, people flying kites. And I'm not going to overreact to the noise that is flying around out there. These things happen from time to time. There's nothing substantial before anybody on that.

LAWS: OK. Well, it's as usual been a pleasure talking to you, Prime Minister. You're always very generous with your time to us for which we're very grateful. I hope you have a good day.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, John. Always great to talk to you. Look forward to doing it again soon.

LAWS: Thank you very much indeed. Prime Minister Scott Morrison.