Interview with Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon, Today Show

Transcript
04 May 2021
Prime Minister
E&OE

Karl Stefanovic: PM, good morning to you. Do you have blood on your hands?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it's obviously absurd. What we're doing here is we've got a temporary pause in place because we've seen a rapid escalation in the infection rate of people who have travelled out of India. That is putting enormous pressure on our system. And we need to ensure that we can bring people safely home from India. It's a pause until May 15. We're reviewing it regularly. This ensures that we can get the infection rates down, which is as much as 85 per cent up in Howard Springs. It's increased overall from around 10 per cent of cases to over 50 per cent of cases. We've seen a much higher rise in the infection rate in people coming off planes, one in eight out of our most recent charters that have come out. That means we need to have a pause. We also needed to ensure that people were not coming back through third countries, places like Doha, Dubai and places like that. The alternative to these arrangements was stopping those flights altogether, which would have meant that people coming back from many other places wouldn't have been able to come home. So this is about getting more people home safely, preventing a third wave here in Australia, and ensuring that the 2000 bed facility that it escalates to this month in Howard Springs, our national resilience facility, will be in a position to take those additional charter flights after the 15th of May. And we can bring people home safely. This is one of the hard decisions you've got to take in COVID to keep Australians safe. That's what we're doing. Australia has a very good record, and I intend for us to maintain the protection of Australia to bring Australians home safely.

Allison Langdon: The problem you have here, Prime Minister, the optics of threatening your own people with jail and huge fines is not a good one.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are the tools that we have available to us under the Biosecurity Act. They will be used responsibly and proportionately. These laws have been in place under the Biosecurity Act and the measures been in place for 14 months. No one's going to jail. They've been used very judiciously to protect Australia. That's what they're there for. And so I don't think it would be fair to suggest that these penalties in their most extreme forms are likely to be imposed anywhere. This is a way to ensure that we can prevent the virus coming back and it starting a third wave here in Australia. That would have devastating impacts on our country. So we've already brought some 20,000 people from India back through facilitated and repatriation flights from the Commonwealth Government. Bringing them through our quarantine facilities. We're going to keep doing that. We're going to keep bringing back people safely from India, but we have to do it in a way that won't subject the rest of the country to seeing a third wave of COVID. And so it's a temporary measure. Anyone who's outside of India and haven’t been through India for more than 14 days, they can still come back from those other places. But it's a 14 day exclusion period and then people can return. And by the 15th of May, I'm confident we'll be in a position to start resuming those repatriation flights and getting people home safely.

Stefanovic: It's not getting any better in India. In fact, it's getting worse. And jailing and fining returning Aussies. I mean, as a sitting Prime Minister, it's incredibly heartless.

PRIME MINISTER: Well Karl, as I've said, I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero. This is a measure which ensures that we can keep Australia safe at this time and we can get more Australians back safely. I mean, frankly, if we do not put these measures in place and we saw the rates of increase of the virus coming through on these flights, putting stress on our quarantine system, breaking out across the country and seeing a third wave, then equally you would have told me, pretty bluntly I suspect, that I'd failed Australia. So I'm not going to fail Australia. I'm going to protect our borders at this time. We'll use the measures we have available. We'll use them compassionately and fairly and responsibly, as we have demonstrated for more than a year, where these sorts of penalties and fines have already been in place to protect Australia. So we'll do that. We'll keep Australia safe during this and we'll bring back home people safely, which we’ll be able to do from the 15th of May, and thereafter. If we didn't do this, it would seriously jeopardise our ability to do that over the longer term. So we're acting now to ensure that we can do more over a longer period of time for those who remain in India.

Langdon: Okay, so to be clear, you're now saying that no one will go to jail or be fined. Is that right?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it's highly unlikely, highly unlikely. In the same way that these powers at the most extreme end have not been used for those sorts of sanctions in the entire time we've had these biosecurity regulations in place. So I think people need to look at this in perspective. That's certainly how we'll be administering it, in perspective. And that's certainly the understanding the Border Force and the other enforcement agencies have. But it's important that we don't see people coming back to Australia until the 15th of May from third countries. I mean, the alternative, Ally, was that we had to close those flights coming from Dubai and from Doha, where we've got hundreds of people, if not thousands, seeking to come home to Australia. So it's a difficult decision. There have been a lot of difficult decisions during COVID and people will criticise me and my government for it. But Australians are living in a way like very few in the world today, and there's a reason for that. It's because the government has shown the resilience and has shown the foresightedness to take decisions like when we shut the borders to China, people criticised me for that too. They've criticised me for many things. But the truth is that Australia now is leading the world out of the COVID-19 pandemic and out of the COVID-19 recession. We're in the enviable position, an enviable position, and I intend for Australians to keep succeeding.

Stefanovic: So if an Australian citizen was to touch down in Australia today and they've been in India, you'd not fine them? You wouldn't throw them in jail as opposed to what you've been saying for the last few days?

PRIME MINISTER: I would expect the Australian Border Force officials, Karl, to deal with the issue sensitively and within their authorities. But I'm not going to tie their hands about how they do that. But they understand the way that these issues have been managed all the way through this pandemic.

Stefanovic: I don't understand …

PRIME MINISTER: I think it's important not to sensationalise this …

Stefanovic: But that's a change in your rhetoric …

PRIME MINISTER: [inaudible] No, it isn't, Karl …

Stefanovic: It is [inaudible] …

PRIME MINISTER: These are the exact instructions I gave to Border Force when we put this …

Stefanovic: [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm sorry, Karl. I know what the order said because I worked on it with the Chief Medical Officer and the Health Minister. And I spoke to the Home Affairs Minister at the time. These arrangements have always been dealt with responsibly and proportionately. And that's what I'm expecting from Border Force officials. I've said the likelihood of any sanction, anything like that, is extremely remote and that's what it is.

Stefanovic: Okay, so we have had a shift, there is no doubt about that. I think most Australians …

PRIME MINISTER: No, Karl. We haven't had a shift. How you're reporting it is a shift.

Stefanovic: I'm sorry, didn't you have a press conference over the weekend where you stipulated that Australians coming home, if they violated that rule, would be thrown in jail or fined, did you not? Did you not say that?

PRIME MINISTER: I didn't have a press conference at all on the weekend.

Langdon: Your Ministers did, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: We put in place a Biosecurity Act change which the Minister held, and he did that. And, of course, those sanctions are available, but they're not sanctions that I believe the Border Force would reasonably apply in, I think, the foreseeable circumstances. What we want, Karl, is for people who have been in India in the last 14 days to not make their way back to Australia, at this present time, because it puts Australia at risk. This is what you have to do to keep Australia safe during COVID, Karl. And that's we're doing responsibly, in a proportionate way, consistent with the medical advice from Australia's Chief Medical Officer.

Stefanovic: I get all that. I think keeping Australians safe is vital, but the whole rhetoric around locking them up or fining them was off. And why isn't our quarantine system up to the challenge?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the quarantine system has proved one of the most effective, if not the most effective in the world, Karl. I mean, we have a 99.99 per cent success rate of containing the virus within our quarantine system and at Howard Springs, the national facility funded by the Commonwealth Government to the tune of some half a billion dollars, has a 100 per cent success rate. But you don't achieve those success rates without ensuring that you manage the risk appropriately. And that's what we're doing. We are in the middle of a raging global pandemic. I think we need a bit of a reality check here, Karl. Just because we can put 100,000 people at the 'G to watch the footy doesn't mean that the pandemic has gone away. I know how serious it is, and I take my decisions very seriously to keep Australians safe. And I want Australians to keep living that way. And so I'm going to take decisions that keep Australians safe, that are proportionate and act with the appropriate support for Australians to get them home as soon as we possibly can. We've already brought 20,000 Australians home from India. Many of those, some of them have gone over there for work, and they're seeking to come home now. I just thank them for their patience and ask for their understanding to ensure that we can continue to bring them home safely again after this two week pause.

Langdon: But Prime Minister if we've had to stop these flights from India that says that our quarantine system isn't coping, that it's not up to the challenge.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm sorry, Ally, what it means is, is that what we're seeing in India, even in COVID terms, is unprecedented. And so, you know, every system is going to face its stresses and I'm not going to break the system. What I'm going to do is take proportionate action to protect that system so I can bring more Australians home and keep Australians, keep Australia safe for the longer term. The pandemic isn't going anywhere. We need to keep these systems in place to ensure we protect Australia for quite a time to come. And to do that, you've got to make calls like this. I appreciate that many Australians will feel uncomfortable about it. It was an uncomfortable decision for us to take. Not an easy one, but it's one that we believe is necessary in Australia's national interest.

Stefanovic: PM, you're in Rockhampton this morning, at Beef Week. As we can hear behind you, there's an awful lot of bull. You have an important announcement on the agricultural sector though?

PRIME MINISTER: We do, biosecurity and other border protection issues. $370 million. This is for 3D X-ray scanners. It's for additional screening equipment and specific funds to combat African swine flu. I mean, we all know about what's happening with COVID. Our agricultural sector, whether it's with pests or those that can get into our crops, those that can come and take out our livestock industry. We need to combat those as well. Border protection is about a lot of things. But here in the agricultural sector and here in Beef Week, here in Rockhampton, which the resilience of our agricultural sector, our regional communities, has been outstanding. It's great to be here with them today. But to invest in their future, we need to invest in our biosecurity for our agricultural industries, whether it's our livestock or our crops. And this additional investment will be in next week's Budget is there to strengthen that ring of containment, to protect Australia's agricultural producers and ensure they can continue to produce and export the best quality produce anywhere in the world.

Stefanovic: Prime Minister -

Langdon: Thank you for your time this morning.