Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

12 May 2021
Prime Minister

KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning, Prime Minister. If I handed these numbers to you in the middle of last year when unemployment was forecast to be 15 per cent, what would you have said to me? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I would say that that would have been heroic, that we would have achieved what Australians have achieved. I want to stress that, Kieran. This is what Australians have achieved. The fact that there are more people in work today than there was before the pandemic. The fact that if we had gone down the path of so many other countries. In the OECD, the average fatality rate from COVID would have seen 30,000 more people perish here in Australia. And that we can stand here today, that you can put 100,000 people in the G, that we can talk of the jobs growth in this country, which has seen all of those people getting back into work. This is a great testament to the spirit of the Australian people and this Budget, which is a recovery plan. It's about securing that recovery. This all could be lost. This all can be forsaken if we can't continue to do what is needed to keep our economy on track. 

GILBERT: There was some scepticism about the idea of a bounce back. This is a massive bounce back.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is. It's V shape. There's no doubt about that. But we can't be complacent about it and that's my point. We're seeing Europe going into a double dip recession. We're seeing the wave of the pandemic now moving to an even more intensive, fierce phase as we've seen it roar through the developed world. It is now absolutely horrifically and heartbreakingly destroying the developing world. We're seeing what's happening in India. We'll see how that goes through other developing countries. We're seeking to do everything we can to support them. But this is a deadly pandemic, and I'm afraid we're still in the midst of it.

GILBERT: Given how well we've done, though, could you have moved more quickly to try and repair the Budget? Still deficits out to 2031-32. 

PRIME MINISTER: We’re still in the pandemic and in a pandemic, you need to throw everything at it to ensure you bring Australians through. I mean, our pandemic recovery plan now, it's over $300 billion that we've already invested, including what was invested last night. And it is about the rebuilding. It's about the infrastructure, of course. But we've moved past the immediate emergency phase and now we're into that recovery phase. So you're investing in skills. You're investing in infrastructure. You're investing in our response to the digital economy. But you're also guaranteeing essential services that Australians need, mental health, a very good example. Not only incredibly important for people's own wellbeing, but mental health has been nominated time and time again by the Productivity Commission as one of the key factors holding back productivity in this country and boosting our economy. So there's a double dividend there from what is a record level of investment in mental health support in this country.

GILBERT: You were one of the key members, I remember very vividly as the Treasurer, then trying to repair the Budget. How does it, as you now PM and delivering this Budget, it's such a huge turnaround from those days talking about the need to rein things in. And now as far as the eye can see, it is deficits. 

PRIME MINISTER: I’m glad we did what we did. I'm glad we got the Budget back to balance before the pandemic hit. I'm glad we did all that work that put Australia in a position to be able to respond in the way that we have, which now means Australia is a position which is basically the envy of the world. Now, that is because of what Australians have done and how our Budget support has enabled Australians to carry this country through and we're going to keep doing that. We can't turn back from that. We can't go down an alternative path. We'll spend responsibly. But we have to spend to ensure that we keep this recovery on track. I mean, JobKeeper is a good example. The single biggest economic support the country has ever seen. We announced it just over here. You were there, but we also knew when to turn it off. See, in our Government, we know when to do it and we know when to stop it. And right now we need to keep leaning in, particularly with infrastructure and skills and the digital economy and workforce support. All of this needs to continue so our recovery can continue.

GILBERT: Your investment in aged care and you spoke about skills because there's this disconnect, isn't there? We've got the unemployment rate coming down, which is fantastic. But we've got these cricks in the Budget, the economy, where there are labour shortages. So how do you fill those jobs with youth unemployment remains a big problem. How do you connect one to the other?

PRIME MINISTER: You spend more than $2 billion on training in this Budget. You create another 170,000 apprentices. You remove the blockages that are preventing young people getting into work with foundational skills training. You ensure you have programmes for people to be trained in things like digital literacy, digital skills. You're training people in the care workforce. 

GILBERT: You boost the wages too, don’t you?

PRIME MINISTER: All of these things will be driven by a stronger economy at the end of the day. But the record funding we're putting into aged care, $17.7 billion, the over $3 billion we're putting into, you know, into skills training and all these sorts of things right across the board. I mean, these are important investments to ensure that we can secure this recovery. Because at the end of the day, that's what this Budget is about. What’s this Budget about? Securing the recovery because the recovery we cannot take for granted. We cannot take where we've got to as a country over these last 18 months for granted. And the only thing I'm fighting is the pandemic to secure people's health and to secure their jobs.

GILBERT: Your mind’s not turning to the election just yet by the sounds of it. 

PRIME MINISTER: No, I mean, because this pandemic is raging. And as Prime Minister-

GILBERT:  But if you look at this, you could run to an election on this. 

PRIME MINISTER: People who focus on politics will do that. But as Prime Minister, I have to focus on the pandemic and Australians out there, that's what they're focused on. They worried about their jobs. They're worried about their health. They’re worried about their family members who are struggling with mental health or struggling with putting their family into residential aged care. And what I have to do is give them confidence that there is a plan and there is because that plan is working, the plan is working. What we're doing in this country is working and we have to keep doing it.

GILBERT: There's a paradox at the heart of the Budget, though, isn't there? Because you've got this huge windfall from iron ore. China continues to hoover up our resources and is our best customer. Yet we've got this tension, this geopolitical tension on the other side of things. Can you cool that down, is that possible?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you're right to highlight that COVID is not the only challenge Australia faces. Not only that, natural disasters. And in this Budget, as you know, there's a very big plan to support Australians to deal with natural disasters and climate change and things like this. But importantly, we're living in a very uncertain region, and that's why we're investing in our intelligence and our security and our cyber security and our defences and all of these things.

GILBERT: What about diplomacy?

PRIME MINISTER: We've invested heavily in that as well. And we will continue to be Australians, stand up for what we believe in, counter any sort of threats that might arise in our region. But what is our goal? Peace. What is our goal? Trade. What is our goal? Prosperity for our region and sovereignty for every single country that exists within our region. And at the end of the day, we'll always stand up for a liberal democratic principle, we’ll always stand up for a world order that favours freedom.

GILBERT: It's just an interesting paradox because you’ve got your best customer, but also an increasingly assertive, right?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a complex and it's a challenging world. But what's also important, I think, to reflect on, Kieran, is that we have to maintain a strong economy to ensure that we can deal with these challenges. I mean, in this Budget, aged care, mental health, support right across the board in services that Australians rely on every single day. The National Disability Insurance Scheme, all of that is only made possible if we can ensure that the economic recovery that we're pursuing and achieving as a nation is secured into the future. 

GILBERT: Prime Minister, there's a commitment to an mRNA facility. How far away would that be? I know it's a commercial in confidence negotiations, but are we talking within a year?

PRIME MINISTER: No, look, I think those sort of capabilities are very significant ones. I mean, a year ago, mRNA vaccines are being used as vaccines more broadly. It was almost seen as science fiction. And here we are a year later. And so in this Budget, and mRNA vaccines, this won't just be important for COVID. This will be important for vaccines more generally right across the spectrum. And so we will establish that capacity here in this country. We will do it as soon as we possibly can. We already, as a priority, put in place the vaccination capability manufacturing here in Australia that is ensuring that more than 10 per cent of our eligible adult population is vaccinated right now. We're not relying on those overseas vaccines for AstraZeneca and, importantly, we’ll be moving to ensure that Australia has a sovereign capability on mRNA vaccines. But a sovereign capability across a whole range of secure supply chains is needed to drive our economy into the future. 

GILBERT: Prime Minister, just finally, the one cut that I did notice in the Budget is for foreign aid. Given we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world and as you rightly said, this V-shaped recovery, we're doing great. Why don't we turn our attention more to foreign aid. We’re the third lowest in the OECD according to analysis done in the last couple of weeks by the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD.

PRIME MINISTER: We continue to increase our support, particularly we're doing that here in our region. I mean, what we've done in our foreign aid budget is we're focused here on our Pacific family and we're focused on vaccinations here and supporting the capacity to deliver those vaccinations. We're focused on Papua New Guinea, on Indonesia, on the ASEAN countries of our region. I've been in constant contact with leaders across particularly our part of the world and all of them are incredibly, incredibly appreciative of the strong role Australia has played, particularly here in our region. Now, we're very concerned about what's happening in Papua New Guinea with COVID. But when you look across the rest of the Pacific family, they are not seeing, they are not seeing the infiltration of COVID like we're seeing in many other parts of the world. And that is in significant part because of the ongoing support that we're providing.

GILBERT: Hopefully that continues.

PRIME MINISTER: I certainly hope so.

GILBERT: I very much appreciate your time. Thanks.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Kieran.