Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

20 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

Kieran Gilbert: Why is the ANZUS alliance important to mark this 70th anniversary which of course, has been ticked off this month? 

Prime Minister: Because it is the bedrock of our safety and security in this part of the world. It has guaranteed our safety for 70 years. It is the foundational principle, the foundation platform that the US has acknowledged in my discussion with President Biden the other day, he also referred to as the bedrock of stability here in the Indo-Pacific and for Australia, importantly, it enables us to move forward with confidence, to be able to plan for our future. Knowing that partnering with the United States in a positive way within our region creates a more stable, safer and more secure region where we can engage with countries in our region. We can trade, we can do all of these things. It provides that balance. It provides that stability. It provides that shelter under which all of us in Australia live. 

Gilbert: Can we rely on the United States, particularly in the current climate of a more inward looking approach? 

Prime Minister: Oh, absolutely. See, I've never doubted the alliance. And, you know, a lot is said, a lot of criticisms are made of the United States. I've heard them all. Oh this is them gone this time. This is them gone. And you know what? Look, they're an amazing nation and they're a resilient nation. And they're a nation that is innovative, that believes passionately in freedom. I mean, the very peace that we've had since the Second World War, all of the institutions that maintain that were actually established by the visionaries in the United States after the Second World War. And that architecture, the rule of law, all of these things that is applied through all the institutions, provides the certainty in which we live right now. The United States is a determined nation, a great friend of Australia. And I don't think that, certainly in my mind, is ever in question.

Gilbert: You spoke to President Biden as you mentioned, and there are plans for face to face talks. 

Prime Minister: Yes. 

Gilbert: How important is it for leaders to build a rapport in this alliance framework? 

Prime Minister: Oh, look, it's very important. It brings together all the things that happen behind the scenes at various levels of the relationship. We've seen it most recently in relationship with the United Kingdom for example, and the securing of the free trade agreement there. At the end of the day, Boris and I had to sit in a room over some lamb and crunch the deal.

Gilbert: You did have a very good rapport with Donald Trump, they rolled out the red carpet for you at the White House. Are we seeing at the moment with, I think of the Pfizer requests that they really haven't been that helpful, it was the UK that helped us, not the US, is that partly because the Biden administration hasn't yet warmed to us? 

Prime Minister: No. No. 

Gilbert: So what's your view on that? 

Prime Minister: My view is that the United States, together with Japan, ourselves, India in the Quad relationship in so many other ways, is carrying a huge burden in terms of getting vaccines right across the developing world. And that's where so much of their focus is. And so no, I didn't read that in, read anything into that at all, because we continue to work on so many other issues together that are so critical to us here in the Indo-Pacific. Our national security interests, the security of our region. We've had tremendous support from them in the region on some of the more contentious issues here. And they have not been at all backward in coming and supporting our strong positions here about our own sovereignty and about our own security. They've been a faithful friend. 

Gilbert: Has the mission in Afghanistan been a failure? Has it reduced the American prestige internationally? 

Prime Minister: No, I don't believe so, ultimately. I understand that view in the moment. Of course I do. I mean, it has been a terrible, terrible episode in that engagement coming to an end. It's not clear to me how it was ever going to come to an end in any markedly different way, if we're really honest about it. We were there for 20 years. We were there for the right reasons. We were there to deny Osama bin Laden a base from which to operate. The Americans had been very clear all those years ago. Hand him over. The Taliban said no. So we turned up with our American friends and many others and, and got that job done. After that occurred, though, the situation changed, a great vacuum had been created in Afghanistan and we were all there and sought over many, many years to make a failed state a successful one. Now, many have tried that in the past in that part of the world, and they've also not seen a great deal of success. But I do know this, for 20 years, that threat of global terror that was able to base itself out of Afghanistan was denied. And the countries and there are many, well not too many, that really enabled the Taliban and others, were not any actions of the United States, quite the contrary, but those who gave safe harbour and comfort to the Taliban, and that is, that is a great tragedy. 

Gilbert: Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron argued, apparently at the G7 emergency talks around Afghanistan, that they wanted the deadline extended. Were you on the same page as them on that? Would you have liked more time? 

Prime Minister: Of course, and communicated that in support of their position at the time. But ultimately, that was always going to be a function of the security situation on the ground. I have no doubt that if the United States were able to extend that and to provide more time to get people out, then they would have done so. But the security of the situation on the ground did not lend itself to that. And we know that quite, quite tragically, the suicide bomber at the Abbey Gate that took 13 American lives. I mean, that is just such a tragedy that at those very last hours, while American soldiers were trying to provide a path to freedom for people, they were met with that terror. Now, Australians had been there not that long before, not that long before. And so the US presence there over the course of that evacuation, 4,100 people we were able to airlift out of there in a very, very dangerous situation. I remember at the start of this operation, saying to the team, we need to go as quickly as we can and as safely as we can because we don't know how many days we're going to have. And that's exactly what they did. And they did a terrific job and saved thousands and thousands of lives. 

Gilbert: What message does this vacuum now, essentially vacuum of US authority certainly, an allied authority in that part of the world, say to China and other rivals internationally, in terms of potentially them stepping in to fill that void and have greater influence in countries like Afghanistan, particularly in this context? 

Prime Minister: Well, I think what you're seeing is a shift in US thinking and US policy as to where their major focus in the world is. And it's right here. It's right here in the Indo-Pacific. I mean, we've seen the focus of US attention shift over the years. I mean, immediately after the Second World War building those great international institutions, the rebuilding of Europe, the rebuilding of Japan, the Marshall Plan, all of this, it was an extraordinary achievement in world reconstruction that the US led. Their attention then moved more towards the Middle East over the time we've been talking about. And at the same time we've seen the US achieve something they had been seeking to do since the time of Nixon, and that was to achieve energy security, which they have now done. The US is now very focused on the Indo-Pacific. And that is very important for Australia. That is very much in Australia's national interest, very much in our interests. And it's something that we have long encouraged, and I have particularly encouraged. 

Gilbert: In the context of that and in the context of your talks with Quad leaders, explain to us the importance of the Quad to the Indo-Pacific and to regional security, if you can. 

Prime Minister: Look, first of all, it's a positive initiative to ensure the Indo-Pacific can realise its goals. Australia has a wonderful relationship with the ASEAN countries, and we've always seen the operation of the Quad as serving that ASEAN vision. Enabling ASEAN. That's why at our first leaders meeting, we were talking about vaccine deployment. We were talking about energy technologies and how that can assist developing countries achieve their economic goals, but also their climate goals. And we've talked about critical technologies as well. So there is, you know, we've focused on things like the Mekong region and so on. The Quad is a positive influence in the region that is more than about defence and security, but it is about enabling the independence and sovereignty of the Indo-Pacific region. Freedom of movement, through the seas, through the air, all of this which enables the Indo-Pacific region to be successful in the future. It's the most dynamic region in the world. And there are countries, our friends, our neighbours, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, so many countries that we want to see realise their future. Now, the Quad is a great partner. It's a positive partner. It's not a partner that is to the exclusion of others. It is a partner that is designed to help the Indo-Pacific prosper. And, you know, when the Indo-Pacific prospers, so does Australia. 

Gilbert: Now, we've spoken about the cooperation with the United States and the very strong links that we have for military to business, people to people links and so on. There is a point of difference that we have at the moment between the Biden administration, certainly in terms of their emphasis on climate, it’s one of their, their biggest foreign policy.

Prime Minister: Quite different from the last administration too.

Gilbert: It's been quite a shift, it’s been a shift, no doubt about that. What's your view at the moment in the lead up to COP, the climate talks in Glasgow about Joe Biden and his Administration’s wish, hope, urging that we are more ambitious? 

Prime Minister: Well, first of all, Australia is achieving. That's the first point that I often make, that Australia is achieving even more than the United States when it comes to this. 20 per cent fall in emissions. Our uptake of rooftop solar, our investments in renewables they outstrip so many countries around the world. So we're on the path. We're on the path, and we're part of the solution. And the solution is importantly about this. If we want to ensure that we live in a new energy economy where net zero is achieved around the world, that is only going to happen if the technologies that enable that are at a critical mass all around the world. It's not good enough and we must strive to achieve these. That's why we've embarked on our energy technology plan to transform our energy economy here in Australia so we can meet these net zero goals into the future. But that's not enough. Unless it works in Indonesia, in Vietnam, in China, in India, well, we don't, we don’t achieve the goal. And so the way that will be delivered is if we can ensure that this technology is scalable, affordable and practical in all of those countries. When we've got hydrogen being used in Indonesia, when we've got carbon capture use and storage technologies being employed in Vietnam for their power stations, when we are achieving that in all of those countries, because it makes economic sense for them to do it, then we know we're making progress. And that's my message. And that's where I think the world needs to [inaudible]. 

Gilbert: They also want you to be more ambitious, in terms of targets. 

Prime Minister: Well, our ambition won't be a problem because we achieve our ambition. You know, ambitions are fine so long as you achieve them. And every single mark we've hit, we've met. We've set, we've met. And we'll continue to do that. We understand that the energy economy is changing and it'll change massively over the next 30 years. And I intend for Australia to be successful and in the middle and driving key elements of that new energy economy. And that will be great for Australian regions. But it will also be great for our partners, because whether it's in Indonesia or Vietnam or anywhere else, we want to ensure that they're on the same path. Because otherwise, what we're saying to the developing world is this, well we just want to pay you to sit home and do nothing. No, those countries deserve to have jobs. They deserve to have an economic future fuelled by a clean energy economy, which we want to be part of and help them establish commercially so they're sustainable. They deserve that. They're our friends. And if they're successful, well, so will we be. 

Gilbert: Prime Minister Scott Morrison, I appreciate your time, thanks.

Prime Minister: Thanks Kieran.