Interview with Leigh Sales, 7.30

Transcript
12 May 2021
Prime Minister
E&OE

LEIGH SALES: Thank you for your time, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: G'day Leigh.

SALES: Your Budget priority is creating jobs and spending on things like aged care and child care with money that comes from economic growth. But how can you do any of it when growth depends on a concrete path for getting out of COVID and there are no firm targets for vaccination and no plan for how international borders can reopen without arduous quarantine?

PRIME MINISTER: We've got to keep doing what works, Leigh, and that's why this Budget is a plan to secure Australia's recovery. Already we've seen Australia achieve remarkable things over the course of this pandemic. Already we have achieved together as Australians the situation where more people are in work today - 13.1 million - than were in work prior to the pandemic, some 13 million. And that is done in concert with managing the health impacts of COVID, where if we'd had the OECD average of fatalities in this country, relating to COVID, 30,000 more Australians would have perished as a, as a result of this pandemic. This is what we've achieved already. So this Budget is about securing that recovery, that is already under way, but it's about moving from the emergency response measures like JobKeeper and the cash flow support and all of this which has got us to this point, and now moving into the next phase of recovery …

SALES: But as I point out … 

PRIME MINISTER: … which is the incentives for taxation, the incentives for skills development, and putting the investment through businesses that creates those jobs into the future …

SALES: But as I point out, Prime Minister …

PRIME MINISTER: … The Federal Government is stepping up to ensure that we can secure this recovery, as we go ahead.

SALES: As I point out, Prime Minister, all of that is predicated on vaccination and borders. Let's unpack each of those things separately. Vaccinations first. What level of herd immunity is your Budget banking on by the end of this year? In other words, what percentage of Australians will be vaccinated or will have had COVID?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's nothing as precise as that, as the Budget papers say themselves …

SALES: You must have some modelling or forecasts?

PRIME MINISTER: No, what the Budget papers say is that there's a general assumption of a vaccination program likely to be in place and there by the end of this year. And, but what that means, Leigh, is that there is an understanding that over the course of this year the vaccination program will continue to roll out, and will reach as many Australians as we possibly can that want to have that vaccine. And that progress is achieving, at this point in time, some three million Australians by the end of this week will have received that vaccination. It's had its problems, particularly due to the lack of vaccine access from overseas at the start of the vaccination program. And then, of course, the medical advice that we had on AstraZeneca which contained that vaccination to over 50s. So it's certainly had its shocks.

SALES: That's right, Prime Minister. But we are at just over 10 per cent of the population. The US has vaccinated 45 per cent, the UK 53 per cent, Israel 60 per cent. You'd now need to be vaccinating 200,000 Australians daily to get as many people as you'd like to have done by the end of the year. Currently we're doing fewer than a quarter of that. How has the Government fumbled this so badly when everything relies on it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, the comparisons you make are to countries where the choice of vaccination was to vaccinate or have serious illness or die. That was the emergency situation the countries that you've referred to …

SALES: … But that could happen here any time.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my comparison is to countries like New Zealand and to Canada which is also going through a terrible place at the moment. Japan, South Korea, where Australia's vaccination program is proceeding at a much faster pace than at the same stage of their programs when you make that comparison.

SALES: Does the buck stop with you on the success or otherwise of the vaccine rollout?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, everything stops with me. I'm the Prime Minister at the end of the day. And so that's why we focus so hard on getting our general practitioners involved in the rollout of this vaccination program, and they're doing a great job. From next Monday they will have more doses. From next Monday they, we have brought forward the vaccination program for over 50s and we had 400,000 people get vaccinated in the past week. Our strongest week yet. And we're going to continue to see more Australians get that vaccination. But I want to stress this, Leigh, because you've raised the point about the assumption. The Budget rests on many things. And when it comes to the vaccination program, it does, it is important that we get this done. But what is in this Budget does not rely on that solely or even completely. The vaccination program, as it's set out in the Budget papers, just assumes that it's likely that this will be in place by the end of the year. But that could happen with two doses, one dose. It could be many months either side of that and that will not have a material impact on what is in this Budget, and it would be a mistake to think that it did.

SALES: In a speech on March the 9th, you said that with sufficient vaccine we can move to treating COVID like the regular flu. What will that look like?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is ideal. But what would be necessary in that environment is there would need to be a tolerance in this country, particularly at state and territory levels, that where you were getting cases in this country, because if you start to open up, if you start to have those controls relaxed, then you can expect to see large numbers of cases in this country, even with the vaccination program [inaudible]. In the United States right now, Leigh, there's …

SALES: Well a lot of comparison, Prime Minister, sorry …

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, you're interrupting. I'll let you go. 

SALES: I just want to keep it in Australia. If you look at pre-COVID numbers from the regular flu in Australia from the Bureau of Statistics - 2019, 4,000 Australians dead, that's deaths, not cases. 2018 - 3,000 deaths, 2017 - 2,000 deaths from the regular flu. Are political leaders going to have to have an honest conversation with Australians about what living with risk looks like?

PRIME MINISTER: That's exactly the conversation that Australia's government leaders are having through the National Cabinet. That is exactly the process that I tasked through the National Cabinet over a month ago, and our chief medical advisers are going through that process to understand that as we speak right now. And that's why we are having the conversation about how you can have gradual changes in how these restrictions operate. For example, if you're vaccinated with approved vaccines in Australia, whether you can travel and return to Australia and you can go into some form of home quarantine. Now, at this point there is not advice to support that, but I note in New South Wales the Treasurer there has been open to that idea. So I think they're important, they're important next steps and I've been saying that consistently. But understand this, Leigh …

SALES: Well on that point, Prime Minister, on that point, sorry on that point, because you raised quarantine, you raised quarantine, that's the other pillar of the Budget, international borders. The assumptions for the middle of next year. So if an Australian wants to go and visit their son or daughter in London say in July of next year, will they be allowed to do so without having to do the two weeks quarantine on return?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's impossible for me to say at this point, Leigh. I think, we need to understand …

SALES: Is that your goal, though?

PRIME MINISTER: It's impossible for me to make those sorts of predictions in the middle of a global pandemic, the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years. I can fully understand why people want greater certainty but I can only provide the certainty that is available. And what we've been doing is being careful, being led by the medical advice, being led by the economic advice. And that has got Australia where we are right now. And let's not forget, Leigh, that today 300 people are dying in the United States, 300 people. That's what's happening in other countries around the world. That's what was happening in the UK not that long ago. This is what's happening across India, as the pandemic rages around the world. And we can't sit here complacently thinking that this cannot have a serious impact on Australia …

SALES: … So given that …

PRIME MINISTER: … which is why, Leigh, the Budget is all about securing the recovery and a plan to do that because that recovery is at risk …

SALES: … So if you need to …

PRIME MINISTER: … It is at risk if we get these decisions not as they should be. And that's, our Government is getting those decisions right.

SALES: So if, if you need to secure that recovery and if you need to manage that risk, shouldn't there be some more budgeting there for federal quarantine? You're going to need more than the 2,000 spaces that you have.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, in the Budget, I can tell you, you can go to page 107 of the Budget and you can read there that $487 million is provided over two years to expand quarantine services …

SALES: … To how many places? …

PRIME MINISTER: … And they're the ones in the Northern Territory. That's to 2,000 places, Leigh …

SALES: … But I just made the point, you're going to need more than that 2,000?

PRIME MINISTER: Well this is why we're talking to the Victorian Government even now, and they've put forward a very constructive proposal …

SALES: You don't have a line item in the Budget for that.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, what we've got, I've just told you …

SALES: Not for the Victorian project. That's the Northern Territory. That's the Northern Territory.

PRIME MINISTER: Well when we work through the details of that project, Leigh, we only received it not that long ago. And what I'm telling you is we've always been very open to constructive and comprehensive suggestions because we're working in partnership with the states and territories. The quarantine system has served Australia very well and it has to be backed up by the testing and tracing regimes with those rings of containment. And that's why Australia has been so successful.

SALES: On the point about working with the states and territories, does the buck stop with you on the effectiveness of quarantine?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, they are state public health orders that they're enforcing. And at the National Cabinet …

SALES: … But it is a federal responsibility?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, I'm sorry, they are state public health orders. That's what they are, Leigh, and states are responsible for public health, and that's why the quarantine is done on the basis of those state public health orders. We took this through National Cabinet over a year ago and the states and territories agreed that that was the best way to put this in place and give it effect, and at a 99.99 per cent effective rate for our hotel quarantine, and particularly when it's backed up, when inevitable occasional breaches occur, then the testing and the tracing regime is able to contain that. And we've seen that on many occasions. And again, that's why in this country we're living like few countries in the world today, and we need to preserve that. And that's why we need a Budget that we announced last night that does preserve that and can secure through our plan the economic recovery that otherwise would be at risk.

SALES: Well, on that Budget, aged care, you're injecting much-needed money. You've now got the Royal Commission findings and recommendations. From here, if there are further systemic cases of neglect, abuse and mistreatment, does your Government own it? You've got all the information you need.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is a five-year plan we're rolling out as a result of what we've announced last night, and this is a five-year plan to address the last 30 years and more, as the Royal Commission highlighted. This is a very complex problem. We've had, we'll see our population aged over 65 grow as we have even over these many years. We've increased, up until last night's Budget, we'd already increased in real terms our funding for aged care by 50 per cent. We're tripling the number of in-home aged care places and that was before last night's Budget, from when we first came to Government. The demands here are very significant and the needs are complex. And so what we've announced last night in response to the Royal Commission, Leigh, that I initiated, that I called, because I wanted to know, because I want Australians in this country to age with dignity and with respect. The proposals that were put in the Budget last night, that we'll put now into practice, in concert with the aged care sector, I believe will take us down that path as it needs to. And I suspect there will be more things we will need to do as we roll out this plan. But this plan at $17.7 billion, as you've said, is a very comprehensive response to a very complex problem. And we'll be putting all our effort to get this right. I have no doubt, I have worked on many complex problems in government, Leigh, and you never finish. You're always working at it. You're always learning but you have got to remain committed to that outcome and that is ageing with dignity and respect in this country.

SALES: If we can turn to some other issues, I understand that the Federal Police have now advised Phil Gaetjens he can resume his inquiry into who knew what, when in his office during the Brittany Higgins matter. Are you aware that has recommenced?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I am.

SALES: When would you expect that to come back to you?

PRIME MINISTER: He hasn't given me a date at this point but I would hope he can provide one at his earliest opportunity.

SALES: Do you know, so, how far has that investigation now progressed? Has everyone in your office been interviewed? Where is it up to?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not conducting the investigation. It's being conducted at arm's length. 

SALES: But you must know, it's recommenced. So I'm just asking.

PRIME MINISTER: I know it's commenced, but I have no knowledge of its conduct. Why would I? That would be inappropriate. It's an independent, arms-length investigation from me.

SALES: Even with that inquiry going on, why have you never been curious to personally ask questions of your staff or ministers as to why you were kept in the dark regarding an alleged rape in a Defence Minister's office?

PRIME MINISTER: I became aware I think it was on the 15th. It was the 15th of February. That was a Monday morning. I remember that very, very clearly. My office had become aware of it on the 12th—

SALES: But we know that from the timeline there was lots of people knew before then, the Defence Minister, the Employment Minister, the Home Affairs Minister, the Department of Finance, the Federal Police, multiple staff in your own office.

PRIME MINISTER: Not of an alleged rape, I should stress.

SALES: None of them thought you should be informed. You apparently weren't across the details of what had happened, whether it was an alleged rape or whether it was a security breach?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the security breach, we were aware of the security breach but not of any alleged assault, as you've said. And that's a matter of public record. My office did not become aware of that until the 12th of February and I became aware of it on the 15th of February.

SALES: I just rattled through all the other people in your Cabinet and who work alongside you.

PRIME MINISTER: Some of those didn't know about it until about the week before. The then Home Affairs Minister only became aware of it very soon before I did.

SALES: Don't you find it puzzling?

PRIME MINISTER: I've already made those points publicly, Leigh. The point I'd make, whether it was the now Attorney-General or the then Minister for Defence Industry, those were matters that were not relayed to me and were not relayed to my office because they were matters that were told to them in confidence and they didn't seek to breach those confidences.

SALES: On the question of the security breach, you've said in a press conference on the 23rd of March that it wasn't the first one, that the previous one had involved classified material. If that was the case, multiple security breaches of a Defence Minister's office, why hadn't anyone already been sacked?

PRIME MINISTER: Someone was sacked.

SALES: No, but they hadn't been. You said there were security breaches prior to that involved classified material.

PRIME MINISTER: There was an escalation of the caution on this individual and that final breach was the one that led to their dismissal.

SALES: You said at that press conference that classified material had been involved. Why had that not triggered at least an AFP investigation, a Defence Minister's office, classified material, security breach?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, as I just said, as those matters had been addressed, there were sanctions and warnings put in place and then the individual was eventually dismissed for that final breach.

SALES: So you just get a sanction, do you, if you breach security in the Defence Minister's office?

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, I'm not going to go into the details of something that relates to those types of issues. What I am telling you is the individual was sacked.

SALES: At the same press conference on March the 23rd, you said you were going to investigate whether anyone in your office had briefed journalists against Brittany Higgins's partner. What did you find?

PRIME MINISTER: That matter is still being addressed by my Chief of Staff and I understand that he'll be having a conversation with Brittany herself that was arranged not long after that I met with her just a little while ago. I found that a very helpful meeting. And I thank her very much for the opportunity we had to discuss, not that issue, that didn't come up. But the many other issues I know she's been very brave to bring forward.

SALES: Why should Andrew Laming be allowed to continue chairing a parliamentary committee given his track record against women?

PRIME MINISTER: Andrew's not contesting the next election for the LNP.

SALES: He's chairing a committee though.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I have never made comments on that matter. But he has formed a view since then that the issues that were the subject of complaints made against him have now altered and there have been new facts that have come forward-

SALES: Are you comfortable with that?

PRIME MINISTER: …He made those comments to the Parliament the other day. Andrew will serve out his time serving in the Parliament. He's been here a long time. He's done many good things while he's here as part of the Government and I expect him to keep working hard for his electorate all the way to the next election.

SALES: What's empathy training and have you ever had it?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I haven't, Leigh-

SALES: What is it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are lots of counselling courses that are provided to people, they're largely run out of the private sector. This is something that has become quite common and where these counselling courses are necessary, then I think they can be quite helpful.

SALES: On China, the trend of the diplomatic relationship under the Morrison Government has all been downhill. Have you attempted to speak personally to President Xi Jinping to reset it?

PRIME MINISTER: I have spoken to Xi Jinping when I've had the opportunity to meet with him at international forums and those exchanges have been very polite-

SALES: But what about phone calls or something more recently?

PRIME MINISTER: We've always been open to those, Leigh, and we remain open to those now. But there's no interest in that from the Chinese side-

SALES: Have you sought that?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course we are interested in having those and we've expressed that on numerous occasions. But that is not something the Chinese side are interested in having at present. We'll respect that. We continue our trading relationship. We're interested in peace and prosperity in the region and a strong trading relationship and we're interested in Australia's sovereignty and standing up for Australia's sovereign interests and our national interests and we will always do that and we won't step back from them.

SALES: Do you agree with your Defence Minister Peter Dutton that a war between the US and China over Taiwan in the not too distant future can't be discounted?

PRIME MINISTER: This was reflected at the strategic update that I spoke of in our Defence preparedness over a year ago, Leigh, and that is actually the understanding of those who advise us on these matters. Of course there are many tensions that exist in the region and it would be foolish of Australia not to be appreciating the potential risks that emerge. Now, that doesn't mean these things will happen but any Defence Minister, any Prime Minister in Australia who did not give consideration to these things and ensure Australia was prepared in these circumstances wouldn't be doing their job.

SALES: You've been the Prime Minister now for nearly three years and so Australians have had a chance to observe how you've responded to various things. When it comes to taking responsibility, they've seen vaccine stumbles, not your fault, it's a supply issue. Quarantine, that's mostly a problem for the states. Bushfires, I don't hold a hose. Brittany Higgins, I was in the dark. COVID deaths in aged care, mostly the fault of state governments for not controlling virus spread, Christian Porter, don't need to drill into the particulars. Minister's breaching standards, I reject that anybody ever has. Doesn't all that taken together add up to a tendency to blame shift and duck responsibility wherever possible?

PRIME MINISTER: That's your narrative, Leigh, but that's not one that I share—

SALES: I've just, I've spelt out the facts there.

PRIME MINISTER: I'll tell you what the narrative is, Leigh. I'll tell you what's happened over the last 18 months in particular. Australia is in a position and living in a way that the rest of the world is not. At the height of the pandemic where we looked into the abyss, my Government took action and ensured that we saved lives and we saved livelihoods. That is the same action we took, whether it was in the floods in North Queensland or the many disasters that have befallen this country over the last 18 months. Over the course, in particular, of this last year we've seen more than 900,000 people get on and get back into jobs. We've seen businesses survive. We've seen confidence in Australia's future lift. We've seen our defence forces prepared. We've seen our national preparedness for disasters escalated. And in the Budget last night, you saw some of the biggest changes to aged care and mental health that this country has seen. So Leigh, there will be an opportunity for Australians to express their view when the election finally comes. Right now, I'm fighting the virus and I'm keeping Australians in jobs and I'm seeking to provide the best possible support for their health in response to the COVID crisis. So I'll get on with my job and I'll let you get on with yours.

SALES: As you say, you get to take the credit for all of that but it does come at a cost. The record debt and deficit that the Morrison Government is posting in the Budget, does the buck stop with you on getting the Budget back into surplus or will that be somebody else's problem down the line?

PRIME MINISTER: We've done it once before, Leigh, before we hit this crisis the many steps we took got the Budget back into balance before we hit the crisis and I'm glad we did that and I had my role in that, particularly as Treasurer. And now we're in a position to respond like no government has ever had to respond before in our history. What we're going through at the moment, the recession that has been caused globally by this pandemic is 30 times worse than the GFC. 30 times worse. And we have responded like no other government in Australia's history. That has put Australia in a place that many countries, if not most countries, around the world envy. And we're going to keep on with that job and that's why last night's Budget was the plan to ensure we continue to secure Australia's recovery. I'm going to get on with that job. That's the fight I'm in. Fighting for Australia, for Australia's national interests and protecting Australians through this COVID pandemic, keeping them in jobs, protecting their lives and protecting their livelihoods.

SALES: Prime Minister, thanks for your time this evening. We appreciate it.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Leigh.