Interview with Leigh Sales, 7.30 - ABC

03 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

LEIGH SALES: Scott Morrison joins me live now from Parliament House. Prime Minister, welcome to the program and thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Leigh. Good to be with you.

SALES: Is the combination of coronavirus and the bushfires going to drive Australia into a recession?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not getting ahead of these issues. What we have done on the coronavirus has focussed very much on the health challenge. And that's what we always have to put first. And that health challenge is a very serious one. But at the same time, we know that this global health crisis around the coronavirus is going to have very significant and very real economic impacts, which we are already feeling here in Australia, it is being felt in many other countries, in most, I should say, all around the world. And so well we'll see how that plays out, Leigh. What we need to do is ensure that with the fiscal response that we will provide and which I flagged last week, that we'd be delivering, that it is very targeted, that it's very measured and it's very scalable. So we can continue to respond to these issues as they emerge.

SALES: And when will you be announcing the details of that package and where will it be targeted?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll be announcing those soon Leigh, and we'll be announcing the key areas will be targeting at that time.

SALES: And is soon before the May Federal Budget? Because one assumes there's a degree of urgency here.


SALES: On the health challenge that you mention, Australia's borders afford it some natural protection. Why isn't there a broader travel ban in place than China and Iran, particularly given the rapid spread in countries like South Korea and Italy?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've been following the medical advice, Leigh. Right from the outset. The medical advice has been outstanding. I mean, Dr Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer, called this well out ahead of the rest of the world, particularly the WHO. And that happened again last week as we move to put in place the emergency response plan to deal with a pandemic phase and that was actioned last week. And now the health advice at this moment has not suggested going beyond the existing travel bans that we have. That said, today, particularly with the information we're seeing coming out of Korea and out of Italy, then we are looking again at those measures right now. But it is important to point out that in Iran, this is the place which has been the most severe set of conditions we've seen outside mainland China. And you're also dealing with a situation in Iran that does not have an advanced health system and different sort of issues pertaining to their economy and how their country operates. In places like Korea though, and in places like Italy, we're dealing with something quite different. So but, there are no options off the table, I can assure you Leigh. And we'll be always putting the health of Australians first.

SALES: The Reserve Bank has once again today cut interest rates to try to bolster the economy. As we've heard. The RBA and business leaders have been urging the Government to come up with a detailed fiscal plan to help the economy out for quite awhile. How is it possible that you don't have an economic centrepiece beyond a slogan for jobs and growth?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I completely reject that Leigh. I mean, last year alone, we brought forward $4.2 billion worth of our program on infrastructure to address the very issues that you've just raised. Last year we passed tax cuts for Australians, which were some of the most significant we've seen in decades. I mean, the Government has been continuing to expand our trade borders through the arrangements we've put in place, which has meant that we would have been even more reliant on those countries that have been most affected by this crisis, were we are not acting in the way we were. So I completely just don't accept that allegation, Leigh.

SALES: Well, let me run through some of it with you. You mentioned your income tax cuts. Their effect on the economy has been muted when you look at the major indicators. You've done nothing on IR, nothing on superannuation, nothing on GST reform, nothing big on company tax reform, no target for emissions reduction beyond 2030. Business leaders feel there's no agenda.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't agree with them Leigh. And we're at the beginning of the term. When I came after the last election, I set out an agenda that dealt with infrastructure, that dealt with industrial relations in fact, quite specifically. The only…

SALES: Well, why do you have then… well, let me ask you, why do you think business leaders are always out there saying we need the Government to be doing more?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me take the issue they often make on emissions reduction. I'm not going to put up people's taxes, Leigh. I'm not going to put on a carbon tax. And whether it's, if it's business leaders asking me to do it, or the Labor Party asking me to do it, or indeed you asking me to do it. I'm not going to put on a tax to reduce emissions nor am I going to put people's jobs at risk or nor am I going to see rural and regional parts of the economy, which depend on industries, I'm not going to put them at risk. We have an emissions reduction target, Leigh, and it is for 2030. And we've been able to reduce emissions by 13.1 per cent since 2005, ahead of most like countries, whether that's New Zealand or Canada. And we have a target to hit our 26 per cent by 2030 and we're on track to achieve that. And we've got a plan to achieve, which is more important. Plenty of people can have targets, but we have a habit of hitting our targets like we will in 2020 this year where people said we wouldn't and we're going to beat it by 411 million tonnes.

SALES: But you seem to suggest that doing more would be costing jobs and potentially economic growth. Take the example of the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. His Government and successive conservative governments there have been on the front foot on climate change action. They have a net zero by 2050 policy. Since 1990, Britain's cut emissions by 42 percent and at the same time seen a 73 per cent increase in economic growth.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'd make the point about the UK economy is it's quite different to the Australian economy, Leigh. You've gotta have plans that relate to your, to your own country. The UK also has nuclear power, Leigh. And they also have a bigger, they also have a big extension cord which plugs into the nuclear power in France. So, you’ve got to deal with like for like countries. So what I'm telling you is that we're ahead of New Zealand and we're ahead of Canada. And particularly when you compare us to Canada, I think you're looking at more like for like economies -

SALES: You talk about the costs,

PRIME MINISTER: And we'll have a plan for achieving these things. I mean plenty of people that have targets, but if you don't have a plan to achieve them, then all that means is at the end of the day is you don't know what it's gonna cost and you're going to end up taxing people and threatening people's jobs without a plan.

SALES: But also a plan without a target is meaningless because you don't know where you're going. Can I ask you, you’ve raised the point,

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t agree with that Leigh. No, Leigh I don’t agree with that. If you have a plan - 

SALES: You think you can have a plan, without a goal, without an end goal?

PRIME MINISTER: No, Leigh. What I'm saying is we're developing the technology plan. The Minister for Energy was making reference to that last night. Now that technology plan will enable Australia to reduce its emissions without putting up electricity prices, without putting people's jobs at risk and without saying to people who live in North Queensland or anywhere else, sorry you're gonna have to go and do something else.

SALES: But a technology plan has limitations. You could have made a technology plan, say in 2001. It would have been obsolete by 2006 because technology changes?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, but that's the whole point about the technology plan is it’s looking at future technologies. Take hydrogen for example - 

SALES: How can you look at future technologies? They’re not invented yet!

PRIME MINISTER: Well Leigh, let's talk about hydrogen. We've got a plan in place with both the Japanese Government, the Victorian Government and the Australian Government, it’s worth half a billion dollars. And that is to ensure we have a viable hydrogen energy system in Australia into the future, as other countries can. Finding those technologies and doing the ground research now to make sure they are available post-2030 is what we're doing. The reason we're getting more gas out of the ground through arrangements we're putting into place with state governments is to ensure that we've got those fuels which can provide transition, which give you the lead time for these other technologies to come in place. That's what our plan does - 

SALES: You were talking,

PRIME MINISTER: And if that plan results in receiving about 20, at 2050, if that were to result in a net zero carbon position by that period by that time, well fine. But it would only be because we had a plan that achieved that. Just mounting a target is quite meaningless unless you've got a plan.

SALES: But when all the states and territories in Australia have committed to a zero emissions target by 2050, when 73 major businesses, including Qantas, whose praises you were singing today and BHP have agreed to that, when peak business groups are calling for it, when environmentalists and scientists calling for it? Why is the Federal Government determinedly isolated?

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, I'm not going to commit to a target when I can't look Australians in the eye and tell them what it costs or how it's going to be achieved- 

SALES: Have you done any of the modelling of the costs of not going to net zero by 2050? 

PRIME MINISTER: This is why we do take action on climate change, Leigh. So the argument that it's about what what's the costs of not doing anything, well we are doing something. So I don't accept that argument, what we’re working on is - 

SALES: But have you modelled it? Because for example, sorry to interrupt, Prime Minister,

PRIME MINISTER: No, you can interrupt.

SALES: But Melbourne University’s had a look at it. They've found that the potential economic risk to Australia if global emissions patterns remain the same are 584 billion by 2020 and 762 billion by 2050.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're not planning to take no action, Leigh. So the that argument is moot.

SALES: No, that’s if patterns remain the same.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're not planning to have patterns remain the same. We're planning to reduce emissions with a technology plan which will achieve that. But I'm going to do it in a way where I can look Australians in the eye and say, I'm not going to put a tax on you. I'm not going to take your job from you. And I'm not going to undermine industries that are very important to rural and regional Australians. I think they're fairly reasonable commitments and balanced commitments. I mean, it is about having a balanced plan to achieve all of these things. That's what I took to the last election. That's what I said to the Australian people. I took a 2030 plan and the Labor Party today can't even tell you what it should be in 2030 - 

SALES: You were talking-

PRIME MINISTER: We did that when we were opposition and in 2010, when we were in opposition, we set out a plan to how we would meet the 2020 Kyoto targets. We have a Labor Party today that can't agree on themselves about anything and can't even tell you what should happen in 2030. So how can you believe them about 2050?

SALES: You were talking earlier about the need to keep investment going, particularly at the moment. The Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, wants a net zero target by 2050 legislated because she said it would cause a massive advance in this country. It would drive investment. Isn't it time to give business that certainty they would like for investment in this area?

PRIME MINISTER: I don't agree with having a target that provides a reverse tax on the Australian economy. I mean, whether it's the business - 

SALES: How is that a reverse tax?

PRIME MINISTER: If it’s the business community who says they want a tax or if it's if it's you or anyone else. I don't agree. I don't agree that we should be putting a tax on the Australian economy to meet a targeted emissions level.


PRIME MINISTER: I don't agree.

SALES: Let's zip around some other matters in the news, Prime Minister. 


SALES: Your office exchanged 136 emails with Bridget McKenzie's Office regarding the sports grant affair. Why?

PRIME MINISTER: We made representations on the basis of projects that were brought to us and to  pass on information about other funding programs which related to those projects. I've been pretty clear about that.

SALES: The Australian National Audit Office has told Senate Estimates that Senator McKenzie wrote to your office on April the 10th, including the colour-coded spreadsheets of what she intended to fund, summarised by state, political party, and electorate. The Brief then went to Sports Australia on April the 11th. The National Audit Office also told Senate Estimates that projects were added and removed after correspondence with your Office. Can you see why to the average Australian that looks like it was worked out for political gain?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I can tell you is that the projects that were authorised by the Minister that Brief was signed and dated on the 4th of April. And the Minister was the decision maker here Leigh. The Prime Minister’s Office was not. The Minister made decisions and the National Audit Office found that all the representations that were made by my Office were no more effective than anyone else’s. So if anything, I was accused of not being a particularly good advocate.

SALES: Broadly, the Auditor-General found it was a politicised process. The Secretary of your department, Phil Gaetjens says it was not transparent. He noted the disconnect between the Minister's decisions and Sports Australia's recommendations. And yet Australian taxpayers still haven't been given any explanation of the decision making process that drove 100 million dollars in spending of their taxes. You don't see a problem with that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is, this is what the government has done. The Australian National Audit Office did a report, which went into the very issues you've talked about. It made four recommendations. We've adopted all of those recommendations - 

SALES: But Prime Minister, my point is, Australians…

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, no, Leigh. If I could just. I'm sorry - 

SALES:, no, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I want to go to the question here.

PRIME MINISTER: This is what I’m trying to answer Leigh.

SALES: Australians do not understand. There's been no transparency around that decision making process.

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, what one of those recommendations was related to ensuring that the transparency of that process should be there in the future. Because what occurred on this occasion was that the Minister had complete discretion around these issues, not what might have otherwise happened on under the many other programs.

SALES: But, it’s caused you a lot of grief. Haven’t you wanted to get to the bottom of how she made those decisions?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is what I'm trying to tell you, if you'd just let me finish the answer. They made recommendations that that should change and we have agreed with that. Secondly, I initiated the review that was done by the Secretary of the Department who didn't find that bias to be in place, by the way - 

SALES: Well, we wouldn’t know that because we haven’t seen the report.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, he released a statement Leigh, which actually went into the same matters that were covered in that report. So he's been very transparent about that. But the other point was, is that he made recommendations about whether the Statement of Ministerial Standards had been breached and the Minister resigned when I shared those results with her. So an Auditor-General has reported on it. We've accepted all the recommendations of the report. And in relation to the report done by the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Minister has resigned. I would say the Government has taken quite a bit of action on that.

SALES: Angus Taylor had to apologise for issuing false information from his office, which brought your government into disrepute, on this program last night he was clear that he's not worried as to how that happened. He's not puzzled about the discrepancy between his account and the metadata from Sydney City Council. You had to deal with days of distraction because of it. Are you bothered to get to the bottom of how one of your senior ministers came to be distributing doctored material? 

PRIME MINISTER: Look, Leigh, those matters were considered by two police investigations and dismissed. What I'm interested in, Leigh, and I think what Australians are interested in is what's going on with the coronavirus, what's going on with bushfires, what's going on with the economy, which are the matters that we discussed earlier in this interview, these matters - 

SALES: But Prime Minister the reason I’m asking if I can pick you up on that point. 


SALES: The reason I'm asking about this is because when you want to talk about those big issues, your trust- people's trust in you and your credibility are your most important assets. I've outlined two examples there where your Ministers have breached public trust. And in both cases, you're saying to voters, there's nothing to see here when there, when there are still unanswered questions?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, that's not what I said, Leigh, and you shouldn't paraphrase me in that way. What I said, is the National Audit Office reviewed this matter, made recommendations, and we adopted all of them and the Minister resigned over the matter- 

SALES: We still do know in this matter how these decisions were made?

PRIME MINISTER: They were made based on the discretion of the minister, which was the way that that program was lawfully established and these matters, that's what that program was. It was a program of Ministerial discretion. See when Ministers become Ministers, they go through elections in, whether it's in the Senate or the House of Representatives, politicians are elected to make decisions. She made decisions with that authority to do so. That's how that scheme was established, lawfully. And the Auditor-General has looked at that and made recommendations about how that should be done in the future. And I have agreed and the government has agreed with that. And in relation to particular matters about how the program was administered the Minister resigned. So I think it would be unfair for you Leigh to suggest that the government hasn't taken that issue, and indeed the Minister hasn't taken it seriously when indeed the Minister ended up resigning. 

SALES: You won't release the Gaetjens report into the sports rorts. Your office tried to conceal when you were on holidays in Hawaii in December. The government cited national security to avoid answering a question under FOI about whether Pastor Brian Houston was invited to a White House dinner, although you've finally admitted this afternoon that he was invited. Why all the secrecy on stuff that on the surface would seem to be not that big a deal?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, those things aren't that big a deal that you've talked about. And I'm always focussed on the-

SALES: But why the secrecy then?

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, I'm just focused on the things that I took to the Australian people. And I know-

SALES: No no, I just want to know why the secrecy? You're not answering what I'm asking. 

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, well I’ve disclosed the issues you've referred to. So, I mean, in relation to one of those matters, I mean, I could have been more candid the time about it. I wish I was, but frankly, it wasn't a big deal - 

SALES: But you want, you go back to the trust question, you want Australians to trust you, does this excessive secrecy help that? 

PRIME MINISTER: No. Well, I don't accept- I don't accept the assertion you're putting to me Leigh. I mean, you're making accusations like the Labor Party -

SALES: I just gave three examples.


SALES: No, no, I gave you three concrete examples.

PRIME MINISTER: These are these are minor matters, Leigh, that I don't think go to the issues you're talking about-

SALES: That’s my point.

PRIME MINISTER: If you want to if you want to join in on the accusations that the Labor leader makes in parliament every day, well, you can join in- 

SALES: I’m not interested in what the Labor leader's got to say. I'm putting to you three examples.

PRIME MINISTER: Well there's an uncanny resemblance between the allegations Leigh.

SALES: I’m putting to you three examples, where there has been secrecy that I can't understand why you'd have secrecy around. Say for example, Brian Houston, you've said this afternoon, you invited him to the White House-

PRIME MINISTER: Well let me deal with the issue of the governance committee Leigh, the governance committee of Cabinet, which involves the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, which is the Treasurer. That is a governance committee of Cabinet, which deals with very sensitive information. It is not the practice of any government to release information that has been before the governance committee. And so there is nothing extraordinary about that, Leigh. The Cabinet is a very serious committee of obviously the running of the government. And to suggest that somehow the governance committee of Cabinet should somehow be open slather I don't think is a serious suggestion, and so- 

SALES: And so about Brian Houston thing, why did you keep that a secret? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well Leigh at the time I was in the United States, we had had a very important meeting with the President of the United States. It was not a matter I was intending to be distracted by. And look at the time I could have answered the question differently, I've been upfront about that. But honestly, at the end of the day, it was not a significant matter and people haven't asked me about it for months and months and months. A journalist asked me about it today and I gave, I just answered it straight up. 

SALES: The only reason I'm asking about it, because it is a minor matter, is because of the secrecy around it. I mean, there was an FOI request put in about it that came back and said that the information couldn't be disclosed because it would jeopardise Australia's relationship with the United States?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the allegations that were being made at the time when I was in the United States went around possible leaks out of the President's office. Now, I wasn't about to get into the issues regarding what was said or wasn't said out of the president's office, as a guest in that country at the time I didn't think that to be a very discreet way or diplomatic way to handle those questions. 

SALES: Prime Minister, appreciate your time. Thank you for joining us this evening. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Leigh.