Image: AAP Image
LEIGH SALES: Scott Morrison, it's your first interview with the programme since becoming Prime Minister so congratulations.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much, Leigh. Great to be here.
SALES: There is a basic, obvious question to which Australians are still waiting for an answer; why did the Liberal Party change Prime Ministers?
PRIME MINISTER: Look Leigh, I didn't seek a change to the Prime Ministership. I didn't contest the leadership on that basis. I contested it on the basis that the Party had made a decision that they no longer were supporting the previous Prime Minister. In that context, I stood up to continue the great work that we've been doing over the last five years, and I sought and gained their confidence to do just that.
So as I’ve said on a number of occasions, when placed in command, take charge. I mean I’ve been part of this Government for five years. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved and as the next generation of leadership, together with Josh Frydenberg, I’m pleased to take that agenda forward.
SALES: I understand that you didn’t kick the ball off in the leadership challenge. Yet nonetheless, you’re now the leader of the Coalition Government 3.0. So therefore it’s on you to articulate why it was necessary to change Prime Ministers?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I was not the one who sought to change it Leigh and this is my point.
SALES: But you’re at the head of the Government now and Australians need an explanation as to why you had to change course.
PRIME MINISTER: I think, sadly, over the last ten years there have been too many of these changes and they’ve occurred on both sides of politics. Sadly I don't think Australians are as shocked by these things as they used to be. I know they’re still just as disappointed and I think -
SALES: They’re puzzled.
PRIME MINISTER: They can be. But what matters to them now is, where we go from here.
SALES: But you have to understand that Australians find it perplexing and they would like an answer to the question of why the Liberal Party had to change leaders?
PRIME MINISTER: The Party Room decide who the leader of the Liberal Party should be. They formed the view that they no longer supported the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull and they voted on that. That was declared vacant and in that context, I put my hand up to take us forward. That's what I'm now doing.
So there is a continuity with what we have achieved over the last five years. As I've been setting out, my plan is focused on three key things to make an even stronger Australia. To keep the economy strong, to ensure we keep Australians safe and to ensure we bring and keep Australians together.
SALES: We'll come to policy issues in a moment, but what was wrong with Malcolm Turnbull's leadership?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I didn't oppose it.
SALES: Nonetheless, you are now the Prime Minister of a party that changed leaders. So what was wrong with it?
PRIME MINISTER: That's right and as John Howard always said, the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party is the gift of the parliamentary party. They have chosen to make that change. In that context, I put my hand up after they decided they didn't want to proceed with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
I'm now leading the party. Having been given that great honour and that great responsibility, I'm getting on with it, and the line has been ruled on those issues of several weeks ago, which I accept were deeply troubling to Australians. But what they want to know now is; ‘where are you going?’
I'm making it very clear where I'm going and the style of leadership that I'll be bringing.
SALES: What is the difference between the Morrison Government and the Turnbull Government?
PRIME MINISTER: Well there's a continuity, there's no doubt about that. There's an absolute continuity, I mean, I stood with Tony Abbott when we stopped the boats. I stood with Malcolm Turnbull as we balanced the Budget. Now, as we go forward we continue to keep our economy strong, keep Australians safe. But I have a very strong focus on how we need to bring the country together.
I have always been very troubled by what I've been seeing with the politics of envy. I’ve got a very strong view about what fairness means in this country. Fairness in this country means that if you have a go you get a go. But it also means you have a safety net where Australians look after their mates. I believe that people should be seeking to make a contribution, not take one.
SALES: In a speech in June 2017 you spoke about how disillusioned Australians are with politicians. You said; "Australians have turned the volume down on Canberra. To crack through this thick ice, we must communicate candidly and with authenticity."
You’ve told us tonight there's continuity with what was going on with the Turnbull Government and yet the Party Room wanted to change leaders, yet it's not clear why. Is that the sort of candid communication and authenticity you think Australians are after?
PRIME MINISTER: When placed in command, take charge. How’s that for candid? That's what I'm saying and that’s what I’m doing.
There are important responsibilities that Australians expect from me. I said very clearly; number one, we need to sort out our coordination to the drought. We need to get electricity prices down. I have been very quick to highlight the key challenges. Congestion-busting in our cities to deal with population growth. Ensuring that we have our energy policy clear on what we can do, what we are not going to do. Dealing with other issues such as the pension age, which was expected as a policy to go to 70. I have made that change, got it back to 67 which is where Labor legislated it to. We're making decisions, we're getting on with it.
SALES: I'll come to energy policy in a second, but can I ask first of all about the Liberal Party's issues with women? Would you support the introduction of quotas as your colleague Craig Laundy recommended today to improve the gender balance in the parliamentary Liberal Party?
PRIME MINISTER: No, but equally that is a matter for the organisational wing of the Liberal Party, but it's never something I have supported.
SALES: Why is that?
PRIME MINISTER: Because I believe in any political organisation, it should be a matter of one's own effort and exertion and credibility and merit.
SALES: If it was a matter of that in the Liberal Party you would have 50 per cent female MPs and Julie Bishop wouldn't be on the backbench.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Julie Bishop was invited to remain as the Minister for Foreign Affairs in my Government and she made her choice and I respect her choice. But on top of that, what I am focusing on with Kelly O’Dwyer and other members of the team, Senator Payne, is to ensure that we remove the obstacles that are preventing women from going forward. I don't believe quotas are the way you remove obstacles -
SALES: What do you think the obstacles are?
PRIME MINISTER: Well Leigh many years ago Christine McDiven, the first female President of the Federal Liberal Party, put in place training programs for women to help get them to a position where they won pre-selections, adjusted to parliamentary life, understood the things that would be expected of them and how they would perform. Now, the result of that back in 1996 under John Howard, was a record intake of women. It's a very similar, practical exercise and this is what Kelly O'Dwyer has been working on. It's a matter of supporting women throughout the pre-selection process, to identify, to encourage, to support and to recruit and then to support them through that process. Then when they get into Parliament, ensure they're getting the support they need to do the job. I mean it's a very practical exercise.
SALES: You had a meeting with Senator Lucy Gichuhi about her concerns regarding bullying and intimidation in the Party. Have you spoken to any of the accused bullies about it?
PRIME MINISTER: There have been no names provided to me about any of that. What I -
SALES: You haven't sought them out?
PRIME MINISTER: When I spoke to Senator Gichuhi she made it very clear to me that in terms of the events in Canberra and the spill of the leadership, she told me very plainly that she was not bullied by anybody here in Canberra, in relation to that matter.
There are some other issues that, when I've got into detail of this issue with several of my colleagues, of matters that relate to the party divisions and how things are dealt with there. But this is a very torrid business, Leigh, as we know. What I do know of the events of a couple of weeks ago, was that my standard, my example, I think more than met what people would expect. That's what I'm doing going forward. At the same time, there was no sort of gender-specific actions that related to what some would call very intense lobbying. Which is fairly normal in the political process, albeit not edifying.
SALES: Let’s go through some policy areas starting with foreign policy.
PRIME MINISTER: Sure.
SALES: Last week, your Government signed a declaration at the Pacific Islands Forum. It stated that all Pacific nations including Australia reaffirmed that climate change remains the single great threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific. Is that what you really believe, that climate change is the biggest threat to our region?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is what we signed up to and as Prime Minister, I agree with that -
SALES: And so, if climate change -
PRIME MINISTER: Particularly in relation to the threats and the understanding with our Pacific peoples. We’ve worked very closely with them on those issues and we continue to provide them with that support.
SALES: Well, we're part of the Pacific and so if we believe it's the single greatest –
PRIME MINISTER: We're also a part of the Indo-Pacific, we have a much bigger agenda –
SALE: We’re part of the Asia-Pacific. If we believe it's the single biggest regional threat, why isn't climate change in top policy priority?
PRIME MINISTER: Because we’ve already made our commitments to the targets. We’ve already met our first range of targets in Kyoto 1 and very comfortably. We’re going to meet Kyoto 2 and I have no doubts about the fact that we're going to meet our targets out to 2030. We have our commitments, we have our policies in place. They are working and that’s –
SALES: Well, what is the Government's climate policy?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’re reducing emissions by 26 per cent. That’s out to 2030.
SALES: Yeah, but what is actual policy to do that?
PRIME MINISTER: The Emissions Reduction Fund has been a key component of –
SALES: But the Emissions Reduction Fund wasn’t topped up in the last Budget, it will run out of money.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's how we're meeting our 2020 target and Melissa Price, the Minister, will be bringing forward further measures in this area to make sure we're acting consistently with our targets, Leigh.
So, what we're seeing though is a business as usual approach, a technology-driven approach, which will see us, I think, more than meet our targets out to 2030. This is work that is continuing and that is being effective. We have set our course on that. I don’t believe it will have any effect on electricity prices where we have currently set our targets. When it comes to electricity prices, we're very focused on getting them down, particularly by addressing reliable power supply.
SALES: Will emissions reduction play a role in future energy policy?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ve separated energy policy and climate policy, environment policy. We’ve got our –
SALES: So, just because I want to be really clear on this, because it's a point business is interested in. Emissions reduction will not be a part of future energy policy?
PRIME MINISTER: Our emissions reductions targets are set. They've been the same for four years. So –
SALES: There's a difference between having targets and having policies to reach those targets.
PRIME MINISTER: But we'll meet our targets. So, the 26 per cent emissions remission target is set.
SALES: So on the –
PRIME MINISTER: No, no, let me finish. It's been the same for four years. There's been no change. The certainty is there. We're not changing it. So, I think people can make decisions based on what the clear statement of the Government's policy has been over four years and going forward into the future. I don't think there's any question about it.
SALES: The head of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, says that without an emissions component in your energy policy to reduce uncertainty, that the cost of that policy may be higher and that it may be harder to achieve the agreement of the states?
PRIME MINISTER: We haven't changed our emissions policy, Leigh. It's the same policy that we had a month ago, it's the same policy we have now, our emissions reduction policy hasn't changed. The certainty of that emissions policy is clear.
I'll tell you what's missing when it comes to energy policy though and that has been the reliability guarantee that we continue to pursue and we will with the states. What is missing is the price safety net which we're introducing as a result of the ACCC inquiry. What's missing is the big stick to deal with large electricity companies to make sure they do the right thing by customers. That's what we're doing to get electricity prices down.
SALES: You've said that emissions reduction and electricity prices are completely separate. Every expert around would tell you that climate policy patently influences energy investment and therefore, prices.
PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, that would only be a relevant factor if I was changing our emissions reduction policy, which I'm not.
SALES: But you’re claiming – no, no, I’m going to the point that you’re making that they're separate things, that emissions reduction and electricity prices are separate things. They influence each other.
PRIME MINISTER: The emissions reduction policy is set. It's 26 per cent. I don’t think I can be more clear.
To get electricity prices down, what we're not going to do is legislate a 45 per cent target, which is what Labor would do, which means the prices would go up, it's estimated, by $1,400 per household. What we will do to get electricity prices down, in addition to guaranteeing the supply of gas into the Australian market, in addition to that, it is the safety net on price. It is the big stick on electricity companies. It is a better investment framework for reliable power, fair dinkum power generation into the market.
SALES: In the 2016-17 financial year, the Liberal Party took around $300,000 in donations from the Commonwealth Bank, Westpac and the ANZ. Given your criticism of the banks, will you stop taking their donations?
PRIME MINISTER: They’re completely legitimate companies which are at the centre of the Australian economy. But as you’ve heard from many of the banks, I don't understand they’ll be continuing to make any of those donations anyway. But I don't have any issue with legitimate companies participating in a democracy.
SALES: You’ve said you intend to look at protections for religious freedoms. Can you give me an example at the moment where people's religious freedoms are being impinged in Australia?
PRIME MINISTER: That’s actually not the point, Leigh. What the point is, is that Australians want to be sure that in the future those things won't be –
SALES: But policy usually addresses where a problem exists. So I’m asking where the problem exists?
PRIME MINISTER: I believe there could be problems in the future, I articulated those things when I spoke in the House last year. We’ve had a process which is being pursued by Philip Ruddock, leading that expert panel, that panel has reported back to the Government. I'm now in receipt of that report and what I can guarantee all Australians is that their religious freedoms will be protected by law if necessary.
SALES: And what sort of things do you think need to be introduced to ensure those protections?
PRIME MINISTER: I want parents to continue to have a complete right of choice when they send their kids to a faith-based school, that the faith-based nature of those schools is protected. I want to make sure that if people have particular religious views, that they won't be discriminated against. Just like people of different genders or people of races will not be discriminated against. Religious freedom, it doesn't get more serious than that when it comes to liberties. If you don't have the freedom to believe in your own faith, then what is liberty?
SALES: There's a war of words going on between your Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and the former Border Force Chief Roman Quaedvlieg. Do you back in Peter Dutton's position on this?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I do, because look, I worked with Roman when I was the Immigration and Border Protection Minister. I'm disappointed that the claims that he's making now are being so palpably demonstrated to be false. I mean they lack complete credibility. I'm disappointed that he has made these false claims and sought to sledge the character of Peter Dutton. What I know is this; Peter Dutton has done a great job taking over from me when I was the Immigration and Border Protection Minister. He has done an outstanding job on securing our borders. The Labor Party seem more intent on stopping au pairs than stopping bikie gangs and people smugglers. I think that reflects on Labor's very weak record when it comes to border security.
SALES: You've said several times since you became Prime Minister that Australians understand the ‘what’ of this Government but not the ‘why’.
PRIME MINISTER: Correct.
SALES: You've been in power for five years. Aren't you damning yourself by pointing out that after all this time Australians don't know what your Government's purpose is?
PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not what I was saying. What I was saying Leigh, is as a Government we've been very good managers and we've been very practical, focusing on the things we need to do. But what's important in politics is that people also understand the ‘whys’ behind the ‘what’.
SALES: You've had five years for people to explain.
PRIME MINISTER: We've been focused on doing the things, Leigh. What I'm saying, particularly as we go forward to this next election, is I've talked about the fair go for those who have a go. I’ve talked about the need to look after your mates with a proper safety net. I’ve talked about the need to honour those who seek to make a contribution, rather than take one. And importantly this, which really separates us from the Labor Party; we don't think other people have to do worse, for you to do better. We are rejecting Labor's politics of envy and that's why we believe in lower taxes, backing small businesses. It’s why we believe in the NDIS and guaranteeing Medicare.
People can trust us because of what we believe and what we do. They get the full package with the Liberal and National Parties under my leadership.
SALES: Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Leigh.