Interview with Liam Bartlett, 6PR

10 Jun 2021
Prime Minister

Liam Bartlett: Scott Morrison joins us now. Prime Minister, good morning.

Prime Minister: Good morning, Liam. Good to be with you. 

Liam Bartlett: Prime Minister, nice to talk to you too. Look, why aren’t we talking to the Chinese, at your level, like adults to fix this?

Prime Minister: We would be very happy to speak to them on any occasion. Those opportunities are provided to China. At this point, they're choosing not to take those up. As I said yesterday, we're keen to work with countries all around the world, particularly in our own region, we’re for a free and open Indo-Pacific, we're there for countries to trade with each other, to work with each other. And we work with China on many other issues, including in the Pacific. But when the Chinese Government is willing to have those discussions again, then of course, we're available for them. 

Liam Bartlett: But, it really is the tale of the minnow and the whale, isn’t it Prime Minister? We’re not sitting around the table with them, we’re never going to win this fight.

Prime Minister: Well, I wouldn't describe it in those terms. They have raised a set of issues with Australia that are issues that Australia are not prepared to concede on. They go to our values, they go to our sovereignty. And, of course, Australia will maintain our very clear positions on those. We've made that very clear. But at the same time, we're very willing to work, and trade and engage with China in our own region and more broadly around the world. So there's no obstacle at Australia's end, to engage in that dialogue. 

Liam Bartlett: I say this with the greatest respect, but, we know what makes them unhappy. We know the origins of the problem. Are we being a little bit pig-headed?

Prime Minister: Well, you never trade away your values and who you are in your own sovereignty, integrity, ever. And nor would any other country in the world and so the position Australia…

Liam Bartlett: Does talking mean you have to trade things away, Prime Minister? I’m not suggesting we fold, I’m just saying it’s not a great look is it, not a great position not to even be discussing things?

Prime Minister: Well, we're very happy to discuss things. Always have been, have made those offers constantly, but it takes two to have a conversation. And when China is prepared to have that conversation, we're very pleased to do so. They've set out 14 points and many Australians would be aware of what they relate to. They go to how Australia runs our democracy, then goes to the freedom of the press. And these are matters that they've raised as concerns. They are not matters with which Australia is prepared to provide any change to, quite rightly. And as a result, we're very happy to engage in them. But that is really a matter for China. Australia is providing no barrier to any dialogue with China. 

Liam Bartlett: Prime Minister, would you concede that if the Chinese decide, at some point, at any point, to treat our iron ore the same way it’s already taken action against our coal, our barley, our wine, we are in serious strife aren’t we?

Prime Minister: Australia will always act in our national interest, Liam. We will always stand up for what we believe in, we will always be consistently clear about where we stand on these issues. I mean, that is no different to what any Australian Government should ever do, or I believe has done in the past. There's a very changed situation. And I think Australians would very much expect our government, my government, to be true to who we are. It's a very straightforward proposition, very straightforward and very clear. 

Liam Bartlett: As you know, WA’s Premier Mark McGowan is struggling to understand the rhetoric and the tone of the rhetoric, the language your Government is using against China. I’d like to play you, right now Prime Minister, just a little part of what he said, just to get your reaction.

[excerpt of Mark McGowan comments plays.]

Liam Bartlett: Is he right, Prime Minister?

Prime Minister: Well, I spoke with the Premier yesterday, we met. We often meet when I'm in town and we had a good chat about these issues yesterday. I mean, barley producers in Australia, wine growers in Australia, have been targeted with trade sanctions that we believe are completely unconscionable. And we are seeking to take those up in the World Trade Organisation to see them resolved there. That's what Australia is doing. Whether it's wheat, sorry whether it's barley or whether it's wine or any other exported commodity or product out of Australia, then, of course, we would expect our products and commodities to be treated fairly in accordance with international law.

Liam Bartlett: Absolutely.

Prime Minister: Our international, and that's what we're that's what we're doing.

Liam Bartlett: Absolutely, but he’s doubling down isn’t he?

Prime Minister: And so, you've got to call trade issues out. If you believe in an open trading system. If you don't have an open trading system backed by an international rule of law, well, it's very hard to be a trading country in this world. And that's the key point that I was making yesterday when I was speaking here in Perth. 

Liam Bartlett: Yes.

Prime Minister: And that is these rules based order - we need to stand up for them because our livelihoods depend on it. 

Liam Bartlett: That’s if the other side recognises the rule book, that’s the problem..

Prime Minister: Well, this is the challenge that we will continue to discuss when we, when I get to Cornwall, and it's important that liberal democracies, like minded countries, middle democracies work very closely with countries like Vietnam, in the region, and obviously has a very different system to ours. But they have a very strong view about the international maritime law and how that operates in their part of the world. And we've been so very supportive of the position that they've taken. But a world that is, that is run by rules and laws, that all countries are accountable to, is very important. That protects us. And that's what we're standing up for. And no matter how large or small a country is, it's important that we all embrace that and work to that. 

Liam Bartlett: How confident are you, Prime Minister, that China will keep buying our iron ore?

Prime Minister: Well, the forecast I have is that, you know, the thing about Australian iron ore is it's the best in the world and when people need it, they buy it. And that puts Australia in a very strong position. 

Liam Bartlett: You could argue that our wine was in the same category. I mean, the point is, if they wake up tomorrow and stop buying it, we’re in serious trouble aren’t we?

Prime Minister: Well, this is not a prospect that I believe would be in their interests or Australia's, and it's very important when you're working in this area that you understand that what the shared interests are. I think it provides the best way forward. It's in Australia and China's interests to continue our trade and indeed our trade continues to go at record levels. And that is because it's in both countries interests for that to occur. And that's what I'm focused on

Liam Bartlett: Prime Minister, talking about shared interests, when you meet Boris Johnson next week, will you be signing a free trade agreement with the UK?

Prime Minister: We're still working on those details now. 

Liam Bartlett: So, it’s not finalised?

Prime Minister: No, not yet. 

Liam Bartlett: To the vaccination rollout, Prime Minister. Why don’t you take the lead on this, why don’t you put a firm date on Australia opening up and give people a reason to get the jab?

Prime Minister: Because the medical advice doesn't support that. 

Liam Bartlett: Doesn’t support, what? Having a date at some point in the future?

Prime Minister: There's no medical advice that I've received at any point in time, which gives a magical number of vaccinations that enable you to provide that level of assuredness to Australians about when that can occur. Because, I mean, you don't go from shut one day, fully open the next. That's not how it works. What you can do over a period of time, is you can build up your ability to open up to more and more groups of people coming to Australia. It's not, doesn't happen overnight. And as we continue to make very good progress, and we are. In the last seven days, we've had almost 850,000 vaccinations. I mean, that's getting to almost three times what it was when I was back here in Perth last time. So there's been a significant ramp up and it's continuing to occur and Australians are getting the jab. And I'm keen for wherever there's a dose available and an arm that's available, than I want to connect those two as quickly as possible. And that's what the states are doing with us. And we're really seeing that take-up occur. And so we're very, we welcome that. And that keeps giving us options. But it is not as binary as the question suggests. 

Liam Bartlett: So, you don’t think giving people a finish line, even if you had to move that finish line, would be an encouragement for people to go and get vaccinated?

Prime Minister: Well, I wouldn't mislead people, I mean, all the way through, we've been very careful to try and understand the medical advice that goes around this pandemic. I mean, I'm going to Singapore. I'm going to Singapore. 

Liam Bartlett: Prime Minister, you were the one who said you know  ‘we can’t live under a doona’. Those were your words, not mine.

Prime Minister: Sure. And I don't wish to see us do that forever. I don't wish to see us doing for us any longer than it's absolutely possible in terms of having our borders shut. But our borders will remain shut as long as it's in Australia's interests, to protect the health of Australians, but also I'll say Liam, to protect Australia's economy. Australia's economy is world leading. There won't be another G7 country sitting around the table that can say that their economy is bigger than Australia’s was before the pandemic or that there's more people employed in their economy today than before the pandemic. South Korea can say that, but Australia's position is even stronger than that. 

Liam Bartlett: OK, so we don’t have any percentage point. I mean getting back to your point about the medical advice, we don’t have any percentage point? 60, 70, 80 per cent of Australians?

Prime Minister: No, I mean, and I'll tell you why. I mean, you go to, where I'm heading to the UK. I mean, they have vaccination rates in the 70s and with their older population even higher than that. And they have 4,000 cases a day Liam, daily. 4,000 cases a day. 

Liam Bartlett: They also have borders open to a lot more countries than we do.

Prime Minister: Exactly, so if you're suggesting that we should be aiming for a position where we can have 4,000 cases a day, then no, I don't think Australians would agree with you. I don't agree with you. And the medical advice doesn't support that for Australia's position. See, in countries around the world, Liam, they lost that battle long ago, they lost that long ago. 

Liam Bartlett: We know the history. But how do we learn to live with it for the future?

Prime Minister: Well, this is what we are doing, Liam. This is exactly why the vaccination programme is incredibly important and that will give us more and more and more options going forward. But I'm not about to swing the doors open and open up to Australia to 4,000 cases a day. I mean, you know what that would do, it would shut the country down internally and it would ruin our economy. So we're not about to do that either. So we'll continue, I think, to get the balance right. 

Liam Bartlett: [inaudible]

Prime Minister: Well, Liam, if we had 4,000 cases a day, do you think there wouldn't be a border up in every single part of this country? 

Liam Bartlett: No doubt, but you’re talking hypotheticals, aren’t you?

Prime Minister: Well, you're raising hypotheticals with me, Liam. So, if we want to talk about hypotheticals. 

Liam Bartlett: You’ve just pulled 4,000 people out of the air.

Prime Minister: No, I'll tell you what's real, I'll tell you what's real. Vaccination rates in the UK of over 70 per cent and over 4,000 cases a day. Vaccination rates where I'm going today in Singapore, which are over 40 per cent, and they are in lockdown. So what we've always learnt from this pandemic is there are no absolutes. The virus writes the rules. You get the balance right as best as you possibly can. The Australian way has been the most successful in the world, along with a handful of other countries, like New Zealand, where I was just a week or so ago, following a very similar path. And that means that we've got more people in work, our economy's bigger. We haven't had the carnage of the hundreds of thousands of deaths we've seen all around the world, more, millions of deaths. Here in this country, we've fared extremely well. And we want to maintain that. 

Liam Bartlett: Prime Minister, I know you’re a busy man. You’ve got to get on a plane, we really appreciate your time. But just before you go, on one other subject, and we spoke about this a lot on the program yesterday, talking about opening countries up, this is only for a small amount of people. But the Afghan interpreters left behind in that country, when are we all going to give all of them a visa and get them out?

Prime Minister: Well, we're working on that right now, and I can't go into too much detail because I don't want to put anyone who is the subject of what we're doing there in any position of risk or danger. This is not the first time we've done that. When I was Immigration Minister, we were involved in a very similar role with interpreters and others who were assisting us many years ago. And so this is a programme we know well, we've done it before and we will work through this steadily. And our form and our record is being able to use our special humanitarian visa processes to do the right thing. 

Liam Bartlett: You’d agree, wouldn’t you, that if they were good enough to work aside Aussie Diggers in battle, they’re automatically good enough to live here, aren’t they?

Prime Minister: Well, what I just said was we've been faced with this exact same situation before and we've answered that question positively. That's our form, that's our record. That's what we've done. And we will act consistently with what we've done in the past. In fact, what I personally did on a very similar set of cases many years ago, we know what we need to do here and we're getting it done. 

Liam Bartlett: And time is of the essence, isn’t it?

Prime Minister: Always is.

Liam Bartlett: Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Prime Minister: Thanks a lot, Liam. All the best.