Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

16 Aug 2021
Prime Minister

Lisa Millar: Good morning, Prime Minister. Thanks for coming on News Breakfast. It's been a while.

Prime Minister: Good to see you.

Millar: Terrible news, dramatic few hours in Afghanistan. Are we going to be able to evacuate the remaining nationals, and also those Afghans who've been assisting Australian Defence Forces?

Prime Minister: Well, since April 430 locally engaged employees - Afghans and their families - we've been able to already bring to Australia and resettle, anticipating this deteriorating situation. As you know, we closed our embassy in May and moved the Australian personnel at that time. We're continuing with our operations, in conjunction with our partners, in what is a very dangerous part of the world and a deteriorating situation. We've been working through that over recent days. This morning, the Foreign Minister will be speaking to Secretary Blinken in the United States. I had a discussion with the Prime Minister Ardern last night, and our National Security Cabinet meeting will convene again early, in a little while from now and, and review the various operations, but I obviously can't go into detail on that for the safety of those who are involved.

Millar: Can you tell us how many?

Prime Minister: No, I don't think I, that, as I just said, I'm not going to go into those operations. It's for the protection of those we're engaged in seeking to provide for their safety.

Millar: How can you tell the families of the 41 soldiers, this morning we've been speaking to an ex-SAS soldier who said he hoped that there was a man in a suit or a woman turning up at homes around Australia to explain what all this is about. How do you tell them that it was worth it?

Prime Minister: Freedom’s always worth it, fighting for it, whatever the outcome. But, importantly, the reason we went there was to track down Osama bin Laden and to ensure that we denied Al-Qaeda a base of operations out of Afghanistan. And, there has been so much blood and treasure lost in this, in this very difficult campaign over 20 years. And, our thanks, are always to Australians who serve. They don't get to decide the mission. They don’t get to decide the place. Those decisions are taken at another level, and they go and serve, and they faithfully serve, and they do it with great courage and great commitment to their country and the values that Australia represents, which is freedom.

Millar: Were their deaths in vain, though, when you see already people discussing whether this is now going to leave open Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for terrorism again?

Prime Minister: No Australian who’s ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain, ever.

Millar: Are you concerned that Afghanistan could become a breeding ground for terrorism again?

Prime Minister: We will continue to work with all of our partners to protect Australia from terrorism, and we've got a very good track record on that front. But, we are never complacent about it, and we will continue to put our greatest efforts into keeping Australians safe. 

Millar: How do you feel about the women and children and girls, in particular, whose lives are now going to be controlled, once again, by a brutal Taliban regime?

Prime Minister: Devastated, absolutely devastated about it. It's a terrible, it's a terrible situation.

Millar: Has this been a catastrophe? Has it been, I mean, it just seems that this is not how the allies and the US anticipated things would go, that you have been basically caught, caught out here?

Prime Minister: It's a very challenging situation in Afghanistan. Always has. You look at the history, that is the story of Afghanistan. It is a, it is a tragic place, it is a tragic country that has borne such terrible hardships and catastrophes over a very long period of time. And, sadly, that story continues.

Millar: Prime Minister, can I move on to the COVID situation.

Prime Minister: Sure.

Millar: The New South Wales Premier has said it's going to be near impossible to eradicate cases in New South Wales. Does that mean the end for zero COVID in Australia?

Prime Minister: Well, it has never been the job to get to zero COVID. Seeking to minimise and community cases, cases transmitted in the community, is course has been a goal. But, the idea you can have zero COVID in any country is, has never been Australia's plan. We've been, embarked on a suppression strategy, and right now we're in Phase A of that national plan of hope. That's the plan of hope that Australians are looking to to achieve those 70 per cent targets. We've got one in four Australians fully vaccinated. This week, one in two Australians will hit that mark who have had their first dose. We've got the million doses of hope coming, have already arrived, the first shipment from Poland, and that's going straight into those most important areas in south western Sydney for 20 to 39 year olds, to support the lockdown that is in place in New South Wales. But, those doses will also go right across the country, because I'm not complacent about any other part of the country. As you say, Victoria, extending lockdowns. We are in here in one in the ACT. The Delta strain is incredibly difficult. It's causing a further wave of COVID all around the world. Australia is no different, and we're battling it just like everybody else.

Millar: You might say that zero COVID hasn't been the policy, but quite frankly, that's not how the states have approached it, when they've shut down cities and millions of people over one or two cases. And, we've now got Mark McGowan in WA saying that even if you get to 70 or 80 per cent vaccination, that he's still going to to hold the right to shut the border and keep people out. That doesn't sound like what was agreed at National Cabinet.

Prime Minister: Well, that, as you've characterised it, that isn't what was agreed at National Cabinet. What happens in Phase B, when you hit 70 per cent, which is based on the best medical and economic advice available to all leaders in Australia. The Doherty Institute, working together with all the state and Commonwealth Treasury's, made it very clear that once you hit those levels, it is neither in our health or economic interests to be going down that path …

Millar: Well, what do you do with [inaudible] who said that he’s going to do it?

Prime Minister: In quite extreme … Well, we've all made commitments to the people, through this plan of hope that is our pathway back …

Millar: Well, he said this just yesterday morning.

Prime Minister: Sorry, I’ll let you finish. Sorry, was there another question?

Millar: Well, it's just that, well, the WA Premier said this just yesterday morning, Prime Minister.

Prime Minister: No, I understand what was said, and what, my point is this - is that on three occasions we agreed this plan. On the first occasion, that in Phase B of that plan we have moved from managing cases to managing serious illness and hospitalisation. That's when you hit 70 per cent. That's when people who were vaccinated would be exempted from various restrictions. That's when you start allowing more students and others coming into the country to support our economy. And, in that plan, that's when you're managing hospitalisations and you start saying goodbye to lockdowns in Phase B, and in Phase C you can really say goodbye to them. And, but right now, we're in the first phase and that's, so it’s suppress and vaccinate. And, the vaccination program now is hitting rates of vaccination - one and a half million a week, one and a half million a week. That's what gets the job done. And, I want to continue to encourage Australians to go and get vaccinated. And, that plan of hope is an important motivator, I think, for Australians, and that's why it's important that all of us continue to encourage Australians, that's a, it's a deal we've got with the Australian people - that they get to these marks, then they can expect things to move forward ...

Millar: But, if we …

Prime Minister: That's the deal that all premiers and chief ministers have signed up to and making that commitment to their own citizens. And, and we've got to hold to that.

Millar: Prime Minister, if we've still got hundreds of cases a day in New South Wales but we get to that 70 per cent, 80 per cent mark, do we open up?

Prime Minister: Well, what is clear from the the advice we've received from Doherty is once you, once you're achieving those levels of vaccination, then the many other measures that you've got available to you, that's when you're testing and tracing, isolating and quarantining is far more effective, because you've been able to reduce the transmission capability that exists in the community. See, vaccination changes that that calculus very significantly. When you've got vaccination rates less than that, which we've seen in other countries that have tried to open up too early, you know, go to their freedom days, things like this, and then they've had to change it. We, the plan that we've set out has been carefully worked out based on that advice to ensure that when you move, you can move. Now, we are looking carefully at what the impact of a higher number of cases are when you get to that phase. And, that's why I've been so strong on the point, particularly in New South Wales, that we need to make sure this lockdown works. Now, the additional doses of hope that we've got out of Europe, and I want to thank Prime Minister Morawiecki for his great support of Australia in answering our call. He was very aware, as I discussed with him, the situation, particularly in Sydney, and this is really going to help the situation in Sydney. But, on its own, it has to be backed in by the strong lockdown working in Sydney. And, that's why I appeal to all my fellow Sydneysiders, please stay at home. We do this together and we get through it together, and the stronger we go into Phase B with fewer cases, the stronger the country will be.

Millar: Prime Minister, thanks very much.

Prime Minister: Thank you very much for your time.