Interview with Margaret Brennan, Face the Nation, CBS News

26 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

Margaret Brennan: Mr Prime Minister, thank you for joining us. 

Prime Minister: Thank you. It's great to be here. 

Brennan: It's good to have you in studio. I want to ask you, big picture. Both President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China have said that they want to avoid conflict. But then you have the U.N. Secretary General saying the relationship is completely dysfunctional and we need to avoid a Cold War. Do you see us heading towards conflict with China? 

Prime Minister: I don't think that's inevitable at all. I think what's in everybody's interest is a happy coexistence. But a happy co-existence that depends upon free nations like Australia, countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region living in a free and open Indo-Pacific. And that should be all of our objectives. And I welcome the moves that President Biden is making to connect with President Xi and seek to find that place where we can respect our differences, focus on the things we can work together on. But at all times we have to be a sovereign nation to stand up for the values and beliefs that we hold. I think that's a prerequisite to a happy coexistence.

Brennan: A happy coexistence in diplomatic terms because things don't seem so happy right now in the region. We have Biden Administration officials saying Australia is subject to coercion by China right now. I mean, do you think China's strategy is to try to crack Australia as a way to get at the Western Alliance and the United States? 

Prime Minister: Well, if that is the case, Australia will always be resilient and stand firm on the things that we hold dear. The United States is no different in any liberal democracy, is not going to compromise on issues of a free press and a free parliament. 

Brennan: Are they trying to coerce you, as the US says? 

Prime Minister: We've experienced some difficulties in the relationship, which China have set out. The issues that they've raised with us is things like our free press, about the way that we make sovereign decisions about who can invest in Australia and the fact that we stand up on issues like human rights and issues like Xinjiang. And of course, when it comes to Hong Kong, which is, we have a large Chinese Australian population, many who have come from Hong Kong and so of course, we're going to have views about this. We respect that every country has its own sovereign right to run its country the way it sees fit. And we recognise the many achievements that China have made over the years. But at the same time, Australians will always be Australians.  We will always stand up for our values and the way we run a liberal democratic country, just as I'm sure the United States always will, our great friend and partners.

Brennan: Well, here in the United States, the FBI Director said this week that every 12 hours, the US opens a counterintelligence investigation into China. That's how they're targeting the US. What are you seeing in Australia? What is the biggest threat you see from China? 

Prime Minister: Well, we're resilient to foreign interference. We're resilient to whether there are attacks that come from cyber or other forms of foreign interference. Any sovereign country would be. But the way we prefer to look.

Brennan: They're trying to squeeze you economically.

Prime Minister: The way we prefer to look at it though, is diversify our economy, ensure we are resilient in our own manufacturing settings, in our resources and our agricultural sectors. We find new markets. We live practically within the Indo-Pacific. There are many different countries with many different outlooks. And in Australia we live in the Indo-Pacific, this is not a theoretical concept. This is where we live and we want to live with the countries in our region in a positive way. And the way to do that is where there are differences, well you hold your ground on your differences. Of course you do. And you try and find a positive way to work with others in the region and you work with your partners and your allies. And that's why we've been able to come to this historic, new level of partnership called AUKUS, with Australia and the United Kingdom. The Quad, which is why I'm here.

Brennan: This is the meeting at the White House.

Prime Minister: That's right. India and Japan and Australia and the United States. 

Brennan: Isn't that an anti-China alliance? 

Prime Minister: No. It's a positive alliance. It's a positive partnership, even more technically correct for contribution in the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific, those of us who live there, want a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific. So it's not about being against something, it's about being for something. That's how we look at it. 

Brennan: So why do you need US-made nuclear submarines? 

Prime Minister: Because Australia's defences depend on having a long reach. I mean, Australia is a long way from everywhere. And in order to ensure that our security interests are best protected, we need to have a long reach and a long range. 

Brennan: But you needed them faster than what the French were delivering you? That's what led to this big diplomatic blow up with the French, you switched to nuclear-powered submarines that reach police distances. We're talking about in China's backyard. That’s not friendly coexistence, you need some military support here, no? 

Prime Minister: We're talking about the international waters of the South China Sea, a free and open Indo-Pacific. I mean, international waters means exactly that. And whether it's ourselves, the Germans, the French, the British and our partners throughout the region and Japan and India and all of us, these are international waters. The international law of the sea should matter. And it does to us and it does to all the countries of the region. And so the ability to be able to operate where all countries should be able to operate, I think is very important. But the key reason for our change, is conventional submarines can no longer meet that need with the changed strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. And that's why we were unable to proceed with that contract, because it no longer was going to be able to do the job that we needed these boats to do. 

Brennan: And we'll get to that because everyone's heard about the very strong language the French have voiced in their opposition to it. But big picture, you're buying these nuclear submarines. Are you looking at an arms race with China? Because that is what the Chinese have warned, that that is what this is a signal of.

Prime Minister: No. What we're doing is, we'll be moving from our existing conventional fleet of submarines, our Collins Class submarines. And over time, to be able to replace that with a fleet of nuclear submarines…

Brennan: Because China has built up its military. 

Prime Minister: …with higher capability, there's been an increased militarisation of the Indo-Pacific for many, many years. And we've seen that escalating for some time. And so the escalation predates our decision. 

Brennan: When do you actually get these submarines? 

Prime Minister: Well, that's what we're working through over the next 12 to 18 months. And that's what AUKUS provides for. 

Brennan: Do you need them before 10 years? 

Prime Minister: That's not a possible timeframe. We're talking about nuclear submarines, which carry a very high level of responsibility for nuclear stewardship. Now, these aren't nuclear armed submarines, they're conventionally armed submarines. But the stewardship that is required for a nuclear submarine fleet is of the highest order. This is technology that the United States has only ever shared once, with the United Kingdom in 1958. So this is a significant, a significant decision by the United States to give us access to that technology. Now, that means we have to build the capability to steward that in the most responsible way. We take our non-proliferation responsibilities extremely seriously, being from a Pacific nation we are aware of the deep sensitivities, nuclear issues in the Pacific. And so that's why we are particularly sensitive to those issues. And we'll build that capability and it will complement the many other areas of defence cooperation we have with the United States and our many other partners.

Brennan: But are you concerned that this could be read by China as a reason to feel more threatened? Do you think this puts a target on your back?

Prime Minister: Well, I don't believe it should be, and that's really our point. Australia has every right to take decisions in our sovereign interests to provide for our defences, to work with our partners, to create a more stable region, to ensure that there is an effective balance in the region of interest, which means that all countries can trade and engage with each other and lift the prosperity of their own people. 

Brennan: Do you expect retaliation for this?

Prime Minister: I see no reason why there should be. 

Brennan: You haven't spoken to the Chinese President in well over a year. Things are not very friendly. 

Prime Minister: Well, the phones are always open at our end. The doors already are always open at our end. There is no Australian obstacle to direct dialogue at a political level between Australia and China. But that opportunity of the China side have not shown an interest in. But, they're always welcome when they wish to. 

Brennan: Would he take your call? 

Prime Minister: Whose? 

Brennan: Have you tried to call the Chinese President? 

Prime Minister: Those opportunities have been available for years, but that's not something they're interested in at the moment. That's their choice. 

Brennan: He doesn't want to take a call right now. 

Prime Minister: No. 

Brennan: So how real, big picture, how real is the threat of a hot war, a military conflict in your region of the world? You have the two Presidents of the most powerful countries in the world, the US and China saying we don't want a conflict. Do you see one as potential in the next 5 to 10 years? 

Prime Minister: As I said before, I certainly don't see it as inevitable. And I think it's all completely avoidable. And those issues, though, are going to be resolved principally between the United States and China, they are not issues that are going to be resolved directly by Australia. What Australia has to do is understanding the environment, we have to take decisions in our national interest to ensure we have adequate defences and an adequate way of providing stability in the region, not just for Australia, but all of our friends in the region, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, all countries we work closely with, in the region, ASEAN countries and in addition to that, working with Japan and India, of course, who are Quad partners, the Republic of Korea, we are all working together to have a more stable, free and open ended Indo-Pacific. 

Brennan: Is Taiwan the biggest area of potential miscalculation? 

Prime Minister: Well, the risk in any tense environment is miscalculation. That is always the great risk and history teaches us that. And so that's why I think all countries have to show caution. But in Australia's case, I think we certainly have done that. But at the same time, we'll always stand up for what we believe in and we'll always hold our ground on the things that we know matter. 

Brennan: So, the French Government made clear, they were not happy they lost this contract for submarines. And the US and Australia, UK as well, have [inaudible]. A defence contractor in France says it's sending you a bill for $66 billion. Do you intend to pay that?

Prime Minister: I think that's a rather extraordinary claim. It's simple…

Brennan: Do you think there's any wrongdoing? 

Prime Minister: No. We had a contract for procuring submarines that had gates in the contract, which gave us the option, if we didn't believe that we should continue, then for any number of reasons, in our case, what the submarines could do no longer met the strategic need that Australia had. So we've exercised our option under the contract not to proceed. Had we proceeded, then as Prime Minister, I would have been negligent because I would have been going forward with a massive and very costly contract that would not have done the job that Australia needed to be done.

Brennan: Do you regret not being more transparent or direct with, Australians are known for being direct?

Prime Minister: We are.

Brennan: Why aren’t you direct with the French President? 

Prime Minister: Well, you should be assuming I was, and I have been. We were very clear that we had deep concerns that conventional submarines would no longer do the job. We had discussions about that, and at the end of the day, we didn't see the situation the same. The French, obviously, thought their submarine could still do the job. We didn't believe that was the case. And, as a result, we decided not to proceed. 

Now, I'm absolutely not surprised that that would come as a deep disappointment. Of course, it will. It was a very significant contract. And I, and in particular, French President Macron, who I know well, had made great efforts to ensure this contract could be successful, and we appreciate that. But, at the end of the day, Australia has to make decisions in its national interest. We had sought, we had communicated that. And, unfortunately, that contract was not going to be able to proceed because the submarine was not going to do the job we needed. It’s a, it’s an outstanding submarine, if you're looking for a conventional submarine. We were no longer looking for that capability. We needed a more supreme capability and we went down that path. So, I understand the disappointment. Of course, they would be disappointed. But, this is a contractual matter, and it will be resolved, I believe, amicably.

Brennan: I want to ask about COVID.

Prime Minister: Sure.

Brennan: Australia is one of the few western democracies that has really put in place some very, very strict COVID protocols. You shut down your borders 18 months ago…

Prime Minister: Saved over-, sorry.

Brennan: When will they reopen? Are you going to have vaccine passports? When will Australians be able to leave?

Prime Minister: We will see our international borders, particularly for Australians to leave and return and Australians who are overseas and have been vaccinated to return, and that will occur before the end of the year. It could happen well before that. I mean, right now we have reached a point where half of our adult population, aged over 16, has been double vaccinated. Three quarters of them have had their first vaccination. In our older population, those rates are already much higher, over ninety per cent. And, so, with the vaccines, that is improving our resilience, and we'll be able to open up those borders. 

But, I'll tell you what shutting those borders did, it saved over 30,000 lives in Australia. Almost, it’s around about 1,200 Australians have lost their lives to COVID. That is what is lost in a day here in the United States. And if we had the same rate of fatality of just the OECD nations, on average, more than 30,000 Australians additionally would have, would have passed away. And, so, we took action to save lives. We also took action to save livelihoods. And our economy has come back strongly, even with the restrictions we have in place now. As they lift, then we will see our economy come back strongly. There's nothing wrong with our economy. The only thing that's holding back is obviously restrictions that are helping save lives.

Brennan: So, you talk about the difference in the death toll the New York Times said more people died in Florida of COVID this week than in all of Australia during the entirety of the pandemic.

Prime Minister: Correct.

Brennan: But, then, culturally, there's this huge difference. You talk about shutting your borders. You will go into quarantine when you return home to Australia.

Prime Minister: Correct.

Brennan: Do you think less liberty is medically necessary? We had a huge argument over that in this country. Why did you think it was worth it in Australia?

Prime Minister: Thirty thousand lives is the simple answer.

Brennan: People in this country won't wear masks.

Prime Minister: That's a matter for the United States.

Brennan: But, what do you attribute that difference, culturally, to?

Prime Minister: Well, I, look, we’re different societies. I think we are different societies. I mean, we're great friends and we share beliefs and values that we hold dear. And that's why our alliance, 70 years now since we had the ANZUS alliance that commenced, more than 100 years standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States in pretty much every conflict you can imagine. Those who have gone, those that have gone well, those that have not gone so well. But, on every occasion, Australia has always been there with the United States. 

That said, we're still different societies. And, in Australia, when it comes to public health, we're a very pragmatic nation. And I can tell you, the virus doesn't care what you believe. The virus cares about how it can come and take your life. And, in Australia, we've introduced what we believe are practical controls that have saved tens of thousands of lives. And I think the proof of those decisions is in the results.

Brennan: The Delta variant is really challenging.

Prime Minister: Yes.

Brennan: Some of the record, though. I mean, Sydney, again, in lockdown …

Prime Minister: Yeah. True.

Brennan: In Melbourne this week, you did have some protests against mandates. So, is there just sort of an exhaustion level here politically that makes it difficult for you to try to control the virus?

Prime Minister: The Delta variant is the game changer, and when that started hitting around the world from about mid this year of course, it's had a devastating effect here in the United States. We have had a lot of success with COVID in managing the virus pre-Delta, where we didn't have to go into lockdowns, we could manage it through the testing and tracing, isolation, borders, quarantine, all of that. It was very effective. But, when Delta hit, it was, it changed everything. And, so, regrettably, we've had lockdowns in our two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, now for many months, and we're looking forward to the end of that. And those restrictions are already starting to ease. And the vaccination program, which has been running successfully, our rates of vaccination on a daily basis per capita have even exceeded those that were achieved in the United States and the United Kingdom at their peak. And, so that is getting us to a place where we'll be able to open again.

Brennan: Very early on in this pandemic, Australia was really the only country that stood with the Trump administration, at the time, in demanding a real investigation into the origins of COVID.

Prime Minister: Yes.

Brennan: The Biden administration’s intelligence officials came forward and said they just don't have clarity. Do your agencies have any clarity into the origins?

Prime Minister: Well, Australia and the United States shares, share information on these issues.

Brennan: You’re one of the five countries.

Prime Minister: Yeah, well, it's part of the closeness of that relationship which, you know, led to the AUKUS partnership we have now. What matters is the World Health Organization should know, and the World Health Organization should be able to go and find out. That isn’t a political issue. It's not an ideological issue. I mean, where it originated from, that's a matter that needs to be determined. Now, I have no theories on that, that's not my job, but it is my job as a leader.

Brennan: But, you’ve seen the intelligence.

Prime Minister: I've seen a range of reports, but there's none of those that can lead me at least to come to any finite conclusion. But, I would like the medical experts to know, because this could happen again, this could happen, if it occurred in a wildlife wet market, we need to know, because there are many of those. If it occurred in some other setting, or how it transferred, you know, into the human population, this is important for public health. That's the only thing that matters. And, so, Australia just asked the honest question, ‘Hey, how did this start?’ It's pretty important we know, and we think the World Health Organization needs to have the ability to ensure that they know the answer to that question, because, let's face it, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact.

Brennan: Do you think they failed in doing that though?

Prime Minister: I’m very, I think I'm one of many who have been frustrated that we haven't been able, as yet, to get those answers, and we need to persist with those answers. And I welcome the fact that, you know, we were part of a process that saw over 60 countries come together and say, we need to know, we need a process to actually make sure we find out what happened here. That's important. And they need to get on and complete that job.

Brennan: Before I let you go, I do want to ask you about climate change.

Prime Minister: Sure.

Brennan: In April you said Australia was on a path to net zero emissions. You haven’t really given a timeline of what you need to deliver on that.

Prime Minister: Not yet.

Brennan: Anything to update us on in terms of what you plan to come to agreement with the United States on in these meetings? Because so far, the Biden administration has failed in its attempts to broker a major climate deal with China. Is there anything you can do or tell us about movement on the climate front?

Prime Minister: Well, for Australia, performance matters, and at the start of this year I said Australia wants to achieve net zero as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050. That's what Australia's position is. And our track record on this is strong. We've already reduced emissions in Australia by over 20 per cent since 2005. We committed to Kyoto. We met that target and we beat that target. We're going to meet and beat our Paris target as well.

Brennan: You will meet and beat it?

Prime Minister: We will meet it and we will beat it.

Brennan: No country is actually delivering on that.

Prime Minister: This- see this is what Australians think: See, it's one thing to have a commitment, but in Australia, you're not taken seriously unless you've got a plan to achieve the commitment. And how we do this, in Australia's view, is incredibly important.

Brennan: Well, a plan to achieve is different from actually doing it, and no country in the world has actually lived up to Paris Climate Change Accord.

Prime Minister: Well, we have, and we are already at 20 per cent down on our emissions from 2005. Australia has the highest rate of rooftop solar in the world. Australia has one of the highest rates of increase in renewable investment. We're spending $20 billion to develop things like hydrogen technologies and so many others that are part of the new energy economy that actually gets you to net zero. See, the issue we have is it's about how, not just by when, and the if question has already been passed. It's how we do this. And not just advanced economies like Australia. It needs to be transformational in developing economies. We want to ensure that countries in our region, like Indonesia and Vietnam and India, I met, I’ve been meeting with Prime Minister Modi over this very issue, and a technology partnership which sees us working together to ensure we get low cost solar, as well as hydrogen, part of their energy supply chains. That's what gets you to net zero, because unless we can put developing countries and developed countries on the path to net zero, well, the world just gets hotter. And we're a very practical people and we need a plan that's going to work, not just for countries like Australia and the United States, where our emissions actually, reductions exceed countries like the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and so many. We're getting on with it in Australia and we're going to keep getting on with it.

Brennan: Mr Prime Minister, thank you for joining us.

Prime Minister: Thanks very much for your time. Good to be here.