Interview with Michael Usher, The Latest - Channel 7

02 Apr 2020
Prime Minister

MICHAEL USHER: Prime Minister, thank you for joining us again tonight. Firstly, I should check, you have been flat out in meetings right up until this interview, it's all very fast moving. Are there any developments we need to know right now?
PRIME MINISTER: No, the Cabinet and its various ministers’ groups are meeting very regularly. I've just actually stepped out of a meeting with the Opposition actually to talk about Parliament reconvening next week and moving towards that and talking through some of the issues about the legislation we will be bringing forward. But today, the major announcement was in relation to child care but also today we pointed out that we now have a testing rate in Australia of over 1,000 people for 100,000, which is the highest in the world as best as we can determine. That's been critically important to how we have been able to manage issues, on top of that we have also had a lot more personal protection equipment, which we have been able to access and so our stocks and stores of that have also been rising. That will also be very important to how we are managing the issue going forward as well.
USHER: Okay, the free child care package. Let me just rewind to that one for working parents. Could you clarify, PM, do you want children back in child care as soon as possible, and would that be children of anyone with a job right now?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, well, if you have a job and you can't arrange for your child care at home, in a safe way, so you know, then that's what child care is there for. And equally the early childhood education component of that is also important. But child care to support these workers, and many of whom will be in critically important jobs, whether they be nurses or doctors or as I said today, the cleaners at these places. I mean there are a lot of essential jobs at the moment and if you have a job it's essential to you and so we want to make sure that people are in a position to be able to hold on to those jobs and what this also does is dramatically reduces the child care costs to nothing for those so that means every dollar can go further. 
USHER: And this is in place for a period of 6 months. Is it likely after that, that these conditions may stay in place, universal child care? 
PRIME MINISTER: No. No, it won't. These are special conditions to deal with the crisis that we are in, and like with all the arrangements we are putting in place, the JobKeeper program, the JobSeeker COVID-19 supplement all of these arrangements are being done on a temporary basis. All of the measures we are putting in place are designed to get us through the crisis period of the COVID-19 virus. And one of our key principals has been not to load up the Budget in years into the future. So that it will enable us to get back on to a sure footing once the crisis has passed.
USHER: The curve is showing signs of flattening as you mentioned, our testing rates are the highest in the world. Everything seems to be going in the right direction Prime Minister, is your timeline still pointing to 6 months of these restrictions?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, it is. And it's very difficult to provide any other timeline. Even that 6 months is 
indicative. I've been very clear about this because I've been trying to get the message across to Australians this is not something that just comes and goes in a couple of weeks. This is going to be a whole new normal for Australians for some time to come yet. We think 6 months is the most reasonable estimate of that at the moment. I certainly hope that it may be sooner than that, but it could also be longer. And so what we are dealing with here is very difficult. I mean this virus will follow its own rules. It won't follow ours. That means we need to adapt and change to ensure that we can both manage the devastating health impact this can have, taking so many lives already not just in Australia but, of course, all round the world. But also the devastating economic impacts it has. That's why we have tried in all cases to do things that are measured, that are scalable, that are sustainable. But my message today to Australians was to stay positive and stay connected to each other and just stay strong. That's what we need to do.
USHER: What would be the first signs for you that we are on a path to recovery?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is the difficulty, Michael. And that is the virus if we - and we are having some success in this but we are not complacent about it. We are in a position to push that curve down, we have particularly seen some of those results in NSW, which has been one of the most - which has been the most affected state, in NSW we have seen that flattening. We are seeing it in the other states as well. But the issue is, ultimately, there needs to be a vaccine. A vaccine ultimately enables everybody to go back to life as it was. In the meantime, we’d have to be careful that if we are ever to ease restrictions that we just wouldn't then see a rush on the virus again and our worst fears realised. It is a very difficult balancing act but the best thing for Australia is to ensure we minimise the disruption as much as possible, and that we keep the strong health measures in place and we hold that balance for as long as we possibly can. That's why I have been stressing that it has to be sustainable. We have to be able to adjust our lives and live with that for quite a period of time.
USHER: Look, the Easter holidays are upon us. I wouldn't mind you talking about parents and families right now. As you know kids are housebound, parents are juggling home schooling, working from home, working remotely. I think parents want a little ray of hope. Is there a chance that after the Easter school holidays would you like to see classes resume to allow as many kids back to school as possible?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, first of all I hope Easter does provide people with a ray of hope over the break. It's an important time of the year for families and everyone. But obviously people should not be going away, piling up in the car and going away as they might ordinarily do in Easter. People should be staying at home this Easter and that's what they should be doing. On the other side of the school holidays, what the teachers, the schools and everyone has been planning for has been to be a balance, a combination of both distance learning as well as for those who are not in a position to provide a learning environment at home, for the children to be able to return to school. 
I mean school will return after the holidays. They just won't be holidays that most school students have known for a long time. And when they go back, it's the learning that matters, and we hope to have an arrangement that can return as much to normal as possible but we have to accept that there will be for some protracted period of time, this combination of distance learning and for those who can't do that at home, no child should be turned away from schools on the other side of the break and that includes up until the break in those states that school terms are still running.
USHER: So do you think it will be preferable if we can get as many kids back into the classrooms as possible. From the point of view of easing some of the pressure on the home at the moment?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, the health advice we have is that there is no health reasons why children can't go to school. Their health is not at risk. That is the advice that we have received. But there are many other issues that the State Governments and schools have to manage in terms of their workforce and ensuring the teachers can be there to provide that support to the children at school. And there are occupational health and safety issues that the unions have raised that the states are seeking to address and so there is going to be this combination. When the Premier in NSW talked about practical reasons, this is predominantly what she was referring to.
USHER: If you don't mind me asking a personal question, I'm guessing your family is not seeing you a lot at the moment. How is Jenny and the kids handling working from home? Learning from home?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a big change for them. When I do get home and if they are still up I talk to them about their school day and they just say it's pretty weird, dad, doing this. And it is going to take a little bit of time for them to adjust. It is a whole different way of learning for young kids and one of the things I've been most adamant about is that the virus is going to take a lot of things from us in the months ahead. But I do not want it to rob our children of their education. And I know that teachers, the school systems, the independent schools, the Catholic schools everybody will keep putting the child's education at the top of the list, and of course their health. And we have got to ensure that they can do that for their teachers, the teachers need to be teaching in a healthy environment for them. And so at home when I get home it's a very different world we are living in at the moment. And the girls are doing fine. Jenny is doing fine. But we are only a few weeks into it and I suspect as the weeks go on they will adjust a bit but at the same time look, it's going to get frustrating. And that's why we have got to do all we can to stay connected and try and stay positive.
USHER: Just one question, a big question about the economy. It's a big question here. But you are spending naturally tens of billions, many tens of billions to safeguard jobs, protect the economy long term. At the end of it, there is likely to be a recession. How do we recover and is it going to be inevitable that higher taxes will come around to help pay for all of this?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, obviously there will be a heightened debt burden as a result of decisions we have had to take. They have been necessary decisions. Otherwise the calamity for Australian households, economic, would be  very disastrous. We have taken that decisions of government to step up and to make this commitment to provide people with an economic lifeline over these many months ahead. 
But you are right, we will have to then work hard on the other side to restore the economy. Now, that's why we are being so careful not to have things that tie the economy and the Budget down off into the future. We do need to snap back to the normal arrangements on the other side of this. And we are being very careful to do that. But we will need to build the economy strongly again. That's why the measures, that the things we are doing for businesses are so important. We want the businesses to be able to snap back and just get on with the job, when we get on the other side. We don't want them to be burdened down by debt and large outstanding lease payments and having to go into insolvency because they can't afford the various payments that they would have to make. We cannot have the businesses just go under. We need them to keep them vibrant and alive at least until the end of this period so they can get back to work and so people can get back to work. This has been a key part of our strategy, with everything we are doing. We want those businesses there on the other side. If we lose the businesses then that's going to put an even greater burden on re-kick starting the economy on the other side.
USHER: All along as you said today, stay connected as best you can.
PRIME MINISTER: That's it. Even if we are isolated we can stay connected.
USHER: OK. Alright. Prime Minister, good to talk to you again. Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Michael.