Interview with Neil Breen, 4BC

27 Nov 2020
Prime Minister

NEIL BREEN: From lockdown at the Lodge, Prime Minister, how's it going?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, not too bad, Breeny. It's been very busy, to be honest. 

BREEN: I've seen you everywhere.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've set ourselves up so that when we came back from Japan, we'd be able to, you know, keep on with the job, get on with the job. A lot to do. We've had global summits, last night we had our virtual summit with the Europeans. And so there's no slacking off. There's so much to do, as you know and we've been able to keep on with it.

BREEN: It never ends. Now, we don't need to be Einstein to work out what was happening. But prior to the state election in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria had to get their act together and they were locked out of travelling to Queensland. All of a sudden yesterday, our Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said we're moving to a hotspot regime. There'll be no more lockouts of states and cities. This is something National Cabinet has wanted for months.

PRIME MINISTER: True. And look, I welcome the decision. I welcome the progress we're making. All year, look, I've just sort of focused on where we've got to get to, where there's disagreements along the way, that just comes with the business of getting everybody to work together and you just look past that and you just keep going forward. And when you think about where we've got to over the course of 2020, one of the worst years anyone can imagine. The hardship that people have gone through, whether it's in Queensland or anywhere else. People have lost livelihoods. People have lost loved ones. And when you look at where we've got to now, where we're looking into to 2021, vaccine looking promising, borders opening up and opened up. As I said, we wanted to be in that place by Christmas. 75 per cent of the jobs back, half a million people their homes have been saved over the course of this year. 700,000 jobs were saved from JobKeeper. I mean, Australia has done an amazing job this year. Australians are the reason for that. They've just been resilient. They've toughed it out. They've looked after each other, and looking forward to 2021.

BREEN: Talking about Australians, it looks like there's 36,000-38,000 Australians overseas now registered as wanting to come back. How are we going to get them back?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've already got about over 30,000 back since I made that commitment to those at that time who were registered to come home and that was about 26,000. So we're getting through it. 400,000 people have come back over the course of the year. It's obviously constricted by the amount of hotel quarantine that we have and the National Cabinet, all the premiers and I agree that we don't want to put too much pressure on that system because we want to maintain the health situation. I'm sure Queenslanders would agree with that. So we're getting people back. We've got additional flights that are coming back through. We've got more additional flights. We've got more organised to come out of Europe. They've been coming out of India, the UK. We've organised almost 70 facilitated flights over the course of the year and we're getting Australians home. But every time we get one home, we get another one extra who wants to come.

BREEN: That's right. That’s right.

PRIME MINISTER: That's the challenge. So we're meeting the amounts that we hope to achieve by Christmas. It's just that more people are looking to come home. But one of the other things we're doing is we're trying to prioritise it. So we've got Services Australia helping the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They're contacting all the people overseas who've given us their details just to check on them, to see if any of their plans have changed. Some are saying, oh, I can come back next year. Others are saying, well, it's got even more urgent for me. And so that means we can help try and working with the airlines and others to prioritise getting people home. It's those who are most vulnerable we're most concerned about and we've got a hardship fund. And out of that hardship fund, we've paid out, I think around about $10 million already and on average about 4,000 in each of those things for accommodation or emergency assistance. So we're helping people. We're looking to get them home. It's not easy, but the reason why it's taking as long is because we've got to keep our quarantine system and the integrity of that as well operating to protect Australians.

BREEN: Yes, we sure do. Now, the world's hanging its hat on a COVID-19 vaccine. And obviously the share market is going well and property is going well and hopefully jobs will go well in the new year. Australia has more than 30 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine on order, but they've ordered another global trial overnight because they're worried that it's not as effective as it should be in over 55s. Is that a concern for our government?

PRIME MINISTER: No, this is a normal part of the clinical process. And we have three other vaccines, as you know, we've got the Pfizer vaccine and the Novavax vaccine, both of those doing really, really well. And then, of course, there's the wonderful University of Queensland vaccine, which is going to its final stages of trials and that will be manufactured in Australia with CSL. The AstraZeneca vaccine is already being produced down in Victoria now. It still has to receive the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s tick off, which is important. There'll be no vaccines unless they're safe and they have to satisfy all of those tests. But around the world, Neil, everyone's a lot more positive about this. I was talking to the President of the European Commission last night and the President of the European Union. And they also, they've got a similar family of vaccines that they've backed in. And the good news we could share with each other is the strike rate on these are much higher than any of us thought they would be. We spread our risk, but at the moment, all of our bets are paying off.

BREEN: Prime Minister, the report into alleged war crimes committed by members of the ADF in Afghanistan for a decade, we all know about it, has been a polarising issue. A lot of commentators, people write to me whenever I mention it, saying you've convicted them already. You've convicted- well, I haven't.

PRIME MINISTER: Neither have I.

BREEN: I know. The ADF has had to give a show cause notice to 10 members of the SAS overnight. This is an emotive issue, Prime Minister, how can it be expedited into the courts so it can calm the public down who think that soldiers are being hung out to dry?

PRIME MINISTER: Well look, a couple of important points, first, Neil, and yes, it is a very sensitive issue. And yes, our justice system makes the right assumption that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And when I announced prior to the release of the report about how we were going to deal with it, we set up two processes for that. One was the court process. And that deals with possible criminal matters for alleged behaviour, and that will follow that process. And everyone will have the protections of law in that process and the presumption of innocence. That's incredibly important, we’re setting up the office of the special investigator to do that. And I can't promise you that that will be a quick process. Justice is a patient process and it is patient because it has to conform with respecting everybody's rights in that process. Also, the Defence Minister set up an oversight panel over the Australian Defence Forces in terms of how they responded to the recommendations of that report and the government - we haven't seen, nor do we wish to have provided to us the detailed report, which includes the names of individuals, that we think would compromise the process. That is something for the ADF to address internally. And so any decisions about show cause notices or stand downs, they are decisions being taken by the ADF and there's an oversight panel of eminent people who are overlooking that process. 

So we've tried to set up the most robust, transparent and good governance processes to see how we can deal with this issue the best we can. But in each case, it's important that not only is there accountability in the defence forces for individual alleged acts, but also in the chain of command about those who had responsibilities and accountabilities in that chain of command. And that's what I expect to be done. That's what I've made very clear through the Defence Minister, who has made that point to both the Chief of the Defence Force as well as the oversight panel. And this is going to be hard, Neil. And I can't-

BREEN: Very difficult.

PRIME MINISTER: I can't sort of put it any other way. I wish it was more simple. And I know Australians feel really, really strongly about this right across a spectrum of views. So we just have to have a good process. We've got to respect it, people are innocent in this country until proven guilty. If there are any disciplinary actions that occur within the Defence Forces, they are rightly made by the Defence Forces, not by Ministers. And that's the way the process should be. But there should be proper oversight of that to ensure all accountabilities are dealt with.

BREEN: Prime Minister in case I don’t speak to you again before -

PRIME MINISTER: Just on that though Neil, The other issue, of course, though, is support for our veterans. What we're talking about here is a small number in a very big Defence Force. 

BREEN: Yes. 

PRIME MINISTER: And everyone who pulls on a uniform has earned and deserved our respect. And I wouldn't want any Defence Force member, serving men or women, or veterans to feel that anyone is looking at them differently. I'm certainly not. I know you and your listeners would not be. We're incredibly proud of them. And for Defence Force veterans who are feeling this at the moment and we were very conscious of that, the Defence, all hour support line, 1800 628 036, there’s Open Arms, there’s the defence family hotline. There are a range of other support services that are available. And I would encourage people to make themselves, avail of those services. We greatly value your service and we greatly appreciate your contribution.

BREEN: Prime Minister, just in case I don't talk to you, I just wanted to let you know that you and your family are welcome in Queensland now. We're good to go. So if you haven't made a Christmas booking-

PRIME MINISTER:  I was there a little while ago. 

BREEN: I know, I know you were but now you can bring everybody up.

PRIME MINISTER: Exactly. And look, I'm looking forward- I’ve got a lot of friends who have family from Queensland. I know they're looking forward to seeing their family. They live down in Sydney. And hopefully that's not too far away for them as well. It's really good news. I know there's been disagreements this year, Breeny, but, you know, we've come through it. How good’s that?

BREEN: Yeah, we’ve come through it Australia. We’ve put it behind us and we move on. Enjoy lockdown at the Lodge.

PRIME MINISTER: Including State of Origin, I'm going to put that behind me, too by the way. 

BREEN: Yeah, well, you can watch the one dayer from the SCG and lock down this arv’.

PRIME MINISTER: I reckon we'll have it on in the background. But thanks a lot, Neil, for the opportunity to speak and to everyone up there, all the best. And congratulations, Queensland. You've done a great job.

BREEN: Thank you. Prime Minister Scott Morrison there from the Lodge.