Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

17 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

Neil Mitchell: Scott Morrison, good morning.

Prime Minister: Good morning, Neil.

Mitchell: Thanks for your time. Just, firstly, 510 new cases here.

Prime Minister: Yeah.

Mitchell: One death. We've got, what, 386 mystery cases.

Prime Minister: Yeah.

Mitchell: Do you worry we’re heading the same way as New South Wales?

Prime Minister: Well, that's, that's, when you track what the progression of the outbreak has been in Victoria against what it has been in New South Wales, it's a very similar trajectory. In fact, it's slightly higher when you look at it. And, but, what that says is that the Delta strain is a very persistent and very virulent strain. And despite, you know, the lockdowns can keep it somewhat suppressed, but it continues to grow. And that's what they've learnt in New South Wales, and they’re some weeks ahead. And that's why the vaccination rates are just so important. And to give you some update on that, the most recent vaccination figures have come through, Neil. So, telling you here first - 70.25 per cent is the first dose vaccination rate in Victoria, 42.94 per cent for second dose in Victoria. So, those numbers continue to go up. Good news that under, 12 to 15s, that's around about 10 per cent now have had their first dose. And that, so that's great. That's only been going very recently. And across the country, over 300,000 doses - 70.5 per cent, we've now reached that on first doses around the country; 45.4 on second. And 24 million doses in total around the country.

Mitchell: Well, we're looking at pretty good double vax, well, 80 per cent double vaccination, with a bit of luck by early December, aren't we?

Prime Minister: Look, I think, well, I think we're tracking well. I mean, General Frewen I think made a very good point, and that is, you know, we just don't take anything for granted. We've seen in other countries, once you get to higher levels, you've got to keep stressing the need for this. But, again, in Australia, because of the national plan and how it's set out, there's always those marks to reach and the greater return we get back to where we want to be, the higher the vaccination rates go. The other thing that's good in that, Neil, is that the most recent vaccination rates for aged care workers now at first dose is just, it’s about 97 per cent. And, so, those mandatory requirements that we put in took some time to get them in. But, they've done the job, and that means that that's been a very effective way to get that done.

Mitchell: Prime Minister, on to the international matters, The Global Times, the voice for the Chinese Government, says you have made Australia a nuclear target. Do you accept there’s some truth in that?

Prime Minister: Look, what I understand is what we've done is what Australia should do in its national interests. There's all sorts of talk that is, that is said, I don't think that supports peace and stability in the region. That's what our goal is. And I think it should be all of our goals, who live and operate within the Indo-Pacific to be pursuing that, and that doesn't seem to be very conducive to that type of an outcome.

Mitchell: I couldn't agree more, but is it, is it not also reality that it does push us up the list as a nuclear target?

Prime Minister: Look, Australia has to stand up for itself and protect its interests and keep Australians safe, and and we will just always do that. And look, I note those comments, but I don't intend to respond to them. It's important that everyone in the region focus on stability, peace and security. That's what we're doing. We encourage all other partners and nations in the region to do the same.

Mitchell: That's exactly what the Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman says you have undermined, or we have undermined - peace and stability, peace and stability in the region.

Prime Minister: I don't, I don’t share that view. I don’t, I know many others in the region don't share that view. I mean, China themselves undertake investments in their own national defence in their national interests, and that's not surprising. And I don't know why it would be surprising that Australia and other partners would do the same.

Mitchell: But, so, you do accept that the region is now, and this is one of the reasons you're doing this, the region is far more tense [inaudible] than it was.

Prime Minister: Oh, of course it is. Yeah, no, that's absolutely the case. And we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be. And we try and make it as we'd like it to be - a more peaceful and a more stable place - and that's what everyone in the region wants. And Australia's decision has been well-received in the region because the purposes are understood. And we just want to ensure that right throughout the region there can be free movement of goods and services and maritime traffic and air traffic, and the rule of law applies. There are no sort of special zones in international waters. There are only international waters, and they’re the rules by which the world should operate. And that's how the Indo-Pacific should operate.

Mitchell: They're also talking about Australian military losing their lives in the South China Sea. Is this just propaganda or is this, is this really coming from Government?

Prime Minister: I think you've, I think you've offered an astute observation, Neil.

Mitchell: Yeah, but it is, I mean, The Global Times is a government arm, isn't it, really? More so than the ABC.

Prime Minister: We're focused on what we need to do to protect Australia's national security, to work with our partners. I mean, this is a, an historic-level agreement. At no other time, other than with the United Kingdom back in 1958, has the United States shared its technology on nuclear submarines. So, this puts Australia in a very, very special arrangement, a one off, as the White House was saying yesterday. And that's great for Australia. It's important for Australia, because the world is complex and it's changing and it's competitive and there are tensions and we know that. And, so, of course, we'll do things that seek to try and stabilise that.

Mitchell: Do you expect some sort of economic retribution from China?

Prime Minister: I couldn't see how that could be justified.

Mitchell: It doesn't mean it won't happen. Do you expect it?

Prime Minister: Well, we will continue to improve our resilience, and deal with any challenges that we have to address, and largely that's what we're doing as part of this arrangement.

Mitchell: So, we have to be ready for it? We've got to be prepared for it, do we?

Prime Minister: Well, we always have to be resilient. We always have to do what's in Australia's national interests, and that's what this agreement delivers.

Mitchell: The Foreign Affairs spokesman also said he had no knowledge of you directly offering bilateral talks with the Chinese President. Let’s get it clear - do you want bilateral talks with China?

Prime Minister: Of course, it's always been our position. There's never been any obstacle to that on Australia's side. None whatsoever.

Mitchell: Do you accept that what's happened here has made China, though, a more significant enemy of Australia?

Prime Minister: No.

Mitchell: When will these subs be in the water? Looks like 20 years. Both Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd are saying that's too long. What do we do in the meantime, if it’s 20 years off?

Prime Minister: No, it's no, it's not that. And in the next 18 months we’ll sort of prove up those timeframes. We anticipate the build commencing this decade and and we anticipate that before the end of next decade that we'll have the first in the water, just was was the case with the Attack class submarines. But, what we will have continuing to be in the water is the Collins class submarine, which will go through a Life-of-Type Extension, and there'll be billions invested in that. And they’ll be conducted in Adelaide, along with full-cycle docking, which will see the Collins class submarines, a very effective submarine, operate well into the 2040s.

Mitchell: I know you've made it clear that these these submarines will carry conventional weapons, not nuclear warheads. However, China and a number of other countries have pointed out, because so many of these vessels around the world are nuclear capable, that it would be not too difficult to convert them to nuclear weapons. Is that right?

Prime Minister: Well, no, I don't know if I’d necessarily share that view, but but it’s moot, because Australia is not seeking that capability. It's not on our agenda. It's not something that has ever been contemplated by us, and nor do I believe it should.

Mitchell: Will we have more US troops based in Australia?

Prime Minister: Well, we already have quite a number, as you know, up in northern Australia. And I was up there not that long ago when we were announcing major investments to increase the capability of our defence training facilities there to enable greater participation of our partner forces, the United States. What's exciting about this agreement is it isn't just the United States. It's the United Kingdom. I mean, the United Kingdom becoming a more significant partner with Australia on defence, one, but also, having their focus on this part of the world, which is increasingly- the Indo-Pacific has become the centre of the world. And in terms of where things are going to affect the fates of so many nations, including our own, but also those further afield in Europe and the United Kingdom, and Prime Minister Johnson, Boris, he understands this, and he is engaging very heavily with ourselves and the United States, but also many other countries in the region, and so are the French. And we would continue to welcome our participation with the French. We understand they're disappointed. That is entirely understandable and reasonable, and we'll just have to work through that. Butt, at the end of the day, as Prime Minister I've got to make the calls that are in Australia's national interests, and no one else.

Mitchell: How much have we already spent on the French deal?

Prime Minister: $2.4 billion, and that's been an investment in our capability.

Mitchell: So, that’s gone, that’s gone?

Prime Minister: Well, no, I don't, I don't see it that way, Neil. I see it as getting us into position to build our skills, understanding and capabilities. We've been investing in maritime engineers and systems engineers and building that capability. But, so I see that as a good investment. Our opponents were going to spend more than twice that much paying people to have vaccines they’d already had.

Mitchell: Ok, well, $2.4 billion, plus there'll be compensation. That's been estimated internationally at $400 million. What do you think - that's a ballpark figure?

Prime Minister: I'm not speculating.

Mitchell: Why? It’s being negotiated, is it?

Prime Minister: These are just commercial arrangements, and I'm not going to speculate on them.

Mitchell: Will it be public when it’s done, will it not?

Prime Minister: Of course.

Mitchell: In 2018, you said Australia did not have to choose between the US and China. Have we now chosen?

Prime Minister: I don't believe we should have to.

Mitchell: But, we have, haven’t we?

Prime Minister: My view, my view on that hasn't changed. I don't believe we should have to. I mean, everything we've done with the United States is consistent with the partnerships and relationships and alliance we've already had, always had with the United States. So, that comes as no surprise, and this is why our door remains open to have that comprehensive strategic partnership which we have with China, to continue on in the way we intended it to occur, and there is no obstacle to that from Australia's perspective.

Mitchell: Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, I know you disagreed with what he said, and you said that. A very strong statement yesterday, which in part I found offensive to anybody who served in Afghanistan. But, that's my issue. Did you feel he's offering propaganda comfort to China in that statement, as a former Prime Minister?

Prime Minister: Well, look, I always respect the views of former Prime Ministers. They have had, they had to deal with the situation that they faced in their time. This is a different time. And I need to deal with the world that our country is facing now. I made the observation that I suspect the view that he holds is shared by some, perhaps many in the Labor Party. I know it's not the official position that Labor has taken on this agreement, and I welcome that. But, that said, you know, his view would be at odds with that of, you know, Prime Minister Curtin all those years ago. As I said yesterday, I'm more with Curtin than Keating on this.

Mitchell: Would you rather he didn't make these statements?

Prime Minister: It's a free country. He's entitled to. He's a former Prime Minister. And I respect him as such. 

Mitchell: Did you feel his comments were insulting to people who served in Afghanistan? 

Prime Minister: I think we should always respect the service of our men and women, particularly former prime ministers and current prime ministers, and I always do. So I'll hold myself to that standard, I'll let others hold themselves to the standards they set. 

Mitchell: Does this does all this mean that nuclear power for peaceful purposes, that nuclear power is a step closer in Australia? If we can accept nuclear powers submarines, why not reactors that are giving us something to boil a kettle? 

Prime Minister: They're completely different issues and they're not related. And that was one of the key issues that enabled us to proceed, which was what was different to 2016. A) We didn't have access to this technology with the United States back in 2016. A conventional submarine was the only option. So we had to go for the best possible one we could get. And that was the Attack Class, the French submarine. And that is still our view. If you want a conventional submarine, that's the best one to do. But we need more than that. We need a supreme submarine capability in our part of the world, and that's what a nuclear submarine does. But on civil, no, the other thing is the reactor for these new generation nuclear submarines, for whole of service, for the vessel. And so that means you don't have to service the reactor and that means you don't need that civil capability. So the two issues are not linked. 

Mitchell: Just before we leave the region, Evergrande, which is a huge Chinese construction company, is on the verge of collapse, debts of $300 billion. What would that do to Australia's economy? 

Prime Minister: Well, like any major company investing in Australia, we obviously want them to be viable. That's good for jobs. But the truth is, the largest stock on foreign investment in Australia is actually from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canadian pension funds, European pension funds. China has had an important role in investment in Australia in many projects in particular in the construction sector. And that's been important to our economy. That's why we have an economic relationship with China. We're interested in that. But it's got to be on Australia's national interest terms, like with any other foreign country. We have rules and we have, I think, quite positive and proactive rules and principles. But that's it. You know, we set them and investment here happens on our terms. 

Mitchell: But there is speculation around the world, there is some analysis suggest the collapse of $300 billion in debt that could possibly provoke another GFC. 

Prime Minister: Well, that's not the advice I have at this point. But, you know, the world is going through a very, very difficult economic time. And I think it's an important reminder of that, Neil. I mean, the world is facing so many challenges. Of course, we've got COVID. And we've been dealing with that every single day now for almost two years. But let's not forget, there are global security challenges and that we have not taken our eye off the ball of that for one day. As yesterday I think demonstrated, there are the changes around counter-terrorism, which in a changing world post Afghanistan, we must continue to be ever mindful of. And then there's the economic challenges of the type that you've just announced, I should say, in making that observation. So the economic recovery plan that we put in in the budget, that is as important today, if not more than it was even then. So we're investing to ensure that Australia's economy is resilient, everything from training to infrastructure to manufacturing to science to research, university place, all of these things being done, and particularly in our energy sector, our energy sector, as the world moves into a new energy economy, we want to be competitive. We want to be successful. And we want to power our industries. 

Mitchell: Prime Minister, Victoria is introducing compulsory vaccination in the construction industry and it looks like coming in the health industry. And while it's not there already, will you re-think compulsory vaccination? 

Prime Minister: We've got no plans to do that. But states can always do exactly what you said. They're responsible for public health. I think, Neil, over the course of this 18 months, there's been some sort of mistaken view that some powers have been given to the states. It is just simply not true. They've always had them. And I think the public may not have been as aware of them because we haven't been confronted with a national and international pandemic at the scale we're now living through. It's enlivened what those powers are. The states have always had them and they they've always been responsible for them. And so each of the premiers must be accountable for how they use them. 

Mitchell: So a vaccine passport's inevitable, isn't it? 

Prime Minister: Oh that's- we've got a record of vaccination and that will enable people to travel overseas. That's what our job is. And that record of vaccination can be used by state governments as part of their QR code reading apps. 

Mitchell: Do you support that, intellectually, you know, no jab, no entry approaching in commerce? 

Prime Minister: Well, businesses have that right to say who can come into their premises. That's what the law says. And that doesn't that fall foul of discrimination laws. But what I actually think will happen Neil, is I think we'll move through these phases. I think there will be a phase, particularly as you go into 70 per cent, to 80 percent, where you've got to exercise that caution, as we're already seeing in New South Wales and as Victoria is moving towards, you'll start to open up. And it'll obviously be for public health reasons, not ideological reasons. The virus doesn't care what your ideology is and you will see vaccinated people being able to move and do more things. Why? Because they're less likely to get the virus, transmit the virus, get a serious illness and end up in hospital. And so that won't put the pressure on the public hospital system. Now, that is the key issue that has been focused on now. Particularly, we'll discuss that more later today, as we do every time we gather with all the premiers and chief ministers at National Cabinet. I know Victoria have done advanced planning on how they're going to deal with the surge on their hospital system and how they're going to manage that. It will come under pressure. Of course it will. As it is New South Wales. But they've got a plan to work through that and we'll support them as needed to help them through that. But every state at some point is going to have to pass through this tunnel to get to the other side to live with the virus. And in Victoria, New South Wales, you're a lot closer to it than the rest of the country. 

Mitchell: One thing that worries me with governments, and maybe this is a role federally as well, is when they're given powers like curfews and closing playgrounds and they've got these powers under the emergency powers. I understand that. They find them pretty hard to give up. We need some sort of guarantee that as we get through this, we'll return to being a free society, which is ... 

Prime Minister: Absolutely and I can assure you that our end as a federal government, we want these things only to be there as long as they have to and will be, you know, the first to be most enthusiastic to withdraw them. They are imposed and should be imposed only reluctantly. And in the same way, you know, we have had to engage the federal government in the biggest economic support programmes the country has ever seen. Now, JobKeeper and the COVID Disaster Payment supports, which we've had in place now in Victoria for some time, which has given billions in support, in Victoria specifically $1.7 billion of support on top of the business supports we're providing which Treasurer Frydenberg, Josh, has been able to put in place working closely with Tim Pallas. That's been very important. And has saved jobs, livelihoods. But, you know, our natural instinct, I got to tell you, is not to spend money in these ways, but when you have to, you do. And you stop doing it as soon as you're able to do safely. 

Mitchell: Thank you for so much time. Couple of quick things. Will AstraZeneca be recognised for overseas travel as a vaccine passport? Will AstraZeneca, for example, have the recognition in the United States? 

Prime Minister: Do you mean in Australia? 

Mitchell: Well, no, if I'm vaccinated with AstraZeneca in Australia and I want to get this passport to go overseas, will it be recognised around the world if it's AstraZeneca and not Pfizer? 

Prime Minister: Well as far as I'm aware, the United States isn't imposing any restrictions around that. 

Mitchell: What about other countries? 

Prime Minister: Well to those who do in Europe and particularly the United Kingdom, and it's obviously recognised there. It's the most recognised vaccine in the world. Here in Australia, we're recognising vaccines that have been approved by our TGA. 

Mitchell: Question from a listener, will we still be competing in the Winter Olympics in China? 

Prime Minister: Yeah, I see no reason why we wouldn't be. I mean, that's a decision of the Australian Olympic Committee, not the Australian Government. 

Mitchell: Can I ask you about Christian Porter. If as a radio broadcaster, I was to accept money from people I didn't know and it went into my back pocket, I'd lose my job. There's no question I would have the broadcasting authorities on to me, and rightly so, and I wouldn't do it. I know you are still assessing it. I know you're still waiting for a decision. But surely on the face of it, it looks like indefensible, does it not? 

Prime Minister: Well, I'm taking it extremely seriously and I'm waiting for some further advice on this, because this is something I've, you know, needs to be dealt with appropriately. And the Minister understands that as well. We've had that conversation. And until I get that further advice, then I just, I don't think it helps to speculate. I understand the point you're making, Neil. That's why I'm taking it so seriously. 

Mitchell: Couple of lighter things, if I may. Now, I want your view of what the US President was on about when he said this yesterday. 

[Excerpt plays]

Mitchell: I know it's not going to worry you, but did he forget your name, or was he just being relaxed? 

Prime Minister: I don't know. But he does refer to me as pal in our private conversations quite regularly. And if he did, we all have those moments, Neil. I've had them, I suspect you've had them and your listeners too. 

Mitchell: If he calls you pal, what do you, what do you call him? 

Prime Minister: I call him Mr President. Or mate. 

Mitchell: And one last question. You and Josh Frydenberg, Josh told me you were camped at the Lodge together for a while. 

Prime Minister: We were. 

Mitchell: Is it true you cooked him of your curries? 

Prime Minister: It is true. I cooked him one of my curries. More than once, and he enjoyed them very much. And as you'd expect. I quite enjoy getting in the kitchen. And it was good to have Josh there. We were working through a lot of issues at the time. And the fact that the ACT was in lockdown, meant, I mean there are virtually no more important relationship between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer in a government, particularly as the leader and deputy leader of the Liberal Party and of course, with the leader of The Nationals, with Barnaby. But we were working through a lot of issues and that enables us to, you know, keep working, basically and I beat him at pool too. 

Mitchell: And you watched Yes, Prime Minister? 

Prime Minister: Yeah, we did. Usually over dinner. We watched a few action films too. 

Mitchell: What? Westerns or?

Prime Minister: [Inaudible] and I don't get to watch them that often at home. 

Mitchell: Thank you so much for your time. Thank you. I know we've kept you. 

Prime Minister: Good to talk to you. 

Mitchell: Prime Minister Scott Morrison.