NEIL MITCHELL: Prime minister, good morning.
PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, how are you?
MITCHELL: I’m okay, a bit to get to I apologise, we haven't spoken for a while and I want to get the economy, obviously. But let's talk about the statues being pulled down around the world, this is going to come to Australia inevitably, you're a member for Cook.
PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
MITCHELL: Should we rename the electorate?
PRIME MINISTER: No, absolutely not. And look, I think people need to get a bit of a grip on this. I mean, let's just remember Australia's history. New South Wales in particular, was founded on having no slaves. It was a standout at its time. Cook was no slave trader in his age, in the Enlightenment age, he was very much ahead of his time. I mean, they're also talking about wanting to pull down Lachlan Macquarie's statue. I mean, Lachlan Macquarie emancipated the convicts. And my forefather was such a convict at the time. I think people are getting sort of a bit ahead of themselves here. What has begun with, you know, very important issues and important issues here in Australia, is now getting hijacked by the usual sort of band of noise makers who just want to make an attack on Australia and its society. And, you know, they ‘ve got to pull their heads in.
MITCHELL: There were some bad people though, I mean John Batman and John Pascoe here in Victoria were pretty ordinary blokes.
PRIME MINISTER: I'm not sort of debating the individuals. What I can sense, though, is some taking licence from what has been a very genuinely motivated public feeling about support for indigenous Australians. And it's starting to find its way into a whole bunch of other agendas now. And I think we've got to call that out when it happens. But, you know, Australia was not based on the slave trade.
MITCHELL: I was just was just talking to an Aboriginal leader Lidia Thorpe who is a former member of the state parliament here. And she said that. Well, that millions of it was initially millions, then hundreds of thousands of Aborigines had been massacred by Australians. And we're on a par with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. What's your view on that?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, look, I think it's important that when we look at Australia's history, we look at it honestly and we look at it, seek to understand it, own it and help frame how we approach the future. I'll give you a good example. In my electorate you've made reference to Cook, we just had the 250th anniversary of Cook's landing and what we did there, we worked with the local community and we put in three huge new installations, statues, you can call them that, if you like. One was of the whale, beautiful statues of whales, which is the totem of the Dharawal people in that area. And the other most striking one on the landing site where actually Cook came ashore. There are these massive, big what looked like the rips of the ship, but they also looked like the ribs of a whale. And it was designed that way by the artist to tell the story of the meeting of two cultures. So I think that expresses beautifully something about our history and about what the way forward is being together. And they are amazing installations. And if people go to Sydney I’d encourage people to go and have a look. They're absolutely stunning. I’ll send you some pictures of them Neil. But you know, so you can do- I mean, how they do that today is different to how they did it, you know, 50 years ago, a hundred years ago. I mean, the original Cook statue, I think, in Hyde Park in Sydney was erected by public subscription, not by some edict of the Kings.
MITCHELL: Look if you could send me some of those photographs. I’ll get your office to send me those photographs we’ll certainly put them online. That sort of leads me into the Black Lives protests, Black Lives Matter protests here. You've rightly said today it's very frustrating and potentially we've got to sit around and wait for another week or more to see whether it's created a second wave. They're talking about more protests. How do you, you can't stop them, can you?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a matter for the Victorian government. And I commend the Victorian government for taking the position they did, not licencing those protests...
MITCHELL: Well initially they said oh it’s alright, we won't charge anybody. Well, nobody has been charged yet.
PRIME MINISTER: It's a hard issue. I'm not going to sort of buy into a commentary on this on any of the state governments. We've all got difficult issues to manage. But people I mean, I think Premiers Premier Andrews was very clear. Don't go. I was very clear. Don't go. And I think the real risk now is Neil, I mean, people respected the issue being raised. They I think, by and large, Australians did not want people to go out and attend those rallies for the very precise reason that if you can't go to a funeral, and there's nothing more personal to someone than that.
MITCHELL: But what are the issues they’re raising?
PRIME MINISTER: Well the issue, I think, of acknowledging the need to ensure we close the gap with indigenous Australians and we deal with the very high level of indigenous incarceration. That’s a very genuine issue.
MITCHELL: That’s true, there is a sadly high level of indigenous incarceration I think it’s about 30 per cent compared to 3 per cent of the population. But black deaths in custody, I mean, that's that's a furphy, isn't it? I mean, since the Royal Commission, as I saw it, there have been fewer indigenous people, per head of prison population dying in custody than have white people?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, and that is welcome news. And initiative that our government has put in place that’s contributed to ensuring that that continues to be improved. There are targets specifically both in the former and in the new Closing the Gap targets which address this issue. I mean, in my home state, there has been, I understand, one death in sic (police) custody since 2016-
MITCHELL: But they’re painting Australia as a racist country. Do you think we are?
PRIME MINISTER: No. Look, like any country, we've got to be mindful of it. And that's one I say we're being mindful of this issue is a positive thing. I urge people to express this view, not by attending rallies. I mean, if we can stand on the end of our driveways on Anzac Day and remember those who gave us liberty, we can exercise that liberty. And I think in a more respectful way to our fellow Australians who have undergone great sacrifices so-
MITCHELL: If we hadn't had those protests, would you now be looking at easing things a bit quicker?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes. No doubt. And let's put a dollar figure on it. The OECD has come out and said that a second wave would see Australia's GDP fall by 6.3 per cent, not 5 per cent. Now, that is a $25 billion dollar cost to the Australian economy. And that is why people should, I think people wanting to take this further this weekend are showing a great disrespect to their fellow Australians.
MITCHELL: Should they be charged?
PRIME MINISTER: I think they should. I mean, I really do think they should, because you can't have a double standard here. I think the issues of last weekend were very difficult, but I think people carrying it on now, it's not about that. It's about people pushing a whole bunch of other barrows now. And it puts others lives and livelihoods at risk. I saw some people say when they attend this rally, ‘oh, I knew the risk I was taking by attending.’ They were talking about themselves. They weren't talking about the Australians who weren't there. You know, millions of quiet Australians who have done the right thing. And they didn't seem to be that concerned about their health, or their businesses or their jobs.
MITCHELL: The other point of this, though, is even if we do get through, so the next two or three weeks without a surge, is that an indication that we're in a pretty good position? If you can have tens of thousands of people on the streets and you don't get an outbreak and god, let's hope we don’t, doesn't that say, well, hang on, we're in a pretty good position, we can start easing things even more?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, unqualified yes.
MITCHELL: It’s a sort of experiment in a sense isn’t it?
PRIME MINISTER: Well and not one that was welcome and highly risky and dangerous one. And it is certainly our hope, that that is the case. But the only reason that would be the case, Neil, is because so many Australians made sacrifices to ensure that there wasn't that sort of community transmission occurring that would have made that event an absolute certainty of causing a second wave. So everyone paid the price in their own businesses, their own lives, their own liberties. And that produced that scenario where the risk was clearly a lot lower than it might have otherwise been. And I'm just saying to people, look, it's a free country and we have our liberty. But the price of that liberty is exercising it responsibly and respecting fellow Australians. People who would turn up to a rally this weekend would be showing great disrespect to their neighbours.
MITCHELL: You want to reopen state borders quickly? Have you got the power to make it happen? If Queensland wants to stay closed, they can can’t they?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, I've sought to do this, working in concert with people, and that's been how we've run the national cabinet. I am getting a bit frustrated with it, the step three process would have, would see interstate borders, interstate travel, I should say, happening in July. That was the timetable that was agreed. And so what I would like Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania to do is to nominate the date that those borders will be open in July. Now, I'm not confident all would do that. Western Australia's made their position pretty clear. But I would be hopeful that the other three states could, as soon as possible, nominate the date in July that borders will be open. Now, they can pick, frankly, what is more important now is that they give the certainty of a date because, you know, hotels have to be provisioned. Planes have to be fuelled. They have to be ready to get back in the air and crews have to be brought back and training has to be done on COVIDSafe operating environments. And sanitiser needs to be placed in these, so there's a lot of work to do. So nominate the date and let's get on with it.
MITCHELL: Is, on another issue, China, is the belt and road programme sinister?
PRIME MINISTER: It is a programme that the Australian foreign policy doesn't recognise.
PRIME MINISTER: Because we don't believe that it is consistent with Australia's national interest.
PRIME MINISTER: In what way? Well, it is a programme, look Neil there are many security issues that the government is, addresses on a day to day basis and they’re addressed in a very secure way. And I don't propose to engage in a public commentary on those. All I can say, it is not a programme the Australian government has signed up to. It is not the Australian government's foreign policy and all states and territories should not be doing things that act inconsistently with the federal policy.
MITCHELL: Isn't it a threat to Australia's security?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is, it is not something the Australian government has signed up to because we do not believe that it is in Australia's national interests.
MITCHELL: Isn't it an attempt to buy influence in Australia?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are all of your commentaries, Neil. All I'm telling you what, the Australian government's policy is and it's firm and it's well considered and it's resolute.
MITCHELL: So is it too late? Can Daniel Andrews get out of it?
PRIME MINISTER: He should, because it's inconsistent with Australia's government policy.
MITCHELL: NATO says China is guilty of bullying and coercion and will stand up to the countries. They say it is a threat to open society and individual freedom. That’s NATO, the head of NATO. Do you agree?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we won’t bow or trade away our values when it comes to being an open trading economy. We've been very clear about our positions on a whole range of issues. Those positions have been taken on our national interests, whether it's our position on our telecommunications network, on foreign interference, on how we stand up on issues on human rights, on our positions of open and freedom of navigation.
MITCHELL: So we are critical of China's stand on human rights?
PRIME MINISTER: We have been and those issues have been raised directly in meetings that have been raised directly by me. But, you know, that that's who we are as a people. That shouldn't be surprising. And it's not, doing that is not inconsistent with the relationship that we have.
MITCHELL: So why is China targeting Australia at the moment? Is it all to do with the pandemic and wanting the inquiry or is something else going on?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's really a question for them, Neil.
MITCHELL: Yeah, good luck.
PRIME MINISTER: And to what extent they would say they are. But what we're doing, let me just tell your listeners what we're doing. We’re just being Australians and we have done nothing nor sought to do anything that is inconsistent with our values or have sought to be in any way hostile to our partnership with China.
MITCHELL: But we are accused of being racist towards Chinese students.
PRIME MINISTER: That’s rubbish.
MITCHELL: That's not Australian.
PRIME MINISTER: That’s rubbish. It's a ridiculous assertion and it's rejected. I mean, that's not a statement that's been made by the Chinese leadership.
MITCHELL: Well, made by their mouthpiece the Global Times.
PRIME MINISTER: There are lots of others who issue commentary. And you know what? I just let that pass because I'm not going to respond to those sorts of things.
MITCHELL: You must have theories on why, you must even have advice on them. Fair enough, there are the security issues here as well, but on why Australia is being targeted. I mean, they’re saying that you discussed the pandemic inquiry with Donald Trump and then followed on his urging. Is that correct?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
MITCHELL: So why are they doing it?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you'd have to ask them, Neil.
MITCHELL: But you must get advice on that.
PRIME MINISTER: Neil I'm not the one doing that. What I am doing is being consistent and constant and respectful and engaging with all countries, including China. We have an important trading relationship with China and I'd like to see that continue, but I'm not going to trade Australia's values on it for that country or any other country.
MITCHELL: Even if it costs us a lot of money?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you know, the price of liberty, we were talking about before, Neil. And we all owe a debt to those who gave us that and I can assure you, this Prime Minister will never trade away our values for trade.
MITCHELL: There are a number of former Liberal and Labor politicians who work for various Chinese companies, advisers and the rest. Andrew Robb is one of the high profile ones, a former liberal minister. Have you spoken to him and said, hang on, mate, can you help us sort this out? Can we do some sort of behind the scenes negotiating here?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's been a while since I've had the opportunity to talk to Andrew, he has been a good friend of mine over a long period of time. I have had numerous conversations with people in industry and in business about this. And the point is, we have done nothing to offend the relationship. Nothing at all.
MITCHELL: Well, in that case, why...
PRIME MINISTER: I don’t get defensive about it. And the relationship is not bettered by Australia walking back from positions that we've long held and are entirely consistent and strongly rooted in our national interest.
MITCHELL: A couple of quick things. The unions say a four per cent pay rise is reasonable. Is it?
PRIME MINISTER: What's important is jobs. And I just want to see more jobs.
MITCHELL: Unions jobs on four per cent pay rise?
PRIME MINISTER: At a time like this, I think those who are making those decisions, whether it's Fair Work or others who are considering these issues, you know, you're not better off if you don't have a job. You're not better off if your business is closed. I mean, we've got to be very mindful of the number of people who are underemployed and unemployed. And my focus is on getting them back into jobs and to get back into jobs, you know, we've got to make sure that every single dollar goes as far as it can go.
MITCHELL: There's also a report on that area, reports of billions and billions of dollars, ten billion dollars’ worth in Victoria alone, of construction work and projects is tied up in council red tape. What the hell is...
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, this is frustrating but, look, the good news on that is this is one of the many issues that I think now that the National Cabinet has sort of addressed so much of the health issues in managing the pandemic we can now work together on recovery. And when I announced almost two weeks ago that the National Cabinet would continue, this is the purpose. Its purpose is to ensure that we work together to address what is going to hold Australia back from creating jobs and having a positive and ambitious deregulation agenda, led by the Premiers and myself, driving down into the bureaucracies, driving down in the local governments is, I think, one of the big tasks. This is the skills, industrial nations, infrastructure development. All of this, what we need to do on gas and getting gas availability to support our manufacturing industries. That is a huge issue. There's a lot of regulation and red tape that sits around that. All of this is about creating jobs. Only one thing matters - jobs, jobs, jobs.
MITCHELL: You've got the National Cabinet meeting and you’re talking about pressing those sorts of issues there. Is there a sense around that table that we're through the worst of the pandemic?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's effectively, that's the advice at this point. But there's the risk of a further wave.
MITCHELL: Because of the protests?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, absolutely. Unquestionably, unquestionably. And that's why it's so frustrating.
MITCHELL: It is very hard to convince people, isn't it, to follow the rules, to follow the advice. I was talking to a business owner in Sydney yesterday who said well to hell with them, they can fine me, I’m going to have wedding receptions.
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, look, I can understand that sentiment. And I think that's why last weekend was so unadvisable because it really put at risk the great trust that Australians had demonstrated in and their willing participation. I mean, we're a free democratic liberal society and people have been great in the way that they've, you know, often reluctantly, but understanding the need to do what has been done and what happened last weekend, I think, you know, really flew in the face of that, sadly.
MITCHELL: Do you feel we've dodged a bullet?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, I wouldn't put it down to luck. I think we have. There's no doubt about that. I mean, in similar societies to ours, I'm talking about sophisticated developed economies with good health systems. You know, Sweden, 100 times the death rate of Australia, more than that, in fact. The same in the UK and same in France and in so many other countries. In Australia, there was no reason why Australia couldn't have turned up like that and certainly early on in the pandemic they were our great concerns. All Premiers, myself, I mean, and people know Dan and I, you know, we talk. While we have differences of view, disagreements, it doesn't prevent us from working together and particularly on this issue and I'm grateful as I know he is. We were looking at all of that and so yes, we did. But all Australians did. And I think what has set Australia apart as we've worked through this crisis is people have come together. And that's what was really disappointing about last weekend.
MITCHELL: I know you need to go. I appreciate it so much. Just finally, on a personal note, when this was all starting back in February and I've been reading a bit about what you know, you haven’t had a day off since January. When people were briefing you and saying the potential for this, and I know from speaking to some of our state politicians privately, they were just terrified about the prospect of what was ahead. Did you feel that? What was your attitude personally when you were getting all this information in the early days?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I knew we were in completely uncharted waters.
MITCHELL: Were you frightened?
PRIME MINISTER: I don’t know if I would put it that way, Neil. I was very conscious of the gravity of the situation and the responsibility that now fell on my shoulders and particularly the shoulders of the Premiers as well. And, you know, I'm interested in history, always have been. And, you know, I knew that during the Spanish flu pandemic of 100 years previous one of the things that led to so many more lives being lost is the Federation didn't work together. And I knew one of my first responsibilities was going to have to be to keep the country together and make sure the states and territories work together with the Commonwealth. And, you know, it hasn't always gone to plan. But I tell you what, it has been a standout example to the rest of the world about how people can come together and work together.
MITCHELL: I know you'll be modest about this, but if the optimism is right and if we get through it without significant death rates and with the economy rebuilding and there's some hope of that, you'll have your place in history, won’t you?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's for others to judge.
MITCHELL: I thought you’d say that.
PRIME MINISTER: All I know is that when... Look, I learned many years ago a guy called General Norman Schwarzkopf , “When placed in command, take charge.” And that's what that situation required. And I had the very willing cooperation of my fellow leaders around the country, my cabinet ministers of my own cabinet, an extraordinary job, Greg Hunt. Extraordinary job. Josh, tremendous job. So, look, everyone's been doing their bit, Neil, and it’s everyone's been doing their bit. That's why we need to keep doing our bit and not be complacent about it. And so anyone thinking of, you know, going out there this weekend, just don't do it.
MITCHELL: You haven’t had any invitations to the Sharks and St. George Sunday night, have you?
PRIME MINISTER: I do get those invitations now, but I'll go back to the footy when everyone else can. And I know everyone will be looking forward to, you know, that all starting up again in Melbourne tonight with Collingwood and Richmond. As you know, I don't follow that code as closely as the NRL. But I think that’s going to be great.
MITCHELL: So where will you watch it?
PRIME MINISTER: I will just watch it at home at The Lodge on Sunday night and just sit there with a beer. And that's my local derby, St. George and Cronulla. Both the St. George Club and Cronulla Club, both in my own electorate, but everyone knows I’m a Sharks fan.
MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time.
PRIME MINISTER: Good on you, Neil, all the best.
MITCHELL: Prime Minister Scott Morrison.