Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

12 Feb 2021
Prime Minister

NEIL MITCHELL: Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL: I assume you've had discussions with the state government. Do you think a lockdown is likely?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they're still working through those issues now. They were last night. They are again today. And as you just said, they'll make statements later today, and they’re assessing all of those options. I think your point, Neil, about the traumatising impact of last year's lockdown is a very good one. It's very real. I mean, here in Victoria, the rest of the country, having gone through what Victorians went through, through the second half of last year. And so the risk of, you know, facing those sorts of those things again, is very understandable. The short, sharp, sort of proportionate response that we saw in a couple of other states dealing with similar challenges proved to be quite effective particularly up there in Brisbane, I’ve got to say. And that was when the uncertainty levels around these new strains were way higher than they are now. They got through that. We gave the contact tracers a head start over the weekend and then they were back at it the following week.

MITCHELL: So your optimism would be if we do go into lock down it’s a short term one?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I think proportionate, targeted responses, I've always believed are the most effective way to deal with this. And we saw that work in Brisbane, it worked in New South Wales. And you've got to give your contact tracers, though, as you were just describing, you have an incident where someone was out of place and you want to get on top of that. Understand it. It was a similar thing up in Brisbane and they did. And then they could move on again. So, you know, a precautionary, targeted, proportionate response is sensible.

MITHCELL: Okay. Just to get- just get it clear, though. Have you been briefed that lockdown is on the table?

PRIME MINISTER: No, not at this stage, no. The health minister, Greg Hunt, has been in touch with his opposite down here and they've been talking overnight. And so will, our chief medical officer is working with theirs. But there's a lot still going on. So I don’t want to pre-empt any of that and it’s for the Victorian government to make those final calls.

MITCHELL: Fair enough. But it’s obvious hotel quarantine seems to have failed again in Victoria more than it has in other states. When will you step in and run it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we’re not. We’re not going to be running it. It’s run by the Victorian-

MITCHELL: It couldn't get to any stage - it couldn't get to any stage where you would take it over? This is the second failure in our system. And you know what happened last year, and the system’s failed again?

PRIME MINISTER: Well there are rings of how you contain outbreaks, now in New South Wales they've had quarantine breaches, there've been quarantine breaches in other states-

MITCHELL: Not at this level. Not at this level.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm sorry. In New South Wales there have -

MITCHELL: This year Victoria has had far more than any other state combined.

PRIME MINISTER: Well there've been breaches Neil and hotel quarantine is never 100 per cent failsafe, and to suggest it ever will be, is just not realistic. The issue is how you deal with it when it occurs and the contact tracing that then puts in place and the testing system and the response of Melburnians particularly, that once again, tremendous. And that's how you get back on top of it. But it is, we've had 220,000 people Neil, go through hotel quarantine around the country, 220,000. And-

MITCHELL: So you're happy with the way it's working in Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER: I want it to always be constantly improving. Of course I do-

MITCHELL: So you’re not-

PRIME MINISTER: And you learn- no it's not a binary proposition. What you do is you can constantly learn from every single incident-


PRIME MINISTER: And the states share the information about what's happening in their quarantine systems and it gets better and better. That doesn't mean it can't fail, of course it can fail, any system can fail.

MITCHELL: Yesterday, your own minister, Peter Dutton, accused Daniel Andrews of being a spin merchant around this. Now, we don't need spin. Do you agree he’s a spin merchant?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, my job as Prime Minister is to support the states, not to score them.

MITCHELL: Okay, hey you’re in Melbourne. How quickly are you going to get out of town, you don’t want to be stuck here?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I have some commitments this morning and we were scheduled to leave today and that's what we'll be doing. But I'm out at CSL today, with Greg Hunt, and looking at the progress that has been made on the AstraZeneca vaccine production here in Australia. And the good news on that is that it's on track. And that's great to see, this is a great Melbourne story, let alone Australian story-

MITCHELL: Can CSL produce other vaccines? Some of the epidemiologists are arguing, we should look seriously at this Sputnik vaccine from Russia because it's got a very high efficacy rate. Can CSL produce other vaccines as well?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they were, they were gearing up to produce the one out of University of Queensland actually and, of course, that that didn't proceed. mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Novavax vaccine, and things like that. You know, these things at this stage are not areas where that capacity exists. But I should stress AstraZeneca and the production of that vaccine, there's only a handful of countries that can produce that, we are one of them, all the other countries are dependent on it being produced somewhere else. We made that decision last August because we didn't want to be dependent on the international supply chains for the delivery of our vaccine. So that was a good call. But we had to pay over the odds for it, but it was worth doing.

MITCHELL: Have you had a report on the Sputnik vaccine?

PRIME MINISTER: No, that's not one that our team, I think, has been looking at. But they've been looking at Novavax and a range of other ones, as well. Novavax, that’s a protein based vaccine, the Pfizer one is mRNA. So there are a lot of vaccines that have been in the mix. And that's why and I leave that to Professor Brendan Murphy and his expert teams are to decide which ones they should look at, which ones should be in our portfolio.

MITCHELL: I sense a level of public confusion and even a little bit of, fear is too strong a word, but that sort of attitude around the vaccine, do you agree there’s some confusion, you agree people are not 100 per cent convinced it's a good idea?

PRIME MINISTER: I think Australia, I know Australia has one of the highest rates of vaccinations in the world, particularly for children. And I know that Australians think positively about the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is one of the best regulatory bodies in the world when it comes to vaccines. I do know also though Neil, the vaccine, because of the nature of COVID-19, the global pandemic, there is a much greater awareness and a lot more conversations happening around dinner tables about this. And there's a lot more thirst for information about it. And that's exactly what we're going to meet as we roll out the vaccine around the country. So I think they're fair questions. I think people have a legitimate request and they want to know more about it. And we're going to meet that demand through our health experts.

MITCHELL: Jane Halton is in Melbourne at the moment, who’s really the quarantine guru. And it's about time she was here. She is here. What do you think and a lot of people are asking this question about the possibility of moving? Is there any way, any circumstances under which you look at moving the quarantine facilities out of metropolitan areas?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's not what she recommended. What she recommended is that we set up this facility up in the Northern Territory as a supplement to the hotel quarantine-

MITCHELL: What about- times have changed, we’ve got a problem here in Melbourne. What do we do about it?

PRIME MINISTER: I spoke to Jane two days ago, about this very topic-

MITCHELL: What’s the answer?

PRIME MINISTER: ...about this very topic. And there has been no change in her view.

MITCHELL: What about in your view? Should we be looking at moving to country areas?

PRIME MINISTER: No, because then you're creating another set of risks, another set of risks. You've got transfer risks. You've got a workforce that you have to have in place in those situations. You're further away from major, big hospitals. I mean, it isn't just a function Neil of a room and a bed. It's like saying, you know, the way to fix hospital waiting lists, is to just go down to the bed factory and buy more beds. It's the medical support and other systems you put around this that actually creates the place and the consistent advice from last March when we all agreed to do it this way and to continue to do it this way, which we just said the other day, it was only a week ago at National Cabinet, that that remains the most effective way to, you know, we're trying to get home 5-6,000 people a week. And to do that, you think you can sort of do that at a range of, you know, facilities out on the outskirts of town and still do that safely and well? Well, that is that is a stretch.

MITCHELL:  I'm afraid the department of health has just tweeted there are 5 new locally acquired cases to midnight last night, which isn't good. And I mean I guess it depends on whether they’re community transmission or what's happened with them?

PRIME MINISTER: Exactly. And the details of that are not yet through to us. One of the things we did at the last National Cabinet meeting was over the course of this year, the risk of all of this is going to change. It's going to change quite a lot in the months ahead. And that is because systems obviously continue to improve. They're better than they were 6 months ago, they are better than they were 12 months ago. But also with the vaccine being introduced into the population very soon, then what that vaccine does is significantly reduces the risk of serious disease and serious disease then obviously leading to fatality, and particularly amongst vulnerable people. And so when you get that vaccine into the population, the worst case scenario becomes a risk that is largely addressed. That is, IC units full of people dying of COVID. That's what we were facing last year. I mean, it wasn't a flu, it was a very serious virus which has led to over 2 million people dying. The vaccine removes, not entirely no vaccine can remove entirely that, just like the flu vaccine can't do that, but it means that the virus changes in the risk it presents. And so then you're not so much talking about cases as you are talking about the risk of serious disease in the community.

MITCHELL: So in a few words, what's your message to Victorians? Hang in there? What is it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is it. That is it. And they need to get on top of this quickly, and I believe they will because other states have and that it should be proportionate and Victorians have showed enormous tenacity and patience. I mean, you said it yourself, Neil. There's no other option. And I would think that they should be able to get on top of this, as other states have, and that would avoid any anything like you saw last year. But I do understand absolutely the sensitivity to the prospect of that in Melbourne, if that is true there more than any other part of the country. But look at Perth, look at Brisbane, look at Sydney, proportionate, short term responses and they’re back on deck.

MITCHELL: Still generally in the area, are you satisfied with the WHO report on the origins of the virus? The Americans aren't, they didn't seem to probe too deep. Is it enough or do you want more?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they haven't finished yet. And they are still doing work. And the report isn’t finalised-

MITCHELL: What's your reaction so far? The Americans said we won't trust this, we will use our own intelligence?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm going to wait to see the final report. That's my reaction.

MITCHELL: Fair enough. The UK’s talking about boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics. Should we?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, the AOC makes a decision about whether they- thats the Australian Olympic Committee, about whether they go to the Olympics. And so I'll leave that with them. And that's what I've said to John Coates, when we've discussed it.

MITCHELL: China is attacking our universities as providing low quality education, is this the next weapon they're going to use against us, like trade?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not going to, I'm not going to bite on every piece of bait.

MITCHELL: Who’s, am I throwing up the bait? Or is it China?

PRIME MINISTER: No no. I’ll let you commentate on that.

MITCHELL: Who’s baiting the hook?

PRIME MINISTER: Look Neil these sort of things have been said before, Australia has outstanding education. We all know that. And that's why that's we have so many students want to come here and use our educational institutions. So the quality of those institutions is not in question.

MITCHELL: Yeah, but I'm not baiting the hook am I?

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, I didn't say you were.

MITCHELL: Well who is? Is China?

PRIME MINISTER: Ah Neil next questions thank you.

MITCHELL: Okay I understand. Economy, and Treasury says the end of JobKeeper is going to cost 100,000 jobs. Is that right?

PRIME MINISTER: Let's go back to what happened in September. That was the first gear change. We’ve just had another one in January, JobKeeper was dropped down. Employment went up by 180,000 JobKeeper again changed at the end of December. 100,000 people came off JobSeeker in January. What we're seeing is the economy change when we make each of these changes. You can't run the Australian economy on taxpayers money forever. And so we'll continue to make those changes. But, you know, I was out I was out near Berwick yesterday and out there we're seeing with the HomeBuilder programme 82,000 applications approved, all of this support. $250 billion dollars of support has been going into the economy in a record period of time, all sitting on household balance sheets, business balance sheets-

MITCHELL: I understand - I understand, and I think you and Josh have done the right thing. I understand that entirely. But there is pain ahead, isn't there? I mean, if we're going to have 100,000- and I realise you can't pay forever, but is there that sort of pain ahead for 100,000 people?

PRIME MINISTER: What I think will happen based on what has already happened is that as the economy continues to strengthen, it'll pick up those who will find themselves in a difficult spot. And the JobSeeker programme, that remains, the social safety net isn't going anywhere in Australia. It's always been there. We strengthened it during the COVID response. So that is there for people. And that's why I was very encouraged that 100,000 people who were on JobSeeker at the start of January got off it by the end of January. So our economy is strengthening and that means that is the ultimate safety net for people because it means that the jobs are being created. And if you lose one in one place, then the goal is to make sure they  are picked up elsewhere. And that's what we've seen happen.

MITCHELL: So is that 100,000 jobs going? Is that pessimistic or realistic?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we'll see what ultimately happens. But when jobs are also lost, jobs are also created, so there’s a churn effect. And so some people, you know, they will find themselves just like we saw back in October, just like we saw in January. But then we see the same people get jobs in a new place.

MITCHELL: The report today that we could cop an extra $44.5 billion on the interest bill. We're heading for a $200 billion dollar deficit and there's talk of structural change. Now, what does that mean? There will have to be expenditure review and cuts somewhere won’t there?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, that's not on our agenda-

MITCHELL: Really? No spending cuts?

PRIME MINISTER: Well right at the moment the government is providing a very critical role in the economy and we're going to continue to do that. The Treasurer made that pretty clear after last year's Budget about our role going forward. And but, on the issue of interest. I mean, the Reserve Bank governor has been pretty clear. I mean, globally, let alone in Australia, interest rates are going to remain very low for quite a period of time. I mean, the global financial settings such as that. So, you know, his advice to us has been that the fiscal and the investments we've made in all of these programmes have been quite wise and made possible by those broader interest rate settings, which we expect to be in place for quite a while.

MITCHELL: A couple of quick things, if I may. Crown's donated to the Liberal Party. Crown is now on the nose. Will you give the money back?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, it's a matter for the party and at the moment where this all ends in terms of that company and what it's doing well I’ll wait to see where that ultimately goes-

MITCHELL: Do you know how much it involves?

PRIME MINISTER: To the Liberal Party?


PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't. I don't sort of follow that very closely Neil. I mean, you wouldn't expect the Prime Minister to be following that.

MITCHELL: Peter Dutton-

PRIME MINISTER: What I mean by that is these things don't influence my decisions one way or another at all Neil. And so that's why I have a habit of keeping a separation between what I'm doing every day and how the party conducts those affairs. That’s appropriate.

MITCHELL: Peter Dutton seems to have been caught pork barrelling with security cameras, now surely you shouldn't be playing politics, giving the political reasons for taking security cameras into certain seats. Has he been pork barrelling? Has he been caught?

PRIME MINISTER: People have made those- there's nothing that’s in front of me which says he's done anything outside of the rules of those-

MITCHELL: Are you going to have a look at it?

PRIME MINISTER: As I said, I mean-

MITCHELL: Are you going to ask the question? It's a pretty serious allegation?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s an allegation that hasn’t been backed up, by any breaches of any rules that have been alleged. I mean, it’s just the Labor Party throwing mud it is what they do.

MITCHELL: The figures are pretty damning when you look at them? Have you had a look at the figures?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm aware of them and I'm not aware of any breaches of any rules or regulations in relation to the administration of that programme. If the Labor Party thinks there has been then they should actually make an accusation with substance rather than just throwing mud around, which seems to be all they can do these days.

MITCHELL: Here’s another baiting of the hook. China's banned the BBC. Do you think they'll ban the ABC? Or are they too Maoist?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, that's that's wickedly enticing to answer Neil. But I think I will exercise diplomacy.

MITCHELL: I noticed they are saying in France that being woke, we are too woke and that's affecting democracy and debate, do you think we are too woke?

PRIME MINISTER: I think there's a lot of talk about all this. But you know what? Right now, what people care about, and what I care about is their health and their jobs.


PRIME MINISTER: And I'm just focussed on that. And if people want to talk about woke- and if they are woke enough or not woke enough, or they're too woke or, you know, who cares? I just want people in jobs and I want them healthy. I want to get the vaccine rolled out there. That's what I want to do. And everyone else can talk about who's woke and who’s not.

MITCHELL: Take care. Thank you for speaking with us.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Neil, cheers mate.