Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

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06 May 2021
Prime Minister

NEIL MITCHELL: Scott Morrison, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Neil.

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, Australians in India, you're planning rescue flights next week. We're told 9,000 there, up to 900 to 1,000 vulnerable. How vulnerable? Are their lives at risk?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, India is a very difficult place to be, there's no doubt about that. That's why we've already brought back 20,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and many more. And that's included in 28 specific flights with Qantas from Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Calcutta and we've been doing this for a long time. And we put this temporary pause in place. That pause is working. The number of cases is coming down. Our National Security Committee meeting this afternoon, National Cabinet meets tomorrow. We'll look at that evidence again. But the 15th of May is looking good. And the reason we did this is so we can resume those repatriation flights safely and do it sustainably so we could get more people home, that's what this is about.

MITCHELL: But how urgent is it? Are these Australian lives in danger at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that if someone has COVID and-

MITCHELL: 900 vulnerable people there, we're told.

PRIME MINISTER: Of course, of course. But, Neil, we have to make decisions at the end of the day which ensures we do everything we can to prevent a third wave also here in Australia-

MITCHELL: I understand that, I understand that entirely. I agree with it. But I'm getting to the point of how many of the people there have to be got out urgently?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is the capability for medevacs, that already exists. And there are exemptions that were built into the order which was put in place by the Health Minister based on the recommendation of the Chief Medical Officer. So these risks, the chief medical advisers advice was, was that they can be mitigated and the fact that it's a temporary arrangement, that means that is the best mitigation. And that's why we're moving quickly to improve the rapid antigen testing arrangements that are in place, not just for people coming through those direct flights, but in other parts. This is a matter I discussed with other prime ministers last night on a hookup with European leaders, and we were talking about the India situation. The good news is, is that those respirators, over 1,000 of them, arrived yesterday. The oxygen concentrators, that's been warmly received by the Indian government in a meeting with the Foreign Minister, our Foreign Minister just last night.

MITCHELL: Good. Just before I leave the issue of the Australians there, if their lives are in danger, can they be medevaced out?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, those arrangements are always in place when we have situations like this, but we don't have any of those cases. Barry O'Farrell is the High Commissioner there. He monitors all of this very carefully and if there are serious issues, then we manage those through the High Commission and our consular offices. So that is not a new arrangement, I should say, that is an  arrangement, which they do all the time.

MITCHELL: So when would you hope to have the first rescue flight on the ground in India?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are, I'm not going to commit to that at this point because we still have to review the evidence. The pause finishes on the 15th of May. I'm very confident that after the 15th of May thereafter, those repatriation flights are going to be able to be restored. But I'm not going to make that announcement until we've gone through the evidence, taken the medical advice, reviewed that and put in place what we need to ensure that happens. But I can tell you, the pause is working. It was the right decision for Australia's health and safety, but it was also the right decision to ensure that we can sustainably and safely bring Australian citizens, residents and their direct families back from India.

MITCHELL: So how long will it take to get the 9,000 back?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this has been the challenge all the way through. Every time, you know, you get a thousand people come home, another thousand people go on the list. And that's been the challenge. Neil, I'll tell you something, since the 24th of April, 687 people living in Australia have applied to go to India. All of those 687 applications have been rejected, I should stress. But this is one of the challenges that we have. There is about 9,000 Australians who are registered there. There were 20,000 that we've already been able to bring home and because of the very serious situation. I mean, John Hopkins University says there were more COVID cases reported last week than in the entirety of the first four months of 2020. So this is a pandemic we're dealing with and we've got to take decisions in the national interest, which I know you've been very understanding of that. And I want to thank the Indian community here in Australia, in particular, for their understanding. I particularly want to thank those who are members of our medical profession. As you know, we have so many Australians of Indian heritage who work in our health system, and they are heroes along the way alongside all the rest of our health workers in this country.

MITCHELL: I would argue you've perhaps made a mistake in emphasising punishment, which is what happened. Would you agree that that was a mistake?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we didn't. The media did.

MITCHELL: Oh, I think, I mean, there was a press statement put out on it, wasn’t there, on the weekend, by Greg Hunt?

PRIME MINISTER: There was simply a statement of what the Biosecurity Act does as a way of fact.


PRIME MINISTER: This is not something that was accentuated by Greg Hunt or me or anyone else. It was picked up on in the media and they've highlighted that. But as I've said, it's highly, highly remote that the extremes of those sanctions would apply in these circumstances because they've been in place for 14 months, and no one's been to jail.

MITCHELL: The UN High Commissioner on human rights says there are serious concerns we may have breached human rights obligations. Your reaction?

PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe we have. We're doing the right thing not only by Australians here, but I believe we're doing the right thing by the Australian residents and citizens we're trying to bring home to ensure that we can do that safely. I mean, one of the things that we had to be careful of, Neil, was that if we hadn't done this, then we would have probably had to pause flights coming out of Doha, out of Dubai, many other ports where Australians are coming back from many other places. So this ensured that we could keep those flights going and those Australians coming home and that's what we continue to do.

MITCHELL: So when these people come back and hopefully the 9,000 as quickly as possible, if they all want to come, where do they go? Where will you put them?

PRIME MINISTER: They'll be coming principally into Howard Springs and that's the facility that we've set up there. It has cost around half a billion dollars to set up that facility with the Northern Territory Government. The expansion of their capacity from 850 to 2,000 this month will greatly assist us in doing that. This was the facility that was recommended by the Halton Review, when Jane Halton did a review of all about our quarantine facilities. She said a national facility needed to be set up. We agreed. We've done it in the Northern Territory, 2,000 capacity and at a cost of half a billion dollars to the Australian taxpayer.

MITCHELL: Ok. But if you're handling 2,000 there, they've got to be there two weeks don’t they, in quarantine?

PRIME MINISTER: You roll them through and one of-

MITCHELL: So it’s going to take quite a while to get the 9,000 back, isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that there has been direct flights that have been going to New South Wales and we'll be discussing that with the New South Wales Premier. She's been incredibly supportive there. I mean, the suggestion I mean, there is-

MITCHELL: Will any come to Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER: That would be a matter we'd have to discuss with the Victorian Premier. If any of the other states and territories wish to take repatriation flights into their states then, of course, we would welcome that. We're focusing our attention on bringing them through the facility we've established with that 2,000 person capacity. But I know that in New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian has been very supportive of these efforts and of the pause. And I know she will be keen to sort of restore that when we're in a position to do that as well. But they're commercial flights that have been coming in to New South Wales.

MITCHELL: Michael Slater has had another go at you today. He says how about you take your private jet, come and witness the dead bodies in the street. Now, he's clearly emotional and he's stuck in the Maldives. Have you thought of giving him a call?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, to be honest, I haven't. Of course, I've been a bit focused on actually managing the pandemic itself and the many other challenges we have here. I understand, though, that he's upset. I understand that he's frustrated. I understand that many people are. And I understand that particularly those in our cricketing community have deep connections with India. I mean, I think of the work Steve Waugh has done over there and many other cricketers supporting charitable causes, both there and here in Australia to support them. So I understand the deep feeling. But as Prime Minister, Neil, I have to make decisions in Australia's national interests. I have to make sure we keep Australians safe and that we can bring Australians safely home. And that's what this is doing. I understand that Michael disagrees with my decision. I respect that. He's a fellow Australian and I look forward to him being able to return safely home after having spent the time where he's had to spend it in the meantime.

MITCHELL: Do we still have to face the risk when we start bringing people back that the mutant or the variant, perhaps a triple mutant of the virus, gets into Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is what we're seeking to protect against-

MITCHELL: I know, but people tell me it’s inevitable. Is it inevitable?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's very challenging, Neil. I mean, this is what I keep saying about the pandemic. Just because we could put 100,000 people in the G does not mean the pandemic is over. And that's why we have to be very cautious. I accept that this is a highly cautious decision that the Health Minister and I have made. But cautious decisions have proved very effective for us over the course of the last 18 months. I remember when we put the flight ban out of mainland China at the start of the pandemic. I was attacked for that at the time. I don't think anyone thinks that was an unwise decision 14 months later.

MITCHELL: There's a 73 year old man, Australian man, stuck in Bangalore who's taking legal action against you, I think today. Will you fight that or can you somehow negotiate that through and save the money?

PRIME MINISTER: That matter is before the courts and so I don't propose to offer any comment on that. I mean, we will work with the court process.

MITCHELL: You mentioned the possibility of Victorian hotel quarantine being used. In the Australian newspaper had ugly detail on breaches in the system this year. Are you confident that the Victorian hotel quarantine system is operating adequately?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's the confidence that is expressed by the Victorian government. That has been-

MITCHELL: But they said that last year, they said that last year and 800 people died, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: I understand. I understand, Neil, very acutely. And that's why further reviews were done again by Jane Halton and others to look at that system. Many improvements have been made. And so we welcome all of those. The proposal that has been put to us, I take it, is a very serious and well considered and comprehensive.

MITCHELL: This is the Mickleham one?


MITCHELL: They didn’t consult Jane Halton on that.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, I think it's not inconsistent. I don't think it's inconsistent when you put it in Jane's-

MITCHELL: So will you put money into it?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll consider these things. What I do welcome, though, is this is a very comprehensive proposal. It says the Victorian Government would run and operate those facilities. And that sort of reinforces the role that state governments have in enforcing their own public health orders. And so we look at it carefully. I'm not tipping my hat on this one or the other at this point, but I do consider it a very constructive proposal.

MITCHELL: Is it possible you could fund the whole thing, as they want?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not indicating on that, at this point, Neil. We're considering it at the moment. It's being assessed by the Home Affairs Department. We'll talk to the Victorian Government. I mean, the Australian Commonwealth Government has, when you add up everything that all the states and territories have done to support COVID, both on health and on their economic supports, double it and then add a bit more and that's what the Commonwealth Government has done. $267 billion. So there is capacity, I'm sure, for all states and territories to continue to do their own lifting when it comes to the economic and health support. They've been doing it here in Victoria. They've been one of the states that actually have spent a lot.

MITCHELL: It would have to be a shared expense by the sound of it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we'll work that proposal through. Neil. I'm not about to-

MITCHELL: It's not, it's not smoke and mirrors. Peter Dutton described it as smoke and mirrors. It's got more substance than that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Home Affairs Department is assessing it carefully. The Home Affairs Minister is doing that work with the Victorian Government. I look forward to what they say and what they bring back and then take it from there. But I do think it's a fair dinkum proposal.

MITCHELL: Good. When do you think every Australian will have had their first shot of the vaccine?

PRIME MINISTER: Hard to say at this stage. Well, it's also every Australian who wishes to have one, I should stress. That number is a bit hard to determine. I mean, Jenny had hers yesterday and we've seen the over 50s now. I mean, maybe people didn't think she was, and I would agree. But that's it. She's had her vaccination yesterday. And I've got to say, Victoria's doing a very good job on this new rollout and-

MITCHELL: Well, that’s true, but it has stagnated around the country. I noticed Peter Collignon, some of the others, saying let's get the over 70s back in there quickly. Let's focus on the over 70s.

PRIME MINISTER: We are and what we've seen, we've had 2.4 million people. There was 80,000, just under that, who were vaccinated past 24 hours to yesterday. Victoria now has the highest number of people vaccinated through their state system. That's over 230,000. But right across Victoria, there's just shy of 600,000 who have been vaccinated and I've got to say, more than half of those have been vaccinated by Victorian GP's through the Commonwealth system.

MITCHELL: What's your view, what's your view of the vaccination passport so you can travel more freely or go more freely if you've been vaccinated? You've had the vaccine.

PRIME MINISTER: I do like this idea. I have been saying this for a while, but we've got to make sure that the health systems can support that. I mean, what I would, the next step is this and when it can be taken is not yet clear. But if you are fully vaccinated that you would be able to, be able to travel and certainly around Australia but even potentially overseas without having to go through the hotel quarantine and some other form of a bridged quarantine in Australia. But, Neil, there's two things that need to be satisfied to do that. One is we need more evidence that the vaccine protects against transmissibility and that is still not at the clinical standards needed to do that. So we don't know that yet. Secondly, we also need to be confident that the isolation quarantine arrangements that you put in place outside hotels, say, in a person's home, that that could be done effectively. Now, that is what the medical expert panel is working on right now. And ultimately, that will be up to each state and territory because they administer these things. That's their public health orders that would have to be satisfied to get us to that next step. So I think that is the next step. But I still think that's that step is still some way away.

MITCHELL: Prime minister, I might quickly, something else. China, the Taiwanese Foreign Minister in the Financial Review today says Taiwan is getting ready for a final assault from China. He wants our support. Do we stand with Taiwan?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've always honoured all of our arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, particularly our alliance with the United States. We're very cognisant of the uncertainties in our region, Neil, and I'm not one to, you know, speak at length on these things because I don't wish to add to any uncertainty. But that's why we have the security arrangements we have in place. We've always understood the one system, two countries arrangement and we will continue to follow our policies there.

MITCHELL: So does that mean we stand with Taiwan?

PRIME MINISTER: One country, two systems, I should say.

MITCHELL: We stand with Taiwan?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve always stood for freedom in our part of the world, Neil.

MITCHELL: Ok. You might not be using the language, but a few in your government are, including bureaucrats and the Defence Minister, Peter Dutton. Is it correct that what the head of Home Affairs had to say about the drums of war beating were, in fact, authorised by the Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:  No, that's not the case.

MITCHELL: Not the case? Alright.


MITCHELL: Do you accept that China is a destabilising influence in the world?

PRIME MINISTER: We want China and Australia and the whole region to work together. And the best way to do that is to ensure the rule of law and how we operate, that we respect trade laws, that we keep the South China Sea free and open for transit. I mean, that's what ensures that the Indo-Pacific remains free and open. That's what we're for, a free and open Indo-Pacific. And whoever is in favour of that, we're working well together with them.

MITCHELL: Are you aware the Andrews Government's got a second secret deal with China, which encourages investment in Victorian infrastructure?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I haven't seen any details of that. We've just done the review of all of those things. As you know, we terminated the arrangement of the BRI in Victoria-

MITCHELL: Will you review this one, it was signed in 2017?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, any arrangements that are inconsistent with Australia's foreign policies, well, the Foreign Minister will cancel them, and that's what she's already done in Victoria. And you can expect us to continue to act consistent with that.

MITCHELL: The Energy Minister told me this week China was welcome to apply to help rebuild the energy infrastructure in Victoria. Are you comfortable with China building our energy infrastructure?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, regardless of who it is, all of those situations are subject to Australian federal foreign policies and foreign investment settings and that's where those decisions are ultimately taken and that's what will happen on any such proposal. They would have to satisfy the review of the Foreign Investment Review Board, headed up, I should stress, by the former head of ASIO and ASIS, David Irvine. I appointed him there myself as Treasurer, who I know has a very keen eye for protecting Australia's security interests when it comes to foreign investment.

MITCHELL: And that would need a close look if they're going to build our electricity system?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course it would but what I need to stress here is that state governments can have opinions on these things, but the Federal Government has the authority and the responsibility.

MITCHELL: Was it a mistake to lease the Port of Darwin to China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that was a decision by the Northern Territory government, not the Federal Government.

MITCHELL: It was endorsed by the Federal Government.

PRIME MINISTER: No, it was not, it was not.

MITCHELL: Was not? Ok, I thought it was approved. I thought it wouldn’t get through otherwise.

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, it wasn't. Dennis Richardson, who was the then Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, sorry, the Secretary of Defence, said things at the time at an Estimates hearing, which was not critical of that decision and was, in fact, somewhat supportive.

MITCHELL: So it was a mistake. Wasn’t it? Was it a mistake?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, Neil, this is something that the Defence Department is looking at again, along with our security agencies. A lot has changed since now and then. My simple point is it wasn't a Federal Government decision. There was a decision of the Northern Territory Government. That is a decision that they took under their own authority. As Treasurer, following that, I worked with the states and territories to change the laws so that those decisions that hadn’t been subsequently have to come to the Federal Government. That was a good change. Now, if the defence and security agencies have strong views or their view has changed from what the secretary of Defence Dennis Richardson said all those years ago, then I would expect them to tell the Government.

MITCHELL: Have you seen the latest Chinese propaganda aimed at our armed forces again, accusing Australia of sanctioned massacres, covering up murders in Afghanistan, having a death list. Have you seen that?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I think I've been pretty clear about my view on those sorts of things in the past. And my views are consistent with that.

MITCHELL: Nuclear power, Boris Johnson says he wants he's urging Australia to have zero emissions by 2050 and nuclear power is the way to go. Could we go nuclear?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, I think from memory in the UK, it's about almost 20 per cent, it might be 15 to 20 per cent of their total power generation there. In France, it's 70 per cent. And that's why in Europe they're in that position where they can do that. Now, as you know, in Australia, there's a moratorium on that. It's always been our view that if the moratorium like that were to be lifted, it would require bipartisanship. The Labor Party are completely opposed to that. But I mean, Bill Gates makes a very similar point about nuclear. I think the one that we're focused very much on is on hydrogen and that has enormous, enormous potential. But I mean, Boris's point about the role of nuclear and getting to net zero will be experienced that in both Europe, the United States and Canada, UK, I think is fairly clear. But that is outright opposed by the Labor Party so that doesn't leave us too much option for bipartisan support on that.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it. I'm sorry we haven’t got longer, I could go all day. But I know you're busy and thank you for your time. Prime Minister Scott Morrison.