Interview with Paul Murray

17 Sep 2018
Prime Minister
Liberal Party; Veterans Affairs, getting electricity prices down; Tennant Creek; religious freedom

PAUL MURRAY: Prime Minister, how are you?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m good, good to see you.

MURRAY: G’day, we’re live on the television so I’ll hold the swearing back.


Just quickly on the Ann Sudmalis stuff. Obviously, you tried to keep her in the Parliament.

PRIME MINISTER: That’s right.

MURRAY: She was more than happy to in her statement, while she was leaving today, said maximum love for you. But still, it causes all of the political issues off the back of it here. Why couldn’t you convince her to stay?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I’ve been supporting Ann for a long time, ever since she’s been in the Parliament. We are good mates and I know her part of the world very, very well. I’ve got a lot of family who live down that way and Jo Gash before her was a great member and they were good friends as well.

But you know sometimes people, they can find this job just a bit too much at times without that support locally from some of the local Party members that she’s identified. That’s unfortunate, that’s really a matter for the Party organisation to sort out. I’d love to see Ann continue, but you’ve got to respect the decisions people make. She’s a good mate, I wish her all the best. I know she’s going to remain here and work hard for her constituents between now and the next election when the Party will be going forward to select a new candidate there in the seat of Gilmore. As you know, it’s a very tight seat, it always has been. But it’s been well-served by the Liberal Party going back to when Jo Gash first won the seat back from Labor many, many years ago.

MURRAY: I mentioned at the start of the show, while you were running the country, I appreciate it, 2010 the Libs won by 9,000 votes. Then it was 4,800 in 2013, then it was 1,500 in 2016. It just seems like she got out of the way of what seems like electoral gravity, rather than some of the stuff that’s been said on the way out the door in the Parliament.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, look it is a very tight seat. It always has been and it’s had some very good members. There are a lot of real important issues down there, whether they’re for seniors or whether they’re for families or for veterans, or indigenous issues that need to be addressed there. A lot of youth unemployment, I know that’s something that Ann’s been very passionate about. Local infrastructure issues, all of that will continue to get attention from our Government and I think Ann has worked very hard for her community. We’ll be seeking to have a candidate who will go above and beyond what she’s been able to achieve, in the same way that Joanna Gash before her did as well.

MURRAY: Alright, now to the stuff our viewers care about and wanted me to ask you about.

Too many veterans kill themselves. They come home, in Queensland the RSL had a report that the unemployment rate of veterans in the first two years of leaving, was 33 per cent. It’s higher than the youth unemployment rate, it’s multiples of the federal number and as you know it’s dozens of people who end up taking their own lives. Everyone stands up and says the right thing on ANZAC Day, the right thing on Remembrance Day and if somebody in uniform is standing in front of them; “We support you, we support you.” But we’re not.

PRIME MINISTER: We’re spending $11.2 billion every year on this and that’s of itself a significant investment by the Australian community to recognise the service of our veterans. These days obviously, our veterans are those who have been serving most recently. In my own community in southern Sydney, with the Holsworthy Base not far outside of my electorate, there are a lot of returned service people living in my community. I’ve listened to their stories and those of their families and in fact Bree Till, whose husband Brett Till was killed back in 2008, I think it was and we’ve been supporting that family for a long time. Bree has been a great advocate for the cause of families who are affected by our engagements.

PRIME MINISTER: But a lot of local people are supportive of the need for these mental health services. Now, we’ve been investing more into mental health services. You serve one day and you get access to mental health services. Just one day and that’s what we do. As we should do that.

MURRAY: Right.

PRIME MINISTER: There’s an added, I think, obligation when we’re talking about our veterans. What I’d add to that is we’re also ensuring that we’re trying to get veterans into work, when they come out. For some, it is a huge transition, particularly for those who have served in multiple rotations of service overseas. “Normal” doesn’t mean the same thing anymore, when you’ve done that. There’s a very hard adjustment. For others who have served in our military, they make that transition a little more easily. What we do know is that their skills and their abilities are very high. But often it’s the adjustment process of moving out of the military environment into a civilian environment.

Now I’ve seen, whether it’s Soldier On that has been dealing with those adjustments for individuals, or other work programmes that have been helping people make that transition. It is achievable, there’s no doubt about that and we’ve just got to keep doubling down and doing more and getting it right. But there’s no question I think about the commitment from anybody.

MURRAY: But it’s this thing where there has been way too many Veterans Affairs Ministers in both sides of politics for way too long. It’s one of those junior ministries that people sort of hop in and out of after a few months, not a few years. The correspondence that I get back from people is that their experience with the Department for Veterans Affairs feels a little bit more like dealing with a private insurance company, where the business model is to try to deny the claim for as long as possible, rather than to help as fast as possible.

I know you have to be judicious about these things but do we have to shake that system up? Do we have to get current, modern day soldiers to be able to have a look at what the DVA does? Because it does great things for older veterans, but what are they doing for the young ones?

PRIME MINISTER: The veteran-centric reforms that we’ve putting in place over the last few Budgets are all about trying to better connect with our modern day veterans. One of the key things that came up was the call wait times. We invested a lot in trying to reduce those call wait times, because you know, those call wait times, if they’re too long, that can have the worst possible of outcomes.

So there’s been a lot of work put in to revitalise the whole infrastructure investment platforms, the ICT platforms, to make sure that they can be more effective and more efficient. Now Darren Chester is a very committed individual as our Minister for Veterans Affairs. I think he’s doing a very good job, but it’s very tough job. Because the expectations are rightly up here of veterans and of the community. It’s a very high standard we have to keep aiming for. So they have my commitment, they have the commitment of our entire Government, but you’ve just got to keep making the investments. You’ve got to connect in with the modern day veteran as they’re making their adjustment to civilian life.

Now I’ll tell you another programme we did which started under my treasurership. This actually relates to the children of veterans. It’s a passion of mine, Kookaburra Kids have been running respite camps for young people who have come from families suffering from mental illness. A number of years ago there were some kids who came along to the camp and the reason they were there is because their father has suffered from PTSD from service overseas. Now the camp didn’t quite work the same way for kids of veterans. So what we’ve done is we’ve invested in taking that programme and applied it particularly to kids of veterans who suffer from PTSD.

Now in some cases these are servicemen and women who have come home, but they’ve never come home. They literally have not walked back in the front door of the family home and their kids are saying, “Where’s dad? Where’s mum?”

I can’t begin to understand what that does to a young life. So we’ve got to look after the veterans and we’ve got to throw our arms around their families as well. That programme, I would hope, is an indicator of how passionately we feel about this. We’ve just got to keep finding better ways Paul, to do this and the task just doesn’t end. Nor should it.

MURRAY: Agree. There was one topic above all that people want you to respond to and it’s the direct question of will you pull out of the Paris Climate Accord?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s not going to change electricity prices one jot. What I’ve said very carefully is that if it’s not going to make any difference to electricity prices, so why don’t you just get out of it anyway?

Well, let’s take a look to the south-west Pacific. This is the number one issue of our Pacific neighbours, our strategic partners, our strategic security partners. This is their number one issue. There are a lot of influences in the south-west Pacific and I’m not going to compromise Australia’s national security by walking away from a commitment that was made a number of years ago to that target. It’s been there for the last four years or three years, just over three years.

Getting out of it won’t make electricity prices go down, but it will highlight a number of other important risks for us which I’m not prepared to countenance in the national interest. So that’s the reason for my decision. As Prime Minister, I have to make decisions in the national interest. I know a lot of people have concerns about it. But frankly, at the end of the day, we’re going to meet this thing in a canter in 2030. We’ve met the other two in a canter, 2021 included, that’s going to be smashed.

So the question is, why would you do it when it’s not going to make any difference to the electricity prices, but it could potentially also create some serious issues for us in managing our strategic interests in the region?

MURRAY: But how do you respond to, or offer encouragement to the people who may be searching for that reason to come back, who didn’t vote Liberal at the last election and who will immediately say things like; “Paris equals a need to cull the herd because of agricultural emissions?”

PRIME MINISTER: But that won’t be required either. I mean, this is what I’ll do; I’ll get electricity prices down, how about that? We’ll get the default price in place, which was policy of the Government, which ensures that once you come off your special offer, your price doesn’t go up to the ratcheted up price, it comes down to the default price. It’s that default price which now determines where all the discounts go from. Putting a big stick on the electricity companies to make sure they do the right thing and that will include legislated powers for divestment if they do the wrong thing. Thirdly, get some investment in some fair dinkum power generation. That’s what you actually have to do to get electricity prices down.

Engaging in the climate wars may tickle the ears of the ideologues, but frankly it makes no difference to what’s going to happen with electricity prices.

But I’ll tell you what will make a difference; if you have an emissions reduction target of 45 per cent. Okay, that’s big. 26 per cent is a low alcohol beer, 45 per cent is a full schooner of single malt, when it comes to it’s impact on electricity prices. Now that means $1,400 extra for every family in the country. That’s Labor’s plan. If people want to get concerned about emissions reductions targets, think about what Bill Shorten is going to do, because that will increase your electricity prices.

MURRAY: So will we see, by the election next year, the Government either underwriting or helping to sign documents about power generation? About making sure that the coal-fired power station is built, or whatever it is?

PRIME MINISTER: Whatever it is for fair dinkum power.

MURRAY: Because going into an election, people aren’t going to cop months of; “Trust me, it’s slightly coming down on the wholesale price, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk.” Because Bill Shorten has, seemingly, won the political lie which is; “renewables are better.” But they cost $60 billion to make, so the question is; will we, by the time we go to an election, see your Government facilitating the creation of more electricity in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s certainly my plan.

MURRAY: How hard do you think it’ll be to get it done?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Angus is bringing back the first instalment of that. I’ve outlined the three key things that need to be done to achieve that. The third piece is all very much about whether that’s guaranteeing the take-out price on the back end of the contracts or other things that can be done to firm up the investment proposal to get these projects happening.

Now it also requires people wanting to invest at the same time. So that’s where that investment will come from, that we want to create the right climate for that. We want it to be in fair dinkum power, we want the reliability guarantee, that’s still important. That’s before the states. We do want to ensure there is contracted reliability in the electricity market, because where there is more contracting, there is more certainty and that means you don’t get affected by the price spikes. So we do want to see that happen.

The measures are there. Bill Shorten wants to legislate. You know he’s talking about; “Oh, we’re going to revisit the NEG.” This is what that means - when I take out that BS - Bill Shorten, that is, I should stress – test on this. He’s saying that he wants to legislate a Paris target of 45 per cent. So if you’re worried about Paris, think about that; a legislated Paris target of 45 per cent. I’m not legislating any Paris target, none.

MURRAY: There’s a few other things I want to raise. I know you’ve got to go back to Cabinet, but I want to get a few different ones across here. Do you think that there is such a thing as free speech in Australian universities, anymore?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in one, Paul, probably you too.


MURRAY: But when you see the protests, that when somebody turns up and if they wanted to be pro-traditional marriage during the vote last year –

PRIME MINISTER:  There’s free speech for some and not for others.


PRIME MINISTER: I think that’s been an issue. What I’ve always noticed from the Left is that they’re happy to have free speech, so long if you agree with them. If you have a different view to them, then apparently you’re a bigot.

MURRAY: Yeah, so it’s this thing where we give billions of dollars to this sector. Can anything be done to try and guarantee that, regardless of whom is speaking, unless they’re speakers anyone would find detestable or breaking the law basically that there has to be a free facilitation of all ideas being discussed on a campus, rather than just being screamed down?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s what universities are for. Now you and I would have no truck with hate speech or whatever, however that’s described –

MURRAY: Of course.

PRIME MINISTER: People should treat each other with respect and people should act in accordance with Australians values.

We’re a very tolerant society. That doesn’t mean, as someone once famously said, you’ve got to tolerate the intolerable. But at the same time, so long as people act in accordance with those core beliefs and values, there should be free-ranging ideas.

I do get concerned about this. I do frankly get a lot more concerned about people’s electricity prices and what they’re paying for their mortgages and making sure they’ve got a job. Particularly today, I’m terribly concerned about the quality of aged care people are receiving. So I think these issues about free speech and indeed religious freedom - and you know I’m a big believer in that - I think they are important debates. But then there’s the very practical day-to-day part of what I do and what the Government does and that is all the things I just mentioned.

MURRAY: But it’s this thing where - when you talk about religious freedom, in particular - my concerns about it is that I would hate to see the extremes of any faith use religious freedom legal protection to protect the worst parts of their faith –


MURRAY: Because we know what’s happening. We know that underage marriage, they’re not going off and getting registered with the government. It’s happening in the backyard ceremonies. Polygamy is happening.

PRIME MINISTER: True, I cancelled, I think, some people’s visas for doing that.

MURRAY: So what does religious freedom mean, that needs a law around it that you are attracted to?

PRIME MINISTER: Let me give you this example. I send my kids to a Christian school, I think that Christian school should be able to ensure they can provide education consistent with the Christian faith and teaching that I believe as a parent. That’s why I’m sending them there. I don’t think that school should be told who they can and can’t employ, or have restrictions on them in ensuring that they’re delivering to me – the parent, their client, their customer – what I’ve invested in for my children’s education.

Here’s another one. Let’s say you have some particular religious views about something or other that’s deeply held within your faith. It doesn’t contravene national laws or anything like this and a company has a particular policy which doesn’t sit well with your view. You’re a totally competent person to sit on that board of a public company. Why should you be denied a directorship or a partnership, indeed in a law firm or an accountancy firm, just because you happened to have expressed on Facebook or somewhere about a particular religious belief? That shouldn’t happen in this country. Now, I’m not saying it is, necessarily and people say; “Oh well, if there’s not this great problem, why do you need to do it?” Can they guarantee me it won’t happen in the future? I’ve seen where this issue has gone over the last ten years and issues of freedom of speech, I’ve seen where they’ve gone over the last ten years.

Not quite sure I’m pleased with the trajectory. So there’s nothing wrong with a bit of preventative regulation and legislation to ensure that your religious freedom in this country. I mean, what’s more fundamental that that?

MURRAY: Look, I’ve got two questions left. I fully respect what you’re doing with aged care and I fully support the Royal Commission, so I’m not ignoring that issue, but there are two others I wanted to raise with you. The abuse of children in the Northern Territory. I know this is a tough and difficult topic for a lot of people. But one day I would love to see a kid born in Tennant Creek sitting in the very chair that you are, decades down the track.


MURRAY: But we all know that people coming from communities like that, can’t have that opportunity if there’s things that are intervening in their life that are horrific, way too early. What the hell are we going to do?

PRIME MINISTER: This is a noxious problem. Sitting in my office, I’ve had it for many years, is the plaque of a young girl Shirley Ngalkin. Shirley was raped and drowned in a creek in one of these communities. I keep it there as a constant reminder to me of that challenge. This is one of the reasons I asked Tony to take on this job as a Special Envoy on Indigenous education and getting kids into school. There are many things we can do, but you know, getting kids in school and keeping them in school and ensuring they’re getting an education and that their dreams can become realities - I’ve seen this through my involvement in the Clontarf Foundation as well - seeing how those boys’ lives are changed. This is a big opportunity. I think you’ve just got to keep trying to tackle problem after problem after problem.

Now, I know how passionate Tony is about this. I’ve been up in communities with him when there’s no cameras around, sitting down and talking about these issues. I want him to be able to have free reign on this. I don’t want him to be constrained – terrifying thought - as a Minister trying to defend Government policy and all this sort of thing. He needs to sit down and hear it straight and tell it straight.

That’s why I’ve got Barnaby doing a very similar job when it comes to our drought relief and recovery plan. I think both of them, with their standing in the Australian community and their skills - and Tony particularly in this area - I think he’s going to do a cracker of a job. He’s not just going to serve it up to me, he’s going to serve it up to, I assume, the states as well and be able to look at these problems above and outside Government. With his unique experience I think he’s going to add a lot there.

MURRAY: Last question. If you had the choice between a Sharks premiership or a one seat majority in the Parliament, which one are you going to take?

PRIME MINISTER: Dear oh dear. Time to end the interview.


MURRAY: Prime Minister, thank you for the interview.

PRIME MINISTER: Cheers, Paul, thanks mate.