Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

28 Feb 2020
Prime Minister

SABRA LANE: Scott Morrison, good morning and welcome to the program. 

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Sabra. 

LANE: Prime Minister, how can people stay calm when there are headlines like Plague Alert? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, people, I think, can feel assured that Australia got ahead of this early and we're staying ahead of this, as in the report that just went to air there are only 8 Australians currently recovering from coronavirus, all 15 previously who would come here from Wuhan they've all cleared now and they've overcome the virus. I mean, so right now, there is no community transmission, human to human transmission that is occurring in Australia. But with the spread of the virus into many more countries, over 40, then that means it's getting to a level now where we have to be prepared to deal with any, of the virus coming to Australia. And as it was also when that report that the plan is about slowing that down, making sure that the system is able to cope with that, no country is better prepared than Australia.

LANE: Sure but,

PRIME MINISTER: And that’s why people can feel assured.

LANE: A Coronavirus outbreak could hit in tandem with the normal flu season. State health ministers are meeting today, and the New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard wants the federal government to give the states more money to help with this. Will the federal government oblige? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well the health ministers are meeting today and this is all states and territories and the Commonwealth working together to address this, we’ll consider any of those issues on their merits. But equally, the states, I'm sure, would be stumping up as well. I mean, we're all in this. We've all got to deal with it. And I'm sure that the states wouldn't be looking to try anything on here. They'd just be looking to work together to make sure we can do the best thing by our population and we'll work with everybody to achieve that. 

LANE: The federal government's emphasizing the need to be well-prepared, one Australian virologist has encouraged people to make sure they've got enough medication and canned food for a fortnight. Some supermarkets have already run out of hand sanitizer, for example. What's your message to people about stockpiling foods? Is that panicky or being prepared?

PRIME MINISTER: I think people should remain calm. And I mean, the government is going around, some essential issues, particularly when it comes to masks and things of that nature that that personal protective equipment for key workers in areas. And that's what the plan is all about. I think it's very important that people should feel assured about where we are. There's no need for them to take drastic or extreme measures or anything like that, they should go about their business. That's the best thing they can do also for the economy Sabra, they should continue to go out. They should continue to participate. They should enjoy life. I mean it's a beautiful day here in Sydney. I'm sure it is in many places also around the country, weekends coming up. People should go about their normal business and have assurance that the government is working with states and territories to ensure that we're well prepared.  We've got ahead of this. We're staying ahead of this and we'll get through it. 

LANE: You’re flagging targeted stimulus, potentially, to badly affected sectors like tourism and universities after downplaying that for weeks. Those sectors and companies, what should they expect on how much stimulus the Federal Government is prepared to offer? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't agree with your assertion we’ve downplayed it at all, Sabra. We’ve been very clear.

LANE: Well, on Tuesday, you said the Government wasn’t into extreme fiscal responses when asked about whether you were considering fiscal stimulus.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not interested in extreme fiscal responses and never have been. I don't think extreme fiscal responses are the right answer, and neither does Treasury, and that's what I said yesterday. What Treasury has advised is that we should have a targeted, modest and scalable response to this. The target is essential because different parts of the economy are affected in different ways. It's not just tourism, has obviously already been impacted, not just by the coronavirus, but in parts of the country and more broadly, by the bushfires. And we already have some pretty significant measures on promoting domestic tourism in and working right now. But there are other parts of the fishing industry, the marine industry, the broader second round effects of the students as well, going to restaurants, being in the economy. And so the effects are quite broad, but we're considering how we can make a difference in those areas. We can't make it like the coronavirus doesn't exist. Of course we can't do that. But nor are we being advised to or nor would it be responsible to go around borrowing lots of money to splash it around. That is not what the Government is considering. 

LANE: Sure. But the hit to the economy could be quite significant. This week alone, we've seen $100 billion off the ASX. The tourism sector, as you've mentioned, has been badly affected. Companies are struggling because their supply chains to China have stopped.

PRIME MINISTER: I know that and that's why the Government is considering the measures which are Treasury and the Treasurer are pulling together right now and they'll build on the measures that we've already got in place to respond to the bushfires as well, particularly in the tourism sector. And so we believe that that is necessary and that's certainly the advice we're getting. But the advice we're also getting is that it should be targeted, it should be modest and it should be scalable to be able to take it to another level, if that's what's necessary. I mean, the challenge of this virus and this is the economic advice we're getting, Sabra, is had this event, this virus was being seen like a SARS/MERS type economic impact. In very recent days, the Treasury has now said no, this is turning into a very different type of event and that's why we will need to now take a different approach. And so we're responding to that advice, just like we respond to the expert advice we're getting from the health professionals, which has kept us ahead of this now for many, many weeks. 

LANE: All right. If schools and day care centres are forced to shut in the weeks ahead and more parents are looking after kids at home that could be, combined, quite a shock for the Australian economy. What should Australians be braced for? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, right now, there is no suggestion that that will be necessary. And the Education Minister I tasked yesterday to work with the states and territories around issues like childcare centres as well as schools. Now, Australia is not in the position… I mean, today Japan has made a decision about keeping kids out of schools for some months now going forward. Now, that is not a decision we need to take in Australia. There's no need for that. And there is also not the medical advice currently which suggests children particularly been more vulnerable to the virus. Those who are more vulnerable are those of the elderly. And so the bigger impact would be in things like aged care facilities, the ability to lock those down and to have the right care and support to those who are working in those places. And that's what the emergency response plan actually does. So I think it's important that people don't get too far ahead of themselves and they can go about their business today and have the assurance that the Government is planning for the various scenarios that could present tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead. 

LANE: On another matter, the sports grant Senate inquiry yesterday heard that the final round of funding for the scheme wasn't approved by Senator McKenzie's office until after Parliament had been prorogued for the election. 

PRIME MINISTER: That's not true, Sabra.

LANE: How can that not be a breach of caretaker conventions? 

PRIME MINISTER: But that's not true, Sabra. That's actually not true. 

LANE: Isn’t that what the Committee heard yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER: They heard that it was authorised on the 4th of April, 2019. That's what the testimony from Sports Australia was. It was signed on the 4th of April, 2019. That was the authorization of the brief that went on that matter. So the suggestion that it was signed at some time later, well, there's no basis for that. 

LANE: The Sports Commission officials also say that it formally warned your Government in several emails about politicising this grants process. Why were those warnings ignored? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not sure what you're referring to. The Government made decisions through the Sports Minister to award grants to a range of projects around the country and then the Government announced those. 

LANE: You've previously said that all sports grants were eligible. Given the evidence that we've heard from this inquiry, do you now concede that by the time the funding agreements were signed, that many of them, around 40 per cent, were not eligible for various reasons? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the issue here is, Sabra, when the Minister made the decision and authorized the projects and this is what the Auditor General's report found at that time and it says it clearly in the report that there weren't any ineligible projects. If projects subsequently became ineligible for the simple reason that project works may have commenced… so let's just understand what that ineligibility that the Auditor General is referring to is. It meant that communities, sports clubs, got on with building the facilities. That is the great offence, apparently, that has been committed here. That people actually got on and started building the community facilities. Now, I understand the technicality of that, but to suggest that was something that was very damaging to the community, I find that quite, quite interesting. 

LANE: Prime Minister, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks for talking to AM this morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Sabra, good to be with you.