Interview - Sky News Sunday Agenda

29 May 2022
Prime Minister
Post-election; becoming Prime Minister of Australia; Federal election campaign; Quad Leaders’ meeting; Biloela family; importance of Australia’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific region; climate change

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese. Thanks very much for your time. I want to start with the issue that's dominated the first week and that is your renewed diplomatic push. Penny Wong has been in the Pacific, she met with the Fijian Prime Minister. What's been the reaction you've had about your approach on foreign policy and the Pacific from Pacific leaders? Are you optimistic that Australia can resist this push for a greater presence in the region by China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the response has been very positive. We went to the election with a positive plan for the Pacific that involved increase cooperation with regard to defence including a defence training school, increased support for maritime security, increased aid of over half a billion dollars, increased action on climate change including infrastructure required in the Pacific to deal with the challenge of climate change. But also increased parliamentary visits and exchanges, increased work programs for both temporary workers but also a permanent migration program specifically for people of the Pacific. All of this adds up to a re-engagement by Australia with the Pacific. That is so important. That was one of the focuses as well, of course of the Quad Leaders' meeting I attended in Tokyo, with President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida and Prime Minister Modi. And it has been a very positive start to the Government re-engaging in diplomatic activity in our region.

GILBERT: The former Foreign Minister proposed a doubling of aid to the Pacific into the Solomons to try and stop what we saw eventuate with that security deal, apparently according to a source out of the National Security Committee of the former Government to me, they told me the reason it was knocked back, is because even if we doubled aid there's no guarantee that a Chinese base won't be built anyway. What do you say to that sort of reasoning?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are sovereign nations, of course, and we need to respect that. But at the same time, the idea that Australia hasn't suffered from the massive cut in aid that occurred when the former coalition Government was first elected, just defies the evidence, which is there, as well as a non-engagement on values. For our Pacific Island neighbours the issue of climate change is an absolute national security issue. It's one that the United States and the Biden Administration certainly recognise it as that as well. And it is astonishing that you had a submission from the Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Payne, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, saying this would make a positive difference to Australia's standing in the region as well as on its own merit, a responsibility that we have to assist development in our region. The fact that that was knocked back last year, just shows, I think, a complacency on behalf of the former Government and that they had dropped the ball.

GILBERT: The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a major speech in the last couple of days where he described China as the major long term strategic threat, sort of pivoting the attention away from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to say, look, this is the main game. But by the same token, he also said that the US wants to avoid conflict and wants to avoid a Cold War. Do you agree with his assessment?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia's pretty much in lockstep with our allies in the United States. I met with Secretary Blinken when he visited Australia earlier this year and he was at the Quad Leaders meeting of course with President Biden and other significant figures in US foreign policy, including of course, Kurt Campbell. Who is a good friend of Australia. They speak about competition without catastrophe, we need to recognise there is strategic competition in the region. And we need to deal with that, though in a mature way that recognises that it is in all of our interests for there to be peace in the region and security in the region, and not talk up catastrophe. And I think that is a good perspective. And that is one of the reasons why we just really need to engage both directly with our Pacific Island friends, but also, with our most important ally, of course, is the United States, but our other friends as well, including Japan and India.

GILBERT: It was a bit of a gift from the former Prime Minister to you to say first thing, first port of call to go.

PRIME MINISTER: I don't think that was his intention at the time.

GILBERT: But the international stage meeting the President, leaders of Japan and India was a good way to kick off, I guess, you know, to get you on the world stage and people say, okay, well, there he is, he is Prime Minister now.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it was a very good way to begin the Government. We had a swearing in, the earliest that it's ever happened at 9am on Monday morning of five ministers, led by myself. And it enabled Penny Wong to go as well as Foreign Minister and then to travel to Fiji. And of course, our economic ministers in terms of Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher as well, hitting the ground running and Richard Marles, was Acting Prime Minister on his first day, of Monday. But we have great friends in the United States and Japan and India and building those person to person relations is very important for Australia if we're going to increase our standing, not just in the region, but in the world. I've been very heartened by the conversations I've had with other world leaders, and my next visit will be to Indonesia. And that, of course, is an important relationship for Australia going forward as well.

GILBERT: Indeed, it is. To the economy now. And you've confirmed there will be a submission to the Fair Work Commission on the minimum wage. Business expressing hope as well, that there might be a grand bargain achieved to fix the enterprise bargaining system and at that summit, that you're going to convene, an employment summit with unions, business and others. Apparently, it's going to be held by September, if I'm right, what's the key to getting a deal, a grand bargain on that front in your mind.

PRIME MINISTER: The key is a government that's prepared to broker it. That looks to bring people together. And I've said that business and unions have common interests. Business can't succeed without workers and without a collaborative relationship through workers representatives through the trade union movement. And if you don't have successful businesses, you haven't got union members. And we need to recognise that the way to increase both profits and wages without putting upward pressure on inflation is of course productivity. And so that has really dropped off in in recent times. And I've been very heartened by the comments, both the business community and union leaders, that they want to look for that win win circumstance. In addition, as well at the National Press Club, I spoke about the potential to have a deal as well, with small business as well, with unions, making sure that we support a work environment that acts in the interests of small businesses and what they need, but also in the interests of workers who contribute to the success of those businesses. I've been very heartened by the positive response. So that's why I want to bring together the full employment summit and I spoke about this during the campaign, in the major speech I gave at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

GILBERT: On that wage commitment. It caused a bit of a flurry during the campaign. It feels like ancient history now, doesn't it when you look at the events of the last fortnight, but in a way it reminded everyone what your proposal and what your commitment was about if you formed government, which you have improving the minimum wage?

PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely. Look, we had circumstances whereby, sometimes in the media, of course, you'll hear this debate about you know, not using spin and answering things directly. I was asked would I welcome the Fair Work Commission not making a real wage cut to people who are on the minimum wage of $20.33 an hour. And I said, "Absolutely". And I stand by that, of course, I would welcome that. Because people on that wage, are doing it really tough, really tough. And the idea that they can go backwards will just make life more difficult for them. Now, the Fair Work Commission is an independent body. And they'll make their decision. So bearing in mind, the range of submissions that that they'll receive and their view about the state of the economy. But I believe that it is appropriate that the Government put forward a submission in accordance with our values. And I think that they are values that Australians hold as well.

GILBERT: On a few other matters on the economy, the default market offer on energy prices, that's going to see people pay high energy prices, in the short term, will your plans for an increased renewable energy presence put further strain, or relieve that volatility?

PRIME MINISTER: What they'll do is help. Because if you look at our plan for Powering Australia, it is based upon, a key element of it is based upon the Australian energy market operators integrated systems plan to fix transmission, to bring the grid up for the 21st century. We know that the cheapest form of new energy is renewables. And that's why making sure that we take advantage of renewables, but also storage and those processes will put downward pressure on energy prices for both households and for businesses. The work has been done. It's been there for some time. And it's extraordinary that under the former Government's plan, when Snowy Hydro 2.0, for example, comes on board, it wasn't envisaged that it'd be plugged into the grid straightaway on day one, we need to do better than that, that. And the other thing that our plan will do is it will boost private sector investment, they've been looking for certainty. And that's why business organisations like the Business Council, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, as well as the National Farmers Federation, have welcomed our policy. And I noticed that the head of ACCI, just this week, called upon the Coalition to support our plan. We've got to end the climate wars, we've got to end it, it's gone on for too long. And what that uncertainty has meant is that the energy grid is more unreliable, than if the market was able to have that certainty.

GILBERT: You guaranteed a couple of days before the election when we spoke that you'd crack on with the stage three tax cuts, and that there wouldn't be levies imposed. Given what Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher has said the last week or so. Can you still give that commitment? Are you still committed to delivering those tax cuts, no levies?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, Kieran. And we're committed to delivering what we said we would. And I've said on the stage three tax cuts, that they've been legislated, people are entitled to operate on the basis of that certainty. And we also, though, one of the things that Jim and Katy have started on already, is the audit that will be conducted by Treasury and Finance. This is a budget that's full of waste and rorts. And we're going to search for them, find them line by line, and where there are waste that we can act upon, we certainly will do so. This Government abused the system of the contingency reserve to create these pots of money that were there just to be used for political purposes. And we need to do better than that. We have inherited what will be a trillion dollars of debt, and we need to get to work to make sure that every dollar of expenditure is regarded as the precious commodity of taxpayers, not of a political party, that it is. 

GILBERT: Peter Dutton is going to be the Liberal Leader, would it be a risk for Labor to underestimate him? We remember how Labor reacted when in Government when Tony Abbott became leader and it was seen almost as a blessing to the then Labor Government. You know, Peter Dutton well. Will you be telling people, we should not underestimate this guy?

PRIME MINISTER: I never underestimate my opponents. During the campaign. You might have heard me say Kieran, that I've been underestimated my whole life. I think there are some people who are regretting under estimating me over the last three years, I did exactly what I said I would do, did what I outlined in 2019 at the National Press Club after we received the review into our unsuccessful campaigns in 2016, and 2019. And I sit here today with a different title having the honour of being Prime Minister, because we put in place a strategic plan to be able to go to the Australian people and say we have a plan for a better future. And that received a mandate last Saturday.

GILBERT: It certainly did. And according to our projections, you're at 76. Now with Macnamara set to go to Josh Burns, your MP in Melbourne. Is that a relief to you? Will that change the way you govern?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, look, you want to maximise the number of seats in your column. But having a majority Labor Government I think is important in terms of sending a message but I'm very clear as well that I want to treat the Parliament with respect. I'll treat Peter Dutton with respect if we can get some agreement from him. That would be good on measures that we have a mandate for, I think that he needs to respect the mandate that we have on a range of areas that are very clear, and we want to get to work on that. But the crossbenchers as well, I've always been respectful of people in the Parliament. One of the reasons why we were able to form government in 2010, in that hung Parliament, is because the crossbenchers knew that they'd been treated with respect by us. 

GILBERT: With the teals, it is a big crossbench, the teals and I guess it in your, from your perspective, it makes sense to help them find their feet and, and have a pitch to sell. Because if you're talking about seats, like Wentworth or Mackellar, for example, they're not really Labor target seats, are they? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, if you look at the mandate that they have in their own seats, what were the issues that they ran on, they ran on stronger action on climate change. We will deliver stronger action on climate change. We have a different target from some of them. But we didn't set up a target and then work back, we decided what was good policy to fix transmission, encourage uptake of electric vehicles, increase battery storage through community batteries, the range of measures that we have, the use of the safeguard mechanism to drive that change from the big emitters. We developed it in consultation with business and unions that received widespread support. It was fully costed out there. So we are determined to implement that.

GILBERT: So you think you'll have a good relationship with the teals?

PRIME MINISTER: I think we'll have a good relationship with people across the crossbench. Whether it is the people who've just been elected, I've had a constructive relationship with Rebecca Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter. And the whole of the crossbench over a period of time. I've had constructive discussions as well with Adam Bandt, we will talk to people across the Parliament. And I'm confident that we will give Australia a good government that provides the changes necessary and brings people with us on the journey of change. 

GILBERT: The triumph, Prime Minister is clear. You're in government. There was one significant loss, Kristina Keneally, are there lessons to be learned from that experience and parachuting someone into a seat like Fowler?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course there are, you have to learn lessons from an outcome like that. And I think the lessons are very clear that the community sent a message. Kristina Keneally is a big loss to our team, she was a valued friend, she was the Deputy Senate Leader, and it is a loss, but you have to accept outcomes in democratic processes, but you also have to learn from them. And we will take note of the lessons which are there.

GILBERT: The Biloela family are heading home and at the same time, you've already had one boat take back. So we've seen this week, in the last seven days the compassion on the one hand, but the hard approach of Operation Sovereign Borders on the other, how do you see those two things working in unison?

PRIME MINISTER: Because you can be strong on borders without being weak on humanity. And that's precisely what we said we would do. We said we would implement Operation Sovereign Borders and we will. We won't see the startup of the people smugglers business. It's a bad business. And we don't want that to happen. And we've sent a very clear message and will continue to do so. At the same time. These people arrived of course, prior to that. Nades was working in the meat works there at Biloela. We struggled to get people prepared to work in meatworks. We import temporary labour all the time. And here we were basically taking this, this mum and dad and their two daughters who were born here in Australia, taking them off to detention in the middle of the night, taking them to Melbourne, then they end up on Christmas Island, then they end up in Perth. We're a better country than that. These two little girls aren't threats to our security.

They are loved in their local community in 2019, I met with the local community there in Biloela, they've run an extensive campaign on behalf of their friends who they had made as part of that regional town. And Barnaby Joyce, and a range of people had expressed support in the Coalition for them, they just didn't do anything about it. We've done something about it. 

GILBERT: In the lead up to the election, you spoke about your strategy being about not one election or one term, but for the future, you're looking at multiple elections. Can you explain to our viewers and the nation what do you mean by that? Is your strategy to be in office for a decade or more?

PRIME MINISTER: What I meant by that was that we had a plan to win the election. But a plan for the election after as well, by putting forward a program of reform that was achievable, so that by the time of the next election in 2025, I want to be able to say that we're delivered on our commitments, our commitment to cheaper childcare, our commitment to action on climate change, that we're using the national reconstruction fund to make more things here, across a range of industries to be more self-reliant, that we have made a number of changes to increase the amount of secure work, which is there, that we've implemented, cheaper medicines to drive down that cost, that we've got 50 Medicare urgent care clinics up and running around the country. It's a plan for a reform that will make Australians proud, I think, and will certainly make Labor at the next election be able to point towards these changes. I also want to change the way that politics operates, I want to be more inclusive, I want to engage across the spectrum. If people have good ideas, I'm up for them. I showed that as Labor Leader, I said I didn't want to be opposition leader, and just oppose everything. And we didn't do that. And we got some criticism for that you might recall on the way through, it was the right thing to do to put the national interest first. We've already reengaged in, in foreign affairs in a very broad way. And that engagement will continue in the future. And of course, the final thing is we need to fix our Constitution, we need to recognise the pride that we should all have in having the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet amongst us in this great multicultural nation, and recognise First Nations people in our Constitution. A Voice to Parliament, is nothing more than good manners. It just says is something's affecting indigenous people, we should talk with them, it doesn't have the right of veto. It's not a chamber in the parliament. That's all it does. And to me, that change will make Australia a better place, a better country. And that is my whole theme - was a better future. Part of that is the way that we see ourselves, but also the way that the world sees us.

GILBERT: Well, you spoke about the multicultural nation. You're the first Prime Minister in our history with a non-Anglo Saxon surname. Do you think that resonates with people?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm off to the Italian national ball tonight, and I'm sure that the reception there will be positive. I think that having a parliament with someone with a name like Albanese leading the House of Reps, in the Senate, the Leader is someone with a surname of Wong. We have six First Nations people in the Labor Caucus now. There are a range of people who've been elected from very diverse backgrounds Zaneta Mascarenhas in Swan. She's an engineer in the resources sector, who's had an upbringing in Kalgoorlie with Indian background, we have a whole range of people. And importantly, the Parliament elected a whole lot of new women, not just from Labor, but from the crossbenchers as well, which is a very good thing. Parliament should reflect the nation, and we're a diverse, multicultural nation. And it's a good thing that we're more representative in the 2022 Parliament than we ever have been before. 

GILBERT: I've got to let you go and spruce up for that Italian ball. But my last question, it's an adjustment to the role as Prime Minister for anyone, the SMH described your status yesterday as a Labor hero joining the rarefied pantheon of those who have led the party, out of years of opposition, have you allowed yourself a few moments to reflect on that?

PRIME MINISTER: I haven't had many moments to reflect, I've got to say, and it's been a busy time. But I do understand the great responsibility that I have, I'm humbled by it. It says a lot about our great country that someone who, you know, was the son of a single mum, who was an invalid pensioner living in council housing can rise to lead the country as Prime Minister. And I'll never take it for granted. I'll honour it every day, and I'll do my best. That's not to say I'll be perfect, because none of us are. But I'll try to keep it real on the way through and continue to keep my feet on the ground. Because I think that is really important as well. And the reception that we had, over the weekend at Eastwood, where we got a massive double digit swing that helped us win the suit of Bennelong with the fantastic candidate we had there Jerome Laxale was extraordinary. 

Australians are generous people. And I think that they'll give us a go. I get the sense out there that they want us to succeed. And I have people who didn't vote for us as well. Who've said to me, we really want you to succeed for the sake of the country. So we'll do our best.

GILBERT: Prime Minister Albanese. Thank you and thanks for giving me and our program the first face to face interview as Prime Minister. I very much appreciate it. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Kieran.