Interview with Tara Brown, 60 Minutes

22 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

TARA BROWN: Welcome to the program.


BROWN: What a day.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, every day is a challenge, particularly when you're dealing with a global pandemic on coronavirus. And there's an understandable high level of anxiety in the community. And we've lost Australians. There are so many more around the world who have lost their lives. And we're dealing with one of the most serious situations this country has seen, certainly since the Second World War.

BROWN: New South Wales and Victoria, as well as the other states, are talking about going tougher. Their message quite clearly is that you're not doing enough on stopping the spread of the infection? Is that the case?

PRIME MINISTER: No that’s not their view at all. I mean, we've been working closely together on this and we have been working with them, for them to take additional measures within their states to deal specifically with outbreak areas that are occurring within their states. I mean, every state has got a very different experience so far but we've all been working together very, very well at the end of the day states have to decide the extent of measures that they take within their own states to prevent the further outbreak. 

BROWN: Well, New South Wales and Victoria are talking about closing schools as of Tuesday. Why is that not being spoken about at a national level?

PRIME MINISTER: It has been spoken about -

BROWN: Well, why is the decision not being made to do that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, a, it was only a few days ago where all states were resolute on the point in relation to keeping schools open. And it's important that schools remain open, particularly for those parents who are working in critical areas, particularly in the health workforce but this has been an active issue, which we've flagged maybe at a point in time where states would have to take that decision. They're just seeking to try and take that decision together, collectively, about how they might approach it. But ultimately, again, states run the school system and they'll make their own decisions on how they do that. The Commonwealth doesn't run the school system.

BROWN: If the medical advice is that it's unnecessary to close schools. Why is New South Wales and Victoria looking at closing schools as of Tuesday?

PRIME MINISTER: Ultimately, states will make their own decisions about these things. We're a, we're a Federation. The Commonwealth doesn't make their decisions for them. They'll make their own decisions. But it's important when they do that they are very mindful of the impacts and consequences and particularly for their own health workforce, which they will need in their hospitals.

BROWN: Do you think it's the right decision?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I will only act always on the medical advice that we’re provided and-

BROWN: You’re telling me the medical advice is that you don't need to close schools?

PRIME MINISTER: The medical advice is updated on a daily basis. The medical advice is being considered even as we're sitting here in the middle of this interview, and this is a fast moving issue and as the medical advice changes, then of course, that's when governments will make different decisions.

BROWN: And so just for clarity, has the medical advice shifted?

PRIME MINISTER: Well not as we're sitting here in this room at this minute. But there's a meeting going on as we speak.

BROWN: You understand my confusion though? You’ve got states saying we're going to close schools. You're saying there's no medical advice to say you have to do that. I’m asking why are they doing it? You’re saying well, they've got to make up their mind, because advice is shifting all the time?

PRIME MINISTER: They’re sovereign governments and they have to consider all the issues that are before them. But what I'm telling you, is that the medical advice, the same medical advice that had a unanimity of view amongst all the Premiers and all the Chief Ministers who are very adamant about having a consistent position on this, that medical advice is still the same advice before the Government but I think we need to understand Tara, that this issue is moving extremely fast. And what we have always said is as the information changes, as there is a need to take additional measures, particularly locally and within states, than I would expect states to take those actions. And that's exactly what I've been saying and forecasting now for many days.

BROWN: Is there conflicting advice?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I have not seen conflicting advice coming forward to the National Cabinet. No, I haven't.

BROWN: Okay. We are in unprecedented times, is it not time now for the Federal Government to take over a unity government, to make federal decisions for clarity and for the safety of our community? Is it not time for the Federal Government to make this decision?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the National Cabinet has been formed, this is the first time this has ever happened in Australia's federal history. This is the closest this country has ever had to exactly what you're talking about. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of of all of our governments does not provide for what you're asking for. That is not an option that is available to the Commonwealth Government. But what is available is us working together in the way we are. That's why I pulled the National Cabinet together. Now, I have no doubt that on some occasions there'll be some issues where states will go their own way and they will take different decisions and that will be up to them. But there is still a lot of work to do. The issue that you're raising is one that the Constitution never envisaged or does not give me the powers to address. But that's why I pulled together a National Cabinet to get as close to that as we possibly can. 

BROWN: I mean, that is an option, has been an option at times of war are we not in a war at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we are doing right now is no different to what was done in those times. They had no greater authorities on these issues than than we have today. And in fact, in many ways we've gone beyond it. I mean, in the time of war, there was not a government that pulled together in the Cabinet, all the Premiers and all the Chief Ministers together with the Prime Minister. And it's been a very collaborative and constructive process. But at the same time, we need to recognise that states are responsible for what happens in their states. I'll support them and we'll provide the advice. And importantly, that includes whether it's the assistance from the Defence Forces as they're already supporting, or indeed what I've announced today. Some $66 billion of of measures to support people if they lose their job or they lose their business. I mean, this is many, many times over the packages that have been announced at state level. And that's providing the stronger and more secure safety net for people who will find themselves the first in the firing line in the blows of this exchange that you will see of the coronavirus and its economic impact.

BROWN: So would it be fair to describe this not as a stimulus package, but as a welfare package?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we described it as a safety net package today.

BROWN: Yeah we're not talking about growth, are we. We are just talking about survival?

PRIME MINISTER: The economy is going to have, is going to be significantly battered by this in a way that we have not seen in my lifetime.

BROWN: In terms of the numbers that we're talking about. We're now, we're now talking over a thousand infections in Australia.


BROWN: What do you believe the ultimate number will be?

PRIME MINISTER: Nobody knows.

BROWN: Really?


BROWN: What sort of advice are you getting on that though?

PRIME MINISTER: That advice that nobody knows. See I know people are looking for a lot of certainty on these things,

BROWN: From you.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, and that's certainty at present because this is unprecedented what we're seeing on a global scale. What we can provide certainty of is if someone finds them self in a position where they've lost their job, I’ve doubled the jobseeker allowance. If a business is wondering how they're going to get from now to the end of this virus crisis, which at the very least we think is 6 months. That's why we've provided up to $100,000 in grants to help them get there. That's why we've ensured that people can break open and access their own superannuation savings up to $20,000 if their income has fallen by by 20 per cent. These things are designed to help. If you're a self-funded retiree that you aren't forced to pull money out in the middle of a bad market by changing the drawdown rates. I can guarantee people the things that I can do to help them, what I can't do is forecast what is an unforecastable situation.

BROWN: In a two week period in Italy, they went from 1,000 infections to 16,000, in a fortnight, 1,000 to 16,000. Could that happen here?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the situation in Italy and Australia is very different for a couple of reasons. Our health system is different. The age of our population is very different. And the way life is lived is also very different. On top of that, our rate of testing is one of the highest in the world. We’ve got 127,000 tests that have been done for a rate of infection, as you saw, just over 1,200. The percentage of negative cases, 99 per cent. That's one that's one of the highest if not the highest in the world but this is going to be really tough. I mean, these things are going to break our hearts, but it's not going to break our spirit.

BROWN: Are you frightened?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s not my job to do that, it’s my job to be,

BROWN: Are you alarmed?

PRIME MINISTER: Not at all. Look in situations like this. You've just got to act on the information, make decisions and communicate clearly. I can't control what I can't control, but I can control what our Government does and I can control what support and information and health services that we can deliver at a time of real great crisis.

BROWN: And I know you say your job is to communicate clearly. You tell people not to hoard. They continue to do so. You tell people not to socialise, look at Bondi. I mean they're not listening are they?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, I actually think the experience is different to that. I mean, I know that from even just this week, the figures that were provided to me by the supermarkets showed that there was greater order today than there was a number of days ago but that will change depending on how people respond to the measures that come. What we saw at Bondi Beach was just not okay. It was not even remotely okay. And that sent a message to the Premiers. It sent a message to  the Chief Ministers and I, that not enough Australians are taking this seriously. I said today we are in a war against this virus and all Australians are enlisted to do the right thing. We can give instruction. We can enforce them. People are told to self-isolate for 14 days when they come back. People are told to keep to one and a half meters distance, venues are told to only have an average of four square metres for the number of people. This needs to be observed. If it's not observed, then very draconian measures will have to be introduced that might otherwise have been unnecessary.

BROWN: Alright, thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Tara.