Interview with Tracy Grimshaw, ACA

Transcript
24 Jul 2020
Prime Minister
E&OE

TRACY GRIMSHAW: Prime Minister, thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Great to be here. Thank you for the opportunity.

GRIMSHAW: A month or so ago, you probably thought that today's figures, today's sobering figures would be delivered to a nation that was getting back to work. Largely, you know internal borders were open. Everyone was looking to the future. And now with the situation in Victoria, that's certainly not the case, is it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is that is exactly the situation. But I, go back further. I mean, a year ago, we couldn't have contemplated any of us I think, the world we're living in today, and that has been the swift change and the terrible impact that has that has occurred not just here in Australia but all around the rest of the world. And we were on we were we were doing very well. And I've got to say we still are doing very well. Seven states and territories even in the New South Wales where they're under pressure, they're doing very, very well. Victoria is obviously a different situation. And we feel for all of those in Victoria at the moment. And we're putting every resource in to helping them and standing by them, whether it's the Defence Forces or our public health officials at a Commonwealth level. I’m speaking very regularly to the Premier, and giving him every support we can, Australia doesn't win if Victoria doesn't win. And we've all got to win together.

GRIMSHAW: Today's figures assume that Victoria's lockdown finishes in four weeks. It assumes the best case scenario. Are you working on the theory that that's probably unrealistic now?

PRIME MINISTER: It's very hard to say. We, in what I've learnt over this COVID period is it's very hard to make long term assumptions. Situations can change swiftly and you've got to be prepared to respond. So those figures we've put out today are based on what we know today, what could happen four weeks from now, three months from now, could be very different. I'm an optimist. And so I'm I'm hopeful that as the year progresses, we can get back on that same trajectory we were in sort of May, June. So we've done it once. Even within the COVID pandemic, we can do it again. And I know Victorians can. So that's why I'm encouraging them to hang in there.

GRIMSHAW: I think Australians want some certainty. I think they want to know how their lives are going to look next year. I don't know if it's an unrealistic question to ask you, but you're probably the best person to ask. Do you know?

PRIME MINISTER: No one knows. But what I do know is the goal that I have. And what I'm working towards. And I do want Australians to feel more safe in their jobs, more safe in their health, more confident about the future at the end of this year than they are today. Just like I wanted them to be confident several months ago. And I remember when the pandemic first hit, even as difficult as things are now, they are better than they were several months ago. Even in Victoria, where we're going through another wave, for the rest of the country, I mean, in Victoria, many months ago, the whole country was going through that process with no real understanding, potentially of how the the virus worked and what it could mean and what the fatality rate would be. I mean, back in March, April, we were we were thinking about tens of thousands of people within a month contracting the virus and many thousands of Australians dying. Now, that's what we were planning for. We built the the health system up. We've put the ICU beds in place. We've got the masks. We've got the ventilators. So even now with the situation in Victoria, we know that our health system can cope with it.

GRIMSHAW: I want to ask you a question about JobSeeker and JobKeeper, because, you know, you've said that you will continue them both until March next year. But given that the virus charts its own path and given what it's done in Victoria and that New South Wales is under a shadow at the moment. Can you see a scenario where you would have to continue JobSeeker and JobKeeper after March next year? Or will you say, will you reach a point where you'll say we can't afford to do that anymore? We have to pull that support?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it is certainly my hope that we can get ourselves to a point where these sorts of supports aren’t necessary. I mean, that's where we want to be. And that's what we're working towards. And that's why the health response is so important and that's why the economic response is so important. But the point I was going to make is you don't fix the health situation by sacrificing your economy either. I mean, what you do is you build up your health response capability and what you're seeing in New South Wales is the evidence of that. I mean, they, even though there's extra cases, they've been able to source every case and they've been able to do it in a very short period of time, and that's the strength in the system that you need all around the country. Now New South Wales was always going to be under the most strain because that's where most Australians return home to Australia. Let's not forget that what we've seen in Victoria started because of the outbreak from the quarantine. This wasn't community transmission. This was a failure of of quarantine. And that went out into the rest of the community. Now, we've had people arriving from overseas in their thousands for months now. And the quarantine, by and large, has been very successful. But it only takes one failure. And that's why we've doubled down. There's a review of all the quarantine arrangements that’s underway right now, in states where there's no community transmission, but whether it's in W.A. or Brisbane or elsewhere. We are doubling down to ensure those systems can work.

GRIMSHAW: Are you cranky about what's happened in Victoria. I mean, you've spent billions, broken the economy. Asked people to sacrifice so much. Some people have sacrificed everything. And now because of some government mistakes and a few randy security guards, ill-disciplined security guards. We're back to square one there. Are you cranky?

PRIME MINISTER: Getting cranky doesn't help. No one elected me to be cranky.

GRIMSHAW: But you’re human?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, Prime Ministers aren’t often given that indulgence either sometimes. But that's not why we're here. That's not why I'm here. You've got to just focus on the task ahead. We're just focussing on the problem and getting the solution to the problem. And strong leadership in these circumstances does that. It just focuses on what needs to be done and it blacks out, frankly, the distractions. And there's a lot of noise. You know, there's lots of opinions. Everyone's a pandemic expert these days.

GRIMSHAW: Yes.

PRIME MINISTER: But I'll take the advice from those who are accountable.

GRIMSHAW: If the enquiry finds, if it makes damning findings, you know if it finds that laws were broken, or that bad mistakes were made. Will you expect there to be penalties? Will you expect charges to be laid or heads to roll?

PRIME MINISTER: I would of course, I'd expect there to be accountability for any failings. And I'm sure the Premier would too. The inquiry’s been set up for that purpose. But my point is that that's being looked at. That's someone else's task to go through. We've certainly formed an understanding, some understanding of what some some of the failures were so that we're not replicating them elsewhere. So one of the other things, I think that's been really important in the pandemic and how we’ve all worked together, there are going to be things that don't go right in an, in a world as uncertain as this. It's almost impossible to avoid that. I'm not excusing what's happening in Victoria by the way, that's not my point. But you all got to learn fast. And learning fast and quick builds our capacity to better manage this response. And I've been engaging with world leaders as well who are going through exactly the same thing as I am, I probably speak to Jacinda Ardern the most, because we’re locals. But I was just talking to Prime Minister Trudeau, yesterday and and President Trump as well recently as these calls are constant because we're constantly learning from each other.

GRIMSHAW: In March, you told us that you'd build a bridge and carry us to the other side and then the economy would snap back. When did it become clear to you that that wasn't going to happen?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, those comments were made quite a long time ago. And a lot has happened since then. And frankly, I think I only ever used the phrase about once. And I think it's been amplified well beyond well beyond how it represented my view. But, you know, events have changed significantly since then.

GRIMSHAW: That question is not an accusation by the way. I’m just, I just want to know at what moment it became clear to you that it wasn't going to be that simple?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, I think we we were well into April, when you know that that was obvious and frankly, early April when we're in that situation. And so it was important that we could see that we put the supports in place over time. Now, if I go back to the start of this year in February, I mean, we were getting advice from the Governor of the Reserve Bank, which was saying that the June quarter would be fine and it would bounce back in June. So, look, things happen fast. They change quickly. And what you do is you change with them.

GRIMSHAW: You've said that we will pay off this debt by growing our economy. How are we going to grow our economy in a global recession when businesses have failed and people are out of work and there’s poor consumer confidence and we’re feuding with our biggest trading partner? How are we going to do that?

PRIME MINISTER: The way you create jobs is you ensure that you can give businesses as much confidence as you possibly can to open their doors, to employ people, to invest, to look beyond the pandemic and to look to their future. Now, you're right, the COVID safe world is a more constrained one than the one before it. But Australia is faring better than almost, if not any other developed country in the world. So what have we been doing? We've been doing subsidising airfreight to make sure that our seafood exports can get up into the rest of the world. Our iron ore exports, are now higher than they were at the start of the pandemic. And so the issues that have been raised about trading relationships and particularly with China, I mean, the facts on the ground, are they are buying more than they ever have. Because it's a mutually beneficial relationship.

GRIMSHAW: Will that last though? Will that last? Because they’re looking for other markets, other sources aren’t they?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, but Australia's products, Australia's reliability and Australia's performance is what drives the trade. I mean, you trade with people that you know are going to give you a good product and the right price. And that's what we do. And so that's what will drive it. That's what's always driven it. There's always noise around all of these things and people rush to conclusions. The facts on the ground are, is our trading performance with China has never been stronger.

GRIMSHAW: Will you bring forward tax cuts, are you open to that?

PRIME MINISTER: What we will do as a government is do things that create jobs. You asked before how are we going to grow again. Well jobs are at the centre of our plan. Because if someone is in a job, they're paying taxes. If someone, so they're not on welfare benefits, and hopefully not even needing JobKeeper as well. It's why we put $1.5 billion dollars into ensuring 180,000 apprentices are going to keep their jobs. It's why we put $1 billion dollars together with the states to create 340,000 training places. It's why we put money into zoos. It's why we put money into getting new films. It's why we’ve supported the entertainment industry as well, to get shows on the road again in a COVID safe way. That's how you create the jobs. And when people are in jobs, our economy is growing.

GRIMSHAW: Is it that easy?

PRIME MINISTER: It's not easy. It’s hard. And it's costly, but it's what's necessary. This is like nothing we've seen in generations. And in those times, that's when governments have to do what they do now, because the private economy, the broader economy has been so suppressed. That's why you run a strong economy in the first place. That's why you get your budget back into balance. It's so in these times you can respond. And I believe that's what we've demonstrated. We've demonstrated that it wasn't just to put some certificate on the wall about having a balanced budget. Who cares. What matters is that you put yourselves in a position, as we did, to respond like we are right now.

GRIMSHAW: How many years will it take to pay it back? Will your daughters be still paying off this debt? When they’re adults?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the previous forecasts we had on our debt on where it was before, it was going to take us a decade to get back to zero debt. Now, we haven't done the new debt projections out over the medium term, that will be done in the budget. So there'll be more numbers available about what we think the medium term scenario might look at. But we're, look we’re seeing our debt rise to levels that we haven't seen in this country for a very long time. We've seen them before after the war. And that's the situation we're in. But as as the Finance Minister said today, what was the alternative? The alternative would have seen not only hundreds of thousands of Australians become destitute. It would have seen thousands of Australians die. So when you're faced with those rather existential threats and challenges as a Prime Minister, there's only one response. And we've provided it.

GRIMSHAW: How many times can we go in and out of this sort of lockdown? That they are doing in Victoria right now? I mean, how many times can we sustain that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's why it's so important that what we're seeing in New South Wales is successful so it is possible to avoid this. That is doable. And the lessons,

GRIMSHAW: And Victoria didn’t?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is true. That is true. And that is why the lessons of what has occurred in Victoria are being applied in all the other states and territories now. But what New South Wales is demonstrating is they are dealing with the same problem. But we're not seeing the number of cases in New South Wales. We're not seeing that at all. And their response and this isn't a criticism of Victoria, I want to be clear about that. This is difficult. It's extremely difficult. But in New South Wales, they're having more success. And I think that demonstrates it can be done.

GRIMSHAW: Is the ADF tracking and tracing in Victoria now? What's the ADF doing?

PRIME MINISTER: They’re, well they’re involved in everything from door-knocking to supporting, particularly the leadership of the public health officials and emergency management people in Victoria, we've got about fourteen hundred people out of the ADF in Victoria at the moment. The national resource has just been laid at the feet of Victoria, and say, you’ll get what you need because unless you win, we don't.

GRIMSHAW: It better work.

PRIME MINISTER: Well of course it will. That's why we're leaving nothing on the field on this.

GRIMSHAW: It seems that there has been a shift in Australian's attitude towards this pandemic since the first time around. So now we're in the second wave. It’s a much more serious wave it seems to me, because there's so much uncontrolled community transmission. The first time around, it felt to me like Australians were afraid and they were keen to do their bit. Now it feels like they're fed up and they're almost willing to take their chances with the virus. Do you get a sense of that, that there's a sense of pushback and rebellion now?

PRIME MINISTER: I think there's a sense of frustration. I think, to be honest, the first time round there was arguably even greater fear because of the unknown. As I said before, people, remember, we were coming home at night watching ACA I'm sure, as many other programmes. And we were seeing mass graves dug in New York. We were seeing large tents in fields in the UK with bodies in them, now, and we saw the horrific signs out of Italy and and I remember one I saw, which was chilling, as they went through an ICU unit in Italy. So I think people on that occasion, there was far more unknowns. I think there is more of a known element of the virus now, that can cause some complacency as well, which we have to guard against. And so while we look at Victoria and people are wearing face masks, mandatorily in Victoria, over in the West, in Western Australia, they can't be complacent there either because it only takes one outbreak out of quarantine for a virus to move through. And so the social distancing, the one and a half meters, all of the things that people know. Just because your case numbers are low doesn't mean you have to, you get out of the habit. That's what concerns a lot of us. And that's not a criticism. It's just saying, let's stay in the habit.

GRIMSHAW: How are you going to manage that community attitude, though, if there is that push back, if they are fed up and they're feeling a bit rebellious and they're not as afraid anymore because we haven't had the kind of death rates that we had seen overseas as the virus cranked up here. How are you going to manage that? I mean, do you penalise it? Do you win hearts and minds back? What do you do?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I have a more positive sort of view of the Australian people. I know people get fed up, I know they get cranky. I know they get disappointed and I know they get angry. All of those things. But I also know that Australians are pretty sensible by and large, and we just have to keep reminding people about doing the right thing, you know, I mean, this is not a political comment, but there are a lot of Australians out there, I call them quiet Australians. But, you know, they don’t talk a lot about this stuff. They just get on with their lives and they know that part of their lives now is being more safe about these things. And it's important that people just stay on their guard and and hold each other and support each other. And so if people are coming round to your house and you're in a state or territory where that can happen. Okay. It is important not to have that hug. If they’re not someone who's in your household. Sure, they can come around, you can have a barbecue and you can do all that, and that's wonderful, but you've got to do the elbow, and you don't do those things. There were no police in your house. There's no one watching you or anything like that. It's what we do in those circumstances that I think is really important and not having that sense of complacency. And I think the answer is to encourage one another, because here's the prize. The prize is life getting back to as close to normal as we can get it. People getting back into jobs, people not having to rely on welfare. People being able to do the things they would they would hope they could normally do as much as possible.

GRIMSHAW: What if we don't get a vaccine? Vaccines for coronavirus’ are notoriously difficult. Still don't have a vaccine for SARS, what if we don’t get a vaccine?

PRIME MINISTER: Well you keep washing your hands, you keep your one and a half metres distance. You keep your health systems capacity up and strong. You keep opening your businesses. You keep ensuring that people book and sit at tables. That's what you do. You run your country. You run your society in a COVID safe way.

GRIMSHAW: So if we don't get a vaccine, you say we have to keep washing our hands and keeping our distance and be COVID safe.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes.

GRIMSHAW: But do we never to go overseas again? Do we never reopen our international borders, if we don't get a vaccine how are we going to reopen our international borders?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that will be very challenging. I mean, I would hope and expect that before the end of the year, New Zealand and Australia will be able to agree a safe travel zone between Australia and New Zealand. The Prime Minister Ardern and I have had that, we were talking about that last week, and she remains as committed to that, as I do. And we're progressing that. There are many Pacific nations equally that want to be able to be part of that, the discussions I had with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, they're keen to see more safe travel. So we will adjust. And we can adjust and and we will.

GRIMSHAW: I don't want to be a Debbie Downer. And I know you're painting an optimistic view of this, but if there's no vaccine and all we can do is travel to New Zealand, as lovely as that is. What about people whose grandchildren are growing up in Europe and unseen by them? And what about people whose families are overseas? Do we never go on holidays again overseas? Is that what our life is like if there's no vaccine? What's the plan?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, right, right now, the opportunity for large scale travel beyond our borders is not foreseeable.

GRIMSHAW: That's right.

PRIME MINISTER: That's right. But this is what I mean, Tracy when I say Australians can focus on that, what if there's never a vaccine? And that means your head is to the floor. And when your head is to the floor, you can't see what your opportunities are ahead. And that's where I need Australians heads. I need them looking up. I need them looking forward because when they're doing that, they're going to be encouraging each other. They're going to be opening their businesses. They're going to be doing whatever it takes to try and, keeping people in jobs. They're going to be doing courses because they believe and rightly that there's going to be an opportunity because that's how Australia works. We will crack this. And whether there's a vaccine, which I believe there will be and I hope there will be, or not, then we will deal with whatever circumstance confronts us, because that's what Australians do.

GRIMSHAW: You've been talking to lots of international leaders, have you tried to talk to Xi Jinping. Have you tried to make a call to him?

PRIME MINISTER: They're not connecting with us on those things at the moment. We have contact through our embassy up there, but we're working with other countries all around the world. They're not seeking any support from us. I mean, back at the time in February, we had a lot of contact with China because we were getting our our our people out of Wuhan Province. And we had a lot of contact back then. And that process worked very effectively and we appreciate the contact we had with them then and what we were able to achieve. We had a lot of contact working through, trying to get access to a whole range of supplies which we achieved. So, you know, we're making that work.

GRIMSHAW: Does it worry you? Does it worry you that this relationship appears to be broken?

PRIME MINISTER: It would worry me if Australia had in any way not acted consistently with who we are. It would worry me if we didn't act in accordance with our interests. It would worry me if we responded to threats or coercion. It would worry me if we just didn't stand up for ourselves and I’ll always do that.

GRIMSHAW: Prime Minister, thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Tracy. Great to have you here.