Podcast interview: The Daily Aus

05 Feb 2023
Prime Minister
Voice to Parliament; Housing; Health; Climate Change; Vaping; Domestic and Family Violence; Refugees.

TOM CROWLEY, HOST: Prime Minister, thank you very much for speaking to the Daily Aus.


CROWLEY: I want to start with the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament later this year. Now some of the latest polling suggests that a lot of Australians still can't explain what a Voice is. How will you bridge that gap between now and the vote?

PRIME MINISTER: We will be very clear in the lead up to the vote that this is about recognition and consultation. That's all it's about. The words that I put forward last July at the Garma Festival were very clear, that it begins with in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia's first peoples, and then goes through the three constitutional clauses. One, there shall be a Voice. Second, the Voice shall make representation on issues which affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And thirdly, that there will be legislation from the Parliament that will determine the structure and the activity of the Voice, that is it is subservient to the Parliament. So this is about just that. We should be proud that our Constitution should reflect that we share this continent with the oldest continuous culture on Earth. And secondly, that where matters affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we should ask them, we should consult with them. That's good manners. But it won't be a funding body. It won't be a body that is able to overrule the Parliament or veto what the Parliament does. It's subservient to the Parliament, which is why that detail will be legislated. And of course, that legislation can be changed from time to time.

CROWLEY: It can, but there are clearly a lot of people who are quite interested in getting a sense as they make their mind up about their votes, about what that legislation will look like. And there is, I suppose, a detailed and authoritative proposal out there, the Langton-Calma model, which people across the spectrum have spoken very favourably of. Are you open to being a little bit clearer about whether that is the base of the Voice that you would like to like to legislate? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there's a range of reports out there, including there's already been a Parliamentary Inquiry reported in 2018. That then led to the Calma-Langton report that has a lot to say about local voices, about the structures. In not every area, though, is it definitive. But it is also very clear itself, that it will be subject of legislation. And of course, that legislation will change from time to time. People, I think, haven't had a referendum on the Constitution this century. So for a lot of people, for everyone under the age of 40, this will be the first time they've ever voted. And what they're voting on isn't legislation. They're not voting on the structure of of the Voice detail. What they're voting on is just the principle of constitutional recognition and that the form in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves determined at Uluru overwhelmingly that they wanted was to have a Voice that is a say in matters that affect them.

CROWLEY: If I can move onto housing, the cost of both owning a house and renting a house are going up significantly at the moment. It's something that puts pressure on a lot of Australians, millions of Australians really. Our house and stress rates are some of the highest in the world. A lot of the policies that the government offers cover maybe few tens of thousands of people a year, is that really enough to shift the dial on this problem?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is a massive problem and we're very cognisant of that. For young people, in particular, it's far more difficult to get into home ownership than it was when I first went into home ownership and went and got a mortgage, which was in the early 1990s. And so what we need to deal with, though, is the whole issue of supply that affects not thousands of people, but hundreds of thousands of people. And that's why our Housing Accord is such a breakthrough. To get agreement from the housing construction industry, from social and housing groups, community housing groups and others about that sort of reform, with the government, not just the Commonwealth Government but every state and territory government whether it be Labor or Coalition at the head of those governments, is a significant breakthrough. And that Housing Accord will, of course, be in place for some period of time. And that's on top of the additional social housing investment that we're doing. The additional emergency housing investment that we're doing for women and children escaping domestic violence. That's on top of our regional homebuyers scheme. It's on top of our Help to Buy Scheme, which is a shared equity scheme as well, to allow people to get into the market. So a whole range of reforms are there working together to try and assist people to get into appropriate housing.

CROWLEY: But a lot of these problems are very deeply rooted. One thing the Labor Party has considered in the past is some of the tax treatment of housing and the way that that encourages people to be investing in the housing market, is that something that you'll revisit?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we visited it, and it was rejected by the Australian people. 

CROWLEY: So never again then?

PRIME MINISTER: It was rejected when we put it forward. So what we want to do is to try and work on methods that bring the industry together with people in order to provide solutions. And the key, clearly, part of the problem is to deal with the issue of supply. So everything we've been dealing with has been aimed at increasing the supply of housing, because overwhelmingly the advice that we've received from Treasury and from private sector analysts say the same thing, is that you need to increase the supply of housing. And that is what our reforms are aimed at doing.

CROWLEY: I'll change tack to mental health. Now, I suppose we're in the midst of a really significant mental health crisis that's particularly acute for young people. In that context, your government allowed ten additional subsidised sessions to expire at the end of last year, and there's not yet anything in place to replace that. What will you do to replace that and to address the mental health challenge? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well that measure, of course, was determined by the former government.

CROWLEY: It was but it your decision to allow that to expire.

PRIME MINISTER: No, we didn't make a decision to change what was there.  

CROWLEY: You could have extended it.

PRIME MINISTER: The former government made a whole range of commitments that then expired, were time limited. That was one of them. And the advice was that the problem was that additional people getting access to support services wasn't being aided enough under that system. That is, the same number of people were getting more support, not more people getting support enough. People were still having difficulty accessing services. Now that was the advice to government. 

CROWLEY: I appreciate that.

PRIME MINISTER: One of the things that we're doing now, and we've announced just in the last couple of days, is a process to enable - including young people - to enable a reform of mental health and to get that advice to government by establishing bodies so that we get that advice to government to feed into future policy decision making processes. We, of course, in our budget continue to provide substantial support. And in the budget in October, again, there was an increase in mental health funding from the one that we inherited. And we will continue to do what we can to provide more and more support.

CROWLEY: But the pattern that we see in mental health, and when that decision was announced in December, that there was a concession from the government that they were broader issues about cost and access in the mental health system. You've spoken quite openly about issues with Medicare more broadly. Is the health system on life support? And to be more specific about it, will a really significant amount of funding need to come from the government to fix that issue?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we need to do is to fix the health system in general. And at the moment, in a range of areas, it's not functioning properly. And one of the things I've been working with state and territory governments on is health reform in delivery. At the moment you have the Medicare system that is run by the Commonwealth. At the same time, you have the hospital systems that is run by the states. So you have some built-in structural inefficiencies where there are rather bizarre financial incentives to not work together. And that's why on areas like, for example, we allocated in the budget in October additional support for telehealth services for mental health in rural areas, that was planned to be withdrawn. That was a commitment that we made at the election and we put that in the budget. Last Friday I was in Tasmania announcing a system whereby GPs who were working through the hospital system, can be employed by the state healthcare system but get access to Medicare. So that provides them with an incentive to stay in the system, to get that training, to continue to go into work as GPs in regional Tasmania, which is defined as all of it, effectively. And that's a part of a $100 million plan that we put forward in the budget in order to try to look at innovative ways in which we boost efficiency and get better outcomes. Another example is that a whole lot of people end up in emergency departments from aged care residence because there's not a nurse in nursing homes. If we get that care done at the aged care resident's home it won't require an ambulance call out, a trip to the hospital and sometimes an extensive stay as well. In so many areas there are hospital beds being taken up by people who either should be in some form of aged care residence or people who need disability care, people who shouldn't be in hospital and that's placing pressure on the entire system. So we need to look at health care as a whole. We established a Medicare Task Force that will report in to the National Cabinet this Friday when we meet, to try and make sure that we get better outcomes. That's what it's about. 

CROWLEY: On climate change, your target is to reduce emissions by 43 per cent by the end of the decade. Now the scientific consensus around the world is pretty clear that the world is not on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. We are one of the richest nations in the world. Why can't our target be more ambitious?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, it could be but you've got to have a pathway to get there. Plucking a figure out does not change the fact that two things are needed. One, we need to reduce our emissions and we need to do that to every extent possible. But secondly, as well, you won't win support for that if, when you walked in this room, you flick the switch and the light didn't go on. You need a transition. And what happened during the former government was you had four gigawatts leave the system of supply and only one gigawatt came in. Now we have a $20 billion Rewiring the Nation program to bring the grid into the 21st century. We have a plan to support renewables and to support that shift which is there. We have a plan to support electric vehicles. We have a plan to support energy efficiency.

CROWLEY: But at the same time... 

PRIME MINISTER: You need time for that investment to occur. And all of the projections going forward show that getting to 43 per cent reduction by 2030 is extremely ambitious in itself because of the nine lost years which we had.

CROWLEY: But there are other policy options on the table that could be considered. You've spoken yourself about this target as a floor rather than a ceiling. And one of those is the number of coal and gas projects that are currently under consideration, many of which your government has indicated in the past...

PRIME MINISTER: But again, where? Which ones? 

CROWLEY: Well, they're out there.

PRIME MINISTER: These figures you have plucked out, which ones?

CROWLEY: Well, sure, but I mean, it remains the case that the government won't commit that it will never consider any coal and gas projects. And that's it's in a context where AGL is constantly updating its timelines...

PRIME MINISTER: It's such a distraction. It's a distraction from where the debate is.

CROWLEY: But there are a lot of gas exploration projects that are under consideration.

PRIME MINISTER: There has not been a new coal-fired power station built in Australia, at any time in more than a decade. There has not been any. And all of the science also tells us, if you look at the International Energy Agency and the other advice, is that, to take a practical example: Rio Tinto have four facilities based around Gladstone. They want to move away from alumina refining and other activity based upon using fossil fuels, which is how it's powered at the moment through coal-fired power station there at Gladstone. They want to move to powering through renewables, but they need the baseload capacity, the certainty of having access to gas as part of that transition. Now, longer term, they're looking at hydrogen fulfilling that role. But in the meantime, you're talking about tens of billions of dollars of private sector investment by a single company, aimed at lowering their emissions, but also enabling them to continue to create jobs, produce products that we need. So in the real world that's the sort of example that we need. In Townsville, I visited the zinc refinery there, it's a Korean based company is involved there, it's the largest zinc refinery in the Southern Hemisphere. When you go there, there are over a million solar panels that are helping to power that. They're looking at hydrogen, but they're also looking at, in the short term as well, using some gas. So you need practical, real solutions going forward or else what you'll do is you will lose support for the change that needs to occur, unless we bring communities with us.

CROWLEY: Right. I'm conscious of time, I want to get to a couple of other topics that maybe aren't always kind of headline news. And I want to start with one, which is vaping. It's something that a lot of experts are kind of worried that we're losing years of progress on smoking rates with high amounts of vaping among young people. Is that something you think the government's maybe you've been a little bit slow to recognise that it's something we could do something about? 

PRIME MINISTER: I share their concerns. There are real concerns that vaping is a pathway to the same problem that has existed. And that's why it's interesting that some of the big tobacco companies have gone into vaping as a way of trying to maintain their profitability.

CROWLEY: So what might government do about that? I mean, packaging was the answer for cigarettes, quickly, sort of plain flavouring or something along those lines?

PRIME MINISTER: Look that's something that I think that government at every level will examine. And I think it will be examined, not just here in Australia, where historically we were leading the world in plain paper packaging and other methods that we undertook when we were last in government. And I do think that it is a major issue. We know it's an issue, as well, coming through from very young people at school, getting access to vaping and getting effectively the same habit that was a problem from smoking cigarettes.

CROWLEY: The government released a plan last year to work towards eliminating violence against women. A lot of past government plans have failed. What specifically will be different this time?

PRIME MINISTER: Today we held an event this morning here in Parliament House about the fact that tomorrow ten days paid domestic and family violence leave comes into force. That will make a big difference. No woman should have to choose between staying safe and being able to secure their job and that will make a difference. The increased support, we have 500 increased community service workers working in this area as well, providing support for women and children in particular escaping domestic violence. We have $100 million for increased in emergency housing. 4000 new social housing units will be built for families and escaping domestic violence, in particular, quarantined for them. It also is, though, a scourge that requires not just government, it requires a whole of society to act. And for us to talk about it. For us to say that disrespect of women is always unacceptable. The rates of domestic violence are horrific. But we know that for a long time, people knew about issues and would basically turn away. We need to put a spotlight on this. And whether we be people in the media, people in government, hopefully in the private sector, in their businesses, people in sporting organisations, we need a whole of society push to rid society of what is a dreadful scourge that impacts on women, but impacts as well of course on children who sometimes can be victims themselves, or can be victims in another way by witnessing the sort of violent episodes which are all too prevalent.

CROWLEY: On refugee policy, there have been a lot of reports over a really long period of time, including very recent ones about the mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia's detention centres. Is that an appropriate way to be treating desperate people?

PRIME MINISTER: Well everyone should be treated with respect and with care, regardless of where they are. That's my very firm view.

CROWLEY: So what action will be taken in response to some of those recent reports about this treatment at the hands of government contractors in Australia's detention centres?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we believe that people need to be treated properly and with respect. And we will continue to do what we can to ensure that occurs. We find any of the mistreatment that has ever occurred to be unacceptable and that is our firm view. I have a view that you can be strong on borders without being weak on humanity and we already have taken considerable action. As we've said, we are committed to giving Temporary Protection Visa holders more certainty going forward. We of course took the Nadesalingam family home to Bilo. There was discussion at the time that we did that about how that would start the people smuggling trade and there was a lot of criticism. And of course, that hasn't occurred. Treating that family with respect was an appropriate response.

CROWLEY: The last policy issue on my list is another left field one and that's pokies. Australia's got one of the worst pokies problems in the world. It's getting a bit of attention in New South Wales and Tasmania. The Gillard government briefly considered national controls, will you?

PRIME MINISTER: Look its the states that regulate poker machines. The Commonwealth does have responsibility for some gambling issues. 

CROWLEY: The Gillard government did consider a mandatory scheme.

PRIME MINISTER: Well it didn't do it.  

CROWLEY: No, it didn't. 

PRIME MINISTER: It didn't do it because it's a state responsibility. The Federal Government has responsibility in a range of areas of regulation. For example online gambling is something that can be considered and the government will consider appropriate responses in the areas which are our responsibility. There's a range of things in Australia, Commonwealth or state. What doesn't work out terribly well is if you have both jurisdictions trying to compete over the same issues. So the things that we're responsible for, we'll examine and we'll provide a response. We've been in government for seven months. I don't think anyone can say that we haven't been active each and every day. And we have a big legislative agenda. We have a big one coming up when Parliament resumes next week. And we'll continue to make sure that we respond to the issues which are our responsibility. But I want to make sure as well that this is a government that is characterised by being orderly, by being considered, by being consultative, by doing the things that we said we would do and then delivering on them. And on the big things we said we would do, last year on emissions reduction, we introduced legislation and have legislated for 43 per cent by 2030, and 100 per cent and Net Zero by 2050. We have put in place a range of measures in that space, cheaper electric vehicles. We brought in the legislation for a National Anti-Corruption Commission and that will be established in the coming year. We have ten days paid domestic violence leave starts tomorrow. Cheaper medicines has already started. 180,000 fee-free TAFE places started on January 1. We have cheaper childcare commences on July 1. We're going through in an orderly, considered way because I want to give Australia a government that is as strong and committed and forward looking, as the Australian people are themselves.

CROWLEY: Prime Minister, we really appreciate your time. If I could finish just on maybe a more personal question. When Jacinda Arden left office, she identified compassion, empathy and kindness as some of the most important traits for a Prime Minister, what's on the top of your list?

PRIME MINISTER: Well kindness, I mentioned in my victory speech accepting the job on May 21st. And it's really interesting that, as I've gone around the country, so many people have said to me that they registered that on the night. Now that was just a conscious decision which was there. So that, I think, is a really important characteristic. I think also a range of other characteristics that I hope I have are being straight with people. My biography, part of the theme of it, that was written by Karen Middleton was subtitled 'Telling it Straight'. And I hope that I'll always be upfront with people. The discussion we've had today about climate and targets and what amount you hit, I don't think that you restore faith in government and government processes by just telling people what they want to hear, the easy answers. You have to have clear paths to deliver what you say you can do, and that's part of my objective as well. So that can be summarised in one word as integrity. I want to lead a government that has integrity.

CROWLEY: Well, if I can, to balance it out a little bit, but I don't want to sound too much like a job interview. But what about your biggest weakness when it comes to that list of traits?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's up to others to identify that.

CROWLEY: Fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER: You know, none of us are perfect. We all do our best in the job that we have. I work hard. I am collegiate. I'm very privileged I think to lead an extraordinarily strong team of Ministers, many of whom have served in government in the past and in senior roles. And I think if you look at where the government's at after just seven months in office, we have delivered on a whole range of the commitments that we made. And I hope that we're restoring faith in the political process as well. I think being a politician is an honourable profession. And I realise there's a lot of disillusionment out there about it. But I recognise that for a lot of young people, they don't identify as much as they used to when I was your age with the major political parties. But the job of government is usually done by one or either of the major parties. And that's why I'm in the Labor Party, because I want to be in the room and make decisions about the future of Australia, not wait for the decisions to be made and then decide whether I'll protest against it or not or whether it's a good thing or not. To have that say is is really important. But it is important as well that a genuine government in a democracy like ours is prepared to listen and engage with people and that's why, I must say, that the rise of new media such as yours is really important to give young people that voice and that say. 

CROWLEY: Prime Minister, thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much.