Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks as Mike Munro hosts a Q&A at the Lifeline Australia Luncheon in Sydney, Friday, November 9, 2018. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

Q&A, Lifeline Australia Luncheon

Transcript
09 Nov 2018
Sydney, NSW
Prime Minister
Liberal Party; Queensland; a stronger economy and lower taxes; Nauru;
E&OE

Photo: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

MICHAEL MUNRO: Prime Minister, the elephant in the room. Last night Malcolm Turnbull’s response, how do you think he went?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I didn’t catch it as I was coming back from Queensland, because that’s where I was last night. But look, I want to thank Malcolm for his service to our country as a prime minister. He’s someone who has been involved in public life inside politics and outside politics. When I first met Malcolm many years ago, I knew him as the bloke who had been one of the biggest supporters for things like the Children’s Hospital over in Randwick. That’s the nature of the guy.

When I would often introduce Malcolm I would say he’s the best husband and dad I know in Parliament and that’s the bloke I know. This has been a pretty traumatic period of time for him and I understand that. I appreciated the opportunity to serve as his Treasurer. And many of the things that I talked about today, which I was able to do as Treasurer, I was able to do with his support. So look, I thank him for his kindness towards me and in how he has spoken about these things. I know he and I will both like to ensure that I can get on with the job of ensuring we deliver a stronger economy for Australia. Because that’s what pays for things like mental health services –

MUNRO: He wasn’t all that flattering to some of your Ministers.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m happy to let that go through to the keeper.

[Laughter]

MUNRO: He named the nine assassins who were responsible. He said you lost the Wentworth by-election in the last week with the farcical “it’s okay to be white,” vote, Barnaby’s tilt at Michael McCormack to take over the  National Party and because of your decision to perhaps move the Israeli embassy to Tel Aviv. Sorry, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Do you think you lost it in the last week?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I think we lost it.

MUNRO: You lost it or he lost it?

PRIME MINISTER: I know –

MUNRO: 19 per cent lost. But could you have won it had it not been for those three issues?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’ve run campaigns, I’ve been around politics for a long time and you know, you take your assessments and you look back at campaigns and you take some lessons and you move on. So that’s what we’ve done. I mean people were very angry about the events, particularly in the seat of Wentworth, I know that. I grew up in the seat –

MUNRO: Can we take that as a yes?

PRIME MINISTER: No I don’t necessarily agree with all of those assessments, I mean there were a range of issues that play into any by-election. But the point about by-elections is they’re run and they’re done, I don’t tend to get very focussed on public post-assessments.

MUNRO: What is the status of moving the embassy at this stage Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’ve made some observations on that some weeks ago, that it’s a matter that the Government is continuing to consider within government.

MUNRO: It wasn’t just a ploy to pick up more votes for Wentworth?

PRIME MINISTER: No.

MUNRO: No, okay. He also mentioned that the moderates in the Liberal Party are being bullied by the conservative right, that the Liberal Party, is – well, a lot of people think the Liberal Party is in a shambles. Costello, Hewson is down on you.

PRIME MINISTER: John Hewson is down on the Liberal Party?

[Laughter]

MUNRO: Absolutely.

PRIME MINISTER: Is that right? I hadn’t – is that the last 20 years, or just the last little while?

[Laughter]

MUNRO: [Inaudible] you’ve got Tony Abbott perhaps already plotting against you for the election next year?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m not giving you a grab on any of this, mate.

MUNRO: No, but answer the question about the moderate Liberals being bullied by the conservative right? You don’t think so?

PRIME MINISTER: We’re a big party. John Howard used to talk about it as the big church, John used to talk about it as the big tent. Everybody is welcome in our tent, it doesn’t matter what your background is.

[Applause]

What area you’ve served in. One of the great strengths of our Party Room is that people come from so many different walks of life. You know, our ranks aren’t just made up of ex union officials. I remember in the Parliament -  I don’t want to be particularly partisan today, but you asked –

[Laughter]

I said to those on the other side, “Put your hands up if you’re an ex-union official,” - I couldn’t see one hand – then I turned around to my guys and I said: “Tell me if you’ve ever run a small business?” Hands up everywhere. “Tell me if you’re an ex police office?” Hands up. “Hands up if you’ve served in the Defence Forces?” Hands up. The diversity of our Party I think is its great strength. Now there are going to differences of views on particular issues from time to time. Good, I would hope so. I’d be disappointed if  -

MUNRO: But too many bullies?

PRIME MINISTER: No, look, no, I don’t agree with that mate.

MUNRO: Because he was the Prime Minister at one stage and says now he deserves an explanation. He still doesn’t know why he went. He said you aren’t sure why he went. No one will tell the Australian public why he lost the prime ministership. Are you able to explain to us?

PRIME MINISTER: Well again, as you know I didn’t support the spill motion, as Malcolm confirmed again last night. But you know, the gift that is provided, the leadership of the Liberal Party, the parliamentary Liberal Party, John Howard always said it is a gift that comes from the Party Room. It’s the Party Room that who will make judgements and decisions about who they believe is best in a position to lead the Liberal Party at any given time.

MUNRO: Even when you have a chance of winning the next election?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is the will of – we live in a democracy and we live in a parliamentary democracy. We don’t live in a presidential system, we live in a system where Australians all around the country elect their members of Parliament and those members of Parliament from their parties, elect their leader.

MUNRO: Even if it means self-destruction?

PRIME MINISTER: The parliamentary Liberal Party decides who their leader is and the parliamentary Liberal Party formed a decision that they wanted to make a change. Those who had advocated that and had made points about the need to better connect with the values and the beliefs of Liberal and LNP members all around the country. That’s the judgement they formed and a change was made. So that change has been made and in that context, I stepped up and I’ve stepped up ever since. Because there’s a big job to do and I’m getting about that job. That job is to ensure that we do not take our economy for granted, that we don’t allow Bill Shorten’s $200 billion tax sledgehammer to come and destroy our economy and put us in a position where we can’t afford to pay for things like affordable medicines and Medicare and things like that. The way you pay for important social services – let me put it this way – sometimes on our side of politics when we talk about the economy, people think we just want to put a big trophy up on the shelf and say: “Isn’t that wonderful, it’s a beautiful, wonderful, strong economy.”

I don’t think about the economy like that. I think about the economy as something that pays for hospitals, for schools, for disability services, for mental health services, for all of these things - that’s the point of a strong economy.

[Applause]

Now why I admire small and family businesses and the business sector more generally is, when you’re doing well the country is doing well. I was up in a room full of community service providers at Mackay yesterday. Mackay is a city, a town that has a boom-bust cycle in past. When you’re talking to people who are providing mental health care support or social services support in those towns, they know that they are more able and better equipped to help people when their town is doing well than when their town is  in a recession. So I think it’s great we haven’t had a recession in more than 27 years in this country and under Liberal and National parties we will keep that going. And that means we can provide the essential services that Australians rely on.

So every time you hear me say I want a stronger economy, it’s because I believe in Medicare, it’s because I believe in health funding, it’s because I believe in schools funding. That’s why I want to see a stronger economy and that’s what this election will be about.

MUNRO: Can I ask about the Queensland election campaign, or your swing through Queensland.

PRIME MINISTER: Yep?

MUNRO: It was an election campaign swing, surely you admit that? With your bus, the strawberries?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m a politician, I went and talked to people in Queensland, I’m not shy about that.

MUNRO: But it was an election swing, wasn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER: I find it funny, when you’re a politician who isn’t selling your message, that apparently that’s the problem, you’re not selling the message. But when you’re a politician who is selling the message, apparently that’s a problem too.

[Applause]

You can’t have it both ways. I was up there selling my message. I was up there telling them about the importance of a strong economy to deliver things like $200 million we put into the pipeline for Townsville, which secures their water supply for generations to come. Or the $112 we put into the light rail on the Gold Coast, which is one of the most economic, transforming pieces of infrastructure that city has seen in a long time and Paul Fletcher has had a lot to do with that in previous portfolios. Or up in Rockhampton, where we’re putting in the ring road there, that’s $800 million and that’s going to connect to the north and south and to the west of Rockhampton and secure jobs in regional Australia forever.

MUNRO: Which is why you desperately need Queensland for the election, don’t you? You’re in deep trouble up there.

PRIME MINISTER: Well after the swing through Queensland I was feeling much more encouraged Michael. People seemed to be responding very well.

MUNRO: How will the polls go?

PRIME MINISTER: I was welcoming people back into the LNP, supporters into the LNP. Every room I walked into was full and they were happy to see me and responding really well to what I had to say.

MUNRO: Do you think you’re better off now that you replaced Malcolm Turnbull? Do you think seriously that the Coalition can win the next election, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: I do believe the Coalition is going to win the next election, because Australians agree with the beliefs that the Liberal and National parties hold. They don’t want to see a weaker economy with less jobs. They want to see a stronger economy. They believe in a fair go for those who have a go. They believe the best form of welfare is a job. They believe Australians first duty is to make a contribution, not take one. And this one most importantly; they do not believe like the Labor Party believes, that to lift some people up, you’ve got to pull other people down. Now they’re my beliefs. That’s what my Party believes and I reckon the majority of Australians agree with me.

[Applause]

MUNRO: I don’t think Malcolm Turnbull would believe that.

PRIME MINISTER: I think Malcolm Turnbull believes in every single one of those things I just said.

MUNRO: Not in the nine assassins he mentions last night. I don’t think  - I think it was all –

PRIME MINISTER: No, I think you’re getting fixated on this.

MUNRO: No, I think Turnbull –

PRIME MINISTER: A little bit fixated.

MUNRO: I think Turnbull last night made a point that he deserves an explanation, he still doesn’t understand it. No one has explained it and nor will you.

PRIME MINISTER: Can I tell you one thing I do know about Malcolm? Malcolm has always understood that politics is not about any one individual, the reason we go into politics is to serve others. That’s why he went into politics and he has always known that politics was not about him, politics is about the work you’ve got to do and the opportunity to serve. That’s what I believe in and that’s why, you know, my Party is coming together to focus on that one job, to ensure that we’re able to keep going forward for the Australian people, delivering the economy which delivers them the services, keeps Australians safe and importantly, keeps Australians together.

On that last point, on keeping Australians together, you know I do not want to see a throwback to the 1970s industrial relations policies that actually pits employers from employees. I love going to small and family businesses around the country, where you walk into those businesses and there is not industrial tension on their floor. There is just a sense of cooperation and unity and purpose. I don’t believe in letting the law-breakers in the militant union movement, become the law-makers on industrial relations in Australia. If you want to throw back to the 1970s industrial relations policies, well, get ready to turn the economy off and the jobs off and the things that rely on it. Because that’s where Bill Shorten wants to take the country and I’m not going to let him take us there.

MUNRO: Let me ask you, if I may, are you a person that has been touched by suicide.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes.

MUNRO: Are you happy to discuss it, or not?

PRIME MINISTER: I was very young at the time and – I mean there have been many other occasions when I’ve known people who have taken their own lives but I’ll never forget the first time. I was only a young boy, I was maybe 10 or 11. My parents ran a youth organisation for 45 years, both of them, it Boys and Girls Brigade. It was an older boy who I knew in the Boys Brigade and dad came in to tell me one night that he’d taken his life at the place I was referring to earlier in my speech. And I just remember praying actually, as a young boy. I just prayed that I would never be in a situation where I might feel as helpless as that, that you would do that. Now thankfully for me that prayer has been answered, but I know for many, that has not been their life’s experience. It’s not, obviously just others who are in that prison, I thought the picture we saw up there from Philip was incredibly –

MUNRO: You talked about mental health, you mentioned intervention, you mentioned dark places and whether it’s a lounge room or a bedroom or a kitchen. I wonder if you have ever put in much thought about the mental health of the children on Nauru.

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve been talking about the children and I’ve been focussing on – John referred to them before – children who live in families affected by mental illness is something I’ve got a track record on. We talked about Kookaburra Kids and we talked about the children of returned servicemen and women with PTSD. These are men and women – largely men – who have come home and their kids say to us and John has heard these stories too, you know; “Dad has come back, but he’s never come home.” So the kids are sitting there trying to understand that and deal with it and that’s why we’ve funded and supported Kookaburra Kids to take their programmes – specifically-run programmes for children of veterans – and we’ve increased that funding again from just recently, where we’ll be able to cater for about 600 kids up to 1,800 kids. This is a tremendous programme.

But you asked me about Nauru. Ever since I took over the job as Immigration Minister many years ago, we set about the job on ensuring that there would be no children on Nauru and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.

MUNRO: For five years.

PRIME MINISTER: It takes a long time. It takes a long time.

MUNRO: Do you think about them, I mean do you think about their mental health?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah look, when I was Immigration Minister and when I was shadow immigration minister - people may have observed this about me – I’m someone who likes to go, right, and speak to people. So if I make hard decisions about things, I don’t do it from some room in Canberra without having personally met with and looked in the eyes of people who are affected by my decisions. I have done that on Nauru, I’ve done it on Manus Island. I’ve visited refugee camps all around the world, I’ve sat in the middle of a refugee camp in Myanmar with their thousands of Rohingyans families, but also Burmese refugees as well. I’ve met them and I’ve looked at their conditions. You know, politics is not for the faint hearted. You’ve got to be prepared to understand and own and carry the burden of decisions. You’ll find yourself on your knees, you’ll find yourself in tears, you’ll find yourself wrestling with this stuff.

MUNRO: You’ve been on your knees in tears?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course I have, why wouldn’t I be? These aren’t easy issues Michael. You’ve got to be prepared to go through that and expose yourself to the consequences of difficult decisions. Now, if you can’t do that, do another job. Do another job. This job is not for people who can’t confront this stuff and you’ve got to make tough calls.

Now, you don’t get children off Nauru by putting more on and I – probably more than any other, perhaps a few – have to deal with the consequences and understand what happens when a young Border Force officer or a military officer has to push a child face-down from the water. I’m never going to let that happen again Michael.

MUNRO: Well, we know, but –

PRIME MINISTER: No, you don’t. This is my point, you can’t deal with those two issues separately. You can’t. There is no decision that you make in this space that is free of moral burden. You cannot allow yourself the leave-pass to think there is, on their side of this debate. What I’ve always tried to do in this debate is respect the motives of people who are participating, I can understand that people have a very different view to mine and are motivated by the purest of motives. All I ask is that they might give the same benefit of the doubt to those with whom they might disagree with.

MUNRO: Is there a timeline when all these… I mean, certainly the public generally agrees with the border control, no argument. When it comes to the children, a lot of people don’t. Is there a timeline when you might get all these children out of the detention centres?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the number as everyone knows has been coming down dramatically. We got 8,000 children out of detention in Australia, we closed 17 detention centres. And the number… you know, we didn’t send children to Manus Island, by the way. Our predecessors sent pregnant women to Manus Island. We put an end to that and when it comes to Nauru, the numbers of children have been reducing dramatically in accordance with our existing policies.

MUNRO: You know what they are today?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes I do.

MUNRO: Are you able to tell us?

PRIME MINISTER: Just about 30, I understand.

MUNRO: And what might the timeline be?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we’ll continue to act in accordance with our policies and what we’ll do is ensure that anything we do will also not compromise the strength of our border protection policies, which has successfully to date, for five years, five years, has ensured that people haven’t got back on those boats. And I will manage both and I’ll do both. But as John said, it’s about being strong and compassionate, and the two are not mutually exclusive, and I think our policies and the way we have handled this have demonstrated that. There are no decisions free of moral burden.

MUNRO: I know you’re a Christian, I know you have a very strong faith. Have you prayed for these kids?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course I have.

MUNRO: Do you think it’s helped?

PRIME MINISTER: I hope so.

MUNRO: So you can’t say whether they’ll all be off by –

PRIME MINISTER: It doesn’t help, frankly, to speculate on these things. People will remember some years ago when I was first addressing this issue that I didn’t  believe that it helped to address these matters publicly because I know how anything I say in this area can be used by people who want to put people on boats. And so I don’t give them that opportunity. Never have, won’t do it in the future and I think people should be careful in their public commentary on these issues. Let me say something else about kids on Nauru. There are Nauruan kids who live on Nauru, let’s not forget. And I think some of the ways that people have spoken about Nauru has been very disrespectful to those communities. That’s where their kids go to school, they’ve lived there for generations. They’re a proud people. I don’t think we should talk about our Pacific neighbours in that sort of way.

MUNRO: Look just one, what can you offer the Australian public that Malcolm Turnbull could not offer?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s not about beating Malcolm Turnbull, it’s about beating Bill Shorten. And I’ll tell you what I offer –

[Applause]

You don’t get two goes. It’s me or Bill Shorten, it’s the Liberal and National Parties or it’s the Labor Party. Under our Government, record employment growth. Our economy leading the advanced world pack, record funding going to hospitals, schools, mental health funding, whether it’s in affordable medicines right across the board, Triple A credit rating restored, the Budget coming to balance next year, a Defence budget which is going back to 2 per cent of GDP three years ahead of what we promised, and ensuring our servicemen and women get the respect and capability and support they deserve, and a Government that knows how to run an economy that delivers for Australians. Under the alternative, you’re going to have a weaker economy with less jobs, without the money to pay for the things that are important to Australians, a tax sledgehammer that is going to hit everybody from people just humbly providing for their future by investment in property or retirees who have had the gall to go and buy Australian shares and have had their dividend imputation credits ripped away from, a $200 billion wet blanket to go on the economy, an industrial relations throwback to the 1970’s. So there’s your choice, I know what I’m backing, and I know what Australians are backing every day.

[Applause]

MUNRO: [Inaudible] very possible that you’re going to be knifed before May next year by the May assassins? No?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course not.

MUNRO: By the middle of next year we’re going to have, maybe, our eighth Prime Minister in twelve years so that’s –

PRIME MINISTER: And if that’s Bill Shorten, the Australian economy, the Australian people, I think will regret it. And that’s why I’m focused 100 per cent, as is my team, on ensuring that we can continue to govern with the values and beliefs - the same beliefs that Robert Menzies founded that Party on 74 years ago - that we believe will provide the strength, the unity and the purpose and the safety for Australians that they expect of their national government. You know - let me finish with this one - in 2007, if I came and knocked on your door, you remember 2007, John Howard was the Prime Minister, Peter Costello was the Treasurer, our economy was the envy of the world, does this sound familiar? The Budget was in surplus and they were delivering for Australians. A guy called Kevin Rudd came along and he said, “I’m an economic conservative and it’ll all be Ok if we make the change.” A $20 billion deficit… if I knocked on your door and said; “Oh don’t do that, a $20 billion surplus into a $20 billion deficit, 800 boats will turn up with 50,000 people on board and 8,000 kids will go into detention, they’ll put in place policies that literally set fire to people’s rooves.” You would have locked me up. You would have said; ‘“There is a mad person on my doorstep and you need to come because he is dangerous.”

[Laughter]

That all happened. That all happened. It can all happen again. Don’t risk our prosperity, don’t risk our strength, don't risk out unity. And that’s why we are stepping forward at the next election to stand for a stronger economy, keeping Australians safe and keeping Australians together.

MUNRO: And look, just on that, Ken Henry said last night that we should have been back in deficit a number of years ago, under a Coalition Party, um chair of NAB and of course former Treasurer, uh, Department of Treasury.

PRIME MINISTER: He was the Treasury Secretary at the time and encouraged Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan to spend all that money which we are still paying off now.

MUNRO: The $16 billion?

PRIME MINISTER: No, the $42 billion.

MUNRO: The Building Education Fund?

PRIME MINISTER: The $42 billion stimulus package that was first set at $16 billion. Look, I’m not here to make a commentary on Ken.

MUNRO: You’d agree that we should have been in deficit before now?

PRIME MINISTER: Do you know we’ll be back in balance quicker than occurred in New Zealand [inaudible]? In five years, we have been able to turn the books around, and it hasn't been easy. We’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions, some of which were very unpopular. I suspect some by people in this room and others rooms like it around the country. But we will be back in balance next year, we’ve been able to do that in the course of just over five years. It hasn’t been simple, we’ve got there while continuing to preserve record investments in infrastructure, in Defence Forces, health, education, all of these things. We’ve been able to walk and chew gum at the same time because we know how to run a strong economy and we know how to manage a Budget. We maintained the Triple A credit rating over that period. One thing I think that people forget - we had the GFC, but the GFC we hit, we hit as we went into a mining investment boom that is still going like that and we had a China boom that was going on and the stimulus that actually protected our economy. We had strong prudential requirements in our banking and financial system which ensured that banks kept lending during the GFC. The toughest period we’ve had economically in this country is when we have come down in recent times from the top of the mining investment boom, when you had $80 billion ripped out of the Australian economy. And to continue to have an Australian economy that had grown during that period, and to have maintained a Triple A credit rating which came under incredible risk during that time and we sustained it, I think speaks volumes of our Government’s economic credentials and our economic capacity to manage a Budget well. So you know, there will always be critics who say, “Oh you could have done this or you could have done that.” Those of us who actually sit at the seat, make the decisions that have to make it happen, we get on with it and that’s what I plan to do between now and the next election and we’ll be good.

MUNRO: And you’ve certainly got a job ahead of you, ladies and gentleman, would you please thank the Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

[Applause]