Question and Answer - National Press Club

22 Feb 2023
Prime Minister
: AUKUS; Industry Policy; Cost of Living; Superannuation; Indigenous Voice to Parliament; Defence Spending; May Budget; Referendum Funding; ASIO Annual Threat Assessment; Relationship with Independent MPs; International Relations and Partnerships
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LAURA TINGLE, NATIONAL PRESS CLUB PRESIDENT: Thank you for such a comprehensive speech, Prime Minister. If I could pick up on a couple of the themes of your speech, one of them is about AUKUS and national security, and the other one is about building things right here in Australia. To what extent are your conversations with the United States and the UK based on industry issues? That is, we know that there is a big interest in the UK in the potential of AUKUS for their defence industries. There are issues in the US about their capacity with supply. When you unveil the submarine deal, and more broadly in AUKUS, to what extent is there a coordinated arrangement for industry policy and what advantage will Australia get from that?

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Laura. That is very much the focus of all three governments and it's a focus that recognises that it's not a zero-sum game. This is one of those times when one plus one plus one equals more than three. Because there's a multiplier effect and a benefit for sharing some of the science and innovation and quite clearly, Australia has always in our defence capability engaged with our partners. There aren't too many of our defence assets, if you think about our naval assets and air force assets for example, that have been developed in isolation here on this island continent. It's innovation and science and technology and breakthroughs that have occurred and then been shared with our partners, so it is very much a focus. All three countries want the sum to be a benefit for all of the three nations and have that in mind. So that's one of the issues we've been working through. I'm very confident that when we announce what we have in mind, that people will see the benefit not just for defence itself, but one of the things about advanced manufacturing is that it has a spin-off. We've been really hurt by the car industry being told to leave Australia because it isn't just about, it was never just about a car, putting a car on the road. It was the innovation, and science, and research that had a multiplier impact and so for defence industries as well, we see that as being very much a part of the story here. Yes, it's about our sovereign capability, it's about our defence. But it is also about our industry policy, about our economy, about jobs here.

TINGLE: Colleagues, before I ask Mark Riley to as the next question - One question, no follow-up questions.

PRIME MINISTER: They can ask more than one but I’ll choose which one I answer.

MARK RILEY, JOURNALIST: That’s not how it works.

PRIME MINISTER: Multiple choice. Never give a politician a microphone.

JOURNALIST: Nor a journalist, watch out. Prime Minister, I want to just investigate the primacy in your mind, which is an admirable quality, to hold to election promises despite the impact that might have in changing circumstances. Why is it fair for low to middle-income people, particularly women, who have little to no superannuation to see people on high incomes getting billions of dollars in super tax concessions at a time of an unprecedented cost of living crisis and why when the circumstances change, won't you change your mind and explain to the Australian people why you've done that?

PRIME MINISTER: The average super balance in Australia is about $150,000. For women, it's considerably less than that. And so one of the things that we are looking at, and have said very explicitly, is we are looking at the purpose of superannuation as well. And the purpose of superannuation is for people's retirement incomes. To benefit their quality of life in their later years, but to also benefit the national economy. Because it takes pressure off the pension payments down the track and social security. One of the things that we have said is that if you look at projections going forward, potentially the concessions in superannuation will be higher cost to the budget than the aged pension is down the track. Now, it is right to look at sustainability of progress. We said we would not have any major changes in superannuation and that is certainly our intention. But we'll receive the report into superannuation, we think that it is important that this continue and that we do have a debate about the purposes of superannuation, of reinforcing what it is there for as opposed to what we saw during the election campaign a last minute, or last week commitment or promise from the Coalition, one that we rejected and one that we won't be proceeding down that track with.

JOURNALIST: Michelle Grattan from The Conversation. Just to take up this question of the purpose of superannuation - if and when you get a definition of that purpose, a new definition, would that rule out the sort of policy that the Coalition offered? In other words, would that purpose be legally tight or would there still be flexibility for that sort of promise?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's something that pre-empts us receiving it, and then determining how we will proceed once we have that. But I think there's, to give an example as well, not just what the Government, or the former Government said it wanted to do in that last week, but if you look at what occurred during the pandemic where for so many people, particularly younger people and younger women, they were left with zero in their superannuation accounts because money was withdrawn during that. Now, that was a tough time but down the track that is going to cost much more for those people and for their quality of life than the amounts that were withdrawn which is why we expressed concern at the time about how that was being used. So, we'll receive the report, one of the things about my Government is that we, sometimes to the frustration of some people in this room and I understand that you've got a job to do as well. But our job is to act in an orderly fashion, to receive advice, to consider it through a proper Cabinet process, and then to make announcements. And that was part of the theme I hope came through in the speech today. It is a different way of trying to frame the way that Government acts beyond the 24-hour media cycle, and sometimes that can cause political issues. But I think it's a price worth paying because you get better policy and outcomes if you react that way and that's how we intend to deal with this issue as well.

JOURNALIST: On super again, just a little preamble. In 2015, your predecessor, Labor Leader predecessor Bill Shorten declared Labor had to make the super system more equitable and more sustainable and he proposed a couple of reforms. One was to re-introduce tax on earnings in pension funds over $75,000, and the other was to bring the income threshold for division 293 down from $300,000 to $250,000. Mr Shorten said at the time if Labor was elected ‘We wouldn't have to touch it again’. The Coalition won the 2016 election and went a lot further than Labor was proposing and Scott Morrison, I think, was Treasurer and gave the very same assurance. Eight years later, we're hearing the system is still not equitable and sustainable from Labor. What do you say to people, and we're not talking about people with $5, or $3 or $4 million, we’re talking about people who are aiming for retirement and took the assurances at face-value eight years ago and kept contributing to their super. Do they have anything to worry about in terms of tax changes to their concessional rates or the drawdown rates?

PRIME MINISTER: The last changes, you’re right to point out, were done in the 2016-17 period by Scott Morrison when he reduced the rate for those contributions to $250,000 and made a number of changes, there about, at least four very significant changes that were made. What I have and can give the assurance of is that Labor is the Party that began superannuation, and Paul Keating deserves enormous credit for that, and we remain the Party that's absolutely committed to universal superannuation and to the system. And that we also will always be about protecting people. What we're talking about here is there's nothing that impacts the sustainability of the system from punters out there who have got $150,000 in their accounts. That's not an issue at all, which is the average. We said during the election campaign that we did not intend to make big changes to superannuation. And we don't.

JOURNALIST: Anna Henderson, SBS World News. Not on super, but on the Voice. We've heard from SBS and NITV audiences a great interest in what treaty would look like beyond the referendum. Can you give assurances to those people who really want to see the treaty process unfold, how quickly after a successful referendum that would happen and what it might look like?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm focused on the referendum in the second-half of this year about a Voice to Parliament and then there will be a process of putting that in place. I want that legislation to be in place during this term. I want to reach out across the aisle about that legislation. And I'll have more to say about that down the track. But that's my focus. That is very much my focus. Of course, there are negotiations taking place with state governments, but my focus as the national leader is very much on Voice and on constitutional recognition. Constitutional recognition is a thing that for 122 years, if we don't do it now, when will we do it? When will we get around to it? And that is what my focus is very much on.

JOURNALIST: David Crowe from The Age of Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald. Thank you Prime Minister for your address. In that speech you talked about structural weaknesses in the country. You also outlined a very big agenda on defence. But as we all know, the revenue in the Federal Budget is not strong enough at the moment to keep, well, it's not staying ahead of all of the expenses that we have. Now, we can rely on coal and gas and iron ore to increase some of that revenue in the coming budget. But do Australians need to accept that this Budget must include some policy decisions that increase the overall tax take to make defence, Medicare, and other programs more sustainable? What's your message to Australians about the need for those decisions, even though, inevitably, they're unpopular?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is significant fiscal pressure on the budget and that in part is because of the structural issues that are in the Budget. The pressures that are there can be brought down, defence is one, where you will see an increase in expenditure over coming years. Health - with the ageing of the population including to name just one, the aged care wage increase for example, that will have an impact on the Budget coming through so that is a second element of pressure. The NDIS - there are pressures on as well. And another element is the increased interest payments on the debt that we inherited that is growing as those interest rates impact not just households but impact the national Budget as well. So, we'll continue to have a conversation with the Australian people about what's needed going forward. That means that we won't be able to do everything that we would like to do. I can think of a number of measures that I would like to do last Budget, let alone next Budget, that is just not possible to achieve all of that in a short period of time. What is important is that you set the country up with the sort of structural changes that I've outlined today to ensure that there is growth in revenue and in our economy in the future. The National Reconstruction Fund is about that, the Safeguards Mechanism is about that as well, about setting that up, how that all fits together. And it means as well, when we sit around the ERC and the Budget process, that one of the things that we're doing - without going into specifics - is we look at, ‘does this measure increase productivity?’, ‘does this measure enhance the economy?’, ‘is there a benefit in terms of that structural issue that is there in the Budget that we inherited’, that was largely left basically without inaction. And that's why we prioritised the commitments that we made in the lead-up to the election like child care. But it's also why we added in our first Budget Paid Parental Leave, because that will have an impact as well. That's why we prioritised in Michelle's area, the $2.4 billion we’re putting into the National Broadband Network. I was in Kalgoorlie on Monday at the School of the Air, and the difference that the NBN will make to people who are on stations, some of whom the kids were there with their parents for the week-long training camp. And it was just luck that we were there at that time. They spoke about the difference that it makes to those regional communities of having high speed broadband for the future education of their kids, but also about the whole way that it functions. So that will be our priority as well of how the Budget fits together. But part of the message is that we are a responsible Government when it comes to fiscal policy. The third element of our three R’s - restraint - is going to be there in evidence when Jim brings down his second budget in May.

JOURNALIST: Rosie Lewis from The Australian. I wanted to ask you, Prime Minister, to respond to critics who say it's been a failure of your Government not to outline a preferred model on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament at this stage in the debate and whether you can clarify if you're willing to create, and support funding for the Yes and No cases in order to get the Coalition on side?

PRIME MINISTER: On the latter, we're giving equal funding to the Yes and No cases.

JOURNALIST: Through campaign entities?

PRIME MINISTER: We're giving equal funding, of zero, to both the Yes and No cases. I've made that very clear. And let's be clear about where we're at here, this isn't a process that's a Labor Government process. The former was there for nine years, in 2017 after the Uluru Statement from the Heart they set up the process of the joint parliamentary committee that reported. They then set up the Calma-Langton process that reported on detail. This is about two things - recognition and consultation. That's what it's about. People know that that is what about is about. I was asked to outline what a draft might look like and it was said, ‘We don't know what the question is even like’. I did that last July, and outlined a draft clause that's very clear in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as Australia's first peoples. 1 - there shall be a Voice, 2 - it shall be able to make representations on matters that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and 3 - the functions and structure, etc of the Voice, would be determined by the Parliament. That's the whole point here. It's subservient to the Parliament. This is such a gracious and generous request. And people can choose to try to spread misinformation or pretend that they don't know about issues which are so clear, even though they all know it won’t have a right of veto, it won't be a funding body, it won't run programs, it's not going to sit around the Cabinet table - it is just a request for consultation. Good manners is the way that I was brought up, if I'm going to have an impact on you, then you go and ask. If the Press Gallery is about to change its structure and knock down The Australian Bureau and move it somewhere else, chances are that someone would come in and tell you that and say – ‘What do you think?’ It is not too much to ask, and I am very hopeful that the Australian people will vote to recognise First Nations people in our Constitution, to show them that respect. And I note today it wasn't splashed anywhere, but today, the significance of faith leaders - Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist leaders putting a joint statement out pleading for support for the Voice and support for constitutional recognition was, in my view, incredibly significant. Because it was them putting forward their values proposition, just as sporting organisations, the business community and others, the trade union movement, are all backing so strongly in civil society this change.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said you want to reach across the aisle over the Voice. I might have something that might help you with it. Father Frank Brennan, respected Jesuit priest, Professor in law, a huge advocate for Indigenous Australians, a very strong supporter of the Voice, but he does not believe that the draft amendment - and you said it was a draft, is water tight, legally. He's put forward in this book he's released this week, ‘An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge’, he believes a tighter and a clearer amendment that he thinks is water tight. You've got this Senate committee kicking off next month, it's going to receive public submissions like Father Frank's. You said that it is a draft. Are you open to change?

PRIME MINISTER: We've actually got a constitutional working group that is working through these issues, including former High Court Judge Justice Hayne, Including Professor Twomey, a range of constitutional experts all working through these issues. Father Frank Brennan, he is a friend of mine, he has my utmost respect and he is someone who is a very good person and actually sat on, the thing about this process is on the Calma-Langton review wasn't just Calma-Langton. Professor Brennan was a part of it, Chris Kenny, a whole range of people were a part of that process as well that came and fed into the Calma-Langton review.  I think that the advice, and with due respect to Frank who does have my respect on legal matters, I look at article in the Australian Financial Review by the former Chief Justice French was, in my view, a really clear outline of why these issues are very, very tight in the draft wording which is there. But I'm open to, I don't have a closed mind on these things but I think that the constitutional working group that's been established is working through these issues as well.

JOURNALIST: Hello, PM. I just want to return to AUKUS if I can, and sovereignty which has been a major feature of your speech today. Military history gives us plenty of examples where the interests of Australia and a major security ally have not aligned. John Curtin thrashed that out at the Lodge during World War II on a number of occasions, so my question is quite simple. In relation to nuclear submarines, if there is a conflict between the United States, the United Kingdom and ourselves about where these assets would be deployed during a conflict - we might have different views about where they should be - who is the decision maker? Is it us or is it more muddy than that because, will it require concurrence, because there need to be operational oversight of the vessels by either the UK or the US?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia will maintain our sovereignty.

JOURNALIST: In all circumstances?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia will maintain our sovereignty. That's a decision for Australia as a sovereign nation, just as the United States will maintain its sovereignty and the United Kingdom will maintain its.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, further to Kieran's question. As you're well aware, there's a bit of a debate about the inclusion of executive government in the proposed wording and there's views for and against, including the views of Frank Brennan. My good colleagues, Patricia Karvelas and Fran Kelly, had the Minister for Indigenous Australian on their podcast earlier this week. And on that Linda Burney said, 'There will be a Voice - not to the Government, but a Voice to the Parliament.' Are we to conclude from that statement that a decision has been made to remove executive government from the proposed amendment?


JOURNALIST: Can you explain it?

PRIME MINISTER: You asked a question, I gave a very straight answer. No, we haven't determined. There's a process here. Again, it's not my decision. There's a process of working this through and one of the things that I've said to the members who sit opposite is they're participants in this process. I want to bring as many people as possible on this journey. That's my starting point, very clearly. Now, I don't know the context in which you've said that. I'm aware that there is a view over whether it be executive government or government. Those things will be worked through. You will have, in March, the presentation of legislation to the Parliament. It will be moved in the Parliament. There will then be a parliamentary committee process allowing people to have all of the input and every person, either a legal expert or someone who thinks they're a legal expert will be able to make submissions to that process. I am not being prescriptive. I have never been prescriptive. I want this to happen, Australia needs this to happen, but it's not my process.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Clare Armstrong from News Corp Australia. Just back on AUKUS, even if Australia doesn't develop a nuclear energy industry, do you believe the country will have to significantly expand its nuclear capacity in terms of investment in nuclear research and science, even beyond the capabilities needed to handle the AUKUS subs?

PRIME MINISTER: Some of the research you're seeing stepped up already at places like University of New South Wales, but also we're part of AUKUS. I know the focus is very much on the subs issue, but it's about more than that. Part of what will occur as well is increased, when we talk about interoperability we're talking about greater exchanges as well and greater knowledge build-up. One of the things that we're conscious of is that in order to back up the assurance of sovereignty we'll be building up our capacity not just in terms of capability, in terms of things that are metal and shiny, our human capability is really important as well and our capacity. And that's very much a part of our focus and our thinking.

JOURNALIST: Thank you, Prime Minister. Just following on Mike Burgess' speech from last night.

PRIME MINISTER: Can I flick it to Mike?

JOURNALIST: This one's for you. I understand your Cabinet Ministers have been directed not to text each other anymore but instead to use encrypted service Signal. Is that to stop their communications being intercepted by foreign powers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I got about half a dozen text messages today from colleagues, including Dr Leigh, and including people here telling me they were looking forward to it. So, if that's a directive, they're not doing very well.

JOURNALIST: But what was the purpose of that directive, though? Was it to stop foreign interference?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm just dismissing the so-called directive. I'm saying I got text messages today, about half a dozen, from Dr Leigh, I have had a range of text messages and phone calls from people. I even got a couple from journalists today. We are conscious about some issues of security, obviously. But I assure you that there are no penalties, no-one will be dropped from the Cabinet for the crime of sending a text message, which will be of some relief to people in this room.

JOURNALIST: Katina Curtis from The West Australian. Just picking up on your answer to David Crowe earlier where you said there are things you would like to do in the Budget context but you haven't been able to. If you hear back from your Economic Inclusion Advisory Panel and they say you need to raise the dole rate by this much, and you go back to them and say, "Well, we'd love to but we just can't," what does that do for your good-faith relationship with David Pocock?

PRIME MINISTER: We have a good relationship with David Pocock and with anyone who wants to engage with us. I think it's a pity that the Coalition have taken themselves out of any forums, of having any influence over safeguards, over Housing Australia Future Fund, over National Reconstruction Fund, over the Budget processes. Why you would do that is beyond me but that's a decision for them. That means that in terms of carrying resolution through the Senate we will continue to engage in good faith. I'm someone who engages in good faith with people, I keep confidences, and what you see is what you get with me as well. And I have a constructive relationship with David Pocock, as I do with all of the crossbenchers, who I meet with regularly, and don't meet with them just because of a voting pattern. I met last week with all of the crossbenchers in the House of Representatives as I do regularly in order to exchange ideas. We don't pretend that we're a Government that has, you know, can just decide things without engaging. So, whether it be engaging with other members of Parliament, engaging with the business community, engaging with civil society, engaging with the unions, we're up for it. It's a process of inclusive Government which is one of the things that we're doing and members of Parliament are front and centre in that.

JOURNALIST: G'day, PM. To go back to Mike Burgess's speech last night, he said there were senior figures both in business and elsewhere that were questioning whether ASIO was doing the right thing by standing up against some of those powers that were trying to interfere with Australia. What would your message be to those that are pushing back against ASIO?

PRIME MINISTER: That ASIO is doing the right thing and that they have the support of my Government in all of their actions.

JOURNALIST: Thanks Prime Minister, Maeve Bannister from AAP. On the AUKUS partnership, President Marcos from the Philippines told you he felt his country was akin to being outsiders looking in when he met you at the APEC Summit in November. How are you working through concerns about the partnership with other regional partners that they hold while you're also progressing the security pact?

PRIME MINISTER: I have been invited by President Marcos to the Philippines, as I have been invited to Malaysia and other countries in the region. In the last fortnight when Parliament was sitting we had the senior ministers, including the Foreign Minister of PNG, and a whole team had a ministerial engagement. We had the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of Indonesia. Separately, we had General Luhut - I'm not sure what his title is in Indonesia, he has a big title, but he's a pretty senior player in the Indonesian Government and one I enjoy a very good relationship with. We invited and had the Prime Minister of Vanuatu for an official visit. We had the Prime Minister of New Zealand here. We have the Crown Prince of Tonga here today. We have, I think, an unprecedented level of engagement. I had the Foreign Minister of India on Saturday. Tomorrow, Friday, in two days' time, I'm meeting a senior European business leader as well, a part of just all of our engagement. We're engaging, we're being really up-front about where we're headed, we're engaging in a positive way, and I think all of our ministers as well are engaging. It's not just at prime ministerial level, not just the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong or Defence Minister, Richard Marles. Pat Conroy, the work that he's done in the Pacific is quite extraordinary. And the truth is that the former Government dropped the ball on international relations. I'm not quite sure how they got it quite so wrong in order to be in a situation whereby as I meet with world leaders they are very clear about the change in tone, and policy, and cooperation that my Government has. And part of that is, of course, our arrangements that are out there for all to see. And they're very positive and they're being received - our relations are being received in a very positive way, particularly in the region. We'll host ASEAN leaders here in a period not too far away - not this year. But we're also engaging, we'll have the Quad leaders' meeting here, we'll have bilateral meetings here - including President Widodo. I will visit India on the 8th of March along with 25, at least, senior CEOs of major resource, education, finance sector businesses as well. That will be a very significant gathering, indeed, at the invitation of Prime Minister Modi, and I think our relations in the region have never been stronger.

JOURNALIST: Ben Westcott, Bloomberg. Thank you so much, Prime Minister, for your speech. Speaking of warming relations, ties with China have improved since your Government came to power nine or so months ago. One thing that the Chinese Government and its representatives have made very clear they'd be interested in going forward is more foreign investment in Australia and the Chinese Ambassador mentioned lithium as an area of potential cooperation. Would you be interested in seeing more Chinese foreign investment in Australia and in the critical minerals sector?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll deal with issues of foreign investment according to the merits of any proposal. But could I say this as well - Australia has very much a direct interest in making more things here and improving our sovereign capability - that's my starting point. But we'll deal with any applications in a mature, reasonable way. That’s the right thing to do. But I am very conscious as well about Australia's sovereign capabilities and being protected. Rare earths and critical minerals are part of the National Reconstruction Fund, it is about taking those things here, providing financing for Australian-based businesses to invest and value-add here. Why aren't we making more batteries here? We have almost half of the world's lithium deposits. I was in Perth and Port Hedland yesterday, if you went to Port Hedland as I did, I have been there many times - but 20 years ago, no-one would have been coming up to you and saying, 'Hi, I'm a lithium company.' They were queuing up. There were more lithium companies represented at the, there were 150 RSVPs at the reception we did at Port Hedland. I'm certain there were, without doing a head count, there were over 200 people there. And lithium has an extraordinary capacity, we need to not just dig it up. I want to make sure we use the lithium and nickel and other products that we have to make batteries here. That's part of the vision of protecting our national economy going forward. I think we should be making solar panels here. I think we should be making so many more things here in order to protect our national sovereignty.

JOURNALIST: Thank you, Prime Minister, Karen Barlow from The Canberra Times. I want to take you beyond AUKUS, in talking about the future challenges for the Defence Force, to people. There have been dire warnings for years about Defence recruitment, and in the national security space we heard from Mike Burgess last night talking about how strapped ASIO is in regards to espionage and foreign interference. Is this an impossible challenge for Defence, for the security agencies, for the Government to keep up with the recruitment requirements for this country? What's being done, even in the short-term, medium-term?

PRIME MINISTER: No, is the simple answer because it can't be. We can't be overwhelmed by what's before us. We need to be clear-eyed about the challenges that are ahead. And yes, without going into all of the detail, we have been clear-eyed about agencies being able to recruit to meet their needs. The Defence Force is the same. These are good, secure jobs. These provide an opportunity to be engaged in really interesting work. And to have, I think, the sense of self satisfaction that comes with making a contribution beyond yourself, to the nation. I have the utmost respect for every man and woman who goes into the Australian Defence Force. It has been a great honour as Prime Minister to meet many of them. And the young people who took me into, if there was a moment that really hit home, was the people who took me into Kyiv. At a time when the security risk has been increased in the week I headed in there. And people whose job it was, and I was conscious that if something happened there, because the briefing was pretty clear about what their job was. That’s a really humbling experience and I think that we do need to value, and to respect, and to praise those men and women who put their lives on the line in uniform to defend our nation. And we need to recognise as well that in today’s modern world that might not necessarily be in the traditional form that you would think. It is people who are working for ASIO, working at ASD, working at ASIS, undertaking the various tasks in our national security framework. They have my utmost respect, we will provide them with what resources are required, and it’s an absolute priority of my Government.