Radio Interview - 2SM with John Laws

16 Aug 2022
Prime Minister
Scott Morrison’s secret appointments to five portfolios; Relationship with China; Taiwan Strait; Voice to Parliament Referendum

JOHN LAWS, HOST: It's been a busy few months for the new Prime Minister, having to deal with a cost of living problem, energy issues, a deteriorating relationship with China that bothers me a bit. Anthony Albanese was thrown into the deep end. But that's what he wanted, really. And I think he and his ministers have done a hell of a good job under the circumstances, which would have been tough. Anyway, I'm pleased to say that the current Prime Minister, and now the 16th Prime Minister that I have interviewed, incidentally, that's a lot, the 16th Prime Minister that I've interviewed, joins me on the line Prime Minister, good morning, and welcome to the program, number 16.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, John. It's very good to be on your program.

LAWS: It's always good to have you that's pretty good, isn't it? 16 Prime Ministers, I've talked to.

PRIME MINISTER: That is very good. And I certainly don't wish to have your longevity in my current job. But I think your experience really shows and it is a great credit to you, that you've actually that makes you having spoken to more than half, given that I'm the 31st Prime Minister of Australia.

LAWS: Well, that's true. I've spoken to more than half the Prime Ministers. Yeah, well, that makes me feel even better.

PRIME MINISTER: Congratulations to you.

LAWS: Thank you. News, the former Prime Minister secretly held some other portfolios to me is quite, mate it's stupid. As a Prime Minister yourself, do you think it's wise to take on extra responsibility like this?

PRIME MINISTER: Look I find it extraordinary that the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison took on Health, Finance, Home Affairs, Treasury, Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. It's quite an extraordinary circumstance that that occur. But the fact that it was kept secret from the Australian people really undermines our democratic system.

LAWS: Why would have been kept secret, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that that is something for Scott Morrison and for members of his Cabinet who are aware of this to explain. I for the life of me can't see why this occurred, let alone why it occurred in secret. I think it completely is contrary to the Westminster system of accountability. You need to know who the Health Minister is so the Health Minister is accountable. You need to know who the Finance Minister is so they're held to account. That's the system that we have of checks and balances, and that was undermined by this whole tawdry process.

LAWS: And tawdry is a good word to describe it. It was sneaky. It was really sneaky. I don't know, I don't know why he kept them secret. I mean, do you think that suggests he knew it would have been received very badly by the general public?

PRIME MINISTER: I think that's probably right. But it's up to him to explain, it was Scott Morrison's Government was like one of those Russian dolls when you open the lid, and another ministry pops out. And then you open the other lid and another ministry pops out another and another and another. For him to administer five departments, on top of administering the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is, I find it quite extraordinary. But I said earlier today, as well, if you go back just a few years, when Scott Morrison announced that there was a Cabinet committee of one of which he was the only member of the committee in order to avoid scrutiny, then the fact that that was allowed to occur is, I think, shocking itself. And it would appear that over a period of time you just had more and more centralisation of power and the Morison Government just going along with it. This was in operation for some period of time, and it was all done in secret. No media releases, no announcements, and there are real implications behind it.

LAWS: Do you intend to speak to Scott Morrison about it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm speaking publicly about it. I find it extraordinary that yesterday Scott Morrison said he wasn't following day to day politics. Well, he's a Member of Parliament and is paid as such as the Member for Cook, and the people of the Sutherland Shire there, from that electorate deserves someone to represent them who is interested and engaged.

LAWS: Beijing has proven time and time again it's not going to follow the international rules based order either. How can you repair that relationship without compromising Australia's principles?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we can never compromise on Australian principles. And what I've said is that we should cooperate with China wherever we can. But we must stand up for Australian interests where we must.

LAWS: Shouldn't that be all the time, when you say when we must? Mustn't we do that all the time?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, absolutely. We should always stand up for our principles, human rights and democratic principles. We should always do that. But we should be prepared to engage with them in economic trade, for example. China is our largest trading partner. And we should be prepared to engage with them as we have for a long period of time. But we also should be speaking out against the economic sanctions that have been placed on our goods going into China. That is hurting not just Australian jobs and Australian economic activity that of course is hurting China as well. Our wine is pretty good. Our beef is good. Our barley is good. These are good high-value products that China benefits from importing them, but we benefit from their export.

LAWS: Just back to Scott Morrison, has he done anything illegal in your eyes?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm awaiting advice from the Solicitor-General, that will be provided next Monday. We're just getting to the bottom of this. I don't allege that there is any issues there. But I'll await for the advice from the Solicitor-General. Certainly what we're seeing here though is a trashing of convention, and of the principles and the way that government has functioned in this country since Federation. It is quite extraordinary that we have people taking responsibility for portfolios without there being any public announcement of it.

LAWS: Yes, I just wonder is that incorrect according to the Constitution? Should the public not be made aware of all this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is certainly an obligation on the government of the day to make its arrangements public. That's what we expect in a democracy. That's how you keep governments accountable. That's why we have a free press in this country. That's one of the distinctions that we have between Australia as a proud democracy and countries that have authoritarian regimes. We are open and accountable and that is very important. And the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the day, we table the list of who's in charge of what portfolios and it's very clear that that was incomplete.

LAWS: Yeah, well, isn't that dishonest?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it certainly is not transparent. And it certainly is less than less than frank, and in my view, is a clear mislead. I think there is a clear obligation on the Prime Minister, if these arrangements are going to be entered into, to make some public announcement of it, as well as for the Parliament, to know who was in charge of what portfolio. We asked questions in the Parliament about a range of these portfolios. When you have so many Treasury and Finance and Home Affairs and Resources and Industry and Science and Energy, it's not like there hadn't been issues raised. And what we weren't aware of, as Her Majesty's Opposition, was the fact that there was more than one person in charge of those departments. And that is why this is unprecedented and why it has caused such a shock.

LAWS: Yes, and it has caused a shock, and it's not going to go away, is it. You won't let it go away, will you?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's not going to go away because Australians are entitled to get all the information out there. I've put out the information that I have available to me at this point in time, but there's still further investigation and further knowledge being found about how this has occurred. There was an article on the weekend that spoke about Health and then Finance, and then we learned on late Sunday night that there was another portfolio of Resources. And I asked my Department Secretary to ascertain what the details were and he informed me yesterday afternoon. And then this morning, I received the briefing about other portfolios and the dates of appointment which had been made, and that included expanding that list to the entire Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, but also to Treasury and Home Affairs, that hadn't been reported on before this morning.

LAWS: Is an independent Taiwan in our national interest, if it means that we start a war with China? I don't want to start a war with China, do you? Paul Keating says it's not.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I want peace and security in our region.

LAWS: You bet.

PRIME MINISTER: And that means a support for the status quo with regard to the Taiwan Strait.

LAWS: Say that again, I'm sorry, I missed that.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that means support for the status quo. So things staying as they are at the moment, no unilateral action, it's not in the interests of peace and security in the region.

LAWS: Yeah. Okay, you've been very generous, you always are with your time with us. And I'm very grateful for that. This Voice Referendum is a bit like the blind leading the blind, isn't it? We want information. We're not, they're not being very forthcoming. I mean, when are we going to be told exactly what we're voting about? We do need to know.

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, we do and very clearly I put out there, what the potential question is, which is simply that we'd recognise Indigenous people in our Constitution. And enshrine a Voice to Parliament, that would be a legislated voice that would be subject to the Parliament. And all it means, to put it simply, John, is that when matters affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they should be consulted about those issues. So it's not a 'third chamber', it doesn't have power over the Parliament. It is not a decision making body, it is simply a body that would be asked for its view, and be able to express that view. That's what is meant by a Voice. And we've tried for 121 years since Federation, for decisions to be made in Canberra, in our capital, to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and we haven't done particularly well, that's the truth. And if you involve people and ask them, which is good manners, it's the way I was brought up, that's what we need to do. And that is what a Voice to Parliament is. Nothing more, but nothing less as well. And something that I think would be viewed exactly the same way that the Apology to the Stolen Generations is viewed now, or the 1967 Referendum that recognised Aboriginal people as just that, as people. People will wonder what the fuss was about and think that it's a good thing that will lift up the whole nation.

LAWS: I believe you're right, Prime Minister, again, thank you very much for your time. As usual, you're generous. And I thank you for your generosity and your availability for this radio program because we all appreciate it greatly.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, John, all the best to you and your listeners.

LAWS: Thank you very much, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.