Radio Interview - 3AW Melbourne

16 Mar 2023
Prime Minister
AUKUS; Paul Keating; China; Australia's foreign relations; France; Defence Strategic Review; Energy price relief; Global economic situation; Russian invasion of Ukraine; Superannuation; Port of Darwin

NEIL MITCHELL, HOST: On the line is the Prime Minister, Mr Anthony Albanese. Good morning.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Neil, good to be with you.

MITCHELL: Welcome home.

PRIME MINISTER: It's good to be home, I've got to say. It was a very big trip, but a really important one. Building the relationship with India, but also, of course, the important announcement that we made with President Biden and Prime Minister Sunak in San Diego just a couple of days ago. And then calling in on the new Prime Minister of Fiji, Prime Minister Rabuka, to cement that relationship in the Pacific that's so important for Australia.

MITCHELL: Well I'd like to get some of the detail on that in a moment. But first, though, is Paul Keating acting like a bully?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I'm not going to get into an argument with Paul. Paul's someone who has my utmost respect for what he achieved as both Treasurer and as Prime Minister of Australia. My job is to govern Australia in 2023, based upon what we see as the facts before us. And the world has changed since the 1990s.

MITCHELL: Did you lose respect for him yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that was Paul Keating at Paul Keating's best if you like.

MITCHELL: Best or worst?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that's up to others who'll draw their own conclusions.

MITCHELL: But he's personally insulted two of your most senior ministers, Penny Wong and the Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles. Will you defend them against what he said?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course I'll defend them and I'll defend myself as well for the job that we're doing. Penny Wong is an outstanding Foreign Minister, has repaired our relations within 12 months of our election not just with our European friends in France, but also has developed the relationship with our traditional allies, including the United States. In ASEAN, Penny Wong has brought great respect to us and has repaired the relationship in the Pacific as well. The Pacific Islands Forum has been brought back together again. It was in danger of being diminished with Kiribati leaving the Pacific Islands Forum. She has been outstanding. And Richard Marles is an outstanding Defence Minister. Paul Keating wasn't complementary about all three of us yesterday, but that is his prerogative to do so. I fundamentally disagree with his view. And I disagree with his attitude towards the state of the world in 2023.

MITCHELL: Have you spoken to Penny Wong or Richard Marles to reassure them of that?

PRIME MINISTER: They know that. Neither of them were shocked by Paul Keating's statements. He has had views that he's put privately and publicly before. I think it is unfortunate that Mr Keating chose such very strong personal statements against people. I don't think that that does anything other than diminish him, frankly. But that's a decision that he's made.

MITCHELL: Does it embarrass Australia to have him attacking India and saying of President Biden he can barely put three sentences together? Does that embarrass Australia, a former Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: President Biden is a great friend of Australia. He's someone who is a personal friend of mine, someone who has my utmost respect. And the alliance with the United States is something that arose out of World War II, of course, when John Curtin, another great Labor Prime Minister, said that we turn to America. Since then, Australia and America have stood side by side. The AUKUS arrangements are consistent with that. We are great democratic nations and we support each other. And the AUKUS announcement was a very important one.

MITCHELL: But what he said, does that embarrass Australia? I mean, what he said about India, what he said about Joe Biden, what he said about China, what he said about our intelligence agencies been ning-nongs?

PRIME MINISTER: I think that people like President Biden look towards Australia's leadership and my relationship with him can't be stronger. It's as strong as any relationship has ever been between an Australian Prime Minister and a President of the United States. And that's something I'm proud of. I've met with him no less than four times since my election less than a year ago. That says a lot about the strength of our relationship. And I look forward to welcoming President Biden, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Kishida of Japan to Australia in May for the Quad Leaders’ meeting.

MITCHELL: Is Paul Keating right and, others who say the same thing, China is not a problem for Australia? Not a threat, not an issue for Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: China has changed its posture and its positioning in world affairs since the 1990s when Paul Keating was active in politics as a parliamentarian and as a leader. That's the truth of the matter. I said in Parliament when Xi Jinping was welcomed to the Parliament by the then Liberal government, that was something that was a different time.

MITCHELL: So he is wrong? I mean, he is wrong to say China is not an issue, not a threat for Australia? Is China a threat? Is China a threat? We have cyber-attacks, we've got human rights abuses and the rest of it. This is not a country with which we should be too friendly. Is it a threat to Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: My position on China is that we should cooperate where we can but disagree where we must. And we disagree with China with its attitude towards human rights. We disagree with some of its actions in the South China Sea. We disagree with its much more forward-leaning position in our region. And we'll stand up for Australian values. We'll stand up for our national interest. We don't seek conflict with any nation. And I have not engaged in any rhetoric aimed at increasing tension. I want good relations. But I want good relations based upon our values and I won't shy away from that. And the truth is that Australia and China have very different political systems and have very different values. And it is China that has seen the fastest and most significant growth in military expenditure in the post-war period of any nation. And that is just a fact.

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, is it correct that the French came back to us with another offer on submarines and we didn't even get back to them?

PRIME MINISTER: No. No, that's not right. I have respectful relations, including with France. And we had discussions with France, I've had discussions directly with President Macron, our Foreign Minister and Defence Minister have had a two-by-two meeting with their respective counterparts. We have a respectful relationship with France. We've determined to go with the AUKUS arrangements. We liaised respectfully with a range of nations and informed them in an appropriate manner. And none of the announcements that we made just a couple of days ago would have come as any surprise to the nations that we have good relations with, and one of those happens to be France.

MITCHELL: We're talking about the possibility of $368 billion, which is a hell of a lot of money. Did we negotiate that or was it just sort of take it or leave it?

PRIME MINISTER: These have all been negotiated through very extensively.

MITCHELL: We talked them down a bit, did we?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, if you put it in perspective, Neil, what we could have done is to not put figures out there, because we're talking about decades in advance. And that's why the figure that has been put out there for transparency is $268 billion to $368 billion, which represents approximately 0.15 per cent of GDP. Or to put it another way, it is under 10 per cent of what our defence expenditure will be over coming decades. Now, we made the assessment that Australia having nuclear powered submarines, does that enhance our capability and our ability to defend ourselves by that figure, by 10 per cent? You bet it does. You bet it does. This is an investment in our capability. But at the same time, we are also investing in our relationships with our traditional allies as well as with ASEAN, with the Indo Pacific, with, as well, we're investing in a respectful relationship with China. I've sat down with President Xi. We want good relations in the region. And we believe, as does the United States and the United Kingdom, that these arrangements will add to stability and security in our region, which is what all of us want.

MITCHELL: But why are they better than buying conventional subs, which would be available earlier and more of them than nuclear subs down the line? Why, if we're in this situation now, do we not want to get a cheaper deal, conventional subs, nuclear further down the line? Why not? Why are these essential now, or when they turn up?

PRIME MINISTER: The advice is, and I fully accept the advice from our defence experts, that nuclear subs are, one, quieter, they are less detectable, they're faster, they're able to stay away from the port for longer. They're essentially just much, much better. And we should acquire assets which best defend our nation. And I'm absolutely convinced, and this is a bipartisan position, that nuclear subs are far better than the conventional submarine options, which, yes, they are cheaper, but if you have an inferior product that's cheaper, that's not necessarily the best way to go. We have taken the best option in Australia's national interest. It's not the easiest option. And we are out there explaining our position. We've been very transparent about this.

MITCHELL: Alright, what will they do?

PRIME MINISTER: What they will do is provide us with security.

MITCHELL: Does that mean the Taiwanese strait? Because a lot of the experts are saying this is basically to get the subs into the Taiwanese strait?

PRIME MINISTER: No. Conventional subs, of course, can travel around now. The Collins-class submarines. What it is, though, is that a nuclear submarine presents a quantum leap in capability for Australia. And we think that, not just in terms of giving our brave men and women of the Royal Australian Navy the best assets in order to protect them. It's also very much about Australia's national interest and getting the best defence assets that we can have. The SSN-AUKUS, as well, which will be built, of course, in the UK and in Adelaide simultaneously, will mean that there's interoperability, because they will have technology from the United States, UK and Australia. And that will also be very important in how it operates going forward.

MITCHELL: Can you guarantee that in your term, or under your government, there'll be no taxes or levies to pay for this?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, what we can guarantee of course is that this stands in its own right. We will have a range of policies put out there that aren't connected with this. I've seen some comments, for example, about, you know, the NDIS has to be cut for this. That's not what this is about. What we have done here is, on its own merits, come up with the best way to defend our nation and put out there in a transparent way what the costs will be. We have, at the same time, the Defence Strategic Review, by Sir Angus Houston and Stephen Smith. That will be released next month. And what that will do as well is look at what are the assets we need, where do we need them, what's the timeframe for it, and people will see some of those measures in the Budget that will be handed down in May.

MITCHELL: Okay. Well, let's be transparent on the second issue, too. Can you guarantee no taxes or levies to pay for this?

PRIME MINISTER: I can guarantee that this stands on its own merits. We don't have a hypothecated system. So if you're asking me, is there going to be hypothecated revenues to pay for this, the answer to that is no. We'll continue to do what we need to do to defend our nation. Will we need to have examination ongoing, like every government does, every year, of our Budget? Yes, of course. We look at our Budget, we look at it in a responsible way. We inherited $1 trillion of Liberal Party debt. That is an issue that has to be dealt with. There are pressures on the Budget. But will there be hypothecated taxes for this? No, that's not the way budgets work.

MITCHELL: OK. Your good buddy Dan Andrews said today, if we can afford $400 billion on subs, we can afford to fix Medicare. What's your answer to that?

PRIME MINISTER: Again, it's not either or. The truth is that the responsibility that I take very seriously, Neil, is I have a responsibility to, as Prime Minister, put in place defence procurement of assets so that our capability is the best it can possibly be. Now, people want to discuss about Medicare, or NDIS, or other issues, happy to discuss them on their merits. Medicare, of course, is a Labor creation. Labor will always strengthen Medicare. And we are doing a range of measures, including in cooperation with Premier Andrews, who, as you know, I have a very good relationship with, and we’ll continue to do that.

MITCHELL: I know you must get away, a couple of quick questions on other issues. Embarrassed? Power bills, you said would go down $75, they're up $426. Embarrassed?

PRIME MINISTER: There's been something called a Russian invasion of Ukraine that has led to a global spike in power prices. A global spike in energy, whether it's oil or gas or coal. And Australia is not immune from global economic trends. And indeed, inflation in Australia is less than it is in Europe or the United States.

MITCHELL: But it's a 30 per cent increase in power bills in Victoria, 31 per cent.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, it's very significant.

MITCHELL: And you promised us a drop.

PRIME MINISTER: And that's why we intervened in the market in December. The increase would have been far greater. What we saw was a halving of the forecast wholesale power price increases as a result of the action that we took as a Federal Government. We also have $1.5 billion dollars we will provide to lower those bills, to give some energy price relief. That was something that was opposed by the Liberal Party and the National Party in the Parliament.

MITCHELL: But the bottom line is, you went to the election being promising a significant drop in power bills and they're going up 31 per cent. I mean, that has to be politically embarrassing for you.

PRIME MINISTER: The bottom line is there's been a war in Ukraine that has put up global power prices. And because of our energy market and the way that it works, that has an impact on Australian prices as well. That is the truth of the matter.

MITCHELL: The economic situation is a bit fragile. I was talking to the head of the ANZ, Shane Elliott, yesterday, who I know you've met, in fact you met him with me. Shane Elliott, who said these are possibly the first tremors of some serious problems coming. And he had the analogy of the GFC when the tremors started a year out. Are you concerned that we are in such a fragile economic time, given the situation with the banks in the US and even Credit Suisse is looking a little fragile at the moment? Do you agree these could be early tremors of bad things ahead?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I was with Shane in India. He was part of the significant business delegation that I took there, some 27 CEOs of major Australian companies. That's one of the things that we're doing is reaching out, making sure that we recognise that there is a fragile economic environment that's been caused, largely, due to the ramifications of that invasion that lead to a significant spike in energy prices, lead to a significant spike in inflation globally, which hit double figures in many parts of the world. Now that has had an impact. That's why we are being responsible when it comes to fiscal policy and the Budget in May, as we were last October. We recognise that these are difficult economic times. We want to give cost of living relief wherever we can. That's why we've introduced cheaper medicines. That's why cheaper childcare is coming. That's why we've got energy price relief. All of these measures are in the context of the difficult economic environment which is there, made more difficult because we have that trillion dollars of Liberal Party debt. That is also one of the pressures, of course, in the Budget, because as interest rates go up, the payments that need to be made on that have gone up as well.

MITCHELL: Without re-prosecuting the whole argument, are we still confident there'll be no further changes to superannuation?

PRIME MINISTER: We've announced what the change is. It's a modest change.

MITCHELL: Yeah I know, let's not re-argue that, we've been through that. But can you guarantee no more?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that is the only change that we are putting forward in this term. We have said that. Might there be a change in 2040? Maybe. But what we've done is put forward very clearly the change based upon the advice. I don't know about you, Neil, but I was pretty shocked that someone had over $400 million in their super account and that 17 Australians had over $100 million in their super account.

MITCHELL: I was pretty shocked that you changed the rules, and a lot of people who aren't in that level had been planning their lives on the basis of those rules. And yes, they've got money, they worked hard for, but you've still changed the rules on it.

PRIME MINISTER: 0.5 per cent.

MITCHELL: I know, but they're still people and taxpayers.

PRIME MINISTER: They are, they are 0.5 per cent of them, who will still get a concession, still get a concession, just one that is not as generous as a 15 per cent concession. Instead, they'll get 30 per cent on the amounts above, on the revenue above $3 million.

MITCHELL: Couple of other quick questions if you don't mind, before we go. From the audience, you talked about, you promised a review into the Chinese ownership of the Port of Darwin. Is that going to happen?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, the review is happening.

MITCHELL: When will we have a result?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll announce it when it's announced. Rather than putting a timeframe on it. I've got the relevant agencies have been asked to examine that. They'll come back to me and then I will release it and make it in a transparent way.

MITCHELL: And finally, Kevin Rudd, the ingoing Ambassador to the US, said that he'd been sent there because you were concerned about the dangers of war and the fragile international situation. Is that right?

PRIME MINISTER: Kevin Rudd is concerned about the situation.

MITCHELL: No he said that you were, that's why you sent him there.

PRIME MINISTER: I am concerned about the strategic competition in the region. We live in very uncertain times, Neil.

MITCHELL: He used the word very dangerous times, do you agree?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's his words. I use my own words, which are they're concerning times. That is what we have to deal with. That's why our international relations are so important. And that's why we're not only investing in our capability, we're investing in our relationships.

MITCHELL: Do you think Australians need to change their attitude a little? I mean we've been a bit relaxed about the possibility of conflict and international tensions. It was always on the other side of the world. Do we now have to accept that, in a sense, we have to be a bit more militaristic ourselves?

PRIME MINISTER: Neil, I think that most Australians, if you had have said to them five years ago, even, do you think there'll be a land war in Europe, such as we are seeing, they would have said no. Because everyone thought that those times were passed, that we had an international rules-based order. The actions of Putin in Ukraine have been, I think, a huge wake-up call. They were designed, no doubt, to weaken Western Europe and to weaken NATO. It's had the opposite effect of Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO. Sweden which historically, of course, has been neutral, throughout a range of activities, as has Finland. I think the whole world sees that there is a strategic competition, that we do live in difficult times, and that we need to make sure that we put ourselves in in the best possible position. That's what my Government's determined to do. These aren't easy decisions, Neil. It's not easy to come on your program and speak about the considerable expenditure that I believe is absolutely necessary. But it is necessary. We have a responsibility to act. That is what we are doing.

MITCHELL: And are you going to sit down and talk to Paul Keating, now? He wants to meet you.

PRIME MINISTER: I'm always happy to talk to anybody, Neil, as you know. And I'm always happy to talk with Paul Keating. I disagree with the comments that he made, fundamentally. But he has my respect for what he achieved as Treasurer and Prime Minister, and that won't change.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. We didn't even get to nuclear power and the Voice. Maybe we can talk again.

PRIME MINISTER: Happy to talk again Neil. Thanks, mate.