Radio Interview with Neil Mitchell - 3AW

22 Nov 2019
Prime Minister

NEIL MITCHELL: Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Neil, happy birthday for yesterday. I won't sing, if that's all right.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much. Prime Minister, can I start with China? First, the US President’s about to sign legislation passed by Congress supporting the Hong Kong protesters. China's responded, threatening retaliation. Do we support the US or China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we don't have to make these choices. I mean, we have a direct relationship with China. We have a direct relationship with the United States. The situation in Hong Kong is very concerning. And we have many Australians who obviously live in Hong Kong and many Australians who have family who live in Hong Kong. And we've been urging restraint and patience. And at the end of the day, it's a matter for the Hong Kong administration to deal with the civil issues there. Our interventions, overt or otherwise don't necessarily help that situation. And so we still maintain hope for some sort of peaceful resolution. But for the people of Hong Kong, this is very, very difficult. I know there are a lot of Australians are very concerned about that, and so am I and the Foreign Minister.

MITCHELL: You don't think the US involvement, won't help?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the exercise here is to ensure that you can restore order on the ground with the civil authorities in Hong Kong. I mean, in the same way, if there were massive protests in any other country, it’s their country's responsibility to sort that out -

MITCHELL:  Yeah but the US is willing to undertake - the US is willing to take a stand. Why aren't we?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have taken a very strong position in terms of how we would like to see this resolved. And we've urged that restraint. And that's what we've done when we've had discussions in that area. And we think that's the most constructive way to bring about a resolution to this. And we certainly hope there is. But it is deeply troubling and concerning for the people of Hong Kong. And we look forward to the Hong Kong administration being able to resolve it.

MITCHELL: Still on China, former head of ASIO Duncan Lewis says the Chinese government's trying to take over Australia's political system through insidious foreign interference operations. And they're his words. Do you accept there’s a structured effort by China to infiltrate Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, when Duncan was in the job, I mean, he worked closely with our Government over many years to ensure that we had the most robust and well-resourced system of protections and legal systems to protect Australia's democracy and to ensure that we could maintain the integrity of our system from any and all sort of threats. And that applies globally. And that's exactly what we're doing. Our position, our laws, our resources, our agencies have never been better cast. And I got to say, Duncan played a huge role in getting us in that position.

MITCHELL: Well, do you accept, as he says, that there is a structured effort by the Chinese Government to infiltrate Australia's political system?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, all I'll say is, and I'll say this very assuredly that we have all the systems in place and we have the legal system in place to ensure that Australia's interests are always protected. But I don't go into running commentaries about where these things come from or why.

MITCHELL: But there is a growing tension with China, isn’t Australia heading to the point where it's going to have to take a stand, it’s a moral stand?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have a direct relationship with China. I only met- sat down with Premier Li Keqiang the other day and we both talked about the need for our relationship to improve and to use the relationship we have through a very structured partnership to improve that relationship. And that is across many levels, not just at the economic level. I mean, we work with China in the Pacific on healthcare to deal with major disease issues in the South Pacific. We work with them on on the counter trafficking issues and counter-terrorism issues, trans-national crime. So the relationship is quite broad. And I don't find it's ever helped by focussing on the issues in the relationship and the difference between the two systems. Neil, and we sort of talked about this later. I said very plainly to the Chinese and they said the same thing. We're not looking to adopt their system and they're not looking to adopt ours.

MITCHELL: But Prime Minister, we've concentration camps there. We've got an Australian citizen effectively held without charge. Did you raise those with him?


MITCHELL: What was his reaction to, an Australian citizen effectively-

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t go in to private conversations, but what I do say and these issues have been regularly raised in all our engagements as they should be in the proper processes. And that's where we do it. And we don't step back from who we are or what we're about or our democracy and what that democracy requires of us in terms of standing up for our values-

MITCHELL: But it is a moral, is a moral clash with China inevitable here? Because the morality, morality under which they're operating at the moment seems significantly different to ours?

PRIME MINISTER: We're two different countries with two different systems. And I don't think that's of any great surprise to anyone. What matters is that we hold true to our system. What they do is a matter for them. They're a sovereign country.

MITCHELL: Well, even if they're running concentration camps, it's a matter for them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's why we raise these issues with them. This is why we joined with 30 other countries through the United Nations, including the United States to condemn those actions. So it's not like Neil, that these matters aren't raised, haven't been raised and that we haven't spoken about them. Of course we have. But at the same time, there's a bigger relationship here, which we continue to pursue.

MITCHELL: On to the roads issue, and this is related to the roads issue, the OECD says the economy is weak. Higher taxes, low wage growth. When you look at that background, we’ll get to the roads in a moment. People are hurting. What hope can you offer average Australians? I mean wages growth isn't gonna return soon is it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the way it will return, and wages growth is up 0.6 per cent real over the last year, and that's higher than it was when we came to government. But the other thing that the OECD figures show is they've actually lifted their forecasts for Australia from what they previously said for next year. And what they said was that there needed to be that structural investment in the economy, which is exactly what we've been about and - 

MITCHELL: But they also say the economy is weak?

PRIME MINISTER: -we’ve been working on for the last six months.

MITCHELL: But they also say the economy is weak, they say it’s weak don’t they?

PRIME MINISTER: Well compared to other countries around the world, that is not the assessment. I mean, we've had Germany, we've had Singapore, we've had South Korea, United Kingdom all have negative quarters recently. And in this calendar year, our economy is growing by half a per cent in both of the first two quarters of this year. And the figures for the third quarter will come out in December. So Australia is facing economic challenges. We've never walked away from that. I acknowledge that openly. That's why we put the tax relief in place. That's why we've brought forward the infrastructure spending. That's why take the NDIS, for example, over this year and next year, we'll see. I think about 170,000 extra people come into that system, which will see an extra I think about $9 billion dollars invested in that service provision. So there's a lot of investment happening, but we're not putting up taxes. The budget's in surplus.

MITCHELL: Yeah well, they do criticise the taxes though- they say restrictive taxes like the GST, real estate, stamp duty, land taxes need to be reviewed. Now, I know some of those are state taxes, but they need to be reviewed?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the OECD and other international agencies have been telling us we should put up the GST. Well, I don't agree with them. We're not going to do that.

MITCHELL: Okay. What about lifting Newstart, that will get some money into the economy?

PRIME MINISTER: Newstart goes up twice a year.

MITCHELL: What about a substantial rise in Newstart? Would you look at that?

PRIME MINISTER: My priorities are what we discussed last time on the program and that is responding to the aged care needs, to ensure the NDIS is fully funded, to ensure we're responding to the needs of our veterans, to bring forward infrastructure spending as we've just done, and to ensure that we're not increasing taxes, and we're paying down debt. They’re the priorities I've set out and they're the ones that have the first call on the Budget. And of course, above and beyond all of that is the significant increase in investment we've made to respond to the drought. I mean, since the election we’ve tripled our response to $1 billion dollars just since the election, and that's in the grants and payments that doesn't include the two year interest free loans of $1 billion dollars that we have available farmers and rural communities.

MITCHELL: So Newstart doesn't fit into that.

PRIME MINISTER: It goes up twice a year. And our priority is not on boosting welfare payments by increasing taxes. It's to ensure we're funding aged care, child care, disability care, our support for veterans. All of those services.

MITCHELL: By the way, will that aged care- you told me last on the money would flow by Christmas is that still the case?


MITCHELL: Okay. Now on the roads. The aim is to do, as you say in your statement. Aim is to drive up jobs and strengthen the economy. And this is why you're bringing forward the spending. Good. But surely those benefits are still a long way off, aren't they?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh no, a lot of this will happen in the next 18 months. I mean, around the country, we've got $1.8 billion, which could only be spent in the next 18 months. I mean, in Victoria, it's a billion dollar package, which is half from the Commonwealth and half from the state government. And look, I think your listeners, Victorians, would be pleased that the Premier and I, we’re from different sides of politics. But we’ve just got to get these projects done. And that's what we're doing, whether it's the north east link or –

MITCHELL:  But the North East link, work doesn't start on that that till 2021?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we've got hundreds of millions of dollars of additional and extra spending and brought forward spending happening in the next 18 months.

MITCHELL: So can work on North East start quicker, start before 2021?

PRIME MINISTER: All of these projects are being brought forward. But then you've got –

MITCHELL: Including North East?

PRIME MINISTER: - Moama bridge, you've got the South Gippsland Highway realignment, you've got the commuter carparks, Craigieburn and Hurstbridge stations, you've got the Gippsland, South Gippsland Highway realignment, all of these things –

MITCHELL: But you would hope the North East –

PRIME MINISTER: - happening now.

MITCHELL: You would hope the North East Link work starts before 2021?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are things that we can only rely on the state government to deliver because they run the operational side of the project but we're bringing this expenditure forward. We're bringing expenditure of over half a billion dollars forward in Victoria. And that's part of a $3.8 billion dollar program around the country. Now, when you combine that with what we've put into the tax relief and the extra drought support. That means in just this year, and next year alone, there's an extra $9.5 billion. Since the election, we've put extra into the economy and that supports jobs. But on these road projects, it's also making country roads safer and it's helping people getting home sooner and safer in the cities.

MITCHELL: But the money we're talking about today is not new money. It's just being brought forward correct?

PRIME MINISTER: No it’s new money as well.


PRIME MINISTER: I mean, in Victoria, there's $245 million of new money as well as $269 million of bring forwards and all of that is then matched by the state government as well. So there's new money and bring forward money.

MITCHELL: Does this mean the East West link's off the table?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it's still there as our proposal. But obviously the state government has a different view. But there's $370 millio,n let me confirm, in the next 18 months in Vic. $370 million.

MITCHELL: And is the billion dollars still there for East West if needed?


MITCHELL: Any time. Just sitting there still?

PRIME MINISTER: It's up to the state government, whether they want to build it.

MITCHELL: Isn’t it time to take the shackles off that and just get the money spent to get some jobs our there?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's sitting in the contingency reserve, so it would be new money we would have to spring in. It's not sitting there as a Budgeted item. It's sitting there as what's called a contingent liability. And if the state government wants to build it, we will activate that and we'll put the new spending in.

MITCHELL: But that’s part of my point, the government says they will not build it. You've got to assume this government's there for the next seven years at least? Does -

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't make any assumptions –

MITCHELL: Alright, after what happened –

PRIME MINISTER: We both face elections in about three years’ time, but look it remains our commitment. They don't want to do it. We're not spending a lot of time with the Victorian government having that argument going round and round. I know their view. They know our view. And so the Premier and I have, I think, rightly focussed on the things that we need to focus on, and that's what we can do now. And just this morning, we were texting each other about the bushfires and the situation there. And I'm pleased that, you know, yesterday went better than people feared. And today's a better day. And again, what we're seeing in Victoria and the bravery there and the tremendously coordinated effort, I've seen that up in Queensland, where I was earlier in the week, and South Australia, and it proved to be better than we'd hoped, and in New South Wales it's been devastating.

MITCHELL: You're texting with Daniel Andrews. Have you got any plan to keep the lights on in Victoria? This summer, we've been told brownouts are certain. Can you do anything to keep the lights on in Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, fundamentally, that is the job of the Victorian government. I mean –

MITCHELL: It’s a pretty big failure, I mean I know he’s your mate, but it's a pretty big failure if we can't keep the lights on.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I agree. And I mean, the energy ministers are meeting today. And Angus Taylor, our Energy Minister, wants to see - and I fully support him. We want to see an improvement in the reliability guarantees that go into the east coast energy market, the NEM. And he's pursuing that with those ministers today. But it really is for the state government in Victoria to deal with issues of the gas supply, with the reliable power generation that's available in the state. The most recent issues that we've had, my advice is they were transmission issues and some of them were actually fire affected out of South Australia and New South Wales. So, I mean, we've got a call things for what they are in some circumstance but there is the risk exactly of what you say, Neil. And that is entirely a matter for the Victorian government to address.

MITCHELL: A caller off-air makes the point. There's been a lot of blow-outs already on our infrastructure work. When you hand over this money, is there any guarantee it's spent wisely or will it just go into CFMMEU pockets?

PRIME MINISTER: There are conditions that are placed on all of these arrangements –

MITCHELL: What are they?

PRIME MINISTER: - probity issues, and the Auditor General's oversight and all of those matters. And one of the things we have seen in Victoria and when we've got half a billion going into Victoria. But I'm sure Victorians noticed there was a little more going into Queensland. The reason for that is in Victoria, we were a bit further ahead with our program. There wasn't as much to bring forward because we were actually cracking a much stronger pace. Now, in Victoria, because of how much is being spent and the same is true in New South Wales, there are big infrastructure programs which are one of the reasons why those two state economies themselves are doing much better. That starts to put pressure on prices, that puts pressure on materials prices, on wages and particularly on wages that's not something the Premier and I are going to be unhappy about because we want to see wages better in Victoria and New South Wales.

MITCHELL: Yeah, Westpac, our very best interpretation is they've turned a blind eye to assisting paedophiles and child pornographers. The board meets today. What would you like to see come out of that board?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I would like to see at this board meeting and the many board meetings that will follow a confident plan to address, firstly, the clear weaknesses they've had in their systems that have allowed this to take place, which they've identified. And secondly, there has to be some understanding of the accountability for when these things happen. I mean, I was the Treasurer who introduced the banking executive accountability regime to ensure there were accountable people in these organisations.

MITCHELL: That's part of the problem isn’t it? It doesn't seem there’s anybody accountable for this? Who's wearing it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this will be the decision of the board. I mean, it's not for politicians or frankly, radio broadcasters either I'm sure you’d agree, to decide who goes and who's accountable. That's the board's job.

MITCHELL: Well, you seem to say yesterday you thought the chief executive should go. Is that correct?

PRIME MINISTER: No what I said was, is that those are decisions for the board, not for politicians. And as is appropriately the case, I mean, when this happened at Commonwealth Bank, I was the Treasurer at the time and APRA initiated what was then the Laker review, which was done by APRA. And that review highlighted what I thought were very serious failings at board level. And I remember when I released the report, I said every Board Director in the country, don’t care if you run a bank, you run an energy company, anything. They should read this report because it went into the failings of boards to actually properly oversight what was happening in companies. And that's their job.

MITCHELL: That’s what’s happened here isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER: And they've got to make the calls that I think reassure people's confidence in the bank systems and the processes they have and that there is accountability that is at work in these institutions. That’s what I think.

MITCHELL: So you think the confidence, the confidence in the banking system is undermined?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, when you have things like this, of course, it gets damaged. Now we have the best banking system in the world let me stress that. I mean, our banks have gone through many challenges and stood up. And that's because of the good prudential regulation and good management. But clearly, there are failings in these systems and they need to be fixed. And boards need to take accountability for that, for their shareholders and for their customers and the public at large. Everybody is watching them.

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, all these fires. This, is this the new normal? Do you think is this what we're looking at for the future?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's certainly been advice I've been receiving. I know there's been a lot of discussion about this, Neil. I mean, I've been making it clear for some time. I mean, the broader effects of global climate change obviously have impacts, obviously have impacts on weather events around the world. And as a result, you know, the drought conditions combined here in Australia means that we're facing a very punishing season and that that was the advice that we've been getting for some time. And that's why we put additional resources in. And I've got to say, the coordinated effort in response to this nationally, having learnt from the horrific fires on Black Saturday, I mean, the lessons from that awful event, I can assure your listeners, have been put into place. I've seen it in operation, particularly over these fires.

MITCHELL: Well the Black Saturday Survivors tell me it's worse than ever in those areas. But I mean that that isn't your responsibility. I accept that. But do you accept then, I mean, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Research Centre says climate change doesn't start fires, but it aggravates it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well yeah, I’ve never disputed that.

MITCHELL: But yet you say there's nothing Australia can do about it?

PRIME MINISTER: The point I've been making is this. There's no doubt that the climatic effects, which are global impact on Australia and they contribute to these conditions. What I don't accept, Neil, is this. What's being put about is that if Australia adopted higher, more reckless, economy-destroying emissions reduction targets, Australia alone, 1.3 per cent of emissions. If we did that, then we wouldn't be having the fire season we're having now. And that's just not credible. People have tried to, you know, reinterpret this. But let me be really clear. The suggestion that Australia, by having some trade-off where we could have higher emissions reduction targets, which would destroy jobs in regional communities, if we did that, then we wouldn't be having these fires. That is just not true.

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, what age do you intend to retire? Do you want to ever retire?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh look, my grandfather, he passed away at the office. But that's an individual choice.

MITCHELL: How old was he?

PRIME MINISTER: I mean, I love what I do. And I will I would love to keep doing it for as long as people will have me to do the job. But that’s my choice -

MITCHELL: Look, I agree with you.

PRIME MINISTER: - People should have their own choices about what they want to do.

MITCHELL: So what age should the pension age be?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the pension age is currently 66. It was raised by the Labor Party. And one of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister with Josh as Treasurer is we abolished any plans to lift the pension age above what the Labor Party has.

MITCHELL: The message I'm getting from a lot of people is that they want to work older, but they can't, they can't get jobs. There is age discrimination. Can you take that on?

PRIME MINISTER: We have, and my ‘18/19 Budget had a quite a big package on that and we did a lot of learning from a lot of companies that were taking older workers on. But there are still impediments like how our workers comp works in state jurisdictions. There are still issues around how superannuation works. And we've changed a lot of those as well to enable people to work and be able to continue to make contributions to their super in their pension phase. All we want, Neil, is, look, I think the fact that people are living longer and healthier. It's not a burden. It's a great benefit. It's a blessing. It's awesome. The fact that people live longer and healthier is fantastic.


PRIME MINISTER: And we just want people to have the choices, that they want to have.

MITCHELL: Just finally, is Donald Trump coming for the President's cup? It’s only a couple of weeks off?

PRIME MINISTER: No, he won't be coming. And I'm not surprised. I mean, there's a bit on, there is a bit on both with the election and what's going on in the in the Congress and ultimately the Senate. So that's not surprising. It was always a ‘nice to do, if he could’, but –

MITCHELL: So will you be hosting?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll be down there, yeah.

MITCHELL: So you become, I still think if he's not there don’t you?

PRIME MINISTER: I assume so, but I’m just looking to come and have a good look. And it's going to be a great event, I'm sure.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Neil. All the best.