Television Interview - ABC News Breakfast

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Prime Minister

MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: A regional security showdown is brewing in the Pacific as the new Albanese Government races to counter China's push to significantly expand its strategic influence right on Australia's doorstep. The Foreign Minister Penny Wong is making a diplomatic dash to Fiji this morning. At the same time, her Chinese counterpart is beginning an unprecedented tour to pitch a region-wide security deal that would intensify Beijing's presence in the Pacific.

LISA MILLAR, HOST: China's plan has already prompted push back from at least one nation. But Australia isn’t Wtaking anything for granted, promising new energy and more resources for the Pacific. Lots to talk to the new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, about. He joins us from Sydney. Good morning and welcome to News Breakfast.

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

MILLAR: Congratulations. This is the first of what I hope will be many interviews with our program over the period of your term.

PRIME MINISTER: There will be more than my predecessor, I will commit to that. I think we are already there.

MILLAR: Well that’s a great commitment. We will back that. I want to start off on a sad note. You were with Joe Biden. And just shortly after the two of you left the meeting, we learned about the Texas shooting. Have you been in contact with him at all since then?

PRIME MINISTER: Look this is an atrocity that just keeps happening in the United States. 19 children and two teachers slaughtered with a, an automatic weapon. It is just astonishing that it continues to happen. I know that President Biden is very serious about gun law reform. He has made very strong comments. But the US democratic system in their Congress and their Senate needs to act on this. They can't continue to have these tragedies occur. It's far too often. Some of the representatives in Texas seem to be more concerned about people, students wearing masks than they were about students carrying automatic weapons. This is a tragedy. And I reflect on Australia's actions and I give credit to former Prime Minister John Howard. He showed great courage, as did the Nationals Leader at the time, Tim Fischer, in introducing laws after the Port Arthur massacre that have ensured that we haven't seen one of these tragedies occur since then. We were able to do it in a united way, with leadership from John Howard and Tim Fischer and the Labor Leader at the time as well, Kim Beazley. And America does need to act on these issues.

MILLAR: It does make us grateful for the country we live in right now. Can I turn to another big story this morning? And that is China's plans in the South Pacific. We are learning that the Chinese Foreign Minister is going to be talking to eight different country leaders over 10 days. Does that give you a sense of the scale of what China is planning?

PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely. That is why the complacency that was there from the former Government in rejecting the proposal from former Foreign Minister Marise Payne is so inexplicable, when former Minister Payne was arguing for an increase in aid. This was the context in which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were putting forward that submission to the budget process. We need to step up, genuinely, into the Pacific. That is why Penny Wong, my Foreign Minister Penny Wong who arrived back with me from Tokyo just last night, is already on her way to Fiji to inform the Government there that we want to step up. We have a comprehensive plan of defence training for Australia and the Pacific, for increased support for their maritime security to protect their fishing stocks, for increased support for climate change, infrastructure that's required for increased aid over half a billion dollars of additional aid into the Pacific, for increased parliamentary engagement with the island nations of the Pacific. We need to respond to this. Because this is China seeking to increase its influence in that region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice since the Second World War.

MILLAR: Well we know the reaction when one agreement was signed with Solomon Islands. You have some fans there, Mr Prime Minister. But what happens if it is eight countries, eight agreements, where does that leave Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we know that this has been in place for some time. The forward leaning of China into the region, it was one of the reasons why it was so important that I attend the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo on, literally, my first day in office, within hours of being sworn in, I was on the plane. It was a topic of discussion amongst the leaders of the US, Japan, India and myself. We need to respond to this. We know that this has been building for some time. The Chinese Foreign Minister's visit to a range of countries after the agreement that was signed by the Solomons, Australia dropped the ball. We can't afford to do that. We need to reengage with the region. They are sovereign nations, of course. And we need to respect that. But we need to be offering more support. Otherwise, we can see the consequences with the deal that was done with the Solomons. We know that China sees that as the first of many which is the context of their Foreign Minister's visit to the region.

MILLAR: So, you did promise an extra $525 million over four years. Is it the fact that the only option here is to try and buy back that respect, buy back that relationship with the South Pacific countries? And do you need to be putting more money in? More than what you have offered?

PRIME MINISTER: It is not just about funding, Lisa, it is also about respect. But the fact that the funding was slashed when the former Government came to office in its 2014 Budget, Australia, there is a price that you pay for that. The fact that there were comments made about climate change, which they regard, even during the election campaign, when I said climate change is a national security issue, that was dismissed. The fact is that the US has considered it is a national security issue as well. And all of the leaders, be it President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida or Prime Minister Modi, all agree that it’s is a national security issue. But for our Pacific Island neighbours, they consider climate change is an existential threat to their very existence. This is an area where Australia's changed position on climate change, where we will join with the rest of the world in global action, but where we will also support our Pacific Island neighbours with infrastructure to lower their emissions and to help their energy systems to transition. These are all measures that we can take which will be well received in the region, as they were by the Quad leaders.

MILLAR: The Chinese Premier offered his congratulations to you. Have you responded, or worked out how you are going to respond? Is it the olive branch from China?

PRIME MINISTER: I will respond appropriately. I welcome all of the congratulations that I have received from around the world. We will act diplomatically and appropriately in all our dealings with other nations. You need to not use a loudhailer. What you need to do is to be firm. We will stand up for Australia's values. I have said that the sanctions that have been placed on Australian exports going to China need to be withdrawn. There is no justification for these sanctions which have hurt the Australian economy and hurt Australian jobs. But I will respond appropriately. I welcome the congratulations which were received. I will respond appropriately at an appropriate time shortly. But I have received congratulations from all over the world. I have begun engaging directly with the leaders, of course, face to face in Tokyo. But also, I have had a number of conversations with Prime Minister Johnson, with Prime Minister Draghi, with other world leaders. And we will continue those over coming days.

MILLAR: What about the French President?

PRIME MINISTER: I have had an exchange with the President of France. And it was a very positive exchange. And I have been overwhelmed by the positive response that I have received. I have had, not surprisingly, Jacinda Ardern, who is a friend of mine, reached out very soon and rang my mobile on Saturday night before I had even stood up at the club. And we will be welcoming Jacinda Ardern to Australia very soon.

MILLAR: Can I touch on a couple of domestic issues? Jim Chalmers, of course, has had the economic briefings with the Treasury Secretary, the RBA, saying there is grim news ahead. When will you have briefings like that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it is hard to get briefings in Tokyo. I have just landed back in Australia last night.

MILLAR: I am not suggesting you should have already had them. I am just asking when they might happen?

PRIME MINISTER: I have briefings over coming days. I had a number of briefings on the plane. I received extensive national security briefings. We had the Secretary of the Department of Defence. I have had briefings from a range of people, including our national security agencies, already. I received a briefing from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and indeed from Home Affairs before the election as well. We will continue those over coming days. My Government will have its full swearing in of the Ministry next week, after the Caucus has met to elect the Ministry. We had to move very quickly, Lisa, because of the timing of the Quad Leaders’ meeting. It is very unusual, as you're aware, it has never happened before that we have an election on Saturday and the swearing in of a new Prime Minister on Monday. One of the reasons why we put in place with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet the early appointment of my Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, and my Finance Minister, Katy Gallagher, was that I was very conscious of the economic head winds that Australia is facing and the need for them to be immediately on top of their brief. They have done that. They will provide economic leadership for this country. And we need to make sure that we represent all of our interests going forward. And I want an economy that works for people, not the other way around. And we are serious about keeping to all of our commitments. But quite clearly, one of the issues that came up, and what we might have discussed it in previous weeks on this program, is we couldn't tell from Opposition where all the pots of money had been stored by this Government. They abused the process of the contingency reserve to create funds for use during the election campaign. We will go through those line by line. Because it is taxpayers' money, not Liberal Party or National Party money that was being allocated in the billions, frankly, during this campaign.

MILLAR: Look one of the other promises you made was talking about the tone of Parliament, you said people were over, they had conflict fatigue and that was one of your messages. Can I then reflect on the comments from Tanya Plibersek yesterday on radio, where she compared Peter Dutton to the villain in Harry Potter and said children might be frightened? She did immediately apologise to Peter Dutton after that interview. What are your thoughts about that?

PRIME MINISTER: Tanya Plibersek did the right thing by apologising. I do want to change the way that politics functions in this country. People do have conflict fatigue. Scott Morrison was always looking for an argument, not looking for a solution.

MILLAR: But it is not a good start when it is your own frontbencher or someone who is likely to be on the frontbench?

PRIME MINISTER: Tanya Plibersek will certainly be on my frontbench. There is no question about that. She apologised. It was a mistake. It shouldn't have been said. We all make mistakes from time to time. What we need to do is to move on from them. And it is how we respond to them. Tanya Plibersek responded appropriately. I want to change the way that politics operates. Lisa, you would have seen, not on the ABC, of course, but Scott Morrison had a whole show that seemed to be devoted into an analysis of my glasses or whether I had lost weight or what I look like. We can do better than that. Let's actually talk about the issues and let's try to find some common interest going forward. I certainly have a good personal relationship with Peter Dutton. He has never broken a confidence or his word to me. That is a good place to start and I certainly have an improved relationship with, I think, the future leader of the Liberal Party, if that occurs. I wish him well. I want to work across the Parliament, wherever possible.

MILLAR: Anthony Albanese, it is great to have you on the program. And we really appreciate the commitment that you will appear with us on a regular basis. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Lisa.