Television Interview - Sky News Afternoon Agenda

25 Jan 2023
Prime Minister
Alice Springs; Voice to Parliament; Inflation; Cost of living relief; China; Defence; AUKUS; Ambassador Rudd; Jacinda Ardern; FIFA Women's World Cup

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Prime Minister Albanese, thanks for joining us from The Lodge.


CLENNELL: Yes. Can I start with Alice Springs? Can we assume you forced the hand of the Northern Territory Government when it came to these alcohol restrictions yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we had a constructive engagement. We had really positive meetings with members of the local community, with the Aboriginal Congress, but also with police officials, with a local women's group from the remote communities, as well as with the Mayor of Alice Springs. And we talked through options beforehand, but I was absolutely convinced that there needed to be a response, the Chief Minister was certainly in agreement of that. We agreed to establish a Central Australian Controller, a quite radical position, really, to have Dorrelle Anderson appointed yesterday. We discussed that in advance. Obviously, Dorrelle was there in the meetings with us. And to have someone who could coordinate action across the three levels of government and with community based organisations as well. Clearly, there is a need for a response. It's not a simple issue, it's not something that will be worked through with just slogans, but it's something that does require a response of all levels of government.

CLENNELL: But have you stepped in here, in effect? Did you say, ‘look, we have to introduce some alcohol restrictions and look at more?’

PRIME MINISTER: Well that was certainly my view, but the Chief Minister and Minister Chansey Paech, who's a local member there as well, was in agreement with the position that we arrived at. So some immediate restrictions, which were very much in accord with what the Police Assistant Commissioners who we met with said would make a difference. That's based upon a model that's working now in Tenant Creek. But then as well, the change to an opt-out to an opt-in system for alcohol restrictions from remote communities, that ends on the 31st of January. So it makes sense to have that assessment and consultation with communities. We'll receive that report on the 1st of February. And of course, I have a meeting again with the Chief Minister next week here, because we have National Cabinet meeting at the end of that week.

CLENNELL: Could you see a total ban introduced again, if the report said that was what was required, is that what you would institute?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's an option that we completely have said is there on the table. You've got to remember, Andrew, that this change was introduced by a former Labor government in 2012. It lasted for ten years. The former government chose to allow that to lapse, it had lapsed before the new Parliament sat after the election. But clearly, when you look at the evidence on the ground, there is a need for a response. It isn't just alcohol. There's a range of issues there that go to Indigenous disadvantage, that go to a lack of employment. There are some specific issues as well, such as the weather, the Assistant Police Commissioners informed us that what had occurred just prior to Christmas was there were a range of rain events, essentially, that isolated a number of the communities. So you had people had come into town in order to get dialysis and bring their families coming in, and then they couldn't get back to their communities. That created problems with a lack of emergency housing, which is there, which is why also, yesterday we announced comprehensive plans across a range of areas, including emergency housing, CCTV issues, but also extending funding for family and community services. It's extraordinary that there were a range of zombie measures left in the budget where funding for community-based organisations dealing with issues like domestic violence ran out, or runs out in June of this year and wasn't extended throughout the forwards. Now, we've provided certainty very early on for those organisations, well in advance of the budget, so that they can have that confidence going forward. And that was a $25 million commitment that we made yesterday.

CLENNELL: You said last night, I think you said, ‘it's insulting to Northern Territory Police to say the Feds could do a better job, that's why I'm not sending them in.’ But isn't it also about numbers? Like wouldn’t, I think every police commissioner doesn't want other police in there, by the way, that's a typical response you'll hear from a police commissioner and that's what you heard, but is there any concerns from you that you might have to send in Federal Police if they need reinforcements?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, if there was a request, but there hasn't been, Andrew, and that's the point. When it comes to these issues, you have to take advice from law enforcement authorities on the ground. And there has not been criticism that I've heard from anyone re the functioning of the Northern Territory Police. Additional assets have been deployed to Alice Springs and a simple solution put forward of bring in the army, bring in the Australian Federal Police, the solution here isn't simply to lock more people up. That's not the words of mine, they're the words of the Assistant Police Commissioners who are dealing with this issue on the ground.

CLENNELL: Now, you had a lot on your plate, obviously, as a new government, but this is what Marion Scrymgour said in her maiden speech, if you'll bear with me, in July. She complained about the lifting of alcohol bans in communities. She said, and I quote, “you can't just pull the pin on it without any protection, sanctuary or plan for the vulnerable women and children who the original measure was supposed to protect. To do that is more negligent.” And she went on and said, “both governments have to work out a plan to protect those innocent victims who are being swamped by waves of violence, now that take-away alcohol is getting let back into our town camps.” Now, you say the Voice is about listening to Indigenous leaders, but did you listen to your own MP on that occasion?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Marion Scrymgour is a great local member and a great advocate. She's a former Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. And I always listen to what Marion Scrymgour says, and she was with us yesterday. She was with us, as was Malarndirri McCarthy, the Senator for the Northern Territory as well. These issues are complex, they go to as well the opt-in or opt-out system goes to whether there will be seen to be different provisions for communities and individuals based upon their racial background. And that is a complex issue. That is why we are dealing with this issue. Marion was very supportive of the position that I took and that the Federal Government and that the Northern Territory Government took yesterday. She's been on the ground repeatedly and has been doing extraordinary work in those communities.

CLENNELL: Well she said the other day, ‘we can't even talk about the Voice until we address the problems in Alice Springs.’ Do you agree with that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Marion Scrymgour is someone who is concerned about the immediate issue which is being confronted in her local community that she represents. What we're dealing with here, though, in the longer term and indeed the medium term, is intergenerational disadvantage. Part of the problem here, Andrew, is that the communities that we met with, for example, in the NPY lands, which crosses different state jurisdictions, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. They were telling us the women in those communities, as well as the police and other people we met with, that part of the problem is the young people don't have a sense of opportunity in terms of employment. They think that measures like making the CDP actually work and give a training component and give people that opportunity for a career going forward is really important. They think that the health support that we have, so that people don't have to have dialysis, what happens if someone needs dialysis and they come into Alice Springs, they bring the whole families with them, the families don't have anywhere to live, so quite often they're either in overcrowded houses that creates problems or they're sleeping rough in some circumstances as well. And what we need to do is to make sure that we do much better, much better in that service delivery, much better in providing people with that sense of opportunity and hope. And that's something that Marion Scrymgour will play a really important role in. It's something that my government is absolutely committed to, and Linda Burney, as the Minister, is committed to as well. We've seen a failure to invest in Central Australia. That's something that the Mayor said, that people from across the broad range of organisations we met with all repeated, that lack of investment on the ground, making a difference, so that you can try to just start to overcome that intergenerational disadvantage which is there.

CLENNELL: All right, well, how can a Voice to Parliament fix this? And in the simplest terms you can manage, what can you tell the Australian people about how the Voice will make a difference and why it's necessary?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Voice is about two things. It's about recognition, that is giving people respect in our nation's birth certificate, and it's about consultation. It's about giving people a right to have a say. And as the Uluru Statement said itself, it said, ‘in 1967, we were counted’, in 2017, they're asking to be heard. So for 120 years, decisions have been made in this city, and before it in Melbourne or in the capital cities of states and territories, on behalf of Indigenous Australians. What we need to do is make decisions with Indigenous Australians and listen to them and the reason why it will make a difference, the Voice isn't the end. The Voice is the means to the end. The Voice is the vehicle, by listening to people, to get better practical outcomes, to close the gap which is there in health, in education, in housing, in life expectancy, in justice outcomes. And we know that the programmes that are most effective, justice reinvestment programs, community health programs, Indigenous Park Rangers, are ones that have involved and got the ownership of Indigenous Australians themselves. Where solutions have been imposed from outside, it has fed into what is seen as the torment of powerlessness, as Noel Pearson speaks about as well, that if you feel as though you're not listened to, you're powerless, then you don't have hope going forward. No one's saying that these issues are easy. If they were, governments which of all persuasions have tried with the best of intentions. But the truth is that in 2023 we still have extraordinarily large gaps in all of those key indicators.

CLENNELL: Alright, Peter Dutton, as you know, keeps saying you haven't provided enough detail. He wrote to you, he says there's not enough detail. There are eight principles that were released by the Indigenous Working Group. It's a bit of a task off the top of your head, can you name those eight principles?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the eight principles are involving Indigenous people, that they will get to have a say. The principles are, as well, what it won't do. The principles are that it won't be a funding body, that it won't be a body that runs programs. That it won't usurp, that is, it won't have a right of veto going forward. That it will have local and community bases as well, that in addition to that, that it won't replace existing bodies, it will work with them going forward. They're the principles going forward, but the question before the people of Australia is very clear going forward. The question is simply this, in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of Australia. So that's the recognition bit. Then there's three specific constitutional changes as well. There shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Voice. Straightforward. Second is the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And the third, is that the Parliament, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Now, it's very clear of what that does. It gives them a voice, but it also doesn't usurp the Parliament. So there are a range of discussions. We've set up two groups as well, referendum working groups, that are broadly representative, that have people like Ken Wyatt, the former Minister, participating in it. They will release, in the coming months, further detail of what the Voice is. So, for example, one of the issues is how do they have gender representation, the idea is to have equal, and also representation of young people and representation of other groups as well, how do they feed into the process? That detail will be out there and there'll be a whole process during the year. You currently have the Referendum Machinery Provisions Bill being inquired into. That debate will take place when Parliament sits. But then you'll have to have a process of the Bill being introduced of what the question is. And the extraordinary thing that I find is that I gave a speech at Garma in July last year. I haven't had one suggestion from anyone in the Coalition of a change to any of that wording. That's what people will vote for.

CLENNELL: I'll get to Mr Dutton in a minute, but on election night, you stood up in your victory speech. The first thing you say is that you commit to the Uluru Statement to the Heart in full. You did it again today at the ceremony this morning.

PRIME MINISTER: I did it well before the election.

CLENNELL: Yeah, but that was a significant moment. You’ve just won the election. This referendum could define your Prime Ministership, couldn't it? Win or lose?

PRIME MINISTER: This isn't about me, Andrew. This is about the way that Aboriginal Strait Islander people see themselves. This is something that hasn't come from the top, it's something that’s come from the bottom up. It's come from Indigenous people themselves consulting with thousands of gatherings, activities, in the lead up to 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And then since then, a series of proposals, most of them under the former government, Parliamentary committees etc. And this is something that that is a request, a gracious ask, from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. It's a hand out, asking for the Australian people to just grab it, to take up this opportunity.

CLENNELL: What if they don’t grab it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we live in a democracy, and we know that referendums are very difficult to succeed. We've had eight successes in almost 50 attempts.

CLENNELL: But if you put this up and it fails, doesn't that set back reconciliation? I mean, it’s a pivotal, and it would also weaken your Prime Ministership, surely?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it's not about me.

CLENNELL: But people are concerned that if it fails it will set back the cause of reconciliation. What do you think?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, quite clearly, if it is not successful, then that will be difficult. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves have been very patient. This process began, first the Voice was spoken about as far back as 1991. You had the former government in 2012 speak about recognition and what form that might take. You then had the lead-up to Uluru in 2017 and now we're six years later. The Calma-Langton report went to the former government's cabinet twice. The question is this, Andrew. If not now, when? When do we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation's birth certificate? That's the question that's before, or will be before, the Australian people at the end of this year. And the question is being asked in the form in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves have determined they want, which is by having a constitutionally enshrined Voice to our Parliament.

CLENNELL: You’d have more luck with this if Josh Frydenberg was the Opposition Leader right now, wouldn't you?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I think this should be above politics, frankly.

CLENNELL: But it's clearly not.

PRIME MINISTER: But it should be. And I'll make this point, Andrew, that when we talk about leadership, I'm not the only person in a position of leadership in this country. The leaders of other major parties, and indeed minor parties, including the Greens political party, this is a moment for them as well. Will they seize the opportunity to unite the nation and to take us forward as one? And what we saw, what we saw with the apology to Stolen Generations is that some people went out there and opposed that advance, that moment in reconciliation, that step forward. And what we should not have here is a missed opportunity which is there. And I think Noel Pearson said during the week, by all means, if you want to argue on party political terms, talk about a range of other things, but this should be above politics. I think it's a very generous and gracious offer of reconciliation moving forward.

CLENNELL: It's been suggested to me today that Adam Bandt might have a different view to Lidia Thorpe on this. So I wanted to ask you about, and I think you're referencing that story today, Lidia Thorpe opposes the Voice, the Greens MP. What have your private discussions with Peter Dutton and Adam Bandt been like in terms of what they think of the Voice, without going into breaking those sort of rules that you can't? But are you getting a different sense publicly from Peter Dutton than you are privately? Do you think he will oppose it all the way?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, it's up to Peter Dutton to speak for himself. It's not up to me to characterise our private comments. All I can say is this, I have very consciously, very consciously, not attempted to be partisan about these issues, even when things have been said, I haven't said things that I might have, to be critical back of positions that have been taken.

CLENNELL: But you're getting frustrated with Mr Dutton now, that’s clear.

PRIME MINISTER: My door is open on this. If there are practical suggestions going forward, I'm certainly up for that. And one of the things that I'd suggest, that Mr Leeser has certainly been invited, but Mr Dutton as well, would be very welcome to sit down at one of the Referendum Working Group meetings. You have extraordinary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people of goodwill, working on this. Working constructively, working these issues through, working through the detail. As you have said, there are some principles out there, but they're going to be filled out, those principles. There'll be more detail out there. But part of the contradiction in the debate here, and people know this, is that the Constitution, what people won't vote for is whether there's an office in Moree that has two people in it, or the sort of level of that detail. What people will vote on is the principle, and then the Parliament itself, and over a period of time, because it is up to the Parliament very explicitly in the wording that I have advanced as a draft, means that over a period of time it can change. So Peter Dutton can have, if he is successful, after the next election, of course, he'll be in a position as well to advance and to improve, I'm sure that there will be improvements over a period of time. Just like other structures change over a period of time based upon experience. But what it won't do, what it won't do, is ever be above the Parliament. What it won't ever be in a position to be is to veto decisions of the Parliament of the day.

CLENNELL: We're limited in time, I guess. I just want to go to a few other issues. But I will ask you this finally on the Voice. It advises on legislation, we had a situation recently where we needed JobKeeper legislation quick-smart through the Parliament, emergency legislation. Would that have to go past the Voice?

PRIME MINISTER: It won't have a right of veto, so no.

CLENNELL: Could it hold things up?

PRIME MINISTER: No, because it won't have a right of veto. That's the point. It can't get in the way of the way that Parliament functions. It's subservient to the Parliament, which is Lidia’s Thorpe's criticism of the body.

CLENNELL: I understand. Alright, let's talk about inflation, 7.8% today. Rates just go up and up. Families are copping it. When does this end?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, they've been doing it tough, and we know that the interest rate increases are having a real impact on family budgets, and also that those people who are on fixed rates who will go off fixed rates, some of them during the next 12 or 24 months, these increases will have an impact, which is why we've prioritised putting downward pressure on inflation. That's why we returned so much of the revenue gains, 99% of them, to the budget bottom-line in October.

CLENNELL: It points towards another tight fiscal situation for you, doesn't it? You're going to have to tighten the belt in this budget, even as you want to do things like expand Medicare. You’ll have no choice.

PRIME MINISTER: We inherited a trillion dollars of debt, Andrew. We ran a fiscally responsible budget in October and we've been left as well, with a whole range of programs that ended in a fake way that obviously have to be continued and we've had to make provision of that. We have provision for issues like health, where there's pressure on the budget, the NDIS, importantly as well, defence spending. So we're very conscious of that. We've already started having multiple meetings, already this year looking at budget issues going forward. But we'll continue to be a government that is responsible and prudent. But it also points towards our vulnerability as an economy. The fact that we're exposed to international movements so much in the way that we are, because we need to be more resilient going forward.

CLENNELL: But it's hard to see a soft landing, isn't it? Could we end up with a recession, even a shallow one here, as economists are forecasting in the US?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are a range of positives going forward as well. We have had a stable unemployment rate, but we've also seen the Government create, under our watch, more jobs created in our first six months than any government in Australia's history since they started recording these records. So that's a positive in the economy as well. We're seeing growth, the contradiction of…

CLENNELL: But could we see a shallow recession?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm positive about our economy going forward, and I'm positive for a range of reasons. One, our employment and jobs. Two, that the sort of measures that were put in place that will make a difference, taking pressure off family budgets. We had the pharmaceutical reductions come in on January 1. We've got 180,000 fee-free TAFE places this year. We'll have cheaper childcare commence on July 1. We have a range of these measures. We're starting to see wages go up for the first time in a while. But we have economic challenges as a result of our exposure to the international economy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a massive impact act on global inflation, and that is having an impact in the United States, in Europe, and all the advanced economies.

CLENNELL: Do you expect to be visiting China this year?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll wait and see. But I think that the Chinese relationship has got clearly more positive than it was this time last year. We had a visit by the Foreign Minister, which was positive, on December the 21st. I had a very constructive meeting with President Xi and I want to see further improvement in the relationship. We'll cooperate with China where we can, we'll disagree where we must, but we'll also engage in our national interest.

CLENNELL: Are you more hopeful now they’ll lift the trade sanctions, briefly?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, quite clearly, the fact that the government is talking, and our Assistant Trade Minister Tim Ayres had a meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the Davos forum in Europe. We're hopeful of a meeting soon between Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, and his counterpart. There is increased engagement at different levels between our respective agencies, and that's a positive thing. I'd say this about the impediments to the economic relationship, China is Australia's major trading partner. We export more to China than Japan, Korea, a whole bunch of countries combined. So it's obviously very important for us, but it's also important for China. We have good products. Importing Australian products is not charity. It's good for their economy, it's good for their living standards. And they will gain, by importing our meat, our livestock, our seafood, our wine, our other products as well.

CLENNELL: The relationship seems to be improving even as we keep talking up nuclear submarine acquisition or construction or whatever you want to call it. How much are these things going to cost? Could they cost $200 billion?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we will release costings at the appropriate time. We're working through those issues, but defending our country is not going to be cheap. I said that before the election, that I saw our defence expenditure as being not just 2% of GDP, that it would be potentially rising.

CLENNELL: 3, 4%?

PRIME MINISTER: It would potentially be rising. We want to make sure, and the reason for the Defence Strategic Review, which is being done by Stephen Smith and Angus Houston, is to make sure that we get the best value out of every dollar that is spent. And you've already seen a range of announcements from the Government around missiles and other defence assets, which is about us getting the right assets in the right place.

CLENNELL: Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd quoted in Davos as saying he needed to ‘shut the F up now’. Do you welcome that in his new role?

PRIME MINISTER: I think Kevin will be outstanding Ambassador to the United States. He's a former Prime Minister and a former Foreign Minister. But importantly as well, since he left Parliament, he's had very senior roles at places like the Asia Society. And when I meet with my international counterparts, whether it be the leaders of multilateral forums, the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, or whether it be individual nations, Kevin Rudd is known to them. He's respected. And he will give Australia an important an important asset, him being in Washington DC. Just as Stephen Smith in London will be important as well. I think having two foreign ministers in those two key posts is very important.

CLENNELL: Did he ask you for the job?

PRIME MINISTER: No, well I had a discussion with Kevin after the election about the potential which was there. And it was a discussion that I had prior, of course, with Penny Wong as Foreign Minister, and I think it was the right appointment.

CLENNELL: And just finally, your reaction to the new New Zealand Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I had a good chat with him on Saturday morning. Jacinda Ardern gave me the great honour of texting me in advance just before the announcement was made about her resignation. I had a very good relationship with her, and I look forward to the new Prime Minister visiting Australia. We will have, we have a ministerial meeting, minister to minister every year. This year it will be in New Zealand, so I look forward to taking some of my colleagues across there. And, of course, we have some important co-events as well this year. The Women's World Cup in football is the third most watched event in the world after the Football World Cup for Men and after the Olympics. I'm not quite sure that Australians realise yet just how big a deal it is, and that's a chance to showcase our great country to the world.

CLENNELL: Wait until they see Sam Kerr. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: She's a great Australian and perhaps the best footballer in the world. She will be a great asset for us at that World Cup. Thanks, Andrew.