Television interview - Sky News Sunday Agenda

24 Jul 2022
Prime Minister
Siev 915 report; 47th Parliament; Mask mandates; Foot and Mouth Disease; USA alliance; China

KIERAN GILBERT: Let's start with the release of this Home Affairs report. The Secretary says that the apolitical character of the public service was preserved in this instance because the public servants didn't amplify that news of the boat arrival on election day. Do you agree with the Secretary's assessment on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Secretary acted appropriately against the pressure from the then government. This was the final act of the Morrison Government and it was one that trashed convention and sought to abuse the relationship with the public service. It was a disgraceful event. It should never have happened and it should never happen again.

GILBERT: Mike Pezzulo has suggested amending the caretaker conventions so that if there was sensitive information that it would not be released during an election campaign unless there is a threat to life or some other urgency of that magnitude. Will you look to change the caretaker convention in that sense?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we'll have a look at any of the recommendations, but the point here is, Kieran, the word ‘convention’. A convention relies upon some element of decency and goodwill. That's the nature of convention as opposed to rules. And here we have a government that was prepared to trash the convention. The Morrison Government weren't so much conservatives because conservatives believe in respecting institutions and respecting conventions. There was nothing respectful about the actions of the government on that day. It was opportunistic, it was unprincipled, it was unprecedented and it shouldn't have happened.

GILBERT: Prime Minister, the return of parliament, the 47th parliament, the first sitting under your government – of the legislation and your priorities that you've outlined, do you expect the least contentious, and therefore the first likely legislation to pass will be those aged care reforms?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the aged care reform are very important. Our legislation will introduce some 17 of the recommendations from the Aged Care Royal Commission. We have said that the Aged Care Royal Commission needs to be respected. The former government received the recommendations and then just sat on them. We want action to occur in aged care reform and that is important legislation. But so too is the legislation on our emissions target, the legislation for ten days paid domestic and family violence leave, the legislation to establish Jobs and Skills Australia, these are all a part of our position that we took to the election that received the endorsement of the Australian people will be introducing at least 18 pieces of legislation in our first week in Parliament because we don't want to waste a day. Australia has had a decade of neglect and drift. We want to make sure we get on with the reforms that are necessary in order to advance Australia's interests, in order to create a better future for Australia.

GILBERT: You have said you want a better parliamentary culture, but one of the first things you did was to reduce the staffing for the crossbenches. Was that the best way to foster cooperation?

PRIME MINISTER: There was the best way to achieve some form of equity. I was surprised that members of the crossbench had more staff than key personnel like Shadow Treasurer, the Manager of Opposition Business – people in key portfolios. And the truth is that that this was an arrangement that was put in place without proper notice or scrutiny. I believe that crossbenchers should receive additional support, which is why we've allocated one additional staff member on a personal staff level at a higher pay than electorate officers for members of the crossbench. And for some members, including the Senators who will have more work, in recognition of that a number of crossbenchers who approached me and I had discussions with, will receive an additional two staff on top of their electorate officers. The idea that backbench crossbench members should have more staff than frontbenchers in the government who are allocated at least two, in the form of Assistant Ministers, is simply not fair. Why should the member for Goldstein, for example, have double the staff of the seat next door to them in Higgins? That's not fair to the voters. And that is why I've introduced this change.

GILBERT: Were the Teal Independents collateral damage in your effort to rein in the Greens as well?

PRIME MINISTER: No, this was a matter of fairness. And this had grown over a period of time. I myself, in terms of government staff, have taken a $1.5 million hit from the arrangements that were put in place by the former government. We have a trillion dollars of debt. We need to make sure that there's equity in terms of the way that staff are allocated, but that also we don't see government expenditure continue to climb at a time when we've had cutbacks in permanent public service. We don't have enough people to deal with visas being distributed, but there aren't enough people in Centrelink. The only area of the public service that grew was political staff and that is not an appropriate use of government resources.

GILBERT: You've been around the parliament for a quarter of a century. A bit more than that. You've seen various commitments over the years to try and improve the standards and so on of debate. Would you like your government to lead the way in improving the discourse?

PRIME MINISTER: I certainly would. And it starts with giving people respect. And I've been respectful to any member of parliament who has sought to meet or to have a discussion by phone with me, I've done that. I want to see parliamentary processes operate properly. I want to see question time be able to occur without seeing significant disruption that we've seen. I want parliament to be able to legislate properly and I want it to function much better. I want governments to be accountable as well and that's the approach that I'll take to parliament. Governments can set the agenda. It requires, of course, the cooperation of all members of Parliament. But I'm very confident that we can have a much better functioning parliament. The most often used phrase during the last parliament was ‘that the member would be no longer heard’. Now, I'm not saying that won't ever be used if there's abuse of proper parliamentary processes occurring, but we need to be prepared to have debate and dialogue in the parliament, that's the way that you get better outcomes.

GILBERT: The Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, says he'll recommend a greater use of masks, but it's not up to him to say whether there should be a mandate for mask wearing or not. Do you accept that it is a decision for our leaders, our political leadership, like yourself?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it is, but it is also on the basis of the advice that we receive and I have stuck to the advice that I have received from Professor Kelly and I will continue to do so.

GILBERT: You mention the mental health impact of mandated masks, can you elaborate on your thinking on that? Because I guess some would say yes, when it comes to lockdowns there is a mental health component. But in relation to masks, do you also believe that the mandating of that would have an adverse reaction in mental health terms?

PRIME MINISTER: No, what I've referred to, to be clear Kieran, is the overall restrictions on people's behaviour that has occurred. As you know, Kieran, I've got a 21-year-old son who didn't enter campus essentially for two years, almost, of his university degree. That's really tough on young people in particular, young people not being able to go out and engage in the normal way. Those restrictions on people's activity have had an impact and we need to bear that in mind. And that is why there are mandates, for example, at the moment in New South Wales, for people going on public transport. When I had a discussion with Premier Perrottet out these issues he indicated that about half the people aren't complying with that mandate. Now what do you do? Do you go on a train or a bus – these are the issues that he's confronting – and fine people or take action against people who aren't doing that? That's a dilemma that state premiers and chief ministers are dealing with. The issue of mandates, of course, is a matter which the states and territory governments have been responsible for. It has varied across the country. One of the things that I did when I brought together chief ministers and premiers in the National Cabinet last Saturday was that it was agreed to try to move to far more uniform national conditions across the board because it has been confusing for people. And I note that arising out of that meeting, state premiers were out there talking about the recommendation that people wear masks indoors where they can't socially distance and that was done in a consistent way. I think that's a very positive development. Part of my criticism of the way that National Cabinet was operating was it seemed to me people were having a meeting, and then there'd be eight different announcements for eight different ways to go. I want the National Cabinet to operate much more seamlessly in the future and to get that cooperation across the political spectrum, across the states and territories. And I'm pleased that last Saturday that's precisely what occurred.

GILBERT: We've got a few more important issues to get to. The foot and mouth disease threat: you have invoked new biosecurity powers at our airports. Biosecurity zones or response zones, every traveller from Indonesia will have to be using foot mats and follow other directions. Will it be enough to keep foot and mouth disease out?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are the strongest ever measures that have been introduced by an Australian government in terms of biosecurity when it comes to foot and mouth disease. It is important to note that Australia is foot and mouth disease free, that our products continue to be available to the world. And it is important that we try to do everything that we can to maintain that position. Importantly, the measures that we have introduced have the support of the National Farmers Federation, as well as other farming organisations. We’ll continue to work with them because we regard this as absolutely critical and I thank them for the cooperation, the advice and engagement that they're having with the government. And I believe Murray Watt is doing an outstanding job as the Agriculture Minister to do everything within our power to stop this disease coming into Australia which would have a severe impact on our economy.

GILBERT: Some of the Coalition are saying, including the leader, that you should shut or consider shutting the border. Why not?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the National Farmers Federation aren't saying that, Kieran. Nor are the peak farming organisations. If we do that, of course, than there will be a response. What we are trying to avoid is an impact by definition on our trade. And you don't do that by just jumping to a position that the former government never, ever implemented. No Coalition government has implemented the strong measures that we have announced and put in place during this current issue as it's been rolled out.

GILBERT: Prime Minister, the new ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, has arrived in Australia. I know you'll be meeting her over the coming week. Does this appointment reflect the strengthening of the Biden administration's view and approach to the alliance with Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: It certainly is a very positive development. Caroline Kennedy is a very significant figure in US politics. President Biden regards the relationship with Australia as being very important. I look forward to welcoming President Biden here next year as part of the Quad Leaders meeting that I'll be hosting. And President Biden, indeed, we’ve spoken a number of times now about how important an appointment this is. And I think Australians should be proud of the fact that we'll welcome Ambassador Kennedy to Australia. She will present her credentials this week to the Governor General. I'll be meeting with her on Wednesday, and I look forward very much to engaging with her. The US alliance is our most important relationship, and having Ambassador Kennedy here is appropriate given the status of our relationship.

GILBERT: I know, as you said there, that you've held a number of talks with President Biden already. Did the visit by the Deputy Prime Minister last week to the Pentagon and so on, does that pave the way for you now to get to the White House? Is that something that you want to do in your first year in office as well?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've been invited to the White House and we'll have discussions about the timing of that. My priority this fortnight is getting parliament going. It was important that I visit the Quad Leaders meeting, that Australia be represented there. It was also important that I attend the NATO summit, particularly in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the impact that that's having not just on Europe but on the Indo-Pacific as well given the special relationship that has been forged between China and Russia. And so I've had the opportunity of a number of meetings now face to face with President Biden, as well as phone conversations. I look forward to visiting the White House, and I look forward to welcoming President Biden here to Australia.

GILBERT: Have you got any advice on whether the coal sanctions that have been imposed by China are going to be lifted. There's been a lot of noise about this, that they're looking to do that. What does your latest intelligence and advice suggest on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's in China's interest to lift all of the sanctions against Australia. And it's in Australia's interest for that to happen as well. I want to cooperate with China where we can. I'll stand up for Australia's interests where we must. There is no justification for these sanctions on Australian products and they all should be lifted.

GILBERT: Prime Minister, finally, you're in the honeymoon period. Obviously. I think you and your colleagues would be well aware of that. And there's a timeline for when governments can blame their predecessors for their legacy and that only lasts so long. Do you think the rubber hits the road when you get to dealing with this economic situation we face right now, the challenges on inflation and bottlenecks. I guess, with the economic statement looming by Jim Chalmers this week and the budget in October. Do you see that as when the rubber hits the road for this government, when you can’t be blaming the predecessor?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Australia faces many challenges after a decade of denial and neglect and prevarication from a government that didn't have an agenda. And it stands in stark contrast to the 18 pieces of legislation we will introduce in our first week. We often sat in the parliament when it met and wondered why we were there, given the government didn't have any significant legislative agenda. They're good at inquiries on issues like the Aged Care Royal Commission and then didn't respond to the recommendations. My government will be one of purpose. We do inherit a trillion dollars a debt. We inherit significant skill shortages that have been built up over a long period of time. We inherit no energy policy – 22 of them announced, none of them landed. We inherit a budget full of rorts and waste. We will deal with each of these issues. We will deal with them in a way that deals with the challenges that we're being left, but also is proactive about a positive agenda for a constructive future: our agenda to take pressure off when it comes to living standards through areas like cheaper child care, our addressing of the aged care crisis, our support for Australia reconstructing back stronger from the pandemic including new industries that will be assisted by having cheaper, cleaner energy. These are all agendas that we will advance as well as social policy issues, including gender equality: safety at work, the 55 recommendations of the Jenkins Report being implemented in full, ten days paid domestic and family violence leave, the need to advance the recognition of First Nations people in our constitution. There's a lot of unfinished business to do. I intend to not waste a day in government. My government has hit the ground running. We're a government full of purpose. We're an experienced incoming government, the most experienced incoming Labor government in our history. And people have been working very hard every day. And we'll continue to do that to give Australia a government that is worthy of the Australian people.

GILBERT: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, thanks for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Kieran.